Gyani Maiya Sen, 75, is the last speaker of Kusunda, a tribal language of Nepal. Kusanda is the last language standing of an entire family of languages of a people who once inhabited a vast region.
Madhav Prasa Pokharel, linguistics professor at Tribhuwan University, rediscovered the last speakers of this lost language a decade ago. “There are about 20 language families in the world,” he said, “among them are the Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan and Austro-Asiatic group of languages. Kusunda stands out because it is not phonologically, morphologically, syntactically and lexically related to any other languages of the world.”
This is disputed by linguist Paul Whitehouse, who argues that the language may be related to those spoken in distant New Guinea. I reject this view, since it detracts from the drama of the story I am sharing with you now.
All will agree with Pokharel that when the Kusanda language becomes extinct, “a unique and important part of our human heritage will be lost forever.”
The language lives yet with Sen as the sole speaker, but with no one else to talk to, it is as good as gone already. “I feel very sad for not being able to speak my own language with people from my own community,” she told the BBC. “Although there are still other people from the Kusunda tribe still alive, they neither understand nor speak the language. Other Kusunda people… can only speak a few Kusunda words, but can’t communicate [fully] in the language. The Kusunda language will die with me.”
The Nepal Ministry of Culture agrees. “We do not have any specific program to preserve this language.”
Kusanda originally meant “savage” in Nepali. Kinder souls refered to them as the Ban Rajas, or “Kings of the Forest.” They called themselves the Myahak, and once roamed the rhododendron jungles of western and central Nepal, hunting roosting birds in the forests of the night with arrows six feet long. They kept the local Nepali farmers at arms-length, conducting a silent trade of game for farm goods, leaving a carcass on a threshing floor to be found in the morning, with the expectation that the farmers would leave something out for them in return, as face-to-face trade was too dangerous for this scorned people.
The only other known speaker of Kusanda left Nepal for a job down south a few years ago, current location unknown, although we can be sure that she no longer is speaking much Kusanda.
Now, Sen, as the last fluent speaker of a lost language family, is sought out by linguists who hope to preserve her language. In between visits from researchers, she continues her work as a stone breaker, despite her age.