REVIEW ARTICLE: THE HIMALAYAS AND BEYOND THROUGH THE LEIDEN LENS
Driem, George van. Languages of the Himalayas: an Ethnolinguistic Handbook of the Greater Himalayan Region, containing an Introduction to the Symbiotic Theory of Language. Leiden: Brill. (Handbook of Oriental studies: Section 2 (India), vol.10). 2001. 2 vols. ((vol.1: xxvi, p.1-462; viii, p.463-1375.) 193 illus. EUR 231. US$ 299.
As arguably befits a work on the world’s most massive mountains, this ambitious survey is composed on a massive scale, reflecting the wide-ranging interests of its author. George van Driem, Professor of Descriptive Linguistics at the University of Leiden, is a Dutch scholar, who received his secondary education and a biology degree in the U.S.A. before studying Slavonic and English language and literature and general linguistics at Leiden. After completing a grammar of Limbu as his doctoral dissertation, (van Driem 1987) he has worked on several other Nepalese languages, including Dumi, Lohorung (both classified as Rai languages), Baram (Brian Hodgson’s Brahmu) and Dura, once spoken in Lamjung but now extinct and known only from remembered stray words and ritual formulae. In parallel with these efforts, van Driem has since 1989 been engaged on a linguistic survey of Bhutan for the Bhutanese government and he worked in St.Petersburg with a Russian collaborator on documents in Tangut, an extinct Tibeto-Burman language, whose speakers ruled a Buddhist empire in NW China in the 11th to 13th centuries A.D. The author also heads the Himalayan Languages Project, supervising a team of scholars studying endangered languages throughout the Himalayan region and, with a geneticist colleague, in 2001 set up an interdisciplinary project on Languages and Genes of the Himalayan Region.
After an account of continental drift and of the origin of the Himalayan chain, he discusses at length the evolution of human speech and defends the `parasitological’ or `symbiotic’ theory of language originated in the early 1980s by his Leiden colleague, Frederik Kortlandt (1985). This essentially sees language as a living entity which `colonises’ the brain of its human `host’. Corresponding to genes, which carry the blueprint for life in the conventional sense, the carriers of language, and of beliefs and concepts dependent on language, are known according to the theory as `memes’. This term was first introduced by the biologist Richard Dawkins, who defined the meme as the `replicating unit of imitation which is the unit of selection of cultural evolution’ (p.58). Van Driem himself prefers a more elaborate definition: `a meaning in the linguistic sense, whether this be grammatical or lexical, exhibiting the mathematical properties of a non-constructible set, having a unique but functionally more or less equivalent neuronal analogue in each individual member of a given language community.’ Assessing the relative merits of this understanding of language and of the Chomskyan formalist and European structuralist theories it is meant to supplant is beyond my own competence (and probably also beyond that of many Himalayanists who will want to use the book). It still seems to me, however, that language can be seen as a living organism only metaphorically: a pattern of connections between neurones is not physically separable from the brain in the way that a virus or bacterium is separable from whatever part of the body it is infecting. Van Driem, in contrast, even though acknowledging that memetic life is not life in the genetic sense, is adamant that his picture of language is more than a mere metaphor (p.70).
The bulk of the book is organised by language family, starting with the `relict languages’ that represent the earliest linguistic stratum and then treating Austroasiatic, Austronesian and Daic (Thai and related languages), Tibeto-Burman, Dravidian and Indo-European. The final chapter discusses Burushakasi, spoken in northern Pakistan but possibly of Siberian origin, and finally Altaic, represented by Turkic languages in the Pamir and Tianshan mountains. In addition to details of location and number of speakers etc. for individual languages, supplemented by generally excellent maps, he also provides historical and anthropological information on their speakers, together with a full discussion of evolving theories on the origin and development of each family and of lower order groupings within it. Van Driem himself points out (p.145-50) that there are dangers in trying to reconstruct prehistoric population movements by combining evidence from comparative linguistics, archaeology and genetic studies. The problems stem from the different time-scales the three modes of investigation operate on, and also from the fact that both language and material culture can be borrowed as well as inherited. Nevertheless he does attempt some reconstructions of his own and it is in these that the book’s main interest for historians of Nepal lies. Nepal’s oldest language is almost certainly Kusunda, which was once spoken by hunter gatherers roaming chiefly through Gorkha, Tanahu and Palpa districts. The language was only a few years ago thought to be extinct but 87 people reported it as their mother tongue in the 2001 census (CBS 2002: 27); as with mother tongue data generally, these respondents may be expressing their attachment towards an ethnic identity rather than reporting their actual speech habits. Van Driem shares the view of most mainstream linguists that the speed with which language changes makes it impossible to identify cognate languages whose common ancestor was spoken more than around 12,000 years ago. Consequently, after rejecting claims that the core of Kusunda is Tibeto-Burman, he discounts further speculation about its possible relatives. However, less conventional linguists believe that relationships at a much greater time depth are demonstrable and, since van Driem’s book went to press, four of them have suggested that Kusunda should be placed in the `Indo-Pacific’ family. This includes the indigenous languages spoken on the Andaman Islands and many of the remaining pre-Austronesian languages of the islands of South-East Asia. (Whitehouse et al. 2004). The `Indo-Pacific’ family was first proposed early last century, principally because the physical similarity of the `negrito’ populations from the Andamans to Tasmania was thought to imply also linguistic unity. The proposal was revived by Joseph Greenberg in 1971, but van Driem (p.139-40), again in common with most linguists, does not accept it as a valid grouping. Even setting aside doubts about Indo-Pacific itself, the handful of similarities between Kusunda and some languages within the family could well just be chance resemblances. However, the connection does remain a remote possibility, and the Kusunda, too, might be, as van Driem says of the Andaman Islanders, `a remnant of the migration of anatomically modern Australoid humans across southern Asia to Oceania some 60,000 years ago.’ (p.211)
Munda, the South Asian branch of the Austroasiatic family, is now represented in Nepal only by aome 40,000 speakers of Sant(h)ali/Satar in Jhapa and Ilam districts. They are the descendants of migrants from India, where there are some five million speakers, and Van Driem puts the migration `at least two centuries ago’ (p.265), a little earlier than Buggeland (1994: 441), who suggests the mid-19th century. In any case, the presence of Santali and other Munda languages in India and the apparent survival of the Munda root gad or gand (`water’) in the name of the Gandaki River (Witzel 1993) indicate Munda may have once been spread more widely over northern India and probably also Nepal. Van Driem argues the original Austroasiatic homeland was somewhere around the Bay of Bengal from where they expanded both westwards and also into South-East Asia, where the two Austroasiatic languages with the largest number of speakers, Vietnamese and Cambodian, are spoken today. There is an old theory that both Austroasiatic and Austronesian (viz. Malay, the Polynesian languages and many indigenous Taiwanese languages ) developed out of a supposed `Austric’ super-family. Van Driem believes that , if such a connection exists, it is more likely in the modified form proposed by Kortlandt, who has suggested that Austroasiatic evolved in SE Asia out of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of Austronesian (p.301-2). The Tharu appear in the Indo-European section of the book, since they now generally speak varieties of Maithili, Bhojpuri or Awadhi. However the author speculates that they might have originally been Austroasiatic speakers who adopted the speech of Tibeto-Burman newcomers before switching again to Indo-Aryan (p.1165). Van Driem is wrong to state there has been no scientific confirmation of the Tharus’ hereditary immunity to malaria: this was in fact demonstrated for at least some Tharu by Modiano and his colleagues ten years ago (Modiano et al., cited in Guneratne 2002: 23). The author is, however, right to point out that we cannot completely dismiss ethnic activists’ claim that `Tharu’ is a language in its own right until fuller studies of the different Tharu dialects have been made. A starting point for investigation might be the Chitwan dialect, which van Driem simply lists as `a dialect of Bhojpuri’, but which Guneratne (1998: 765) reports as spoken only by the Tharu themselves and one or two marginal groups such as the Darai.
In his treatment of these earlier linguistic strata van Driem is generally quite conventional but this is certainly not the case when he turns to Tibeto-Burman, the longest section (p.333-993) of the book. Most comparative linguists believe that Tibeto-Burman and Chinese form separate branches of a Sino-Tibetan family and that all Tibeto-Burman languages are thus more closely related to one another than they are to Chinese. However, in the mid-1990s, arguing mainly from correspondences in vocabulary and in variation in verb stems in Limbu and Old Chinese, van Driem suggested instead that Chinese and the Bodic sub-group (Tibetan and a disputed number of other languages ) actually form a single branch (`Sino-Bodic’) within Tibeto-Burman (van Driem 1997). He then tried to marry this revised family tree with the archeological evidence to reconstruct the prehistoric migrations which brought Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples to their homes in the Himalayas and elsewhere (van Driem 1998). He placed the original Tibeto-Burman homeland in the Chinese province of Sichuan (`Land of the Four Rivers’, containing the headwaters of the Yangtze, Brahmaputra, Mekong and Salween) and suggested that, probably before 6000 B.C. one section moved into Assam to establish the Indian Eastern Neolithic culture whilst those who were to become speakers of proto-Sino-Bodic moved north and established the earliest neolithic cultures along the Yellow River. The linguistic forebears of the Chinese remained in this region but Bodic speakers moved south again, some reaching Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan by a more easterly route and others, including those who were to become Nepal’s major Tibeto-Burman groups, moving westwards, established the Kashmir Neolithic Culture in the mid-3rd. millennium B.C. before migrating eastwards along the Himalayas to reach their present homes.
In the Handbook, van Driem largely maintains these views and buttresses them with results from the Chinese Human Genome Diversity Project which is consistent with the Chinese migrating from south-west China to the Yellow River region. However, he makes an important modification, now supposing that most of the Nepalese groups, including the Kiranti and the Magars, migrated south by the more easterly route, crossed the Himalayas and then moved westwards into present-day Nepal. Only the linguistic ancestors of present-day Bodish (Tibetan dialects), Tamangic (Tamang, Gurung, Manangba, Thakali and Chantyal) and West Himalayish (languages spoken west of Nepal in Uttar Khanda) are still envisaged as reaching Kashmir and then spreading eastwards. Although the map on p.429 misleadingly places the eastward migration axis along the Middle Hills, Van Driem makes it clear in his text (p.426) that the spread was along the northern flank of the Himalayas and that ancestors of the Nepalese groups split off and moved south down the river valleys.
Van Driem’s dethroning of Chinese drew a quick response from the leading defender of orthodoxy (Matisoff 2000) and has certainly not won general acceptance: the most recent survey volume on Sino-Tibetan (Thurgood and LaPolla 2003) largely ignores van Driem’s attempted paradigm shift. Apart from the Chinese question, grouping within Tibeto-Burman has always been highly controversial, as can be readily seen for Nepal in Kansakar’s useful survey (Kansakar 1993). In addition to the problem of borrowing, `uniquely shared innovations are scarce, and higher-level sub-groups are often defined by what later turn out to be shared retentions’ (van Driem 2003; 239) Another recent grouping hypothesis (LaPolla 2003; Ebert 1990) argues from similarities in person marking on verbs that Kiranti and West Himalayish are not Bodic at all but should be grouped with the Rung languages of Yunnan and Burma, which van Driem had excluded entirely from his proposed migrations to northern China and back.
The archaeological data on which van Driem relies is also not totally secure, as he himself admits, because of uncertainties over dating, especially with the Indian Eastern Neolithic. Nevertheless, his speculations are a worthwhile attempt to link up Nepal’s early history with broader Asian developments and, in any case, both his modified theory and LaPolla’s model (LaPolla 2001) agree in assuming westwards migration along the south of the Himalayas into Nepal for the Kiranti and most of the other Tibeto-Burman population groups except Tamangic and Tibetan. This is broadly consistent with the Kirantis’ own oral traditions. These do sometimes include movement directly from Tibet over the Himalayan passes into eastern Nepal, as in one legend of migration down the Arun Valley (Chemjong (1958), cited in Caplan 1991: 312). However, according to what is probably the most widespread origin myth, the brothers from whom Limbus and Rais descended entered the hills from the Tarai. In addition, oral tradition over much of the eastern Himalayas records successive conquests from Burma and Assam (Zuruck and Karan 1999: 70). It is possible that other groups did come directly from the north and coalesced with existing Kirata populations but the assumption of a mass Kiranti migration from that direction, as assumed by Poffenberger (1980: 31), should be discarded. There is, however, virtually universal agreement that the Tamangic people did come down the river valleys into Central Nepal and van Driem is quite possibly right that they were the inhabitants of cave dwellings along the Kali Gandaki in Mustang, in use before 1000 B.C.
It needs to be remembered, of course, that a common ethnonym does not imply a particular population group are descendants of a single body of immigrants. Both the Newars and, even more so, the Magars are an amalgamation of different groups and whilst LaPolla is confident that Kham Magar belongs in his Kiranti-Rung grouping, he is unsure whether to include the other Magar dialects.
The evidence of river names suggests that both Rais and Magars once ranged well to the west of their present location (Witzel 1993) and, if LaPolla is right to group the West Himalayish languages with Kiranti and Rung, these Tibeto-Burmans probably reached Uttar Khanda from the Nepalese hills rather than from Kashmir. A small piece of confirmatory evidence might be the Chitwan Tharu word teD (eye), which van Driem (pg.1163) suggests may be cognate with tira (`eye’) in Manchad, one of the West Himalayish dialects. The bulk of the Tibeto-Burman groups in the middle hills later retreated eastwards, either because of the encroaching Khasas, or for reasons of climate: rainfall is higher in the Eastern Himalaya and so that would have been the logical way to go during a drought.
Van Driem is probably best known in Nepal for his inclusion of Newar with Kiranti in a `Mahakiranti’ sub-grouping, a hypothesis first proposed ten years ago (van Driem 1992) and maintained in the Handbook. However, after the book went to press, the author’s own work on the Gongduk language in Bhutan showed that a verbal suffix he had thought was a shared innovation in Mahakiranti was in fact a much older feature of Tibeto-Burman (van Driem 2003). He has therefore abandoned his original hypothesis, though he still believes that there is probably a special connection between Newar and two minor Tibeto-Burman languages, Baram and Thangmi, the latter of which does have some quite strong similarities with Kiranti (see Turin 2000). None of this alters the fact that the ancestors of the present-day Newars would certainly have been called `Kiratas’ by the people of the plains in ancient times since `Kirata’ seems to have been applied to the Himalayan Tibeto-Burman groups generally. Nevertheless, without linguistic support for `Mahakiranti’, the evidence for a special link between the indigenous population of the Kathmandu Valley in Licchavi times and the present-day Kirantis is weakened, especially as the interpretation of the passage in the Gopalarajavamsavali Vajracharya and Malla (1985: 122) see as support for this has also been challenged (Witzel 1993: 239-40). There could still be a real link to Kiranti, but the alternative view of Newar as more closely related to Tibetan and entering Nepal directly from the north (as most recently proposed by LaPolla (2003: 29) cannot be ruled out. Nor can we even be sure that the Newar language was established in the Valley before the Licchavis. This is most likely the case but Witzel’s tentative suggestion of a later date remains a possibility since, as van Driem points out (p.739), the roots identified by Malla in the Licchavi inscriptions are general Tibeto-Burman rather than specifically Newar. However, even if Newar was brought into the Valley by a post-Lichhavi migration, many of the ancestors of the present-day Newars will have already been in the Valley well before then, just as many (perhaps most) of the ancestors of the present-day English were already living in what is now England before the English language was brought into the country by Germanic settlers in the 4th. to 6th. centuries A.D.
Among the smaller Tibeto-Burman groups van Driem discusses are the Dura, who as well as losing their language have now generally adopted a Gurung or Magar identiity but still proudly remember their distinct role in Nepalese history. The author had access to information collected by John Cross, whose adopted Nepalese family has Dura connections. This includes the Duras’ claim to have helped install the Shah dynasty in Lamjung and also the tradition that Bir Bhakti Thapa, the hero of Gorkha resistance to the British in the western hills, was a Dura. Regardless of how reliable the details are, the Dura case is illustrative both of the way in which (real or supposed) Rajput rulers established themselves in the hills by supporting a particular side in disputes between the Tibeto-Burmans and also of the permeability of boundaries between different ethnic groups.
The section on Indo-European languages includes a long discussion of the development in Europe of the Indo-European theory (p1039-50), presenting as its real originator van Driem’s Leiden predecessor, Marcus van Boxhorn, who suggested in 1637 that Persian, German, Greek and several other European languages had a common origin. Boxhorn added Sanskrit to the family after a friend pointed out the close resemblance between this and Persian. Whether or not Boxhorn’s own role was quite as central as the book claims, van Driem certainly shows that realisation of the connection between the languages of Europe and India developed much earlier than generally supposed. In the last quarter of the 16th century another Leiden scholar had already pointed out the similarities between German and Persian whilst Jesuit missionaries in India commented on the strong resemblance between Sanskrit and Europe’s classical languages, Latin and Greek. The 18th century orientalist Sir William Jones may have blown the loudest trumpet but, contrary to what most textbooks imply, he did not write the score.
The account of Nepali and other Indo-European languages spoken in the Himalayas contains nothing as radical as his theories on Tibeto-Burman but includes much of interest. The author suggests, for example, that Dom, the term for Dalits (`Untouchables’) in western Nepal, is cognate with Rrom, the name applied to themselves by the Gypsies, an Indian community which migrated to Europe in the medieval period. He also discusses the Danuwar, one section of whom are known as the `Denwar Rai’ and whose language, though now, very close to Nepali may include traces of a Tibeto-Burman substratum. Van Driem reports that the Danuwar are now found in some Tarai districts and in the hills east of the Kathmandu Valley. They seem, however, to have also lived west of the Valley at one point since Kirkpatrick, who visited Nepal in 1793, believed they were a considerable proportion of Gorkha’s population and also the main cultivators in the Nuwakot Valley, which he himself travelled through (Kirkpatrick 1811: 11, 123). In Kirkpatrick’s list of languages of Nepal, Danuwar comes ahead of Magar, behind only Parbatiya (i.e. Nepali) and Newar.
The book includes considerable detail on Nepal’s later history, much of it sound enough but with some rather misleading statements. It was not specifically Nepal’s seizure of the Sikkimese Tarai (p.1143) but rather disputes at various points along the frontier which triggered the 1814-1816 war. It is also very unlikely that Limbus fled to Darjeeling in 1863 because Jang Bahadur began conscripting them into the Nepalese army. There was normally no need to for conscription as there was no shortage of volunteers and Jang’s opening of recruitment to Rais and Limbus in 1847 was seen as a concession to those groups. The year 1863 actually saw the `promotion’ of the Limbus as a group to non-enslaveable status and it was the revenue collector’s demands which were the major factor behind migration to Darjeeling.
Also most unlikely is the claim (p.611) that Jay Prakash Malla was willing to combine with Prithvi Narayan Shah against Patan because of misguided loyalty to the mit friendship concluded by their ancestors. Rivalry between the Valley kingdoms had always meant that an aggressor from outside had a good chance of gaining at least some support. Prithvi Narayan Shah took skilful advantage of this, as Maithil raiders had done four centuries earlier.
Van Driem also makes the strange statement that Magars and Gurungs `gained a status equivalent to that of the Thakuri in the Nepalese caste system’ under Prithvi Narayan Shah and that this was confirmed in the Mulki Ain of 1854. They were certainly formally never put on a par with Thakuris, though there is evidence that some Thakuri rulers (including Prithvi Narayan Shah himself) were of Magar descent. Nevertheless, at Gorkha (and probably until the end of Nepal’s period of expansion) Magars could receive the sacred cord and be regarded as Chetris in the same was as Khas. Describing conditions in 1793, Kirkpatrick (1811: 123) could speak of `the Khus and Mangur (i.e.Magar) tribes of the Chetree class’ and a few years later Francis Hamilton (1986 : 26).found a widespread belief in Nepal that the Magars would eventually become just another Parbatiya caste. By the 1830s, however, the British Residency was reporting that the officer corps was completely Parbatiya and the few ethnic Magars still in the political elite seem to have been regarded as honorary Khas-Chetris. The Muluki Ain subsequently very clearly laid down the Magars and Gurungs’ status below the Chetris though above that of the Parbatiya occupational castes.
In discussing contemporary issues, the author is particularly critical of the activities of Christian missionaries in Nepal. This is partly because he sees religions in general as malignant meme-complexes, but also because of the missionaries’ role in undermining indigenous belief systems, a process which he suggests actually paved the way for some communities’ acceptance of Marxist and particularly Maoist ideas. It has in fact been recently suggested that state obstruction of a Christian-funded development project in the Maoist heartland helped strengthen local antipathy towards the government (Gersony 2003) but those who were actually converted do not generally seem to have become Maoists. Rather than one causing the other, the spread of Chistianity and of radical Leftism should surely both be seen simply as results of other changes in Nepalese society, in particular the expansion of education, which, as van Driem himself acknowledges, prepared minds to accept a paradigm shift of either the Christian or Maoist variety.
When discussing the problems of southern Bhutan and the flight of refugees to Nepal, van Driem accepts the argument that there had been substantial illegal immigration of ethnic Nepalese into Bhutan. He does allow that a number of genuine Bhutanese were unjustly forced from their homes but argues that the northern Bhutanese had to act to prevent losing control of their country as the indigenous Sikkimese had lost control over theirs. This is a question of moral and political judgement but most readers of this journal would agree that Drukpa fears, however understandable, did not justify the resort to ethnic cleansing. Nevertheless, there might be something in van Driem’s claim that those Lhotsampas who did not join the exodus are strongly opposed to the refugees’ return. Little has been heard elsewhere about this group’s views, in contrast to those of Thimphu and of the refugees in Jhapa.
A final problem with the book as a whole is that the author has not really thought carefully enough what audience he is writing for. His original intention was to provide the `language atlas or introductory compendium of ethnolinguistic facts about the region’ which was unavailable when he began his own research career (p.ix). He has succeeded in this but has also included much more information, both linguistic or `general interest’, than is required for the purpose. The result is impressive (and frequently fascinating) but both unwieldy and priced out of reach of many of those who would find it most useful. Even for some of those whose university libraries purchase the book, the lengthy introduction on language and linguistics has been made less accessible by failure to provide a translation of the extensive quotations in French and German. Scholars from the Himalayan region are likely to have problems with both languages, whilst those from English-speaking countries will probably be able to cope with the French but have to skip much of the German or spend a long time with the dictionary.
Despite these reservations, the book remains an extremely valuable contribution to Himalayan studies, which has so far received less attention than it deserves. Part of the reason may lie in van Driem’s own sometimes stormy relations with colleagues, exemplified by his heated clash with Peter Zoller over alleged archaisms in the Bangani language in Pakistan (p.1065-70; see also the discussion at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~pehook/bangani.html ). This should not, however, prevent scholars looking carefully at what he has to say. To make this more likely, I hope that the author soon brings out a condensed version in a reasonably priced South Asian edition. John Whelpton Hong Kong REFERENCES Buggeland, Anne. 1994. Kali Worship among the Santals of Nepal: Hinduization and Ethnic Boundaries. In Anthropology of Nepal: People, Problems and Processes. Michael Allen ,ed., p.440- 47. Kathmandu: Mandala.Book Point. Caplan, Lionel. 1991. From Tribe to Peasant? 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Kusunda: an Indo-Pacific Language in Nepal. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101(15): 5692-95. Witzel, Michael. 1993. Nepalese Hydronomy: towards a History of Settlement in the Himalayas. In Nepal: Past and Present: Proceedings of the France-German conference, Arc- et-Senans, June1990 . Gérard Toffin, ed, pp.217-266. New Delhi: Sterling. Zurick, David & P.P.Karan. 1999. Himalaya: Life on the Edge of the Word. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press.
NOTES  This is a slightly modified version of the one published in 2004 in Studies in Nepali History and Society (9(1): 193-205) I am grateful to Mark Turin and David Gellner for help in preparing this article but l views expressed are purely my own.  A fictionalised account of this episode is included in Cross (2000).
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