Kusunda.

Via Laudator Temporis Acti, a quote from Nicholas Evans, Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us, p. 208:

The Kusunda are a little-known group of hunter-gatherers who may help us understand the pre-Hindu civilization in India. This tiny people somehow managed to hold onto their distinctiveness in the remote jungles of Nepal: their language is unrelated to any other. First mentioned in 1848, when a British envoy wrote that “amid the dense forests . . . dwell, in scanty numbers . . . two broken tribes having no apparent affinity with the civilized races . . . and seeming like fragments of an earlier population,” by the late twentieth century the language was being declared extinct, disappearing almost without record. But Nepalese officials recently intensified efforts to locate speakers. In 2000 they discovered a man who could remember some of his parents’ speech, and in 2004 they found a couple more Kusunda and brought them to Kathmandu to give them citizenship papers. One, Kamala (center) is only 30, and still speaks the language with her monolingual mother, who was too old to make the journey to Kathmandu. Her 60-something cousin Gyani Maiya (left) is also fluent, although she had not used the language for 20 years; the two knew of one another but had not met until both came out to Kathmandu. And these speakers know of a couple more, six days’ walk into the jungles. Yogendra Prasad Yadav, David Watters, and Madhav Prasad Pokhrei have now been able to record and analyze a good part of the language. Amazingly for hunter-gatherers, this language has native words for domestic animals (horse, cow, sheep, goat, chicken), for 15 different castes of tribal groups, for king, police, gold, and money. All these words are completely unrelated to those found in other languages of the region. This suggests that the Kusunda, against first expectations, have not always been hunter-gatherers, but were once the bearers of a much more sophisticated civilization, predating the Indo-Aryans of Vedic times, from which they had to retreat into a marginalized hunter-gathering existence once more powerful groups encroached.

There’s more on the language at Wikipedia:

Watters (2005) published a mid-sized grammatical description of the language, plus vocabulary, although there has been further work since. Watters argued that Kusunda is indeed a language isolate, not just genealogically but also lexically, grammatically, and phonologically distinct from its neighbors. This would imply that Kusunda is a remnant of the languages spoken in northern India before the influx of Tibeto-Burman- and Indo-Iranian-speaking peoples; however, it is not classified as a Munda or a Dravidian language. It thus joins Burushaski, Nihali and (potentially) the substrate of the Vedda language in the list of South Asian languages that do not fall into the main categories of Indo-European, Dravidian, Sino-Tibetan and Austroasiatic.

And Wiktionary has a Kusunda word list. In my younger days I would have felt a strong urge to start studying it; there’s something compelling about language isolates.

Comments

  1. Christopher Henrich says:

    Not a linguist myself, I would hardly dream of learning Kusunda. But I feel there is something almost numinous about truly isolate languages. Think of the centuries during which this language community maintained itself in isolation.

  2. Exactly!

  3. Amazingly for hunter-gatherers, this language has native words for domestic animals (horse, cow, sheep, goat, chicken), for 15 different castes of tribal groups, for king, police, gold, and money.

    Even language has similar levels of sophistication in vocabulary.

    When Russians came they were primitive reindeer herders and hunters found in the farthest north eastern part of Siberia.

    But their language has words for kings, princes, laws, orders, courts, war, war camp, military signals, banner, military commander, duty officer, scout, observer, military equipment, marksman, horseman, heavily armored horseman (knight), sentinel and so on.

    And many terms for all kinds of steel weapons, iron-making and metallurgy in general including detailed terms for iron instruments such as pliers, nails, drills, clamps, cleavers, wedges, grinders etc.

    Needless to say, none of these terms were of much use in the Arctic tundra where they lived.

    This naturally caused many researchers to suggest that they were relatively recent newcomers to North-East Siberia originating somewhere in the south, perhaps in one of the medieval barbarian empires on northern periphery of China.

  4. Biology had a somewhat similar fascination with living fossils, the species for which the time has stopped, so it was easy to imagine that they literally stopped evolving. Like the coelacanths, thought to have become extinct 66 million years ago, but then astonishingly rediscovered in the waters of the Indian Ocean. But the DNA tells a noticeably different story, that they evolve about as fast as most other species, but keep the general appearance intact. I’m just thinking that language isolates must be evolved beyond recognition from their ancestral languages, and may harbor thick layers of borrowings, perhaps dating back to historic times, but obscured from our view by centuries of subsequent change & by lack of comparative data…

  5. Why did you link the Kusunda word lists? I went down a rabbit hole although I was supposed to be doing other things… 🙂

  6. may harbor thick layers of borrowings, perhaps dating back to historic times, but obscured from our view by centuries of subsequent change & by lack of comparative data
    True. The linked word lists mark many loans from Nepali (all numbers higher than 5, among others), and there are some more words not marked as Nepali loans that look Indo-Aryan; the number “5” looks like it was loaned from Indo-Aryan, but integrated into a Kusunda suffixing system.

  7. I was scanning the Wiktionary list for loanwords from Indic or Tibeto-Burman that I could recognize, half hoping to find an item similar—but not too similar—to Sanskrit and deśī words currently without etymology, and I was surprised by həgədzun “hummingbird”. Hummingbirds are confined to the Americas. I suppose that “sunbird” is meant.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunbird

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green-tailed_sunbird

    The item was evidently drawn from the glossary of Watter’s monograph:

    https://escholarship.org/content/qt83v8d1wv/qt83v8d1wv.pdf?t=oyspnn

  8. Roger Blench thinks there are several isolates in NE India, classified as Sino-Tibetan presumably because linguists were loath to jump and claim new isolates. It seems like they are not as typologically out of place as Kusunda is, though.

  9. David Eddyshaw says:

    Thanks for the link to the monograph, Xerîb.

    What Watters calls “mutation” is rather reminiscent of the various fronting and rounding word-level “prosodies” that turn up in a lot of Chadic languages, which similarly affect both vowels and consonants and can distinguish different forms within noun or verb paradigms; in fact, the tantalising suggestion that Kusunda basically has a three-vowel system with overlying word-level prosodies would be right at home in Chadic linguistics (except that Chadicists like systems with even fewer underlying vowels …)

  10. John Emerson says:

    You can’t fool me. This is a veiled attempt to attack the Dravidian-origins theory.

  11. Well, it’s clear that so-called isolates are just isolated branches of Dravidian.

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    Moreover, Chadic is also a branch of Dravidian.

  13. David Marjanović says:

    Last I checked, the auspiciously named Kamala was the last living speaker of Kusunda known to science.

  14. Kusunda was one of those languages declared dead prematurely. After explorer Johan Reinhard published a wordlist in 1970, nothing was heard from the language, and story was the last speaker had died in 1985, until Watters, by happy accident, was introduced to a speaker in 2004. Field linguists are increasingly aware of the need to be cautious with reports of languages losing their last speaker.

  15. Trond Engen says:

    Kusunda could be the name of a quarter in Gothenburg.

    If some try connecting it to Burushaski and Yeniseian, I’d like to see a morphological comparison.

  16. John Emerson says:

    A lot of the talk about extinct languages, as well as the debates about classification of languages into families, parallels zoological and botanical debates. And I know that speciation can be more or less impossible with a lot of crossbreeting, etc., and also that a few biological families are just catchall groups formed by lumping hard to place species that are somewhat similar.

  17. I would be more interested in the syntax of the language than the vocab.

    WALS is a window into a linguistic world that is much more varied than SAE, Indo-European, or (more expansively) Indo-European + Eurasian + East Asian, which pretty much form the outer limits of linguistic discussion at LH (excepting, of course, our resident and slightly unhinged* Arabists and Africanists). It would be nice to know where this language fits into WALS categories.

    *Apparently the mot du jour in US politics.

  18. David Eddyshaw says:

    Slightly? Impertinence!

  19. J.W. Brewer says:

    By contrast I supposed the “hinged” participants in US politics are those who, like a door that has not come unhinged, are well-configured to swing rapidly from one extreme to another if the wind is blowing strong enough in a given direction.

  20. Kusunda could be the name of a quarter in Gothenburg.

    There is the verb くすむ /kusumu/ in Japanese, with the past/perfective kusunda.

  21. “This suggests that the Kusunda, against first expectations, have not always been hunter-gatherers, but were once the bearers of a much more sophisticated civilization”

    What it suggests to me is that the Kusunda – like Brahuis or Belbalis – fully appreciated the advantages of having an in-group language impenetrable to outsiders, and worked to create “argot” or puristic neologisms using inherited resources. Money didn’t exist in pre-Vedic times, but leaves did.

  22. Trond Engen says:

    Yes!

    As for the Even, I doubt they could have maintained a sophisticated terminology for metallurgy and military organization for long without continuous interaction with others who maintained practizing of the crafts. That, or the terminology had become elements of myths with only vague referents in the known world.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    It would be nice to know where this language fits into WALS categories.

    I have a book with a whole chapter on Kusunda… in the next country over. It’ll be a week or three till I can go back, I think.

  24. Amazingly for hunter-gatherers, this language has native words for domestic animals (horse, cow, sheep, goat, chicken), for 15 different castes of tribal groups, for king, police, gold, and money. […] This suggests that the Kusunda, against first expectations, have not always been hunter-gatherers, but were once the bearers of a much more sophisticated civilization

    i am eternally frustrated and angered by this line of hooey.
    and not just because it leads to silly and sloppy thinking about language.

    can we just be done, for all time, with the Stages of the Ascent of Man, in all their various allegedly scientific guises and rephrasings?

    as a ton of research has shown (a lot of it conveniently synthesized in james scott’s Against the Grain), people dumped into the category of “hunter/gatherers” (i wish writers would just say “Primitives” or “Savages”, so they’d at least be honest about the intellectual lineage they’re putting themselves in) have kept commensal animals & birds, cultivated edible & otherwise useful plants, and been active in trade & commerce on scales from the local to the regional to the global for thousands of years – which is to say, since long before any other mode of living challenged their longstanding global majority status. they just haven’t done those things in the ways that state-structured groups have (some of scott’s diagnostic contrasts, in the realm of interspecies relationships: pigs vs. cattle; tubers vs. grains – the first lend themselves to evading taxation/confiscation; the second facilitate it).

    and for much of that time, they – as well as “pastoral nomads” (i.e. “Barbarians”) – were absolutely necessary to the economies of the grain-centered states based on “kings”, “police”, and “money”.

    it ain’t amazing. it’s predictable. and it doesn’t suggest anything of the kind (apart from what Lameen suggests*)

    and it forstalls asking the interesting questions, like “why no pigs?” and “do they distinguish between what anglophones call ‘water buffalo’ and ‘cattle’ and ‘yaks’ or are they all just bovines NOS?” and “was gold a currency or a decorative material in the pre-hindu himalayas?”

    * one mild quibble: if memory serves (i can’t find the citation right now, but i’m pretty sure my direct source is david graeber) the idea of barter as preceding money is as much a fantasy as the rest of the Stages of Civilization myth – research having shown that barter is what happens when the previous medium of exchange becomes unavailable, and is not seen unless there has been a previous money economy. or, phrased differently: non-market economies only become market economies through the development of a medium of exchange, though they may later shift to direct exchange. so “hunter/gatherers” with a word for “money” shouldn’t be surprising – it just means they’ve had or been part of a market economy at some point. whether or not it’s a pre-Vedic word is a different kind of question, of course…

  25. Yes, that’s Graeber (and everybody should read him).

  26. John Cowan says:

    kept commensal animals & birds, cultivated edible & otherwise useful plants, and been active in trade & commerce on scales from the local to the regional to the global for thousands of years

    Undoubtedly. But the thing that’s directly wrong with “against first expectations” is that it presumes that once agricultural, always agricultural. A direct counterexample are the Māori who settled the Chatham Islands expecting to be agriculturalists, but found the climate too hostile for it and switched to fishing and sealing, thus making themselves hunter/gatherers; they are now called and call themselves the Moriori, a cognate form.

  27. January First-of-May says:

    is that it presumes that once agricultural, always agricultural

    To be fair, “pastoral nomads” of the animal-herding variety (as common also in northern Siberia) probably technically count as agricultural; in the words of one of my linguistics teachers, они возделывают оленей (a neat play on words that I can only approximately translate as “they cultivate [rein]deer”).

    I wasn’t aware of the Moriori example (I knew of the Moriori in other contexts, but did not realize they were hunter-gatherers). IIRC there are some other cases that would qualify.

  28. The Dutch (and their ancestors) were farmers for thousands of years.

    And they remained farmers even when they came to the Cape. But then they discovered the veld and Karoo and suddenly in a couple of generations the Dutch became pastoral nomads – the trekboers

  29. Involves domestication of people, though.

  30. John Emerson says:

    (Pre-)Historically pastoral nomads were a spin-off of agriculture rather than a stage preceding agriculture, and nomads are pretty much always partially dependent on agriculturalists, and often raise a few crops themselves.

    The Comanches in Texas and environs developed a version of pastoral nomadism within a century or so of first seeing a horse. They lived partly on the undomesticated buffalo herds, but interacted extensively with the settled word by trading and raiding, and up to the end of the Civil War were the dominant power over a considerable area, much like the nomad statelets of NW China.

  31. The Kazakhs used to leave part of their clans, especially elderly and children, in their winter quarters over the summer to do some supplementary agriculture while the bulk of the clan moved to the summer pasture with their herds.

  32. David Eddyshaw says:

    This article in Aeon caught my eye as abundantly supporting rozele’s point about lazy assumptions regarding hunter-gatherers:

    https://aeon.co/essays/not-all-early-human-societies-were-small-scale-egalitarian-bands

  33. John Emerson says:

    The Scythian are famous as nomad raiders of civilization, but they were also major suppliers of grain to the Mediterranean world. (The “Royal Scythians” were the militarized nomads; the commoner Scythians raised grain).The best pasture land is also good wheat land, and of there’s no agriculture in an area it might just because nomad raids made agriculture impractical. The Mongols et al didn’t raise grain primarily just because they were able to extort tribute grain from the Chinese.

  34. How much agriculture pastoralists had changed over time even in the same area, as discussed as part of the argumentation in this paper by Anthony on IE migrations (opens as PDF).

  35. Don Cossacks are another example.

    They were indisputably Russians, a Slavic people who were agriculturalists for millennia.

    But the first Don Cossacks in 15-17th centuries lacked agriculture (even developing strange taboo on farming which was broken only in 19th century), instead they hunted, fished, raised horses and above all, raided Turks and Tatars.

    Raiding was called “the Cossack bread”.

  36. David Eddyshaw says:

    raided Turks and Tatars

    Hey, it’s a living.

  37. @SFReader: While the Cossacks may be an extreme case, that’s not actually a terribly uncommon scenario. It’s not uncommon for the aristocracy to develop a taboo on productive activities, especially food and other other commodity production. The Kshatriya caste (originally the highest under Vedic Hinduism) had strict taboos against such things, and the situation with the knightly class in the High Middle Ages is similar (with the division of male humans into estates, with the noble/chivalric estate devoted solely to combat—in theory if not always in practice).

    In a sufficiently thinly-populated area, the agricultural underclass may disappear entirely, and the elite subsist entirely by raiding neighbors. With a small enough population, all the men that belong to the same ethnicity as the elites can be effectively absorbed into the elite culture, with all its taboos and principles of honor. And it is really the raiding (and sometimes trading of prestige livestock) that are the primary economic activities. The importance of hunting, which seems like a more noble pursuit and stealing from peasants, tends to get played up in the culture; killing large animals can give horsemen a sense or personal bravery, although in reality it was always a small contributor to the overall protein budgets of the societies I am familiar with.

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