Endangered Language Alliance



Mustangi

a Tibetic language of Nepal

Background

Like all 100-plus indigenous languages of Nepal, the Mustangi language (also known as Loke or Glo Skad) is recognized as one of the national languages of Nepal, though Nepali is increasingly dominant. Mustangi is spoken in the Mustang district of western Nepal by a population of some 3,000 speakers in the district itself and can be divided into two major varieties, Bahragaun (“Lower”) and Upper Mustang, which have high mutual intelligibility. Even today in Upper Mustang, many older people speak little Nepali, only Mustangi and Tibetan. However, speakers of the Baragaun variety tend to speak Nepali. In generational terms, while the elderly population tends to be monolingual, young people are overwhelmingly multilingual and can generally speak Mustangi, Nepali, Hindi, and Tibetan.

Affiliation

Mustangi is a Tibetic language, one of dozens of distinct varieties previously grouped together simply as “Tibetan”, and part of the broader Tibeto-Burman language family. Mustangi appears to share some lexical similarities with Dolpo, Lhasa Tibetan, and Mugom.

Endangerment

Though the total district population is closer to 8,000, the number of Mustangi speakers is estimated to be around 3,000. Some young people are now educated outside of the Mustang district, resulting in decreased fluency in Mustangi — also the case for those living outside the region. Education is conducted in Nepali, and some youths whose L1 is Mustangi have high dropout rates because they have difficulty learning in Nepali. Although the Constitution of 1990 allowed the creation of indigenous language primary schools, no money was give to support this.

Academic Work

The most extensive and thorough study was undertaken by German linguist Monika Kretschmar, who compiled a grammar, a dictionary, and a substantial set of texts, with transcription of the Mustangi (Loke) in a modified Roman alphabet and with German translation. High-quality multimedia recordings of the language are rare, however, as is documentation of the language as spoken in the large and growing Mustangi diaspora, particularly in New York. Composer Andrea Clearfield has documented some of the vocal traditions of Mustang, such as the court songs of Lo Manthang.

Craig, Sienna. “Migration, social change, health, and the realm of the possible: Women’s stories between Nepal and New York.” Anthropology and Humanism 36.2 (2011): 193-214.

Craig, Sienna. “Place and identity between Mustang, Nepal and New York City.” Studies in Nepali History and Society 7.2 (2002): 355-403.

Kitamura, Hajime, ed. Glo Skad: A Material of a Tibetan Dialect in the Nepal Himalayas. Vol. 3. Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, 1977.

Kretschmar, Monika. 1995. Erzählungen und Dialekt aus Südmustang. (Beiträge zur tibetischen Erzählforschung, 12.) Bonn: VGH-Wissenschaftsverl. 230pp. (Contents: 1. Untersuchung zur Grammatik des Südmustang-Dialekts – 2. Die Verschriftung der mündlich überlieferten Texte – 3. Deutsche Übersetzung der verschrifteten Texte – 4. Wörterbuch zum Südmustang-Dialekt Vol. 2 contains 79 tales in transliterated Lopa).

Nagano, Yasuhiko. 1988. Preliminary notes on Glo-Skad (Mustang Tibetan). In Graham Thurgood and James A. Matisoff and David Bradley (eds.), Linguistics of the Sino-Tibetan Area: The state of the art papers presented to Paul K. Benedict for his 71st birthday, 451-462. Canberra: Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University.

See the Glottolog entry on Lowa

Mustangi in New York

A significant Mustangi diaspora community now exists in New York City, especially in the Elmhurst and Jackson Heights neighborhoods of Queens, where the community is working simultaneously to maintain its traditions and adapt to American life. Our collaborator Nawang Gurung estimates there are around 1,000 members of the community in New York, with two community organizations — one representing the whole kingdom (Mustang Kyidug) and one representing Upper Mustang (Lo Nyanship Association) — and a WeChat group for Upper Mustang with over 200 members. Both groups are currently trying to establish community halls in Queens. Two large apartment buildings in Brooklyn can even be considered “Mustangi vertical villages”.

Four languages traditionally spoken in the Kingdom of Mustang (Loke, Seke, Baragaun, and Thakali) are all now represented in the community in New York, along with many of the different varieties of each spoken in different villages. Young people under 30, especially in the diaspora, are switching to Standard Tibetan, Nepali, and English, or else are speaking a mixed variety incorporating material from all these different languages.

Immigration to America, and specifically the principal hub of New York, is bringing significant changes to the community. Most people in Mustang were farmers and animal herders (yaks, goats, sheep, dzo, and cows) for half the year and in the winter would go south, particularly the men, to engage in the “sweater trade”, buying and selling clothing. Today, most Mustangi in the diaspora are working waged jobs in New York’s service sector — women as nannies, housekeepers, and nail technicians, and the men working in construction, as cab drivers, or at restaurants and hotels. The youngest members of the community are studying in New York’s public schools and at least 50 (from Upper Mustang) are now attending a Sunday school run by the community which teaches both Tibetan and Mustangi language and culture.

Monthly “Mani gatherings”, usually held in a private apartment, also bind the New York community together for prayer and time together. New Year’s (Losar) and Phaknyi holiday celebrations are annual occasions where most of the community, several hundred strong, can gather together in a single place.

ELA’s Work

Led by project coordinator Nawang Tsering Gurung, originally from the village of Ghilling in Upper Mustang and now living in New York, ELA has starting documenting oral histories in the language as part of Voices of the Himalayas: Language, Culture, and Belonging in Immigrant New York, a project exploring the lives of Himalyan New Yorkers who are experiencing migration and social change. A collaboration between community members and scholars of the Himalayan region, the project aims to document the languages, cultures, social histories, folklore, and community life of indigenous Himalayan peoples. All recordings will be a public digital resource archived at ELA and widely available elsewhere.

Whether you are a speaker yourself, a partial speaker, or know someone who might be, we are always looking for more resources on Himalayan languages. Please get in touch!