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Preserving culture through language

Preserving culture through language

Sumshot Khular is a native speaker of Iamkang from Manipur in India and a human rights and peace activist. TJ Webb

Preserving culture through language
March 21
23:28 2018

About 20 percent of the world’s population speaks English, according the language learning app Babbel, so it would be hard to imagine the world without it. However, less common languages are facing the possibility of extinction as the number of speakers decreases.

This is the case for Lamkang, a northeastern Indian language spoken mainly in communities within the state of Manipur. Native speaker Sumshot Khular is collaborating with linguists in the Computational Resources on South Asian Languages group at UNT to help create a standard dictionary and spelling system to keep the language alive.

“Our very identity, our everything, is in the language,” Khular said.

Khular said schools in India teach in widely spoken languages, such as English, but not smaller tribal languages. This means children are less likely to learn Lamkang. Khular said this is a problem because language is tied very closely to culture. Many traditions and stories are passed down orally, so the death of the language has a great impact on the community.

“All your rich tradition, your culture, your way of life, would be dead,” Khular said.

Sumshot works with students building a database to preserve the language of Lamkang in the Linguistics department at Discovery Park. TJ Webb

Elders tell stories and sing songs to others in the community to help teach and explain their importance. Khular said even if the stories can be preserved, the significance and the people who can provide them cannot. S.N. Bunghon, an elder in her community, recently died, and Khular said “all his knowledge died with him.”

Because of this, she stressed the importance of the language, especially for the younger generation.

Tyler Utt, who has a master’s degree in linguistics, has been working on the 10-year-old project for about eight years. He is focused on the importance of passing the language down to younger generations.

“If young speakers are not learning it, it is going to be gone in a generation,” Utt said.

Khular said people within the community will write in different ways, so the linguists have to come to a consensus and create one standard system.

Khular and her linguistics team have tools to help them, such as Fieldwork Language Explorer, or FLEx, to create a dictionary. It works by creating a sentence in Lamkang, which can then be translated, and each individual word is categorized by part of speech (noun, adjective, etc.). The final line displays the original sentence in English.

Translated words are stored in a lexicon within the program. This is the beginning of the dictionary, which currently includes about 4,100 words.

Sumshot puts on her cultural dress to exemplify Manipur traditions. TJ Webb

Melissa Robinson, a linguistics master student, has been with the project for about two years. Robinson focuses on the physical properties of how the words are pronounced and uses a program called Praat to analyze the different sounds.

“I just really appreciate being able to see language and human sound in a completely different way than we experience on an everyday basis,” Robinson said. “Every sound has kind of like a fingerprint.”

Through her work, she learns about the different rules within the language, such as what sounds can or cannot be together or what sounds the speakers do or do not use. For example, she has noticed Lamkang has many words that place several consonants next to each other.

With a bachelor’s degree in English, Robinson joined the program without linguistic experience. She admitted that it was risky, but she luckily fell in love with her new work.

“I became enamored with this idea that language was a puzzle,” Robinson said.

There are about 10 people working on the project at any given time. Some linguistics students will do specific research for the project as part of their classwork, but they cycle through and do not stay long-term. Robinson said they also work with people outside of UNT.

Although the linguists still have a considerable amount of work to do, they want to find short-term ways to help the community. Khular has laminated papers with pictures of fruits and vegetables that the people in her community commonly eat. Their names are written beside them in Lamkang. One of these foods is a purple banana flower, which Khular said can be mashed up and given to people who drank poison to cure them.

While it promotes healthy eating, this handout is also a way for people in the community to get used to the idea of seeing their language in writing. This will hopefully help them ease into reading and eventually writing with the standardized spelling.

Khular plans to distribute these handouts in the summer. Meanwhile, the linguists will continue their work.

“The two main purposes of our work are to preserve the language for the sake of the community and future generations and also for the scholarly community who want to know as much as possible about all human languages,” Utt said. “Once a language is gone, it’s irreplaceable. It is lost forever.”

Featured Image: Sumshot Khular is a native speaker of Iamkang from Manipur in India and a human rights and peace activist. TJ Webb

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Camila Gonzalez

Camila Gonzalez

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1 Comment

  1. Haj
    Haj March 23, 12:24

    this is spectacular! Thank you, Sumshot, and Shobhana, and Tyler, and Melissa, and everyone working on this importantíssimo project!

    Reply to this comment

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