Monday, October 19, 2009

Deaf community in India

At the turn of the last century, accounts of various communities in British India came into light (primarily as a part of colonial project). One such account that aroused interest especially amongst sign linguists is about the Angami Nagas. Allen (1905) in Assam District Gazetteers, Vol. IX, Naga Hills and Manipur claims that deaf-mutism amongst the Angami Nagas in the Naga Hills was eight times higher than the national average, where every second person was deaf-mute. Further interest was stimulated by Hutton’s (1921) account of the use of sign language by the deaf as well as hearing in the Angami villages, for communication between different villages speaking different languages. Although there is no means by which this claim of deaf villages may now be verified a hundred years later, Miles (1998) suggests that this may have been true, given the prevalence of Iodine deficiency disorders - often a causal factor resulting deafness - in the mountainous regions of South Asia. O’Malley (1907) reports about higher prevalence of deaf-mutism in Champaran. Similarly, Ibbetson (1883) reports the high prevalence in some hilly and mountainous districts of Punjab, and Srinivasan’s (1964) biomedical study at Bettiah, Bihar. Deaf mutuism in Guntur, Andhara Pradesh is reported due to genetic factor promoted by cultural practises (Mazumdar 1972).

In contemporary times, as well, reports claiming an exclusive deaf villages where sign language is used as a medium of communication among the villagers have occasionally been made. One such report published in 1991 by a journalist, Shivananda Kalave is about the two tribal villages, Basanavakoppa and Sullali (generally called ‘Silent Village’) in the remote forest tract in the Uttara Kannada district, Karnataka. The population of these villages is more than 500, of which 30% of the population comprises of deaf people. After reading this report, a Rotarian Dr. Desai in his campaign to eradicate deafness launched the Project Deaf India was launched from Mysore in 1999, in collaboration with the Rotary Club of Newport Balboa, District 5320, USA, and the Gallaudet University, Washington D.C. It was claimed that multiple causes - hereditary, personal hygiene, environment, nutrition, and cultural and social practices - were behind this high rate of deafness for generations of inhabitants of these villages (Source: A macro-level study has reported “they [deaf] were communicating with gesture and lip reading, a skill passed down along generations all these years” ( report).

To ascertain the facts, I visited the villages in spring 2005, along with Debra Grossman from UCLA who was making a film on Deaf community in India, and Ramakrishna, a Deaf Indian Sign Language teacher and activist. A local resident informed us that the village population is comprised of the Siddhis and the Gaurs. We found that none of the villagers were in fact deaf, except a boy and an old lady who are hard of hearing.

Our visit to the village school and other places, followed by a discussion with the teachers and the different members of the villages, led us to believe that there is no deaf community in these villages. The villagers disputed any high incidence of deafness in their villages and asserted that people were conspiring to get benefit out of it. Moreover, they had serious grievances about this characterisation, as they said that the villagers faced problems in matrimonial alliances, given the scare that there was a genetic factor responsible for deafness in their children. Our discussion with the teachers of other deaf schools and institutes in other parts of the district made it explicit that the claim was a hoax. This claim is made on the basis of my Ph.D. field trip, spring 2005. (The field report in a CD ROM is available with the author).

This is not to suggest that all such reports are false. Reports from Dadkhai -- a remote village in Doda district of Jammu and Kashmir and called by the locals as “the cursed village” -- deafness has prevailed for more than a half of century, reportedly affecting 40% of the population (ANI/Reuters 9th.July, 2001, Reference 7449/01, Tape 7320). A recent report (Hindustan Times, 9th.Feb., 2007) suggests that 24% of the village population is deaf, including newborn as well. The Central Health and Medical Education Ministry has deputed doctors from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences to identify the cause; however, little is known about the sign language that people use to communicate with each other.

The existence of such populations once again highlights the need for both a survey of the Indian deaf community and their sign language(s), as very little is known about either the people or their languages. New Linguistic Survey of India (NLSI) focuses on these issues. But we don't know where it is cornered, in which file, in which/whose office, and why.

Bollywood & Dollywood

In India, Hindi cinema (Bollywood in popular parlance -- a world of its own) is the most popular and culturally validated source of entertainment. Its representation of different persons and communities is therefore of great cultural and political significance, and these often generate political and communal controversies. Hindi films have also portrayed deaf (I take this liberty to call Deaf world as Dollywood) characters a few times over the century of its existence -- not only as stereotypes, but also as protagonists. I consider four popular movies of their time to assess the socio-cultural representation of deaf, sign language, and the perceptions about them they have given rise to.

One of the earliest movies in which deaf characters are protagonists is Koshish (An effort) directed by Gulzar, and released in 1972. Starring two widely known actors of the film industry, Sanjeev Kumar and Jaya Bhaduri, the film is a sensitive portrayal of a deaf couple’s romance and the struggles and hardships they have to face to survive with dignity. The characterisation and setting is natural enough to touch its audience, even though the director has taken the cinematic liberty to use written language as a mode of exchange between the characters, (although sign is also used). The film also shows the deaf couple’s yearning for a hearing child and the loss of their first child as they were not able to hear their child’s cry on that fatal night. The most impressive and radical proposal that surfaces in the film is about matrimonial alliance of the protagonist’s hearing son with a deaf girl, thus countering the prevalent notions about matrimony in Indian society. It is one of the most progressive of all films on deaf characters, where the deaf are not just stereotypical characters arousing sympathy, but are presented as an important and equal force in the creation of a more sensitive and modern Indian society.

Khamoshi (Silence) (1996), directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali is a story of a hearing daughter of a deaf couple who aspires to become a singer. The national award winning actors Nana Patekar and Seema Biswas are the deaf couple. The film shows their yearning for, and joy over, a hearing child and how this child becomes the deaf couple’s support and voice in their later life. Though sign is used at various points in the movie, it is not Indian Sign Language (henceforth, ISL).

In contrast, Black (2005) by the same director is a story set in pre-independent India of an Anglo-Indian deaf-blind girl and her tutor starring Rani Mukerjee and Amitabh Bachchan, respectively. Initially, the film opens with an impression that a deaf-blind child is possessed by a spirit, rather than a child who is not able to make sense of things around her because of deafness and blindness. As the movie moves on, we find that she learns and uses tactile sign language in the movie; however, this is not ISL but rather some signs from American Sign Language (ASL). The movie ends on a positive note -- she becomes a graduate after many years and gets some degree of independence in her life, and starts to help her tutor who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

Director Nagesh Kukunor’s Iqbal (2005) is about a 20 year old talented deaf boy from a village who aspires to play as a bowler for the Indian national team. The movie is about his struggle and journey to become a bowler in the Indian team. The lead character of the movie, Iqbal, played by Shreyas Talpade, is a school drop-out as his farmer family was not able to send him to a deaf school in Mumbai. The social setting of the movie shows that the deaf boy has no friends in his village, and his closest companion is his sister, who signs and interprets for him (although Iqbal can lip read slow speech). The director has successfully integrated sign and speech in the movie, where many of the main characters sign and speak. Interestingly, signs are not limited to gestures, and many of the signs are from ISL. Like in Koshish, Iqbal is not a character whose sole motive is to inspire sympathy; rather, it is his talent as a bowler that the film ultimately highlights, and Iqbal’s struggle is to play cricket is as much a young person’s struggle against conventional fathers who do not understand or accept her/his aspirations, as it is about a deaf person’s desire to succeed in a sport that is the hegemony of the hearing. The movie thus also sends a message that Indian cricket as a sport must be a sport that values the talent (rather the hearing or deafness) of its players, thereby questioning current Indian reality, where there are separate teams for hearing and deaf players.

These three films all had a significant impact on societal attitudes. Most prominently in recent times, Iqbal enthused Indian children so much that the National Council of Education Research and Technology now acknowledges sign language as one of the mediums for primary education. The National Curriculum Framework 2005, which endorses child-centric education, advocates ISL based education of the Hearing Impaired. This notwithstanding, none of these films portray the existence of a deaf/Deaf community for their protagonists, who are all alone (or at best with their partners) amidst a hearing society. Moreover, these films have had little effect in permanently altering social attitudes towards deafness as social stigma. A case in point is Ashvin Kumar’s short film The Little Terrorist, which was India’s official entry for Oscar in short film category in 2005. The film is about a Pakistani boy who crosses into the Indian territory while playing. As the story progresses, the Indian family hides him from the patrolling party. In one incident, he pretends to be deaf to avoid the queries of the patrolling officers, and in the process brings to the fore all the stereotypes of deafness as, as signifying social isolation and diminished intelligence.

During a screening of The Little Terrorist at JNU (11.04.08), I asked Ashvin about the lack of political correctness of this portrayal, and he justified as being reasonable in the context, and without an intention to offend. He welcomed my lone intervention and said if it made people to react, then that was a positive development. May be I am not alone next time.

Is ISL a non-configurational language?

A fundamental assumption underlying in the Principles and Parameters (henceforth, P&P) framework is that all languages have some basic, syntactically defined constituent order, which form the basic word order depending upon the setting of the word order (henceforth, WO) parameter. It is usually recognized that this order may be altered somewhat for pragmatic purposes.

The ordering of the constituents will be examined in Indian Sign Language (henceforth, ISL) to determine its WO, if there is any as assumed in the P&P approach. The approach taken to determine the WO in ISL shall be based on the clause as well on sentence with respect to the transitivity of the verb and the verb typology.

A. Intransitive sentence with the plain verb:

He ran yesterday.

The WO is S O V.

B. Transitive sentence with plain verb:

Ram likes Sita.

Ram likes Sita.

In the single elicitation, the above sentence (3) is ambiguous with regard to the subject and the object since both are [+ animate, + human]. If one of the arguments is [- animate], the sentence is unambiguous. Therefore, the animacy hierarchy operates in ISL in the plain verb constructions. The animacy hierarchy can be formulated as:

[+ animate + human] < [+ animate – human] < [- animate].

However, the WO is: i. S O V ii. O S V iii. S V iv. O V v. V

The later three orders are found in the discourse, where the presuppositionality and the topic are established.

C. Transitive sentence with the regular and the backwards verbs:

I help her.

I invite you.

The WO is: i. S O V ii. O S V iii. S V iv. O V v. V

D. Ditransitive with the regular and the backwards verb:

They gave a mug to her.

She sent a book to her.

He gave a book to her.

He gave a book to her.

In the ditransitive sentence with the regular or with the backwards verbs, the possible ordering of the constituents are as the following:

i. S O DO V ii. S DO O V iii. O S DO V iv. O DO S V v. DO S O V vi. DO O S V vii. S DO V viii. DO S V ix. O DO V x. DO O V xi. DO V xii. DO V (with incorporated DO)

E. Complementation

In the subordinate clause, the complement of the verb (both infinite as well as finite) can appear on the either side as shown in the following sentences:

I think he is clever.

The WO in the subordinate clause is as follows:

i. SVO ii. OSV

The WO shows that there is no uniform WO in ISL, and the NP arguments, which are overt for topic can be dropped (discussed later). From the above WO as seen in ISL, one thing that stands out alone is its nonconfigurational properties. Hale (1983) described three properties as being characteristic of nonconfiguarational languages in a pretheoretical sense: relative freedom of WO, the pervasive dropping of noun phrase arguments, and the existence of discontinuous expressions (Baker 1996: 9-10). In ISL the above mentioned first two properties hold.

In ISL, as seen above single verbs can stand alone as predication in themselves. Eg. SELF-GIVE-FRONT (I give you), SELF-INVITE-FRONT (You invite me). The agreement verb shows overt obligatory agreement with the subject and the object arguments. However, the affixation of the argument is not uniform i.e. it is subject verb object (SVO) in the regular agreement verbs and object verb subject (OVS) in the backwards agreement verbs. The order of affixation is rigidly fixed with respect to the verb typology (see chapter V). This shows that ISL is a head marking language.

Moreover, the affixation of the argument does not hold across all the verbs as in the case of the plain verbs. Infact, ISL verb is morphologically complex. All the verbs in ISL have the DIR of the pMOV in its underlying form but the surface manifestation is filtered out by the semantics of the verb, transitivity, theta-roles, the phonological and the phonetic factors (see chapter V). In other words, the null morpheme (zero morpheme) is posited in such verbs. This assumption posits towards Jelinek’s (1984) Pronominal Argument Hypothesis (henceforth, PAH) and Baker’s (1996) Polysynthesis Parameter.

Jelinek’s (1984) approach to configurationality holds that the inflectional morphemes on a verb count as the subject and object of the verb. These morphemes are argument morphemes (also known as pronominal affixes) and incorporated roots. These are the kinds of morphemes on a verb that are suitable for expressing an argument of that verb (Baker 1996: 15). These morphemes are the arguments of the verb, receiving a theta-role from it directly. Thus, the verb’s theta-role must be assigned to an appropriate phrase by theta-criterion. The conceptual content of the Polysynthesis Parameter i.e. Morphological Visibility Condition (MVC) proposed by Baker (1996: 17) states:

A phrase X is visible for theta- role assignment from a head Y only if it is coindexed with a morpheme in the word containing Y via: i. an agreement relationship, or ii. a movement relationship.

Let us examine ISL with the properties of polysynthetic languages. ISL share a large number of properties of polysynthetic languages.

i. Free word order and massive pro-drop.
ii. The argument adposition is lacking in ISL as verbs do not subcategorize for adposition arguments, but by conflation in the Lexicon like in Mohawk (Baker 1996: 418).
iii. The infinitive is not found in ISL like in Mohawk (Baker 1996), Ainu (Shibatani 1990) and Nahuatl (Andrews 1975) (as cited in Baker 1996).
iv. Wh movement takes place.
v. The plural morpheme need not be manifested in the noun root. The verb morphology can show plurality as in Mohawk (Baker 1996: 90)

In polysynthetic languages like Mohawk (Baker 1996: 21), the third person neuter DO does not show overt agreement with the verb. Hence, the null morpheme is posited, which is restricted to third person neuter. However, in ISL, the overt DO does not show agreement with all the R-expressions irrespective of animacy. In all the ditransitive sentences with the overt DO as shown above the DO remains (the incorporation of DO is rare) in an argument position. In the incorporation of the DO, which is statistically rare, the incorporation is of the classifier rather than of noun DO. As incorporation is one of the agreement morphemes, but the overt DO remains in the argument position in case of incorporation, too in ISL. To posit that the incorporated DO absorb case and consequently, the overt DO is dislocated to an adjunct position maintains that there is null morpheme for DO in the verb. Since, incorporation is rare and none of the DO show agreement in verb, to posit null morpheme is a burden for acquisition as the child finds no positive evidence in any instance. However, the DO is left dislocated due to the case filter. Thus, in ISL, incorporation does not interact with agreement. Hence, ISL is not a polysynthetic language as obligatoriness of the agreement morpheme is a property of polysynthetic language (Baker 1996: 89). Due to the overt agreement, other overt NPs are in adjunct position because the overt agreement absorbs the case feature of the head that it attaches to (see Baker 1991a). As a result, overt NPs cannot appear in corresponding argument positions. They appear at clause peripheral positions where Case filter does not apply (see Baker 1996 for fuller discussion). In ISL, we find only left dislocation of the NP arguments unlike in polysynthesis languages like Mapudungun, where the dislocated NPs are found in the either side of the clause.

In the polysynthetic languages like Mohawk, both the agreement morphemes and the lexical roots count as rendering an argument visible. In ISL, the agreement relationship holds but do not have incorporation phenomena at all or have sporadic incorporation that does not interact with agreement as it lacks the obligatoriness of the agreement of the DO with the verb. In ISL, the overt DO and the incorporated DO classifier can co-occur unlike in Mohawk, where one restricts the other. Thus, ISL confirms to Jelinek’s (1984) theory of nonconfigurationality. Therefore, ISL is a nonconfigurational head marking language like Navajo, Walpiri, Salish, etc. (see Baker 1996: 17-18) but not a polysynthetic language like Mohawk, Mapudungun, etc. Hence, the setting of the proposed Polysynthesis Parameter is "NO" for ISL.

In ISL, the complement clauses appear in the argument position governed by verb that selects them i.e. on the right of the verb. On the other hand, the object NP cannot occur in the argument position i.e. on the right of the verb. The occurrence of the object NP is barred because ISL verb in its underlying form has the DIR of the pMOV, which is an agreement morpheme (see chapter 5). As the agreement absorbs the case of the object NP, it is forced to be dislocated to the adjunct position, where the Case filter does not apply. Hence, the complement clauses differ from the object NP in ISL.

In ISL, the overt NP-subject and the overt NP-object are left dislocated due to the Case filter as the case is absorbed by the agreement affix on the verb. As the overt NP-direct object does not show agreement on the verb but gets case through the complex predicate. However, this does not form well-formed sentence. As we have seen above that the argument affixes absorb case forcing the overt NPs to be dislocated where the Case filter does not apply. Similarly, case assigned overt DO need to be left of the verb i.e. SVO to derive well-formed sentence. However, in ISL scrambling is allowed. The overt NPs, Tense/NP adverb as well as are scrambled in different positions.

As seen in the above in the well formed sentences, the verb is always in the clause final position. The ISL verb always occurs in the clause final position due to the relative phonological weight of the verb. Thus, a well formed sentence is derived. In this respect, the nonconfigurationality with respect to DO derives from the case marking like in Hindi-Urdu, not from agreement like in polysynthetic languages. On the other hand, the nonconfigurationality of the overt NP-subject and the overt NP- object derives from the agreement. In this sense, in ISL, the parameter setting for MVC is ‘NO’.

To summarize, nonconfigurationality is derived through two ways in ISL:

a. Dislocation of case absorbed overt NPs i.e. subject and object.
b. Scrambling.

This proves that ISL is not a polysynthetic language but certainly a nonconfigurational language.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Book Review: Zeshan (2000)

Zeshan, Ulrike. 2000. Sign Language in Indo-Pakistan: A description of a signed language. Philadelphia/Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. Pg. xii + 178. Hb. Crown. Alkaline paper. Price: not mentioned.

Reviewed by Samar Sinha (2003).

Sign Language in Indo-Pakistan: A description of a signed language (SLIP) is a revised master’s thesis (University of Cologne) in light of the author’s latest research results. The title of the book draws one’s attention towards ‘sign’ and ‘signed’, which, in principle, have no distinction in the sign linguistics literature. SLIP, dedicated to the Deaf communities in India and Pakistan, deserves its long due publication on sign language of the sub-continent and similarly deserves review more than in the standard conventional length of a review article.

Of the five chapters, in the first chapter, Introduction, Zeshan points out that the linguistic study of sign language (SL) in India and Pakistan is virtually unstudied. Apart from a handful of linguistic works so far in these countries, the study of sign language is confined main within institutions imparting special education.

Based on her fieldwork in Karachi and New Delhi, she asserts that despite regional variations in signs, there is one underlying grammar of Pakistan Sign Language (PSL) (as used by ABSA Research Group 1987, NISE 1991,1994, Sir Syed Deaf Association 1989, Zeshan 1996) and Indian Sign Language (ISL). Hence, she calls the sign languages of these colonial cousins as Indo-Pakistan Sign Language (IPSL), rather than Indo-Pakistani Sign Language. Her claim that there is a unitary sign language in India is based on Vasishta, Woodward & Wilson (VWW) (1978) and in passing but not explicitly illustrated to support it. The different studies on lexicon points towards greater similarity (Woodward 1993, ISL Dictionary 2001). At the present state of knowledge about sign language in India, any claim about one sign language in India is merely speculative rather than empirically supported when we account Deaf communities of the Silent Village, Karnataka, and a village in Mizoram. On the other hand, Jepson’s (1991) claim about Rural ISL is based on a rural deaf individual rather than the rural Deaf community. The regional lexical variations of particular signs in Pakistan are photographically shown.

With reference to post 1960 developments in Pakistan, Signed Urdu (SU), which she claims as ‘Urdu based variety of IPSL’, is not a variety of IPSL but an invented manually coded Urdu structure using IPSL signs, modified signs, and neologism. Had the author used the contrast between SU and IPSL, it would have been much easier to understand the difference between the two. A reminder, India is not far behind in a similar ‘the mask of benevolence’ effort, funded by UNICEF in developing Indian Signing System (ISS). Zeshan mentions the reality about deaf education in India citing Deshmukh (1996). Apart from the weekly sign news telecast on the national channel, the GOI has not formulated any substantial policy and programmes for the empowerment of the Indian Deaf community. The linguistic status of sign language in these two countries is a constitutional question rather than ‘not an officially recognized language’ (p.8) as mentioned in the book. In the later part of the chapter, she briefly discusses her research methodology, and pros and cons of her work.

In the second chapter, The Signs, the author discusses about IPSL handshapes (HSs) and proposes its preliminary inventory based on the frequency of occurrence in her corpus rather than on phonetic principle. Her classifications of HS, which are photographically shown, are basic, central, marginal, problematic, and meaningful. The problematic HS, which are ‘rare and unclear that their existence in IPSL is questionable’ (p.24), do exist but not found in her corpus since her data on wh-question is scarce (p.10). The author claims that classifier HSs are not found in IPSL based on VWW (1978), and analytical problem, and consequently disapproves Boyes-Braem’s (1990) typological claim that the classifiers are found in all sign languages investigated so far. Contrary to her claim, classifier HSs are found, and are incorporated into a class of verbs signs. On the other formational parameters, viz. location (signing space), movement, and orientation, and phonological operations, there is not a single line discussion. This chapter, however, does not provide basic essential descriptions of sub-lexical structure and organisation, and is thus far from being true to the title of the book.

Sign Families, which basically include opposites, homonyms, polysemes, synonyms, and compounds, are well described with examples and illustrations. Apart from these, the signs that share one of the formational parameters constantly that are also a constant semantic element (Generalised Meaningful Parameter Values, Woll 1983: 40). IPSL time-line in contrast with the American Sign Language (ASL) time-line is well discussed with illustrations enriching the content on the topic.

Zeshan also discusses the signs that show evident connection with Hindi-Urdu mouth patterns. The mouth pattern, e.g. 8 (p.43), is used to disambiguate signs, hence, phonemic. To the contrary, in pg.49, the Karachi and the Indian signers produce the mouth patterns of ‘allah’ and ‘bhagwan’ or ‘god’ with the sign GOD, respectively. There are two or more mouth patterns for a sign not as a synonym but points towards the signer’s socio-linguistic, religious background. This suggests, simply, mouth pattern is not an integral part of IPSL, unlike other non-manual components of sign. Unlike mouth gestures, English fingerspelling, and initialisation and/or abbreviation are undoubtedly an effect and influence of institution. Along with the variation in the exact shape of English fingerspelling, we find typologically two sets of English fingerspelling – ambicheric and mixed (see Stokoe 1974: 346) among the users of IPSL. With the passage of time, it is observed that fingerspelled signs are further abbreviated and/or initialised, which again are nativised as sign, whose etymological source is difficult to ascertain e.g. E-MAIL.

It is interesting to note that IPSL has identical signs for BIRD, DUCK as in ASL; HOUSE as in BSL, and HELP as in the both. The author is struck off by this commonality, and fancies about its genetic relationship and/or lexical borrowing rather than by iconicity. Further, she appals/stupefies her reader by treating HOUSE as a loan sign and remarks “…in India and Pakistan because all roofs are flat…” (p. 41). Moreover, it needs to be understood that not only “Indian Hindus,” but also all of the sub-continent calls God as ‘upar wala’ (the Above One). The British colonisation is not sufficient to say that BSL has an areal influence over IPSL. On the other hand, the English fingerspelling as a result of institutional effort is an issue for exploration. On the non-manual components of signs, Zeshan discusses its grammatical relevance, and raises issue for further investigation. She briefly discusses iconic signs using Mandell’s (1977) classification, and claims that half of the IPSL lexicon is iconic. She concludes with an established note that iconicity exists along a continuum.

In the third chapter, Morphology, she discusses the difficulties in word-class analysis and formal characteristics, which leads her to question the applicability of syntactic universals in IPSL. Although she claims that IPSL does not make distinctions in word class, in fact, her data falsifies this analysis. The N-V distinction is in fact marked by movement (and intensity [NISE 1991])- the lexeme FLY with movement is a verb TO FLY (e.g. 39, p.56), but as a stationary sign is an AEROPLANE/AIRLINE (e.g. 56, p.101).

The use of interpersonal space is grammatically relevant in sign language and is one of the sign formation parameters. Zeshan classifies IPSL signs into three types: positioning, directional, and movement. The former two are described explicitly with examples unlike the third one. Fig. 62, p.60 shows verb TO FLY in its citation form, it is not noun AIRPLANE as in the text. In IPSL, XATAM (B) is a verb for “finish/end’, and XATAM (A) and HO_GAYA are used to mark perfect (Zeshan’s completive) aspect. XATAM (A) is grammaticised sign from XATAM (B). HO_GAYA is a weak drop form of XATAM (B) showing the phonetic loss of the non-dominant hand and has further grammaticised as an enclitic to the preceding sign (see Sinha in prep).

Other aspectual markers are also discussed in detail. The IPSL lexicon does not specify number for nouns, and plurality is marked by repetition of the sign in space, or quantifiers, and/or numerals. Zeshan concludes that the repetition is for plurality with noun signs and for distributive aspect with verbs. However, her conclusion mismatches with the morphemic translation she provides. E.g. 20, p.66 would mean ‘I have tried several times with my certificate in private firms’ rather than ‘…at several private (firms)’, and the morphemic glossing in the e.g. 22, p. 66 is not distributive but plural.

However, Zeshan’s discussion of the morphological processes in IPSL is incomplete. Although she does describe number signs and the incorporation of the first four digits, she does not discuss direct object incorporation further (as evidenced by the incorporated classifier HS of direct objects with verbs like LENA (to take) and DENA (to give)). She also discusses two sign formation processes - fusion and compounding, but does not mention other processes like reduplication, fingerspelling, hedging, and aerial writing.

The fourth chapter is a syntactic description. The sentence and clause boundaries are based on her bilingual (bimodal) informant’s translation indicated by the Urdu propositions. Mentioning the lack of methodology essential for syntactic study, she ‘mostly prefer to speak of regularities rather than rules’ (p.88) using semantic roles. However, I will use formal syntactic terms in the review. The WO tendency is inclined towards the SOV. In fact, IPSL is SVO with asymmetry between matrix and embedded clauses (Sinha 2003). She, further, points that the most semantically prominent sign is clause initial, and labels the structure as topic-comment with the semantically prominent sign appearing overtly again in the comment as peculiarity though information on non-manual parameters even crude is not glossed. Moreover, it points towards discourse structure rather than information packaging strategy and structure within clausal syntax.

On tense, the author writes that there is no temporal inflection but indicated by clause initial NP adverbs of time. Contrary to her expectation as inflection, in IPSL HS, which marks the time unit incorporates with the tense and results into NP adverbs of time. The similar tense marking system is found in Nootka (Comrie 1985: 13). The discourse initial tense in the informational neutral structure is followed unless new tense is established along the time line for non-present and present. IPSL has present-non-present distinction in which the former is unmarked, and its overt marking is for emphatic or for contrast.

Zeshan briefly discusses imperatives, negatives, emphatics, and existential particles, and invites further research. She illustrates some compounds as modifying constructions discussing the headedness of the construction in the chapter on syntax rather than in the previous chapter. She, further, raises an issue of hyponymy of the two adjacent signs, on which she renders- ‘to classify rather that (than) modify the other sign’ (p.99; italics mine for typological error). Her speculation directs toward mini-topicalisation type constructions but does not provide sentential constructions in which they are found to think further.

The author discusses loci, grammatically relevant points in the signing space, and summarises the localisation strategies employed in IPSL and ASL discourse. She discusses various possibilities of referring to loci- directionality, positioning, indexing, eye gaze, and role-play, and inconsistencies involved in it with reference to loci in the signing space, which is under described in the book. The non-manual articulatory channels, their forms and functions in polarity, interrogatives, and in the conditional clause are investigated concluding with a list of her queries and a familiar note ‘further research is needed’ (p. 116). Towards the end of the chapter, Zeshan’s unfeigned remark makes her reader simpering.

In the final chapter, Discourse strategies, she discusses discourse strategies- contrastive use of signing space for places, situations, and tenses, handedness, and perspectives using space drawing analogy with stage.

SLIP is enriched with bibliography, index, appendices, sample text, Devnagari and Perso-Arabic transcription, abbreviations, manual alphabets, 300 word dictionary, graphics, photographs, content, tables, and with cross-linguistic references from numerous sign languages. She uses Hindi-Urdu words in Latin letters for sign text. The printer’s devil and the copy errors abound the book from cover to cover. Importantly, in the spine and the end cover, the title is Indo-pakistan rather than as in the front cover. In the graphic on the front cover for SIGN, the direction of movement is the other way; Baluchistan not Beluchistan (p. 3, 4), speech data rather than sign data (p. 8), sign/signer not speak/speaker (p. 10), MAUT not FAUT (p. 63), numbering error (p. 90)- to mention a few. Despite these matters not so diverting, devoid of technical terminology and framework makes SLIP accessible for general readers, too (may be not in terms of price and availability). Sign language, undoubtedly, is not only a landmark in the linguistic study of sign language of the sub-continent, but also an invitation. To make the matter shorter and direct, this book is a long due publication, and is a must in every library shelf. Equally, Zeshan’s description, conclusion, and the above-mentioned familiar note, are stimulating enough for young researchers to pursue sign linguistics.


Comrie, B. 1985. Tense. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Indian Sign Language Dictionary. 2001. Coimbatore: Sri Ramakrishna Mission Vidyalaya Printing Press.

Jepson, Jill. 1991b. Urban and Rural Sign Language in India. Language in Society. Vol. 20. 37-57.

Sinha, Samar. (in prep). Grammaticalisation in Indian Sign Language.

Sinha, Samar. 2003. A Skeletal Grammar of Indian Sign Language. Unpublished M.Phil. Dissertation, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.

Stokoe, W. C. 1974. Classification and Description of sign languages. In Seboek, T. A. (ed.): Current Trends in Linguistics. Vol. 12. The Hague & Paris: Mouton. 345-371.

Vasishta, M., Woodward, J. & Wilson, K. 1978. Sign Language in India: Regional variation within the Deaf population. Indian Journal of Applied Linguistics. Vol. 4 (2). 66-74.

Woll, B. 1983. The Semantics of British Sign Language. In Kyle, J & Woll, B (eds.): Language in Sign: An International Perspective on Sign Language. Beckenham: Croom Helm.

Woodward, J. 1993. The relationship of sign language varieties in India, Pakistan and Nepal. Sign Language Studies. Vol. 78. 15-22.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Wh-question in Indian Sign Language

Indian Sign Language (henceforth, ISL) wh-questions are strictly clause-final. An ISL wh-question is a composite sign consisting of a noun and a sign generally labeled as wh-sign/particle in association with an expression, which I label as C-particle. An ISL wh-question thus consists of a noun, C-particle and an expression. Of these, the noun can be dropped in the context where the meaning of the wh-question is recoverable. This shows that the C-particle and the expression suffice to form a wh-question.
The C-particle is primarily a double handed symmetric sign, and often undergoes Weak Drop resulting in a one handed sign. The suppletive form of the C-particle is seen in diurnal WHEN, which differs from other wh-questions in its manual articulation as well as in the expression.
Aboh, et al. (2005) claim that ISL (their IndSL) is a verb-final language with split-wh. Their claim for split-wh is based on composite phrasal expressions like PLACE + G-WH for ‘where’ (G-WH stands for general wh-). Following Neidle et al. (2000), they assume that ISL non-manual wh-marking is associated with [+wh] feature in C. They suggest that G-WH is a question particle in ISL that always appears in the clause final position, either with an associate phrase, or on its own (bare), with the associated phrase remaining in-situ.
The basic expression associated with interrogative is the relative chin up from the immediate sign. It is also observed in yes/no questions, and serves to distinguish interrogative from declaratives.
Aboh, et al. argue against a remnant movement for ISLwh-questions, by which the derivation of the surface order for a sentence with a wh-object requires additional remnant movement of entire IP to a specifier position above CP, citing a variety of problems with this Kaynean approach (for details, see Aboh et al. 2005), Instead, they assume a head-final split-C (Rizzi 1997) and claim that the question particle is realised as the head of the InterP between ForceP and FinP and [Spec, InterP] hosts a null OP [wh]. They further conclude that the wh-element moves to [Spec, InterP] at LF to be interpretable. In the case of split-WH, they argue that the sign PLACE surfaces in the [Spec, FocP] below InterP.
Adopting their proposal, the following structure for the clausal domain emerges. The C- and the Q- particles are the head of ForceP and InterP, respectively. Following Aboh et al. (2005), it is assumed that a noun is optionally merged to the [Spec, FocP].

Disability, Deafness and Citizenship

Contemporary constructs on deafness are also defined over two newer constructions- that of deafness as a disability versus that of deaf people as a linguistic minority. These contemporary discourses are rooted in the activism and experiences of the deaf people. Both the constructs are nurtured by the campaign for equality and full participation in all spheres of social life and human rights, and both are given political meaning and power by personal biographies that detail the experience of being deaf in a hearing world.
The physiological model of disability, based as it is on the normal characteristics of body, its physical, and/or cognitive functioning, finds persons with impairment ‘abnormal’, ‘disabled’, and ultimately ‘handicapped,’ in fulfilling social roles. Such a view on deafness as a disability ‘establishes the tone of official thought’ (in the words of Carol Padden and Tom Humphries) on deafness as a handicap.
With the emergence of such a view on deafness, there also emerged a professional group, whose livelihood and existence depends upon ‘bestow benevolence on deaf people defined as in need’. Therefore, deafness becomes a ‘need’ for intervention. Though the technology and the level of sophistication has changed in the decades that have followed, the focal idea has remained the same - the role of such intervention is to make the deaf hear. This amounts to a rejection of sign in favour of spoken language, and the adoption of lip reading as a sign of normalisation.
The social model of disability, on the other hand, views it as a product of complex social structures and processes, rather than as the simple and inevitable result of individual differences or biology. It suggests that it is not impairment in itself that causes disability, but the way in which societies fail to accommodate natural aspects of difference between people. Disability, therefore, is caused by material, social, structural, and cultural forces and ideas that shape disability labels and social roles.
Both the models of Disability accept a sense of loss, which is true among other interested groups like visually challenged, physically challenged, etc., and seeks social integration with the hearing world through care, service, and assistance. However, the question of loss is contested in the case of deafness - while late deafening and moderate impairment is associated with loss (hence supporting the disability construction), the Deaf community has argued that pre-lingual deafness is not so easily conceived of as such. Unlike the audist’s perception, the Deaf community views deafness as not a loss but a gain, in terms of culture, of language, and values. This is demonstrated in their resistance to the construct of a category of ‘hearing-impaired’ to include the deaf and the hard-of-hearing, as it overlooks the linguistic and cultural difference between the Deaf and the hard-of-hearing. The Deaf/deaf, unlike others who share the hearing culture, experience a different kind of exclusion related to language and culture. As the D/deaf cherish their unique identity and seek an honourable integration into the larger social fabric in a fashion that upholds the difference of their culture and language, they contest a characterisation that suggests they have an impairment and/or disability.
Such beliefs, further, establish deafness as a culture that disregards the disabled-non-disabled distinction and does not seek to discipline disability. In opposition to the disability construct, and with the arguments put forward for deafness as a culture, the D/deaf construct an argument in favour of linguistic minority status. Besides the demographic facts, there are several reasons to identify and validate the D/deaf as a minority vis-à-vis the hearing population. It is an acknowledged fact that in all societies, deaf people have been subject to oppression, or discrimination by the hearing with respect to their values, culture, and language. In developing societies, this still continues, and the majority of deaf children do not have access to education. In most of the cases, the educational ideology pursued for deaf education runs contrary to their right to receive education in their mother tongue of sign language. As their sign language has been subject to oppression and their culture and values have been suppressed, they qualify as a linguistic minority.
Among the scholars that seek solution in Sen’s Capability Approach, which views disability as one aspect of human heterogeneity rather than as abnormality, Terzi (2004) introduces the concept of ‘alternative functioning or of doing the same thing in different ways.’ She cites an example from Martha’s Vineyard and argues that the use of sign language like by the Vineyarders expands the capabilities of deaf. Under such a conceptualization, however, signing is emphasized to be an alternative functioning rather than the most valued of all the other functionings of the signers. In other words, it still reiterates the audist’s view and fails to accommodate sign language within the league of natural human languages.
In India, the provisions for the deaf provided under the Disability Act have failed, as is painfully evident, to ensure their empowerment. The same applies with equal force to the claimed minority status too (as evident in the case of the minorities in India). As a matter of fact, the D/deaf people’s lack of access to resources have resulted in their inability to build alliances with other socially discriminated groups, has become an obstacle in ensuring their participation in the social process. Drawing a parallel based on social discrimination with the dalits, for whom the policy of reservation has significantly ensured their growing participation in the social process, it is imperative to mobilise the D/deaf people on the demand for reservation. In this sense, it is necessary to politicise the deaf world, so that the Deaf culture and perspective can be heard in a democratic society, so that society may come to guarantee them their rights as citizens.

God, His agents and Deafness

Down the ages, across civilizations and cultures, prophets have dwelt on the biology and sociology of deaf people and deafness, and the role of sign. Pre-Enlightenment attitudes and policies towards deafness, deaf education, and sign language were linked to religious practices. Community membership was defined in terms of membership of a religious community. For all religions, speech was fundamental and sacred; and signing is not considered the equivalent of speech.
In India, one of the earliest references to deaf people can be found in verses of the Vedas (ca. 1500 BC). Thus, the Rig Veda: ‘even the deaf will tremble at my roaring’; and the Atharva Veda (approx. 1500 BC): ‘the malady that makes one deaf, the malady that makes one blind,/ all malady that wrings thy brow, we charm away with this our spell.’ These allusions make the point that deafness was considered as a malady needing a cure, and that speech and hearing are signifiers of normalcy. At the same time, it reflects a social yearning for the aural world.
Given the lack of historical records, it would be difficult to claim the existence of a specific social policy towards the deaf in particular. Quite generally, however, it is clear that under Brahminical customs, the deaf were excluded from the inheritance of property, as it was believed that a deaf person cannot make the sacrifices to lessen the sufferings, and enhance the position of the deceased father. The ground for exclusion was based on the conclusion that a person’s deafness is congenital and incurable, and indeed, to verify this, many brutal practices were carried out by the physicians. Moreover, the doctrine of anga-vanga (mutilated body parts), Vidur Niti (Vidur’s Ethics) in the Mahabharata, Manu Smiriti (Codes of Manu), and others perceived disabilities in general, and deafness in particular, as forms of sin in previous births. Such texts, together with religio-literary texts like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, contributed to the perpetuation of a social system that marginalised the disabled, particularly the deaf, in Indian history.
This social system remained largely unaffected by the philosophical social reform movement propounded by Gautama Buddha, which swept the Asian continent more than two thousand five hundred years ago. The Buddhist texts mention that the deaf were excluded from rituals and were denied membership of the sangha (community). Thus, despite all the social reformist teachings of Buddha, there was no radical, progressive change in the status of, and attitudes to deafness and the deaf.
The Old Testament and the New Testament of the Bible also make numerous references to deaf people, many of which shaped the attitude and policies towards the deaf in Christian society. In the Old Testament, deafness is viewed as a divine plan (Exodus 4) and ‘thou shalt not curse the deaf (Leviticus 19:14). Chapter 29, verse 14 of Isaiah prophesies a day when ‘the deaf hear the words of the book,’ ‘the dumb will sing,’ and ‘the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.’ And a life free from deafness is promised. The New Testament, on the other hand, views deafness as a possession of demonic, evil spirit, ‘thou dumb and deaf spirit, I charge thee, come out of him, and enter no more into him’ (Mark 9). Chapter 7 of Mark and Chapter 9 of Matthew regard deafness as a means to prove Jesus’s supernatural power ‘...he hath done all things well: he maketh both the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak’ (Mark 7).
If the Old Testament reflects the attitudes prevalent at the time of Moses, then societally, deafness was perceived as a sin, a social menace, and hence, the deaf were cursed, damned and shunted aside. In fact, Isaiah’s prophesies clearly reflect a vision of society where sound and hearing was central and it was free from deafness and deaf people. This is a view shared by the New Testament, which, although it no longer conceives of deafness as a grand design, emphasizes the social inclination towards orality and aurality viz., the healing powers of Jesus. Such ‘miracles’ seek to ‘cure’ deafness and install speech and hearing among the deaf. The extreme view of all, however, is to be found in Paul’s epistle to the Romans (10: 17), where in a single sentence, the deaf are denied the possibility of faith: ‘So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.’
These attitudes established the centrality of speech and hearing in the Christian world-view in the centuries that followed. Catholic theologists accepted the official doctrine; in the words of Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.), deafness ‘is a hindrance to faith’ because the deaf cannot hear the word of God. At the same time, a dialogue in Chapter Eighteen of De quantitate animae liber unus reflects Augustine’s optimism about deaf community and sign language, as can be seen in his question: ‘What does it matter, as he grows up, whether he speaks or makes gestures, since both these pertain to the soul?’ Augustine enlisted the deaf to spread his mission and membership, but his view that deaf people could learn through sign (Augustine refers to ‘bodily movements,’ ‘signs,’ and ‘gestures’) and were thus able to receive faith and salvation was ignored, and was not part of the official doctrine and practice of the Catholic Church.
In the Holy Quran, in Sura 19:1-11, we find reference to sign language as one of the five modes to communicate the praise of Allah. However, these verses inhabit the same text as verses like ‘Those who reject our signs/ are deaf and dumb/ in the midst of darkness/ profound whom Allah willeth/ he leaveth to wander/ whom he willeth, he placeth/ on the way that is straight’ (Sura 6:39). The references to deafness appear to be metaphorical here, where deafness is seen as unwillingness to hear the revelations of Allah. Once again, we have a stress on phonocentric attitudes and a negativism towards deafness.
It was only with the growth of a social concern for deaf education that deaf people’s access to language became a pressing issue. In the mid-19th century that an educational system using sign language as a medium of instruction came to exist. Till then, the God's agents suppressed both Deaf and sign.

What is Linux?

Linux is an operating system (OS) that evolved from a kernel created by Linus Torvalds. However, without a kernel, an operating system doesn't exist and without application programs, a kernel is useless. Richard Stallman, a propagator of Free Software Movement, provided the necessary programs from the GNU project, and together with a kernel, developed by Linus Torvalds, Linux was born, hence, also called GNU/Linux. Linux belongs to the *NIX family of operating systems. To say that Linux is an operating system means that it's meant to be used as an alternative to other operating systems like MS-DOS, the various versions of MS Windows, Mac OS, BSD, Solaris and others.

A decade earlier in its initial phase of development, Linux was identified to be a "naughty system", hence, it remained normally out of everyday lay users (and due to the lack of internet facility). This “troubled childhood,” haunts many of us still, however, present day Linux is easy to install and use for variety of purposes. Today, Linux is enjoying a favourable growth. This comes from the fact that Linux has proven to be a tremendously stable and versatile operating system and can be installed on desktop PC, laptop, netbook and on servers. Moreover, there is no single report of virus attack/infection in the system till date.

Linux is built and supported by a large international community of developers and users dedicated to free, open-source software (FOSS). This community sees Linux as an alternative to proprietary system and as a platform for alternatives to such proprietary applications as MS Office, Internet Explorer, and Outlook. As a result, there is a very large collection of free software available for Linux. There are graphical environments (GUIs), office applications, developers' tools, system utilities, business applications, document publishing tools, network client and server applications- the list goes on. For every purpose, there is a software - from designing home, maintaining balance sheet, audio-video, games, internet, etc. There are more than 20,000 softwares available on the internet free of cost worth exploring to accommodate one's need.

Linux is most commonly distributed with a collection of applications in what is called a "distribution". The most common are Redhat, Mandrake, Debian, etc. There are also many internet communities that seek to provide support to Linux users and developers. The various flavours of Linux OS like Debian based Ubuntu, LinuxMint, etc. can be downloaded from the internet or can be ordered at zero-cost from the selected distributions. Unlike other propietary softwares, the user is encouraged and legally entitled to copy, reinstall, modify, and redistribute the OS. Linux's open nature also offers the ability to localise Linux distributions for use in local languages.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalayas: A Linguistic Biodiversity Hotspot

In environmental science, a biodiversity hotspot is a biogeographic region with a significant reservoir of biodiversity that is threatened with destruction. The Eastern Himalayas is a biodiversity hotspot in which the Darjeeling and the Sikkim Himalayas are the distinguished regions. These two distinguished regions, is a single linguistic ecology for shared historical, cultural as well as demographic considerations, and the languages spoken in this linguistic ecology exist in its environment. In an ecolinguistic map (28° 15' N - 26° 45' N and 88° E - 90° E), it roughly includes present day political boundaries of Sikkim, the Darjeeling district and the Doars (In otherwords, Sikkim of 1815).

A cursory idea about the prevalent linguistic ecology of the Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalayas can be summed up in response to Haugen's ten ecological questions:

1. Classification : Languages from all four major families are spoken in the region (eventhough one has to be cautious -- ecolinguistics considers ‘language’ associated with nation-states and sustained by political, educational, information technology, etc., as a cultural artefact).

2. Users: The spatial and the ethnic distribution of the language users vary in this 'linguistic hotspot.' Primarily, TB and IA in the hilly region as well in the Doars whereas Dravidian and AA are exclusive to the Doars. However, such profile negates the fact that many languages in the region are merely nominal rather than in actual use. In other words, there is a high degree of language shift among the different ethnic groups.

3. Domains of language use: The languages have lost their traditional domains as well as they have no footholds in the emerging domains. Some of these languages are moribund and many others are 'folkorised'. Note that there are many languages which are no longer used in any of the domains but has an ethno-political significance as a community identity is based on language rather than a language in use.

4. Concurrent language use: A large number of ethnic groups have changed their language trajectory towards the major/dominant language resulting language shift. However, the cline of shift varies on the various other socio-economic factors, and are domain specific in many contexts. At the same time, it is also found that code switching and code mixing are a part of the communication among various ethnic groups. However, a genuine multilingual situation (as in the sense of Eco) is hard to find in the region. On the other hand, Hindi and English is also prevalent in different domains, class, and in various social settings. Indirectly, these two languages along with Bangla and Nepali are indirectly subsuming the domains leading to language endangerment of other languages.

5. Internal varieties : To a large extent there is a general mapping between an ethnic group and a language. Historically, it is true that the different ethnic groups have patronised their respective language not just for their respective ethnic-linguistic identity but also as a code for communication. However, in the changing scenario, such link between an ethnic group and a language has weakened. There are cases where an ethnic community has lost its language and has shifted/adopted another language. There are also cases that some languages are moribund. These languages are no longer transmitted to the younger generation. At the same time, regional, social, lexical as well as other variations are observed in the languages spoken. Such diversity shows the dynamicity of these languages within the ecolinguistic system reflecting survival of the fittest.

6. Written tradition: A large number of languages has a script of their own -- Bangla, Devanagari, Srijanga, Olchiki, etc. Apart from these scripts, Roman and Devanagari is used in writing the languages of the region though it is not widely prevalent. As far as the written tradition is concerned, apart from Hindi and English, Bangla and Nepali have a major share. Lepcha, Tibetan, and Santali need to find its hold in the system. The use of written symbol is reflected in the linguistic landscape of the region. Undoubtedly, one can find Roman i.e. English over other scripts. At the same time, language customisation is hardly available in domains where different language package/option can be selected by the client/customer.

7. Standarisation of written form: Leaving aside Bangla, Nepali language is standarised, and the eastern variety of Nepali is considered as a standard variety. However, in the Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalayas, a variety of Nepali spoken is different. As a result, a diglossic situation arises. Nepali spoken is different from Nepali written in many of its grammatical aspects like in lexicon, intonation, gender agreement, case endings, etc. Similarly, there are differences in spelling too. However, there are efforts to resolve such issues yet it is still a far.

8. Institutional support: A large number of languages of the region receive state patronage. Among them Bangla and Nepali are the foremost. Both these languages are scheduled languages, and receive governmental/institutional support for its vitality and life. Apart from these languages, Lepcha, Bhutia, Sherpa, Tibetan, Gurung, Magar, Tsong (Limbu), Bantawa (Rai), Newari and Koinch (Sunuwar) receive a special status as state recognised languages in Sikkim. However, apart from the cry to develop these languages, both by the concerned institutions and interest groups, there is no significant work which has made difference in the linguistic situation. Note that writing grammars and lexicon won't help languages to flourish in an ecology.

9. Language user's attitude towards the language: In the recent times, speaker's attitude towards language is tied up with political and ethnic identity. It is not surprising to find a person who may not speak or know or judge a word (forget sentence) in a language but the mother tongue claim as well as census return is in the favour of that particular language. This is primarily due to the attitude towards language and it's ethnic patronage -- an ethno-linguistic identity. Apart from the ethno-politically motivated favour/claim, there are also cases where a layman's notion of 'mother tongue' disguises the actual claim for the language that the speaker uses in the reality. However, it is not undermined that due to the socio-economic expectations.

10. Ecological status: There is no doubt that the linguistic ecology of the Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalayas is depleting. Like Environmental Impact Assessment, Linguistic Impact Assessment has to be carried out to design an appropriate strategy for a healthy linguistic ecology.

The above cursory take on the linguistic ecology of the Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalayas may lead to argue that – “...languages are dying, we must do something to save these languages before...” – a concern advocated and championed by the many. On the other hand, it is to remind the following facts that are prerequisite for linguistic diversity:

1. Linguistic diversity reflects human accommodation to complex environmental conditions. The changes in society affect linguistic diversity, so that it is social policy rather than language policy that is needed to maintain it.

2. A healthy language ecology consisting of a wide diversity of forms of language is claimed to be essential for healthy ecosystems, since local ecological knowledge is built into local language varieties.

3. We cannot create forced linguistic 'reservations', even though they might manage to maintain a particular linguistic variety as it is primarily against the ecolinguistics ethics. It means that if the language users are not interested in preserving and continuing their language, preventive measures cannot be forced despite language loss. Languages have died in history, and will continue to die. But the speakers have always adapted the linguistic environment and they should not die (socio-economically, etc).

4. Ecological linguistics argues that “empowering languages and making them more competitive by giving them grammars, lexica, writing systems, and school syllabi is a recipe that ignores a basic ecological fact: what supports one language may not support another. Each language requires its own ecological system.”

5. LIA for the creation of ecological conditions for the societal vitalisation of languages. The issue here thus is not the preservation of a linguistic ecology, but rather of the promotion of one. Under this conceptualisation, language that the community undertakes revitalisation/development/etc., thus, needs affirmative action, by which an artificial ecology is constructed wherein languages can initially flourish so that it may later be assimilated into natural linguistic ecology.

Finally, it is to make people aware of the vanishing linguistic diversity. Paradoxically, it may prove similar or worth to a statutory warning in a cigarette packet !

Towards Empowering Indian Sign Language

The cumulative philosophical, historical, social discrimination that the Indian Deaf (the lower case ‘d’ is used for audiological deafness, and the upper case is used as a linguistic and cultural entity) community has passively resisted has resulted in the suppression of Indian Sign Language (henceforth, ISL), which has further violated their right to education through mother tongue, a violation of linguistic human rights. Consequently, linguistic violation has become a hindrance in empowering Deaf community in India.

The most important question regarding empowering the Indian Deaf community is the most appropriate way to impart education. The key political issue in relation to policies in education and beyond in India continues to be a battle, on the one hand, between signing vs. oralism, and in the other hand between ISL and other SLs viz. BSL, ASL, and Total Communication.

The educational methodologies practised so far in India are far from realising their very purpose of empowering Indian Deaf community. Oralism has been professed to ‘normalize’ deaf children by teaching them spoken-written language; along with misconceptions and ignorance of the nature of SL, it has been perceived as a threat to that ‘normalcy’ because it separates the child from the rest of the society. As a matter of truth, oralism violates right to mother tongue education, the most important linguistic human rights -- a linguistic genocide (Skutnabb-Kangas 2000).

On the other hand, ISL in particular is excluded and suppressed as a result of misconception about ISL and due to the lack of pedagogical materials and support. In lieu of ISL, implanted sign languages like ASL and BSL or Total Communication are the medium of instruction. These institutional efforts, in the name of benevolence, by altering, shifting, and consequently uprooting the language of the community is no better than oralism as it also results in a violation of linguistic human rights.

While ISL not only proves to be the only satisfactory solution to improve the quality of education for the deaf and in empowering the Indian Deaf community but also addresses the Indian Deaf community’s identity, culture, linguistic rights, and facilitates the acquisition of social and academic skills.

Of the 14 million deaf population of India (Vasishta 2001), all the members of the population do not sign or share Deaf culture due to variety of rhymes and reasons. Within the Deaf community in India, a continuum of SL use exists due to several socio-linguistic-educational factors. In the fast emerging scenario, the Indian Deaf community is the prime driving force fighting for the establishment of linguistic rights for Deaf as human rights, and ISL as national SL and for medium of deaf education.

With the establishment of institutions like Indian Sign Language Cell (ISL Cell), Mumbai, language policy formulation is carried out along the lines of the ‘Recommendations of the Commission on Sign Language’ of the World Federation of the Deaf. The development of course materials (marks the onset of the standarisation process) for teaching/learning ISL, teacher training, and linguistic research on ISL are some of the Cell’s core area of activity currently. However, such efforts both at the activists’ and the institutional effort are not free from problems as linguistics is embedded within it. The efforts towards a recognition of the linguistic human rights of the Indian Deaf people (and for greener linguistic ecology) can be further accelerated by translating problems into prospects – empowering ISL.

Language as Ecology

Like language as instinct or organ or behaviour or calculus or tool, language as ecology (Haeckel's term coined in 1866) is a metaphor. It is originally coined by C.F. Voegelin, F.M. Voegelin & Noel Schutz (1967) on The Language Situation in Arizona as Part of The Southwest Culture Area (acknowledged by Haugen). In his seminal paper, The Ecology of Language, Einar Haugen (1972: 325) defines the relationship between language and ecology as “the study of interactions between any given language and its environment,” in which “environment of a language is the society that uses a language as one of its codes” (ibid.). With a passage of time, the concept of 'ecology' within lingusitics broadened including environmental degradation as a linguistic concern (Halliday 1992). Since then the various approaches in the study of language with ecology came to be known as ecolinguistics. In due course of time, this approach has gained its significance in the wake of language endangerment and diminishing linguistic diversity. This is further reinforced by a belief that linguistics can address the contemporary problems by translating it into terms which our tools especially equip us to address (Dasgupta 1999).

Unlike other approaches in linguistics, the ecological approach stresses the 'whole' rather than the 'parts', and studies the interrelation of phenomena of reality and of the key nature of these interdependencies inside the ecosystem in which the languages exist. In other words, ecolinguistics is primarily concerned with the relations between language varieties and their geographical, demographic, social and political contexts. An ethical value that ecolinguistcs bears in mind -- people involved and their autonomy, and people must be its centre and its main reason for existing.

Language as a species, again drawing as a metaphor, is a parasite – its life and vitality depend on it's hosts i.e. speakers, domains, on the society they form, and on the culture in which they live. It is a known fact that the evolution of human languages and verbal behaviours coevolve in conjunction with demographic, socioeconomic, political, and technological events in their milieus. The linguistic objects are also controlled by the sociocultural experiences of their speakers, and the linguistic systems are affected by the socioeconomic and politicocultural conditions of individuals, who are able to decide personally on the language to be transmitted to their successors. Therefore, languages exist in an environment that are either friendly, or hostile or indifferent with respect to a language. In term's of language endangerment, a language can be healthy or endangered or moribund or even folkorised.

Beneath The Mountains - VI

[Sanu Lama, a versatile writer in Nepali and the Sahitya Academy Award winner (1995), expounds what the ‘development’ means in the actual sense in a story from Himalchuli Mantira (1998). Permission granted to the translator by the author for the present translation].

I was always prompt to visit Premlakha village. I often prepared schedule to be there for tasks, which could have been satisfactorily discharged by my subordinates. The reason behind it was Premlakha’s scenic beauty and its pleasant village. Above all these, the most outstanding cause was Premlakha’s Devi dhara. It was in a partly shaded tract in the middle of the village where cool, pure, and serene perennial water flows. The banana clump, lushing titepati thicket and other vegetation were all around the spring source. After long journey water seems to spout out fumblingly through two boulders from the womb of the earth. After flowing some distance through a bamboo channel, it cascades on the breast of the earth. The stream of water falls on the water-filled flume from where a perceptual melody emanates. Someone in the remote past had put up a stonewall to protect the source from natural calamities. It was covered by weeds, and could only be seen when its layers uprooted. A big slab was there on one side of the spring, meant for washing clothes. On the other, there was a stone parapet meant to keep filled up vessels, whenever to carry on the back with namlo. It was as well a halting place for weary ones and especially for water carriers to gossip.

After uphill walk to Premalakha, first I used to go to Devi dhara. I used to sip a double-handful of spring water till my inner thirst get quenched, and used to sit on that parapet. I often heard the bubbling of water from the source, murmuring sound while passing through, and at last the cascading music while falling down as a stream. I relax, and lost in sheer joy.

The magical attraction of Devi dhara was not only to me but for others also. In the pretext of washing his hands and feet, Daulat Rai spends hours in this spring to cool down his anger whenever he quarrelled with his wife. Jitman comes worrying about his inability to pay Ghalay mahajan’s debt for this time too even after selling his ginger. He uproots the weeds grown on the parapet and prunes the bowing stalk of titepati. On returning his face would be bright, he would solve his problem.

Jangabir Ghalay’s house was near Devi dhara. Sita, an elder daughter of the house, in particular used to fetch water. She comes out of the house with an urn. After walking three hundred steps through the edges of the mustard field, turning right to a big banyan tree, she descends down keeping left to the three mustard sown terraces. A little away, she crosses the fence and again walks fifty steps of slanting path and reaches that quiet place. She washes her urn and lets it to fill up. Supporting her chin by both her palms she sits on the parapet watching the flow of spring on the urn. She is aware of the brimming water and spilling down in ripples. Only when other fellow carriers come chatting and laughing, she awakes as if from sleep. The felling of trees was strictly prohibited in the source and near by. It was a dwelling place of Nag, and would cause ailments if kept unclean and disturbed. The village folks were not able to think even to go inside and make the sanctuary dirty. One evening, a cow entered the source to eat the bowing banana leaves, Oly baajay hastened to send his grandson to drive away the cow. He did but from the same night he suffered from high fever. Nag was furious so the village sorcerer could do nothing. At last, the patient was taken to the health centre where injection and tablets for about two weeks cured him. This is a very old happening but even today every child and folk of Premlakha know the tale.

In the beginning, there were only eight or nine houses on the slopes of Premlakha, but now every year new more houses could be seen. The married sons disjointed from their family to start of their own. The fields divided, paths added, and the spring left far off. Devi dhara was no more convenient to all. For somebody it became far, for others, there arose a problem of carrying water uphill, and for some new houses new paths required to reach the spring. In the mean time, Sita was married. Her husband was from Barbotay, two hills behind to the southeast, where could be reached at late evening if one set out early in the morning. Ghalay mahajan had confidentially told me this earlier. I had received the invitation too and had determined to attend her wedding but being absorbed in the hustle-bustle of the official work I could not.

There was a discussion in the Gram Panchayat regarding the problem of drinking water. The several villagers urged to provide water from other source. This new issue of Premlakha was forwarded by the panchayat to the government.

After about a year, I had to go to Premlakha. I was trailing the path which I had travelled through many times. It was late September. The weather was equally cool and warm, sweet autumnal fragrance was in the air. A bright day, the blue sky the entire village was looking beautiful. A kind of intoxication has entered the atmosphere and has made the surrounding exhilarating. The aroma of newly upturned soil, meant for next cropping has mingled with air here and there. All other crops were harvested except paddy. After passing the straight way of Tara village, I started uphill walk. After ascending a kilometre, Premlakha village commences. Whenever I climb up the hill always the charm of Devi dhara helps me.

Rapt in the pleasant autumnal day I reached Devi dhara unaware. I was awakened by its cascading sound, which was always there in my ear. I went to the spring and drank cool, sweet water as usual with a double-hand till my inner thirst was quenched. After drinking water when I raised up my head I saw her gently smiling at me. She was beautiful; she was looking more beautiful after marriage. There was a bright vermilion the long parting of her thick dark hair. A single plait of long hair. At present, she was playing with the hair-end of the plait in her hands.

I sat on a tree stump in front of her.

“Sita, when did you come?” I asked.

“Yesterday evening”, she replied short and was quiet for some time, and said, “I came on receiving the message of father’s sickness.”

“Is it not a year that you got married? I had received the invitation but being busy in work I couldn’t attend.” And I said to Sita keeping my eye on the spring, “You can’t forget this spring, isn’t?”

“How can I, dear brother! Of what sort of pleasure it gives! What magic is therein this spring?…But, look here brother, weeds are growing all around the spring. It has been uncared. The village has made it an orphan.”

I looked at and was dumbfound to see its condition. I did not notice when I had water. The weeds are growing everywhere; only half of the bamboo channel is seen. Titepati and other plants have grown into a jungle. The channel is scummed. The green algae have mantled the washing slab. The parapet, where the village lasses would gossip while filling up their urn was difficult to make out in the weeds. The spring was piteous. Only the cascading water flowing through the channel and its sound was unchanged.

“I hold you responsible for its negligence,” at once Sita said. I looked at her with surprise. I was so astonished that I could not ask her what my fault was.

“I feel very pity for this spring,” she said. “Just, I was alone weeping here.” Her eyes looked moistened. “You supplied water through metal pipe to each and every house from that remote Kirnay vir. None comes here to fetch water. Since ages, this spring has saved the lives of this village; now look at its condition. How unkind the villagers are! In the name of development you shouldn’t have brought water from Kirnay…” After saying this much she sat leaning as if tiresome and stared at Devi dhara.

What is development? I questioned myself. Each and every house has water tap. The villagers want development and we provide them water at their courtyard. When they say it is difficult to walk, we construct roads and smaller bridges. We have kept them in a great illusion. We have urged them to accept some convenience as development. We only can feel proud of development if we can improve their socio-economic condition through raising their earnings. To protect the woods is a development. To look after this sort of spring, such a public property is a development. The development is a vow to do something. The satisfaction that one gets in doing some good to the self and others as well is a great development.

I decided in mind to rejuvenate this spring and to give back its previous form. I vowed to make this spring once again a centre of attraction. Let it attract all. Let Daulat Rai come. Let Jitman come.


1. Devi dhara: a name of a natural spring considered holy.
2. Titepati: Artemisia vulgaris, a medicinal plant.
3. Namlo: The rope or band made of jute passed through the forehead and supporting a load carried on the back.
4. Mahajan: a local term for shopkeeper/moneylender.
5. Nag: The holy serpent.
6. Baajay: a common term for grandfather.
7. Kirnay vir: a name of a cliff.

Nepali Speech Community & Its Internal Dynamics

In the Nepali linguistic community, the formation and fragmentation of community/identity and the mediatory role played by language planning/socio-political process is an issue of contemporary concern. From the 1990s onwards, an interesting dynamics within the Nepali community is taking place both in Nepal and India regarding ethnicity within which the issue of language is embedded. The ethnic/clan languages as a symbolic badge of membership and distinctiveness in the multiethnic and multilingual but in the different socio-political realities and the different hidden aspirations and the agenda play a role in asserting identity, democratic values and norms, functions in acquiring official packages for socio-economic betterment.
In Nepal, the inadequacies of the 1990 Constitution along with the other state mechanisms failed to meet the aspirations of the various nationalities both at the cultural level and at the level of accessing resources. It has become a major source of irritant in protecting the rights of the nationalities. The issue of linguistic rights, therefore, is embedded in the minority rights, later under the indigenous peoples' rights in reaction to the United Nations’ call for a Decade of Indigenous People. The language movement, hence, is to ensure justice, preserve and promote linguistic heritage and culture, to ensure a federal structure, to promote national unity and integration, to establish egalitarian society and cordial relationship between different nationalities, to end the linguistic hierarchy and the hegemony of Nepali language. Moreover, to ensure democratic values and norms, and is aimed towards linguistic ecology.
In India, after the Mandalisation, Nepali as a consciousness weakened and consequently, internal cracks began to develop within the Nepalis, a linguistic community which subsumes nationalities of a large number of speakers of the Tibeto-Burman and the Indo-Aryan languages having distinct religious, cultural and linguistic traits. Each member started to assert its identity to benefit from the policy. This quest of asserting different identity led to a genesis of a serious linguistic concern. The different members started to disclaim the Nepali language as the marker of their identity and invoked language to distinguish from each other as the marker of their identity assertion. Consequently, along the linguistic lines, the community has begun to be divided, which further accelerated the division between the septs whose languages were sept-based. All these have happened without establishing first the actual use and functionality of those languages, and solely on the basis of asserting linguistic heritage. Moreover, behind the linguistic concern there is no linguistic motivation for linguistic diversity but primarily used as a tool to create distinct identity vis-à-vis Nepali to avail the benefits of the policy.
The developments in India and Nepal show a constant tug-of-war between nationism vs. nationalism (Fishman’s term 1972) in different socio-political environment, which translates into a case of a dichotomy of revival vs. maintenance. Within the specific socio-economic, political, and demographic and various other contexts revival or maintenance seems to be beneficial to the speakers for whom it is meant. The sweeping revivalism as articulated by the preventive linguists or the extreme linguistic homogenization, are both non-progressives for the linguistic community, when the same is followed without determining the contemporary context, without understanding of praxis and establishing functioning linguistic diversity first. Therefore, the strategy needs a rethinking – the issues of language revival and maintenance are better defined context specifically and in terms of proceeds for the community, to whom scholarly analysts are accountable.

[An abridged version of the paper Nepali Speech Community & Its Internal Dynamics presented at National Conference on Identity and Nationality of the Indian Nepalis: Issues and Perspectives, Gangtok, Sikkim, 2006].

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

With Us or With Them

With the establishment of the Gorkha rule at the Kathmandu valley in 1769, the political, cultural, and religious hegemony the Gorkha brought large number of dissident nationalities into the Darjeeling Hills, and beyond. After the conquest of the kirant territories, the political occupation was followed by cultural imposition which resulted in the migration of large number of the Kirant people into Sikkim and Bhutan who had maintained their own cultural traditions resisting the state indoctrinated culture (Dhungel 2006). The direct and indirect pressure of state taxation for the maintenance of the newly formed Gorkha empire led to the further migration of Rais, Limbus and Yakhas from the Kirant territory abandoning their kipat (cited in Subba 2002: 121). Chemjong (1974/5) cites successive waves of migration of the Limbus from their kipat into Darjeeling, Assam and Bhutan between 1840 and 1860.
In the wave of the territorial expansion towards the east, the Gorkha conquered Darjeeling, the then part of Sikkim and the present day western Sikkim in 1780 and retained till 1816. After the Anglo-Nepalese War (1814-15) and the subsequent Treaty of Segowlee (1815), the present day frontiers between India and Nepal were drawn. In February 1835, through the Deed of Grant, the Maharaja of Sikkim presented “…out of friendship … Darjeeling to the East India Company, that is, all the land south of the Great Rungeet River, east of the Balasan River, Kalyail and Little Rungeet Rivers, and west of the Rungus and Mahanadi Rivers” (Mainwaring 1876: viii). By Capt. Llyod’s estimate, it was “30 miles long and 10 miles at some places in breadth”, and was referred as the Darjeeling Tract (Pinn 1986: 15). Since, the British could not present retaliatory gift- a demand of the Sikkimese King for Dabgaon, and Rummo Purdhan, who had fled with two years revenue; it was compensated by annual subsidy (see Moktan 2004). By 1836, the British established Darjeeling as a sanatorium and started to build roadways to and in the Darjeeling Tract for which the Nepali labourers were employed (Pradhan 2004). Apart from maintaining the public works, the Nepalis were employed in the maintenance of the colonial administration in the Darjeeling Tract. Soon the British found the Darjeeling Tract suitable for tea plantation and started to grow tea on a commercial basis, which required large number of labourers. Apart from the locals the people from the eastern hills of Nepal supplied the plantation force, and eventually led to the establishment of a Nepali community in various tea gardens of Darjeeling.
To maintain their colonial interest in Sikkim, the British continued to promote Nepali migration in the Sikkim Hills to dilute the Chinese influence. Kalimpong, a subdivision of the present day Darjeeling district, was under Bhutanese rule from 1706 until 1864 (Subba 1989: 74). After the Anglo-Bhutanese War (1864-5), a large number of Nepalis from the eastern Nepal migrated to the southern Bhutan (Hutt 2003).
After the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-15, the British started to recruit Magars, and Gurungs, and later on Rais and Limbus to fuel the British consolidation in India and abroad (Caplan 1998). A large section of the British Gorkha chose to settle in the Darjeeling Hills after retirement. Historiography of Nepali speaking people settled in the Darjeeling and Sikkim Hills and beyond has focused on the migration as the part of the British colonial project citing pull and push factors as mentioned above. In other words, the history of the Nepali speaking population in India begins with the colonial project, ignoring earlier migration of the people into the Hills of Darjeeling and Sikkim. Dhungel (2006) citing Hodgson’s manuscript mentions the influx of the Khas-Bahun from the west into the Kirant territory during the time of Sirichongba (Sirijanga) in the 18th century. Further, Sirichongba’s writing in Nepali proves the spread of Nepali language among the Kirant before the Gorkha conquest of the Kirant territory. The eastward migration of the various communities is supported by the correspondences dating 1773-4 between the Gorkha king Prithivi Narayan Shah and Harinanda Pokhrael of Majh Kirant. The latter provided logistical support and the Murmi (Tamang) and the Sunuwar did the porterage in the Gorkha conquest of Majh Kirant (Stiller 1973: 136). Such narratives account for the eastward migration of the different nations in the past which was not limited within the frontiers of Nepal. Pradhan (1982) cites Nepali historical records dating 1815 and 1826 to support the idea that there was to and fro movement of the people between eastern Nepal and Darjeeling. He also holds the view that Limbu (Tsong) and Magar villages were in existence in Sikkim during the 17th century. It supports the view that there was eastward migration of the different nations in the past though Joseph Hooker (1848) has claimed that the Magars were indigenous to Sikkim. The ‘History of Sikkim’ by Namgyal and Dolma (1908) based on historical documents mentions the Lepcha and Magars villages in 1641 before the establishment of the Tibetan rule in Sikkim (Pradhan 2004: 6). From the 17th century onwards, Nepali language was used in the administrative and the legal systems of the kingdom of Sikkim (BNRP 1992). The Sikkimese coins engraved in Nepali (Devanagari) were in circulation in the 19th century (Bhattacharya 1980). Another important historical event of 1826 throws an important light on the relation between people of eastern Nepal and Sikkim. After the Sikkimese King Phyug-phu Namgyal assassinated his Lepcha chief minister, Karthak Chanjo Bolod, and his immediate family, his nephew Yuklathup escaped with his family members and 800 Lepchas and Limbus and took asylum in the Limbuwan district of Illam in Nepal (Dhungel 2006). It is interesting to note that the Darjeeling Tract was spread over 138 square miles in contrast to the present district of Darjeeling which is 1256.6 square miles and till 1839 the population was of 100 heads after the exodus of 800 plus inhabitants to Nepal in 1826. This clearly reflects that Darjeeling of 1835 was not Darjeeling as it is understood today. The exclusion of other areas means the exclusion of the population inhabiting those areas that constitutes today’s Darjeeling.
After the opening of tea gardens in the Darjeeling Tract in 1841, Campbell’s 1849 enumeration takes count to 10,000 showing the decadal growth of 1000%. The present district of Darjeeling was carved out in 1866 by including Kalimpong, which was under the Bhutanese till 1864. Prior to this, in 1850 the British annexed the whole southern part of Sikkim, between the Great Rangeet and the plains of India, and from Nepal on the west to the Bhutan frontier and the Teesta on the east comprising of 640 square miles. The first population census of the district in 1872 shows the total population at 94,712 of which 34% were Nepalis (see Pradhan 2004 for greater detail on population). Such a massive increase in the population shows a large presence of Nepalis in Darjeeling which not only coincides with the opening of the tea gardens but also shows that there was already a significant Nepali population in the district prior to the British arrival. Rai (1994) writes that the British got Darjeeling “together with the Nepali people living thereon.” Sinha (1978: 24-25) cites that Nepali was one of the languages of the Mughal Bengal which was larger than the present West Bengal. Moreover, it is hard to believe that in the area lying between Sikkim and east Nepal, despite of the presence of the Limbus and the Magars on both sides, there was an absence of settlements. In contrary, the various toponyms of the Magar, the Limbu, and the Lepcha origins in the Darjeeling Hills supports of a continuous settlement.
Such historical narratives prove that the Indo-Nepal border was more porous in the past before the formation of India and Nepal, than it is today. Therefore, it would be difficult to accept the construct totally that the whole of the Nepalis is descendant of a migrant population. Such accounts should suffice to assert the presence of Nepalis prior to the British colonialism. However, research on such history, perception, and politicalisation based on it is still awaited.

[Excerpt from Samar Sinha & Tapasya Thapa. With Us or With Them: Identity Politics, Nomenclative Crisis & Consolidation Process, a paper presented at 27th Annual Conference of Linguistic Society of Nepal & 12th Himalayan Languages Symposium, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu & 26th Annual International Conference of South Asia Language Analysis, Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore.]

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