The first post in this series, and thus the beginning of a journey that will take us across the globe, is about a language of the Dolakha district of Nepal, found just to the east of Kathmandu. The language is in the Tibeto-Burman language family, but unlike Tibetic languages with over 8 million speakers between them, or Burmese with over 32 million, this language has fewer than 30 active speakers. Late in 2008, linguist Dörte Borchers carried out fieldwork with these remaining speakers of Surel, and her recordings can be found and accessed on the ELAR catalogue.
First, let’s get a taster of the language itself. What does it sound like? Here is a sample recording; just fifteen seconds of a lady named Tikamaya talking about the rice that needs its husk removed now that the month of Mangsir is here (Mangsir is a month in the Nepali calendar roughly spanning from mid-November to mid-December).
Tikamaya - make sure you click on the ‘Resources’ tab to find the recording
If you listen carefully, you may be able to hear her say the word “Mangsir”. It’s about three seconds in. Now, to build a picture of some activities that might go on in a given day, here is a recording of Tirtha, a fifty year old man at the time of the recording. He’s talking about some of the chores he has to carry out in a day.
He mentions cutting the grass and moving it to a shed, feeding this grass to his cattle, milking the cows, cleaning the shed and so on. He also describes taking the milk back to the house and heating it, before storing it in a special theki, a small wooden container, and leaving it to ferment for a few days. A standard ‘day in the life’, you must be thinking – I’m sure you’re keeping a watchful eye on your theki, so that your yoghurt never goes off.
While on the subject of food, I have one more speaker of Surel to introduce, the last speaker’s mother, and she will be giving you a recipe for nettle stew. Her name is Junkimaya, she is a childhood friend of Tikamaya, from the first recording, and when Tikamaya married Junkimaya’s brother, they even became sisters-in-law. Junkimaya also makes a mean nettle stew, which she describes in detail on the following recording.
Unfortunately, there are only 200 people in the world who could understand what she is saying, and if it wasn’t for documentation programmes like this one funded by ELDP, knowledge like this might be lost forever. Junkimaya’s ‘Mean Nettle Stew’ would never be made again. The loss of this one recipe may not seem vitally important, but when one considers the sheer vastness of linguistic and cultural knowledge that could disappear as more and more languages become endangered, it amounts to a colossal and tragic loss. Plus, it is a really good nettle stew; if you are among the 200 people who can understand it, please give it a try and let me know how it tastes. The rest of us will have to continue to put our trust in linguists and other researchers who work in tandem with these minority communities to uncover treasures like this.
Until the next post, keep an eye on your theki, as next time you might just be meeting another cattle-rearing culture, from Iran. In the meantime, remember that through the ELAR website you can access all of the other recordings of Surel, historically and anthropologically interesting accounts of everyday life, with more on work and food, and other subjects like clothing and family. Enjoy!