Gurung is an endangered Tibeto-Burman (Tamangic) language spoken in central Nepal by a reported 325,000 people, with additional speakers residing outside of Nepal’s borders. In New York, a community of several hundred Gurungs live in and around Jackson Heights, where the Gurung (Tamu) Society is also based. Others, like Endangered Language Alliance collaborator Narayan Gurung (a former Gurkha soldier, like some other Gurung New Yorkers) live in the Ridgewood area. Most members of this community no longer speak the Gurung language — which contains many distinct varieties based in different villages — but have switched to the national language, Nepali or, in America, English.
Tamu kyi, or ‘language of the Tamu,’ is a Tibeto-Burman minority language primarily spoken in central Nepal. Although the people who speak this language call themselves the Tamu, they and their language are known more widely in Nepal and other communities as Gurung.
Historically the Gurungs have inhabited Nepal’s Pahad, or mountainous region below the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. There they raise livestock and crops in terraced villages that hug the steep slopes of river valleys. Although many Gurungs still live in these traditional mountain villages, more and more people are relocating to urban areas like Kathmandu and Pokhara – or even moving abroad – in search of education and employment (Swenson 2015). This population shift has benefitted the community by increasing access to things like technology, healthcare, and clean water; however, for some communities it has also resulted in the loss of traditional practices like honey hunting, and affected the transmission of the Gurung language to younger generations.
Linguists classify Gurung as a Tibeto-Burman language closely related to languages like Tamang, Thakali, Manange, Nar Phu, and Chantyal (Glover 1974, Mazaudon 2005, Noonan 2008). Like Nepal’s other Tibeto-Burman languages, Gurung has been in close contact with the Indo-Aryan language Nepali for centuries (Noonan 2008). Today, most Gurung speakers are also fluent speakers of Nepali, Nepal’s official language, as it is taught in village schools and functions as a lingua franca between different ethnic groups living in Nepal’s urban areas.
Members of the Gurung community report that each Gurung village speaks its own variety of the Gurung language; however, the exact number of villages is currently unknown. A map at the Eco Museum in Sikles labels close to 100 villages, each of which potentially speaks its own dialect. Early works on Gurung reported that the varieties spoken in these villages could be grouped into 14 distinct dialect groups that could then be categorized as belonging to two major varieties – East Gurung and West Gurung – which were largely not mutually intelligible (Glover and Landon 1975). However, a recent sociolinguistic survey found that the East Gurung-West Gurung distinction, as well as cross-dialectical unintelligibility levels, are likely weaker than previously thought (Swenson 2015).
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Since beginning the project in 2013, ELA researchers have been working with Narayan Gurung, who lives in New York and is the former president of the Gurung (Tamu) Society, to document the dialect of Gurung spoken in Sikles village. Over several years, a number of students and researchers have worked on the project: Peter Graif, Perry Wong, Chris Geissler, Robert Knight, Danielle Ronkos, Zach Wellstood, Lingzi Zhuang. Current team members have made several trips to Sikles to work with speakers there, and are completing a sketch grammar based on spoken texts of a variety of genres. They have also produced a number of topical studies, including one on the interaction of tone and contrastive voicing (Ronkos 2015) and another on Gurung’s multifunctional transitivity-altering morphology, and are working to make a searchable Gurung lexicon available on Kratylos (Kaufman & Finkel 2018). A number of recorded dialogues and interviews with speakers of different dialects have also been collected.
In New York, a community of several hundred Gurungs live in and around the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, where the Gurung (Tamu) Society is also based. Many members of this community, however, do not speak the Gurung language and now communicate in Nepali or English.