Himalayan Languages

Voices of the Himalaya: Language, Culture, and Belonging in Immigrant New York explores the lived experiences of migration and social change among Himalayan New Yorkers.

Encompassing Nepal, northern India, Bhutan, and the Tibetan areas occupied by China, the greater Himalayan region is a nexus of cultural and linguistic diversity. In recent decades, tens of thousands people from various parts of the region have settled especially in Queens and Brooklyn, making New York into a new microcosm of Himalayan diversity and a major Himalayan diaspora hub.

Himalayan New Yorkers are generally united by their connection to Tibetan culture, written language, tradition, and religion, but the diversity of their own specific backgrounds is also substantial. Central Tibetan or Nepali may serve as a lingua franca, but a nearly full-spectrum range of Tibeto-Burman and Tibetic languages can now be heard across the five boroughs, including Loke, Sherpa, Kham, Amdo, and Ü-Tsang varieties, among others.

With most adults working long hours to make a living, many younger people in the New York community have limited access to information about their language, culture, and way of life. Himalayan New Yorkers speak multiple languages but may lack confidence in their language skills and fear that their cultural identity is disappearing.

Conceived in 2016 and led by Nawang Tsering Gurung, originally from Ghilling village in Upper Mustang, Nepal, “Voices of the Himalaya: Language, Culture, and Belonging in Immigrant New York” explored the lived experiences of migration and social change among Himalayan New Yorkers, with support from Dartmouth College, Queens College, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. In collaboration with community members and scholars of the Himalayan region Sienna Craig and Mark Turin, the project documented the languages, cultures, social histories, folklore, and community life of Himalayan New Yorkers in over 20 online videos over several years. Recored in a dozen different Himalayan language varieties and subtitled in English, the videos are now an open-access resource, archived at ELA for all who are interested. Now viewed hundreds of thousands of times around the world, especially by members of the community, they are a virtual space in which kyi-dug, joy and suffering (of immigrant life, in this case) can be shared – to use a uniquely resonant Himalayan word.

Work on Himalayan languages has continued consistently with a variety of projects, including the long-term documentation of Seke, beginning in 2018, in collaboration with the New York community and speaker Rasmina Gurung.

In 2018-19, with support from the National Endowment of the Arts, ELA recorded 16 different NYC-based Himalayan singers singing in 6 different languages and representing a wide range of traditions — a reflection of the remarkable diversity of Himalayan vocal traditions. With each singer, we recorded between two and five songs chosen for their variety and distinctiveness, as well as conducting an in-depth interview including information about each song and about the singer’s personal and artistic background.

Selected project events:
Unheard Of, Part 4: The Himalaya (February 2, 2013)
Rescuing an Endangered Language in Our Own Backyard: The Case of Walden and Tibet (February 19, 2017)
Himalayan Queens (April 22, 2017)
VOH at the Rubin Museum (June 7, 2017)
Himalayan Queens with the iSchool, a public high school in Soho (2017-2019)
Himalayan Queens with LaGuardia Community College (2017-2019)
Songs and Singers of the Himalaya concert (May 27, 2019)

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