A community in Nepal takes ownership of language development

(June 2014) Mother-tongue speakers from a language community in Nepal have produced a working draft of a writing system for their language. Participants in the orthography (writing system) workshop also drafted a writer’s guide to support the creation of original work by local authors. The workshop represents one aspect of a larger effort to support the continued use of the local language.  Participants proved to be deeply invested in the workshop, even going so far as to request extra homework and staying up late at night to discuss issues introduced in the workshop sessions.

Thirteen people from ten districts in the area participated in the orthography workshop for Madhya-Purbiya Tharu (until now known as Kochila Tharu). Most of the participants had had some experience writing their language, including one participant who had written a short grammar booklet. However, until the workshop there had been no consistent standard for writing the language. Many people in the community are familiar with the Devanagari script, which is used to write Nepali and many other South Asian languages.  However, workshop participants needed to establish a standard for how to represent the sounds of Madhya-Purbiya Tharu with Devanagari letters. Establishing a standard way to write the language paves the way for publications by local authors, as well as for the use of the language in local schools, a future goal for the community.


The four workshop facilitators (two from SIL Nepal, one from a local university and one from a local language development organization) guided the group through the process of identifying problematic issues, discussing each issue and encouraging the group to reach a decision. One matter the group discussed was the question of whether dialect differences between speakers from different districts were significant enough to warrant separate writing systems. Mari-Sisko Khadgi of SIL observed, “Workshop participants unanimously agreed that the dialectal differences are very evident, but they do not hinder people from understanding each other. All the vivid and vibrant discussions in their mother tongue were a very clear proof of that!” In the end, the group concluded that it would be best to have one unifying orthography for the whole language group, but writers are free to use their dialect’s unique verb endings and vocabulary.

Since the April workshop concluded, participants from each dialect group have been leading the process of testing the new writing system in their own home areas. After explaining the proposed alphabet and writing rules, the designated researcher gathers feedback, comments and suggestions from members of the community. In the coming months, workshop participants and facilitators plan to meet together again to review feedback and modify the proposed orthography as needed.

In Nepal it's common to share an experience story in the form of a song.
In this video, a participant sings his original song about taking part in the Madhya-Purbiya Tharu orthography workshop.

This orthography workshop was the result of decisions made during a December 2013 stakeholders’ meeting organized by Mother Tongue Centre Nepal, a local language development NGO with which SIL Nepal works in partnership. At that meeting, twenty-seven mother-tongue speakers from eleven districts determined that orthography development and dictionary development were the most urgent language development needs. With the orthography now being tested and refined, the next major step will be to begin the process of dictionary development. A Rapid Word Collection workshop is planned for September 2014.

One important issue that was not on the initial workshop agenda: a new name for the language. This was a primary concern to the group of participants. For some time the Eastern variety of the Tharu language has been referred to by researchers and others outside the community as Kochila Tharu. As representatives of their language communities, the workshop participants felt strongly that they needed to correct this error. They pointed out that ‘Kochila’ refers only to one subgroup in their area and does not cover all of the language communities. The group discussed the problem and concluded that the most appropriate and descriptive name for the language would be Madhya-Purbiya Tharu, best translated into English as Central-Eastern Tharu. 

Madhya-Purbiya Tharu is spoken in twelve districts along the southern border of Nepal.  Historical documents indicate that the area has been home to this ethnolinguistic community for at least one thousand years.* SIL Nepal’s language assessment team conducted a language survey Feb-April 2013

*Krauskopff, Gisele, “The Anthropology of the Tharus: An Annotated Bibliography,” A Journal of Himalayan Studies 17 no. 3 & 4 (1995): 185-213.


Related links