HKU Linguist’s Project on Endangered Language Helps to Bring Sight to Remote Village


Three women standing in front of a typical home in the main path that runs through Sama village (3550m). They are wearing the typical Tibetan-style Nubri dress that most women over about 30 wear. They are on their way to the eye screening clinic.

Three women standing in front of a typical home in the main path that runs through Sama village (3550m). They are wearing the typical Tibetan-style Nubri dress that most women over about 30 wear. They are on their way to the eye screening clinic.

Dr. Cathryn Donohue from the Department of Linguistics in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) has been working on a Tibeto-Burman language,Nubri. Her efforts to preserve this endangered language have resulted in nearly 500 villagers in the remote Nubri Valley in Nepal receiving eye treatment. More than 50 villagers even regained sight through cataract surgery.

Situated near the border with Tibet in northern central Nepal, Nubri Valley is located about a week’s walk from the nearest road and is about 5 days’ walk from one end to the other. The ~2000 ethnically Tibetan people living in the valley speak Nubri, a Tibeto-Burman language. It has been described as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘definitely endangered’ by UNESCO, meaning that the future of the language is uncertain. Dr. Donohue has been working on the documentation of Nubri with the local community for the past few years and hopes to contribute to the preservation of this language.

Dr. Donohue argues that the Nubri language is at a critical juncture. She said: “Evolving social practices are resulting in increased language endangerment. This is in large part due to a significant portion of the younger generations moving out of the valley for schooling where Nepali is used in the classroom. This has resulted in a sharp decrease in the use of the language among the younger Nubris, threatening the language’s survival for future generations.”

In an attempt to try to secure the future of the language, Dr. Donohue investigated possible maintenance efforts. She thought that introducing a writing system, allowing Nubri to be written and thus used in more domains, is one of the best ways to preserve the language. Doing this successfully requires the involvement of the entire community, a challenge in the Nubri context where it is difficult to motivate time from subsistence farming to gather from across the valley and discuss orthographic proposals.

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