MARK TURIN Seminar Grammatical Phenomena in Himalayan Languages

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© René Huysmans and Mark Turin, 1997

This seminar was organised from 11-18 June, 1996, by the Himalayan Languages Project of the Department of Comparative Linguistics. During the seminar the members of the Project presented their findings on the languages which they study.

The researchers of the Himalayan Languages Project are engaged in the study of hitherto undescribed languages spoken in the valleys and the recesses of the Himalayas. The emphasis is on recording languages, many of which are on the verge of extinction, through descriptive fieldwork.

The seminar was organised as a forum open to students and scholars of all disciplines. Each day of the seminar was divided into two units of two hours, with coffee-breaks and a lunch-break in between, which provided ample opportunity for discussion. In addition, at any moment during the presentations, members of the audience were encouraged to ask questions, make comments or propose entirely new hypotheses.

The members of the Himalayan Languages Project not only increased each other's knowledge about Tibeto-Burman linguistics but also increased the openness and accessibility of linguistic research in this area of the world. The event drew an audience which ranged from professional linguists to interested laymen and this heterogeneity was reflected in the diversity of questions and comments directed at the speakers.

Both the immediate and lasting gains of the seminar came from the comparison of various grammatical phenomena by the researchers of the project and linguists specialised in other areas attending the seminar. Due to the informal atmosphere of the seminar, each speaker was able to confront his or her audience with complex morphemes of which the semantics had yet to be unravelled. On the spur of the moment, evidence from genetically or typologically related languages were compared, old hypotheses were discarded, and new conclusions were drawn.

Some of the researchers had already written a full-fledged grammar of their language, and were given the whole day to present their analyses. On 11 June, Roland Rutgers presented a detailed account of Yamphu, and on 13 June Gerard Tolsma presented a bird's eye view of Kulung grammar. Both are Kiranti languages spoken in eastern Nepal. On 17 June, Heleen Plaisier presented her findings on Lepcha, a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in Sikkim, the grammar of which she has nearly completed.

The remaining speakers gave half-day presentations, during which they lectured on a specific grammatical topic, or on the newest findings of ongoing research. On 12 June, Jean-Robert Opgenort gave his presentation of Ombule and René Huysmans spoke about aspect and tense in Sampang. Sampang and Ombule, like Kulung and Yamphu, are Kiranti languages. On 16 June, George van Driem presented a lecture on some verbal categories in Dzongkha, the official language of Bhutan, with the help of native speaker Karma Tshering, who gave various examples of his mother tongue. On the same day, Anton Lustig presented a lecture on Zaywa vowels and tones, a language spoken in Yúnnán, China. On the last day of the seminar, 18 June, Dr. Suhnu Ram Sharma gave an account of Manchad, a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in Himachal Pradesh, India. In the afternoon session of that same day, Mark Turin presented his analysis of Thangmi verbal morphology, a language of eastern Nepal on which he had just done his first fieldwork.

Many lectures featured slides or pictures showing the area, the people and their villages and recordings of shamanistic rituals or local songs to illustrate some of the anthropological aspects of the speakers of these languages and to give the audience a feeling of everyday life amongst these Himalayan hill tribes.

During the borrel which concluded the lectures, the view was expressed that the seminar had been an excellent platform for the exchange of ideas in an informal atmosphere and an important opportunity for rendering linguistic research in the Tibeto-Burman area accessible to the public. It was also decided to repeat the seminar as an annual event.