MARK TURIN Thangmi : an overview of a Tibeto-Burman language and people of Nepal



© Mark Turin, 1997

For a relatively large language community, around 70,000 speakers, the absence of any substantial previous research on the Thangmi of Nepal (nationally known as Thami) is surprising to say the least. While other far smaller tribal groups of the Himalayas have received considerable attention from ethnographers and linguists alike, the Thangmi seem to have somehow slipped through the net.

I spent 4 months earlier this year conducting fieldwork on the Thangmi language. The oldest Thangmi settlements seem to be in Dolakha district of eastern Nepal - but whether the Thangmi are autochthonous to the area is still unclear. According to some sources, there is also a sizeable Thangmi population on the northern slopes of the Himalayas, in Tibet. Furthermore, an early migration to north-eastern India has resulted in the emergence of a dynamic Thangmi community in Darjeeling.

In terms of culture as well as religion, the Thangmi of Nepal are noticeably heterogeneous. Like many other ethnic groups in Nepal, they observe both Hindu and Buddhist rituals and festivals, and they have a developed and vibrant indigenous shamanic tradition. Based on both linguistic and ethnographic evidence, one possible hypothesis is that the Thangmi are comparatively new to sedentary agriculture, previously practising shifting cultivation alongside foraging and hunting.

The Himalayan Languages Project traditionally concentrated on the description of the largely unstudied Kiranti languages of the Tibeto-Burman group. Whilst Thangmi is clearly a Tibeto-Burman language, it does not conform to the typical Kiranti model which is characterised by extremely complex verbal morphology. The simpler affixal agreement system of Thangmi looks like a degenerated or rudimentary Kiranti system, and it is the contention of the author that the Thangmi language may well - along with Baram and Dolakha Newar - constitute a sub-group which has come to be known in the literature as "Mahakiranti".