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Hope for dying Nepali language wanes as one of the last fluent speakers passes away at 85

Gyani Maiya Sen with Uday Raj. Photo by Sanjib Chaudhary. Used with permission.

Gyani Maiya Sen Kusunda was not known to many but she was a beacon of hope for linguists who hoped to revive the isolated and dying Kusunda language. She passed away on 25 January 2020 at her home in Kulmor Village of Dang District in western Nepal. She was 85.

She was one of the last two fluent speakers of the Kusunda language, an oral language without any script. Though the 2011 Census puts the population of Kusundas at 273, field studies suggest there are actually only 150 Kusundas living in the western districts of Nepal.

Read More: A conversation with Gyani Maiya Sen, one of the last speakers of a dying Nepali language

Gagan Thapa, Member of House of Representatives, tweeted:

With the demise of Gyani Maiya Kusunda, one of the two fluent speakers of Kusunda language, the language has suffered an irreparable loss. Heartfelt reverence to deceased Gyani Maiya Kusunda.

The Kusundas led a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle until only few decades ago when they began settling down in villages mainly in western nepal. Recently, Gyani Maiya helped researcher Uday Raj Aaley conduct the first phase of Kusunda language classes for a cohort of 20 people interested in learning the language. She has worked not only with Uday for the revival of the language but also with researchers like Brian Houghton Hodgson, Johan Reinhard, David Watters, B.K. Rana and Madhav Prasad Pokharel among others.

Read More: Indigenous Nepali Language With Only Two Fluent Speakers Sees Pages of Hope in Newly Launched Dictionary

Researcher Uday Raj Aaley wrote on Facebook:

देशले एउटा अमूल्य निधि गुमाएको छ । ज्ञानी मैयाँ सेन कुसुण्डामा अद्भूत भाषिक क्षमता थियो । मैले उनीसँग कुसुण्डा भाषाको विविध पक्ष, संरचना, शब्दावलीका बारेमा एक दशकभन्दा बढी काम गरेँ । जीवनका अधिकांश समय गुमनाम बिताएका उनलाई अन्तिम चरणमा मात्र देशले सम्झियो । यसबीचमा स्वदेश र विदेशका प्राज्ञिक व्यक्तित्वहरुले सम्झिए पनि उनीसँग काम गरेका महत्वपूर्ण सामग्रीहरु व्यवस्थित गर्नु पर्ने देखिएको छ । उनले कुसुण्डा भाषाको विकासका लागि पु¥याएको योगदानलाई म सम्मान गर्दछु …

The country has lost an invaluable personality. Gyani Maiya Sen Kusunda had amazing linguistic capability. I worked with her on Kusunda language’s diverse aspects, structure, glossary for more than a decade. Having spent most of her life in anonymity, the country recognized her only at the last moment. During this time, although the national and international academics recognized her, the important documents produced working with her needs to be organized well. I appreciate her contribution towards the development of Kusunda language…

“Now there is no one to discuss in Kusunda language,” laments Uday. “But we still have little hope. Her sister Kamala Sen Khatri, 50, is fluent in Kusunda language. We will need to utilize her services to revive the language.”

Sangnaan wein (rest in peace in Kusunda language), Gyani Maiya!

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