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Worlds of knowledge in Central Bhutan: Documentation of ’Olekha

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Title: Worlds of knowledge in Central Bhutan: Documentation of ’Olekha
Authors: Hyslop, Gwendolyn
Issue Date: 02 Mar 2013
Description: ’Olekha, a dialect of ‘Black Mountain Mönpa’ (van Driem 1995), is a highly endangered Tibeto- Burman isolate of Central Bhutan with only a handful of fluent speakers remaining. With so few speakers, full documentation and description of many grammatical aspects of the language has been difficult. However, speakers are readily able to discuss various lexical domains, providing a fascinating window into traditional Black Mountain culture. In this paper I illustrate three semantic domains in ’Olekha: agriculture, kinship, and ethnobotany, and discuss how these domains illustrate social history of the ’Olekha speakers apart from and related to other groups in Bhutan.

Bhutan is home to 19 different ethnolinguistic groups, representing six primary subgroups of Tibeto-Burman: Tibetic (e.g. Dzongkha), East Bodish (e.g. Kurtöp), Tshangla, Gongduk, Lhop, and ’Olekha. A comparison of ’Olekha agriculture terminology shows similarity with East Bodish languages and Dzongkha. For example, ’Olekha mámá ‘bitter buckwheat’ and carama ‘sweet buckwheat’ are similar to Proto-East Bodish *branma and *gyarama while nápha ‘barley’ and ka: ‘wheat’ are similar to both East Bodish and Dzongkha. Domesticated animal terminology is almost identical to Dzongkha.

In terms of kinship the ’Olekha speakers are distinct in Bhutan. For example, apeng ‘grandmother’ and tana ‘grandfather’ and are unlike the terms found elsewhere in Bhutanese languages (’aya, ’angge, ’abi ‘grandmother’ and ’âge, meme, meme ‘grandfather’ in Dzongkha, Kurtöp and Tshangla, respectively). They further lack terms for cross-cousins, which are important kin relations for other Bhutanese groups.
The domain of ethnobotany shows the greatest difference between the ’Olekha speakers and other known Bhutanese populations. In addition to having words for plants not used by other groups, the words in this domain show unusual phonological features. For example, a jungle plant commonly used in curries is called sɔʁoʔla (scientific name still to be identified by Botanist), showing a uvular consonant and glottal stop phoneme not found in other Bhutanese languages. In total, approximately 50 such words are found to date.

Following a survey of these three semantic domains (agriculture, kinship, ethnobotany) I put forth the tentative hypothesis that these domains exemplify different periods of social history. The ethnobotanical terms illustrate the oldest substrate in the language, representing a time when the original inhabitants were hunter-gatherers and had little contact with other groups. The kinship terminology may represent a similar time period. Agriculture, however, represents the recent contact the ’Olekha speakers have had with the ruling elite.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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