Languages of Nepal

Nepal ethnic groups

Nepal ethnic groups

In an area about the same size as Illinois, smaller than New England, Nepal boasts an amazing array of languages.

The 2011 National census lists 123 mother tongue languages. Nepali is the official language, and is spoken by nearly half of the people (although with multiple dialects). The others are all “national languages,” which are accepted as official at the regional level.

These languages can be quite different. In fact, they belong to at least four major language families. Most of the languages are in the Tibeto-Burman group, but only 18% of the people speak these. The largest population percentage is for languages in the Indo-Aryan family. There are also a number of Dravidian languages and Austroasiatic languages.

Courtyard friends

Courtyard friends

Nepal also has several indigenous village sign languages, as well as the official Nepali Sign Language (which is unrelated to oral Nepali). I actually learned a few words of the latter while waiting for a friend at a restaurant where the staff were mostly sign language speakers. When they asked what I wanted to order, at least I could say “I’m waiting for my friend.”

Lava Deo Awasthi

Lava Deo Awasthi

My friends in the photo above are signing “peace” and either “Spiderman is great” or “I love you” (I didn’t ask). These are not necessarily in official Nepali Sign Language.

Along these lines, I was fortunate to meet Lava Awasthi, the Chairperson of the Nepal Language Commission. He said that although there are 123 national languages, the Commission suspects that there are many more. And in addition to the four well-established language families, there may be at least one, maybe two more. So, this is an active area of research. The terrain of course makes it difficult to study for the same reason that there are so many languages in a relatively small territory in the first place.

Walk to Ptown

Ever since moving to the Cape, I’ve wanted to walk to Provincetown. It wasn’t because of the Wampanoag people, or other early explorers and settlers who wrote about the area, such as Gosnold, Champlain, the Pilgrims, or Thoreau. It was simply that I wanted to connect with the land and sea in a way that walking does, more than riding in a car or bus, or even on a bicycle.

Yesterday, Emily, Stephen, and I managed to do it–what turned out to be 35,000 of my steps.

We walked out the front door, down the hill to Wellfleet center, across route 6, past the ponds of Herring, Williams, Higgins, Slough, Horse Leach, and Round. Then we split up, with Stephen taking the beach walk along the Cape’s backside while Emily and managed the brambles on the dune ridge. We met up again at Ballston Beach, where Emily took a break, having carried the pack the entire way. Stephen and I continued on the beach past Long Neck Beach to a spot between the abandoned North Truro Air Force station and Highland Light. At that point we turned west to cross the Cape to the Bay side. From there it was a straight shot north to Provincetown, where we met up with Emily and Susan and had a lovely early dinner.

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Sharing science across generations

In my last post I talked about an intergenerational reading experience. The day after that occurred, I had an intergenerational science experience when I attended the 12th Annual State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference.

The Harbor conference is always interesting, moving smoothly between very local issues in Wellfleet Harbor to regional issues in Cape Cod and New England, and on to global issues, especially those related to human activity, such as global warming, sea level rise, pollution, and decreasing biodiversity.

The presentations and posters dealt with a wide variety of topics: river herring spawning migration, including transponder tracking, training robots to assess landscape change in the Herring River floodplain, shellfish for nitrogen mitigation, horseshoe crab conservation, modeling sea level rise and vegetation change, ocean sunfish strandings, eel monitoring, restoring the Mayo Creek salt marshes, diamondback terrapin nesting, among others.

Although the sessions were diverse, there was a common theme of restoration, going from “How can we assess the damage?” to “How bad will it get?” to “Is there anything that can be done?” It was depressing to see the many ways that we’ve destroyed a beautiful habitat, even one that is supposedly protected by the National Seashore. On the other hand the efforts at restoration are impressive and may at least provide information about what not to do in the future. There was discussion of plans to restore Herring River and Mayo Creek, salt marshes, and many individual species of sea life. If these restoration projects are to succeed they need to involve a large public of all ages, not just a few scientists.

The conference was a delight to attend, even more so since most of the topics related to areas easily accessible by walking or paddling from our home. For example, we’ve seen the amazing ocean sunfish stranded on Mayo Beach only ten walking minutes from home and friends have encountered live ones while kayaking just offshore.

Aside from presenting an opportunity to learn about many topics, the conference was another good example of an intergenerational experience. Presenters included college students and volunteers of all ages. The audience was diverse as well, with some who remember well times long before the National Seashore was created.

One of the presentations was by Nauset Regional High about their own research in collaboration with the Wellfleet and Truro fifth grades. It was the first time to have K-12 presenters at the conference. The students wanted to compare oyster growth and mortality in Herring River and Mayo Creek. An interesting question for their study is that the streams experience tidal variation and high salinity at their outlets, but vary to mostly fresh water higher up: Would oysters be able to survive and thrive away from the sea? Each group of students measured and marked a set of ten oysters. There were five bags for different locations on the Herring River and three for Mayo Creek. The young scientists left each bag with oysters for six weeks, then collected it and re-measured the oysters.

The students learned some of the challenges of field science. For example, one of the oyster bags was missing when they went back to collect it. Valerie Bell, the environmental science teacher at the high school, asked the audience almost as a joke, “if you come across a bag like this can you give us a call?” To my amazement, someone in the back called out that they had in fact found the bag. It must have broken from its mooring and floated with the tide to another location. It was a small thing, but a nice example of community science in action.

Is Blanc the center?

Hamlet of Blanc

Hamlet of Blanc

In my last post, I speculated that İstanbul was a good candidate for the center of the world.

But now, I’m sitting in İstanbul’s antithesis, the hamlet of Blanc sur Sanctus, France, wondering whether the center might instead be here. Where İstanbul is large and hyperactive, Blanc barely hangs on and wonders about its future.

Moss near Blanc

Moss near Blanc

Blanc sits above the valley of the river Sanctus, whose early traces form a boundary between departments of Aveyron and Tarn. It’s in the Langedoc region, where names still resonate in Occitan. It’s also in the Parc naturel régional des Grands Causses, a lush region of limestone plateaus, cascading mountain streams, beech and pine forests, and family-scale agriculture.

Blanc was settled at least a millennium ago. A chateau was built in the 10th C. The place changed over the years, growing and prospering, especially in the 17th C. But by the mid 19th C, there were only 54 inhabitants, and the last two left in 1960. The combination of a the general rural exodus and WWI were too much for it. Today, it and its environs are protected by an association, Sauvegarde du Rouergue, and by two men who operate a set of guesthouses on the site.

Forest primeval?

Forest primeval?

We’re staying in what used to be the school and post office. It’s restored to protect it and to provide modern conveniences, but with the perfect weather we had, we could have lived outdoors.

Some would say that Blanc represents well the past for France, and the world. Small-scale agriculture is uncompetitive and too difficult. People are drawn to the cities–the good jobs, shopping, culture and night life, automobiles, new technologies and modern conveniences. Wherever the center may be, it certainly can’t be in Blanc.

Cascades

Cascades

And yet, in Blanc you can take long walks through forests and meadows to reconnect with nature and your own body. You can drink pure water from mountain streams. You can feel how rocks were carried to form walls and houses, rather than to read about them or see them in a museum. You can understand how water and topography have always shaped human lives and continue to this day.

Enfant Sauvage

Enfant Sauvage

Moreover, you can see that the life in Blanc is not so different from that in similar places in Turkey, the US, China, or elsewhere in the world. Few people would choose to re-enter that rural lifestyle, but many people seek the kind of peace and wholeness that it promises. There’s a solidity to life here that is more than merely the fact everything seems to be built out of rock. Nearby, the “wild child” of Aveyron perplexed early 19th C villagers with his back to nature existence.

Blanc affords an opportunity to find one’s individual center in a way that the intensely social world of İstanbul does not.

Center of the World

Milyon column, İstanbul

Milyon column, İstanbul

The Milyon column in İstanbul (left) is one of many “centers of the world.” These centers seem to be everywhere, each signifying by its presence the yearning for a stable ground, but by their proliferation, undermining any notion of centeredness.

The column is all that’s left of a monument that was the starting point for measurement of distances for all the roads leading to the cities of the Byzantine Empire. It lasted for over a thousand years, but disappeared at the start of the 16th C. During modern excavations, some partial fragments of it were discovered and erected again.

It served the same function as the Miliarium Aureum of Rome, another center of the world, which was displaced when Emperor Constantine I the Great remade Byzantium into his new imperial capital.

Directions to the world

Directions to the world

Today, the Milyon column stands near the Basilica cistern, another ancient monument, which was covered up, then rediscovered in the 16th C. The cistern is a huge underground room to hold water. It’s 453′ x 212′, which is larger than a World Cup field, if you’d like a topical comparison.

It was built in the 6th C during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. During his era, and for centuries to follow, the cistern held fresh water for the citizens of Constantinople and the Milyon dome resting on four pylons marked the center of their world. As you explore the cistern’s eerily lit walkways, it’s easy to imagine that you’re in some mystical center of the earth.

Basilica cistern, İstanbul

Basilica cistern, İstanbul

The cistern was unknown in the Western world until P. Gyllius discovered it while doing research on İstanbul’s Byzantine remains. He was surprised to see people getting water with buckets from well holes, some within their own homes, and even catching fish.

There are many more such “centers” (click here).

Some manage to calculate the geographic center as being the same location as the Geza pyramid, which would be a coincidence supporting many mystical accounts. But more commonly, it’s calculated as being in the eastern Mediterranean Sea about halfway between Athens and Alexandria. Other methods locate it in north-east Turkey.

In either case, I like the way that it’s not too far from İstanbul. That fabulous city straddles Europe and Asia, and through its ports and the Bosporos serves as a bridge to Africa. Its layers of civilization locate it between old and new, encompassing many religious traditions. If you had to choose one center, İstanbul and its Milyon column wouldn’t be a bad choice.

Andrea Bianco

Zhong He's map, 1418

Zhong He’s map, 1418

I’ve always been interested in maps, and that interest has grown rather than diminished as I began to learn about them as rhetorical devices. Mark Monmonier discusses this in his How to Lie with Maps.

As faithful representations of reality, maps are endlessly fascinating and useful as tools for many purposes, not just finding one’s way. But as constructed artifacts, they embody a mix of physical reality and human passion––becoming devices for power, greed, delusion, hope, art, and more.

Recently, I read The Mapmaker: A Novel of a Great Navigator who sailed Fifty Years Before Columbus by Frank G. Slaughter. It’s a fictionalized account of Bianco’s life, but one done with an attempt to represent accurately what is known about Bianco, while filling in the gaps with a plausible story.

Portugal’s ruler Prince Henry the Navigator, sent various expeditions into the western Atlantic and along the African coast, beginning in 1418. These voyages were secret. There was a real interest in adding to the knowledge of the world, but that was coupled with a desire to use that knowledge for private gain. Not all of the discoveries were shown on published maps, and some were designed to mislead commercial rivals by concealing the existence of new lands and resources.

Antilles within the Caribbean

Antilles within the Caribbean

The Portuguese had probably reached the Antilles archilpelago at the Eastern edge of the Caribbean by 1430. Between 1436 and 1448, Andrea Bianco made, but did not publish, maps showing the locations of Newfoundland, Florida, and Brazil. Later Portuguese maps, published in 1459 and 1489, show Asia with something like Florida, conveniently omit South America.

Bianco developed the “Tondo e Quadro” (“circle and square”) method for seeing and measuring a return course. This was invaluable for repeat voyages to secure foreign resources. He collaborated with Fra Mauro, who made other detailed world maps and estimated the world’s circumference within 10% of modern figures. See The Ancient Americas: Migrations, Contacts, and Atlantis, by David Pratt.

Prior to the Portuguese voyages, the famous Chinese admiral Zheng He (a Muslim) had circumnavigated the earth. A world map was published in China during the Ming dynasty in 1418. It shows that the Ming navy had a rough knowledge of Baja California, the west coast of South America, as well as Labrador, Florida, and the Gulf of Mexico. The Chinese maps probably contributed to the Europeans’ knowledge.

The Europeans also learned from Arab science and technology. Arabs put south at the top of maps. When you face the sun in the morning, south is on the right, and right has positive associations. Also, with the sea to the south their land was then on the top of the map. Europeans flipped the map to put north and themselves on top.

Andrea Bianco, explorer and mapmaker

Andrea Bianco, explorer and mapmaker

These points are supported by other historical accounts, which in sum show that 15 C Europeans knew that the world was a sphere roughly 24,000 miles in circumference and that there were large land masses between Europe and East Asia. The issue was not to “discover” America nor to prove the word was round, but to map the details and determine who should control it.

To me, this all suggests that what I had learned about voyages of discovery was mostly wrong, and much less interesting than the fuller, more objective accounts available today. School textbooks tended to minimize or omit entirely any non-European contribution. That left out crucial parts of the story, including the cultural aspects of geography.

The textbooks also represented the discovery era as one of courageous, individualized pursuit of knowledge. Instead, the voyages were an essential aspect of empire building based on already extensive knowledge. Rather than enlightening an ignorant world, they were used to acquire knowledge, then deliberately mislead competitors.

Personal geography: Life and death

Russian oil tanker

Russian oil tanker

As I watch the Russian oil tankers going through the Dardanelles, I’m reminded that Turkey has little oil, but does have large coal reserves. Looking away from the straits, I see the hills towards Soma, just 100 miles away, where over 300 coal miners died in a disaster that should never have happened.

Miners at Soma coal mine

Miners at Soma coal mine

Despite the callous response from the mine owners and the government, most people I see want to say “Soma ,adencisi yalnız değil” (Soma miners are not alone). On campus, students sell pastries to raise funds for the victims’ families. In town, people march and spray graffiti to protest the government’s policies before, and the response afterwards. In the countryside, I see people whom I can imagine as not so different from the villagers whose family members worked in the mine.

Trying not to think about Soma, I walk to the Dardanos Tümülüsü (tumulus). This is a burial hill not far from our apartment, with artifacts dating from the second century BC, possibly earlier. The Çingene (also called Gypsy) people in Çanakkale say that they have been there for six centuries, possibly before the Ottoman rulers. But long before they arrived, who were the people who built the tumulus? I wonder about their walking on the same hills and coastlines, which they did when there was no choice to take the bus or car.

Dardanos Tümülüsü

Dardanos Tümülüsü

My wanderings lead to wonderings about how we as humans, or any life, will survive the growth-at-all-costs ethos, dominant around the world. Fifty years ago, in the month I graduated from high school, Lyndon Johnson asked:

whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth…expansion is eroding the precious and time-honored values of community with neighbors and communion with nature.

At least, here at Dardanos, there is some respite, if only within an hour’s walk. I see children in the large playground. There’s a vineyard. In the scrub forest there is a maquis ecology, with small pines, fir, cedar, holly, cyprus, and other evergreen trees, as well as some nut and fruit trees, such as valonia oaks, almond, fig, apple, and olive. The underbrush includes flowering broom, sage, oleander, and many interesting grasses. Most striking are the wildflowers–poppy, petunia, aster, and rose, plus many I can’t name. There are butterflies everywhere, birds, frogs, and lizards, all mocking the many wild cats. The ocean seems full of life, with octopus and squid, many kinds of fish and seaweeds, in spite of the heavy ship traffic.

Poppy field

Poppy field

Alongside the Dardanos, these life forms seem in tune with the beautiful setting and oblivious to the massive commerce steaming past and the construction boom on land. Let’s hope they can continue for a long time.

I’m afraid that my generation hasn’t done much to manifest Johnson’s call for “the wisdom to use…wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.” We have more nuclear weapons, greater destruction of the environment, abuse of workers, and precious little understanding of neighbors at home or abroad. All too often, our “old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth.”

Petunias

Petunias

In that 1964 speech, Johnson said,

The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.

I can’t say that I’ve learned very much in the fifty years since Johnson’s speech, but one thing is that the leisure he spoke about is not lost time, but a central aspect of being. Walking becomes for me a way to ensure that it happens. Otherwise I too often feel compelled to check the computer, go to a meeting, or accomplish some task. Or, I seek escape as a spectator, rather than participant in life.

That leisure is a necessary means to build connections and become one with the plants and animals nearby, the people, the land and sea, and the history that ties them all together. It’s both an essential part of life and means to understanding it better.