One of an estimated 140 indigenous languages of Nepal, Seke is mainly spoken in Yulinga, ‘the five villages’ of Chhusang, Chaile, Gyakar, Tangbe, and Tetang, in the Upper Mustang district of highland Nepal. There are also many speakers in the nearby town of Jomsom and the larger cities of Pokhara and the national capital of Kathmandu (sometimes on a seasonal basis), and in diaspora centers such as New York City. The language database Ethnologue estimates the number of Seke speakers at around 700, but the real number may be significantly lower as many younger speakers, in particular, have migrated out of the area seeking work and are shifting to Nepali (and in some cases Loke/Baragaon, Tibetan, and English).
Historically, the region — sometimes referred to in the literature as Shöyul—has maintained a degree of both isolation and unity, despite being surrounded by speakers of Loke/Baragaon, which is only distantly related to Seke (Ramble 2008). There is limited evidence from surrounding place names and other residual evidence that suggests Seke was once spoken in a larger area beyond the five villages. Seke speakers often refer to themselves by the village their family is from: someone from Tangbe may use the term Tangbe-ten, someone from Chhusang may use the term Tshuksang-ge, and so on.
The three reported dialects of Seke — Tangbe, Tetang, and Chhusang (including Chaile and Gyakar) — have some substantial differences and are said to have varying degrees of mutual intelligibility.
This work has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Seke is classified within the Tamangic branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family, and is thus related to the Tamang, Gurung, Thakali, and Chantyal languages. (Seke has sometimes classified, due to resemblances, as a dialect of Thakali.) Because the region where Seke is spoken bridges Nepal and Tibet and Seke speakers live surrounded by Mustangi people, Seke seems to have had more contact with Tibetan languages than the other Tamangic languages.
Furthermore, like other minority languages of the region, Seke has long been in contact with the Indo-Aryan language Nepali, which is Nepal’s official language and is presently used in village schools. Due to this contact — which has taken place largely over the last two centuries and increasingly in recent years — as well as socio-economic pressures, the vast majority of Seke speakers are now also fluent in, and shifting to Nepali. Many in this highly mulitlingual region also speak Tibetan, and older Seke speakers are likewise very familiar with neighboring Loke/Baragaon.
In recent years, Seke has been retreating in the face of Nepali, which (as the country’s official language) is presently considered crucial to educational and employment opportunities outside of the villages. Over the last few decades, difficult conditions at home and job prospects elsewhere have brought Seke speakers to Pokhara, Kathmandu, and New York, among other cities, in increasing numbers. This domestic and international out-migration from the Seke-speaking villages has weakened intergenerational transmission, as has the tendency of younger generations to favor Nepali and English instead. There is currently little in the way of media, education, or other materials in the language.
For scholars of regional languages and of the Tibeto-Burman language family—which, including all forms of Chinese, has more speakers than any other—the corpus gives insights into wider phenomena that have developed in unique ways in this particular language. Heavy influence from Tibetic languages (and more recently from the very different Indo-Aryan language Nepali) is layered onto a Tamangic base, making Seke a sort of bridge between these two branches of the language family. The complexities of case marking, with Seke appearing to use ergative and oblique marking in “probabilistic” ways that are highly sensitive to context, and of nominalization (including a heavily used nominalizer plus copula construction in main clause syntax), are richly exemplified in the corpus. Verbal morphology is every bit as complex and well represented in the corpus, with markers for tense, aspect, evidentiality, and other nuanced features represented with sentence-final particles, bound up with social cognition and speaker and interlocutor knowledge, which are challenging to analyze but for which the corpus will prove invaluable.
The existing scholarship on Seke is limited to a phonological sketch of the three Seke dialects, a brief grammatical sketch of the Tangbe dialect, and some work on Seke motion verbs by the Japanese linguist Isao Honda. Other related research includes a 1996 grammatical sketch of the northern (Marpha) variety of Thakali by German linguist Stefan Georg. Ramble 2008 is an extensive history and ethnography of one Seke-speaking village, with much relevant lexical material.
Like related languages, Seke exhibits verb-final word order, ergative alignment, and evidential marking.
Georg, Stefan. 1996. Marphatan Thakali: Untersuchungen zur Sprache des Dorfes Marpha im Oberen Kali-Gandaki-Tal / Nepal. Munich: Lincom Europa.
Honda, Isao. 2002. Seke phonology: a comparative study of three Seke dialects. In Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area, 25(1), 191-210.
Honda, Isao. 2003. A sketch of Tangbe. In ej Ratna Kansakar & Mark Turin (eds.), Themes in Himalayan Languages, 49-64.
Honda, Isao. 2011. Grammaticalization of deictic motion verbs in Seke. In Anju Saxena (ed.), Himalayan Languages: Past and Present. Berlin: de Gruyter GmbH & Co.
Ramble, Charles. 2008. The Navel of the Demoness: Tibetan Buddhism and Civil Religion in Highland Nepal. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.
ELA’s work on Seke began as a linguistic field methods class taught by ELA Co-Director Ross Perlin at Columbia University in 2018, as students worked extensively with speaker Rasmina Gurung on outlining Seke’s phonology and grammar. Students established the core lexicon as well as a small corpus of texts and stories. Student projects included explorations of various grammatical markers and work on Seke folktales and childrens’ books. Following the class, the project moved to ELA, continuing to focus on the Chhusang (Tshug) dialect spoken by Gurung and by many in the New York community.
In the summer of 2019, on a small documentation grant from the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme, Gurung, Perlin, and videographer Nicole Galpern undertook field research in four of the five Seke-speaking towns. The resulting corpus contains approximately 12 hours of edited high-quality video recordings with 20 different speakers from four of the five Seke-speaking villages. Thanks to a 2020-21 DLI-DEL Fellowship from the NEH, Perlin has been working with Gurung and other Seke speakers on creating and annotating a Seke corpus including all materials.
At one level, this corpus can be seen as a reflection of Seke society and history, an open-ended book of oral histories, traditional tales, and personal histories reflecting everything from the landscape and life on the land to the new realities of migration, work, and education. There are detailed procedural texts about how to prepare and consume traditional foods as well as discussions of religious and social rituals ranging from the 49-day mourning cycle to the tharchang “retirement” party after which one fully becomes an elder. The reflections of a teacher, a religious practitioner, and a caretaker of animals share space with stories of how the culture hero Guru Rinpoche (also known as Padmasambhava) and a long-ago king of Sikkim helped shape the history of the region, to give just a few examples.
Data is also being mobilized for a wider scholarly and community audience, as well as for long term archiving and access. Exported videos with time-aligned SRT subtitles and metadata have been regularly published on Youtube and Facebook as well as being archived with the Endangered Language Archive (ELAR) and the Endangered Language Alliance’s (ELA) Archive.org repository. The entire annotated corpus has also been published on Kratylos.org, ELA’s tool for sharing interlinearized and lexical data where it is fully accessible and searchable.
Whether you are a speaker yourself, a partial speaker, or know someone who might be, we are always looking for more resources on Himalayan languages. Please get in touch!
New York City is now home to a significant Seke population, including over 100 people from Chhusang and Chaile, as well as the other villages. Most of the community lives in the Ditmas Park area of Brooklyn near Cortelyou Road, where Baragaon speakers from Lower Mustang also live, or within the larger Himalayan community in Queens around Jackson Heights. Like other Himalayan communities, Seke speakers are well organized with an active samaj (community organization) and large annual gatherings around July 4 and New Year’s, and they maintain close contact with relatives back in Nepal.