In the 1980s, young Dutch academic George van Driem began travelling to the Himalayas to compile a grammar book of one of the local languages. Over 30 years, his linguistics project has grown to embrace genetics, archaeology and other disciplines, to study the linguistic, genetic and migratory history of one of the most complex regions in the world. But, in April and May 2015, much of Nepal, a focal point for his research, was hit by earthquakes causing over 9,000 deaths. Professor van Driem, who holds the chair of Historical Linguistics at Bern University, spends up to five months in the region every year. Here he describes some of the devastation. Professor van Driem was selected as an Associate Laureate of the 1996 Rolex Awards.

Rolex Awards: How did you first hear about the earthquakes in April?
The BBC news reported the first earthquake within eight minutes, though it got the region wrong. I quickly got in touch with a friend in Bern, Krishna Shiwakoti, who is originally from Nepal. We got a lot of tents and supplies together and he immediately took a flight to Nepal, to help as many people as possible and to help organizre shelter for those in some of the villages that had been destroyed.

Have you done anything else to help the Nepalese?
My students here in Bern and I have been raising money to help the Nepalese people affected by the earthquakes. I will take more supplies out there soon. The supplies are our own contribution. The money raised will be disbursed directly to affected households in three villages at the epicentre of the 12 May earthquake.

Is your work documenting the linguistic riches of the Himalayas continuing, and how many grammar books have now been written by you and others for the Himalayan Languages Project?
Our research is continuing, despite this disaster. Two dozen grammar books have been completed; I’ve written four or five of them. I’m writing more now. I have what strikes me as a brilliant idea. Over the past 30 years, I’ve written lots of field notes in various languages while in the Himalayas. So the students who work with me in Bern are looking at those field notes, travelling to the Himalayas themselves and now writing up the grammar books. They will be co-authors with me. The next grammar book will have three co-authors, and I will be listed fourth, even though I did the fieldwork. We’re doing the same for five other languages.

How many Himalayan languages are there?
That’s very difficult to say. Without exaggeration, it’s in the order of 300-plus. But some will say many more. It’s a vast region: the Himalayas are 3,600 km long and, topographically, it’s the most complex region on the planet, with the highest peaks and the deepest river valleys. We work in the eastern Himalayas.

Why is it important to have grammar books for these languages?
The grammar books enable people to write dictionaries and develop educational materials in their mother tongue. The Limbu grammar book enabled the compilation of a comprehensive dictionary that included the necessary grammatical information for each entry. Working with the Nepalese government, we were able to help local radio news broadcasters present news in local languages for the first time back in 1994.

The languages themselves are intrinsically interesting, so this gives the grammar books special value. We have, for example, described systems for verbal conjugation that are different from European languages. These studies are valuable for language typologists. The grammars are also of great value to those who are trying to understand the past through the relationship between linguistic groups and to reconstruct past episodes of population prehistory.

Krishna Shiwakoti distributes relief supplies to villagers made homeless by the April earthquake in Nepal.

Why are the Himalayas important in linguistic and other terms?
Just plain geography tells you this. When we came out of Africa, we came into the Middle East, then most people – and their genes – went through India and the Himalayan corridor onwards to the Far East, Australia, Oceania, the Americas and via a hyperborean route even as far as Lapland. Even the ancestors of most Europeans stem from a migration originating in the western Himalayan region. The Himalayas were a huge corridor for the migration of plant and animal species, and we are one of those animals. The human genetic diversity in the Himalayas and Indian subcontinent is greater than anywhere else outside Africa.

Your research goes far beyond linguistics and reaches into genetics and many other fields. How have you gained expertise in these other domains?
I studied biology before linguistics and I never abandoned it. So when I teamed up with population geneticists in 2000, collecting DNA samples in the Himalayas, we were talking the same language. They needed linguistics to identify the different groups. People would say they belonged to various social groups when they didn’t. Or that they were members of the dominant group when in fact they were from minority groups. Linguistics is helpful in determining to which group people belong. In conjunction with these other disciplines, linguistics can help us discover our past.

In 2009, you moved the Himalayan Languages Project from the Netherlands to Bern University in Switzerland where you direct the Linguistics Institute. Is Switzerland a good place to have a language institute?
Absolutely yes. First of all, the students, including the undergraduates, are very talented. Even at 18 or 19, they are very serious. Secondly, many Swiss people know many languages and are very modest about it. Also, people who are interested in linguistics generally have a wide range of interests.

Have you worked with other Laureates of the Rolex Awards?
Yes, with explorer Johan Reinhard [1987 Rolex Awards Laureate] who discovered the 500-year-old Inca “Ice Maiden”. We met through Rolex and he has provided his notes, photos and recordings from his 1960s explorations of the Himalayas to our project. It is a privilege to know this man.

Are you working on other projects?
Yes, I’m just completing writing a book, a rather comprehensive history of tea, for both the general reader and scholars. Tea has an interesting history. Initially it was eaten rather than drunk, in a region between India and China. The book is due to be published next year.

For more information about Prof. van Driem’s project, visit himalayanlanguages.org/himalayan_languages_project

Learn more about George van Driem

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