The young engineer who joined our firm a few months ago is from the coast, and one of the languages she speaks is Tulu. One day, on the way to a business meeting, she taught me a few sentences of Tulu.
The way I like to learn languages is this. I choose simple sentences in the language and then create variations of these sentences till an understanding of the grammar begins to emerge. So I asked her, “How do you say, ‘What is your name’ in Tulu?” Her answer amazed me. In Tulu, you say “Irna podar dada?”
The answer was amazing because it contained function words that I’ve never come across before. In Kannada, you would say something like: ‘Ninna hesaru enu?’ In Hindi, it would be “Tumhara naam kya hai?” Tulu is the first language I’ve encountered in South India that has function words that don’t resemble those in Kannada or Hindi.
But it turns out that there are more interesting and unique languages in the subcontinent, and that some are disappearing. On the BBC website today is an article: ‘Nepal’s mystery language on the verge of extinction‘ that talks about a language called Kusunda in Nepal. I quote:
The unknown origins and mysterious sentence structures of Kusunda have long baffled linguists. … Professor Pokharel describes Kusunda as a “language isolate”, not related to any common language of the world. “There are about 20 language families in the world,” he said, “among them are the Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan and Austro-Asiatic group of languages. Kusunda stands out because it is not phonologically, morphologically, syntactically and lexically related to any other languages of the world.”
It turns out that there are only two speakers of the Kusunda language left, one of them a very old woman named Gyani Maiya Sen and the other a woman named Kamala Khatri who had ‘left the country in search of a job’.