One of the disadvantages of the remarkable deep allegiance a people may feel toward their writing system is—what if they have more than one? What if a widely-scattered minority community supports or creates one writing system in one area, and a different one in another?
Roughly half a million Gurungs live in Nepal and the surrounding region, of whom perhaps two-thirds speak Gurung, a number that may be declining. Gurung culture was traditionally oral, and until World War II its language, Tamu kyui, was generally written in the Devanagari or even the Latin alphabet, but this changed owing to the creation of a fascinating linguistic subculture in which Tamu kyui temporarily became the norm rather than the exception.
In 1944, when Jagan Lal Gurung was fighting in Burma in a battalion composed primarily of Gurungs, he began to communicate in Tamu kyui. By the time the war ended, he had acquired a newfound interest in his native tongue, an interest that led to him developing a Gurung script, today known as Khe Prih. When Jagan Lal returned to Nepal, he began teaching Khe Prih to the children in his village of Hyanjakot.
“It was still the Rana regime in Nepal at that time,” said Man Bahadur Gurung, president of the Tamu Language-Script and Culture Development Foundation and a long-time advocate of Khe Prih. “Jagan solti received a lot of threats from the [government] for teaching the children, but he didn’t budge. When he was about to be arrested and his life was at stake, he ran away from Nepal, back to his duty in the Indian Army.”
Jagan Lal returned to Nepal in 1965 and began lobbying for and teaching his script, but as with many indigenously-created scripts, its radius was limited. After his death in 2011, Man Bahadur edited the Khe Prih script into its current form and began to propagate it.
“Jagan solti did a lot to teach Gurungs to write in their own script,” says Man Bahadur. “But at that time, people cared less about having a cultural identity.”
When a language community is scattered, rural, and in the minority, consensus and uniformity are hard to come by. But that lack of a coherent core population became a force in itself. As economic necessity drove many Gurungs to seek work in the cities or abroad, losing their mother tongue, the fear of cultural erosion—especially as Tamu kyui was not generally written down—a committee was formed in 1977 to create a Gurung script. And as Khe Prih was barely even known, let alone widely adopted, Bal Narsingh Gurung, under the supervision of Guru Pim Bahadur Gurung, was tasked with creating a Gurung script, which he did in a year.
Given this official genesis, it’s hardly surprising the result, called Khema (or Khema lipi, meaning “script”) overtook Khe Prih in popularity and usage, and is now used in Nepal, India and Bhutan and also listed as the official script of the Gurung language by the Nepal Language Commission.
But that endorsement sounds more final than it actually is. Living in small villages in hilly regions, even in different countries, speaking different variants of their language, and lacking the unifying power of statehood, the Gurungs are in danger of cultural fragmentation.
“Gurungs from different regions are developing their own scripts. If everyone is going to develop their own scripts, which one do we follow? This just takes away the motive of developing a script,” said Ratna Bahadur Gurung, who writes Gurung language textbooks. “There needs to be unity. If we keep fighting among ourselves, someone else will take advantage of the situation, in this case another script.
The Gurungs face a familiar dilemma for minority language cultures: do they try to adapt to the ways of their richer and more powerful neighbors and risk losing their sense of identity, or is that identity important enough to be the basis for their choice of language and script—or in this case, scripts?
Resham Gurung, president of the Gurung cultural organization in Nepal, acknowledges that he cannot convince the entire Gurung population to accept Khema lipi as their official script, but he wishes they would.
“We are fighting for a greater cause, like preserving our language and advocating its use in government offices, so all of us need to come together,” he said.
Resham is well aware of the fact that most of the young generation cannot speak the language and that makes it doubly important that the Gurung community rally around one script for their language.
“Our youths go to learn Japanese or Korean language because they know they will get a job after learning them. But what opportunities will they have after learning Gurung language? The significance of the language is just limited to cultural identity, which is why many youths do not bother,” he said.
Some fear that unless the entire Gurung community adopts a single script, the resulting confusion will be so great the spoken language itself will be lost.
Sikkim Herald Gurung Editionhttps://sikkim.gov.in/uploads/SikkimHerald/GRG5APR_0_20230415.pdf