Strategic Objectives in the Subcontinent

The Indian subcontinent harbours three languages isolates and seven distinct language families. The northern perimeter of the subcontinent is bounded by the highest land barrier on the planet, and one of the world’s most populous language families straddles the Himalayas and is found to be distributed along both its northern and southern flanks. The trans-Himalayan language phylum has been known by various names since it was first recognised in 1823, such as Tibeto-Burman, Sino-Himalayan, Indo-Chinese, Sino-Tibetan and Sino-Kiranti, each of these presuming a different model of phylogenetic relationship.

In the early 19th century, the trans-Himalayan language phylum was known to comprise Burmese, Tibetan, Chinese and the languages which were demonstrably related to these three. In the two centuries since, a number of false family trees have been discarded, including most of those previously named, and the various distinct linguistic subgroups of this phylum have been identified. Some linguistic subgroups such Gongduk and Black Mountain Mönpa were only first discovered as recently as the 1990s. The trans-Himalayan linguistic phylum includes languages such as Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese, but the heartland of the family’s ethnolinguistic diversity lies not in East Asia, but within the northeast of the Indian subcontinent.

In Bern, three Ph.D. fellows will undertake to document three strategically chosen, hitherto poorly understood and scantily documented languages of the subcontinent in order both to describe and analyse these languages for linguistic science as well as to empower the marginalised language communities which speak these endangered tongues. The target languages have tentatively been identified as Milang, Lishpa and Puroik.


Approximate locations of the places where Khispi, Duhumbi, Puroik and Milang are spoken

The team will collaborate with the trans-Himalayan database project in Bern in order to establish the linguistic phylogeny of this vast phylum and to reconstruct long forgotten episodes of Asian ethnolinguistic prehistory. This synergy between ‘Strategic Objectives’ and the comparative database project will deepen Bern’s programme of interdisciplinary research on the prehistoric dispersal of Asian language families in the light of human genetic phylogeography, archaeology, palaeoclimatology, palaeobotany and historical linguistics.