The 80s Saturday vegetable market in Phuentsholing, was a colorful mix of people, uniquely clad in a colorful array of costumes strictly personalized to their cultures, and the language they spoke was what set them a class apart.
A group called the Lhops (people of Doya) their dress, mannerism, and their dialect Tshophu set them apart from the crowd.
The dialect is now on the brink of extinction together with the Monpa dialect from central Bhutan called Olakha (Black Mountain Language) and Gongdukkha, which comes from the Mongar district, in Gongdu villages called Dagsa, Damkhar, Pangthang, Pam, Yangbari, and Bala.
Bhutan has 19 dialects and Tshophu is one of the three rare and endangered vernacular languages spoken by small communities in Bhutan.
The Doya dialect also called Tshophu hails from villages under Taba Damtey, Loto Kuchu, Sanglong, Sataka, and Lotu, all under the Samtse district.
With just fragments of population speaking such dialects, these three vernacular languages of the aboriginal groups are considered important as it is endangered.
Dangers like shifting of languages (especially when mixed with the migrated groups) and dilution of these languages are foreseen.
Now recognizing vernacular languages as an important component of Bhutan’s culture and foundation of national identity, this matter has been taken into consideration by the National Council (NC).
“Languages are important part of our culture. All vernacular languages are oral and do not have written scripts. In order to preserve and promote it, vernacular languages should also evolve developing new vocabularies, terminologies etc,” said NC Deputy Chairperson, Dr. Sonam Kinga.
He said a national language was the key to national discourse among citizens of various ethno-linguistic backgrounds and at the same time, it was very important to develop Bhutan’s vernacular languages.
“Even as we develop new words and terminologies for new things and ideas in Dzongkha, we use the same in tshangla-lo or bumthangkha. For example, logrig is the word for computer in Dzongkha, and used as such in all other vernacular languages,” Dr Sonam Kinga said.
During the seventh NC session, the NC had questioned the government on the policies which concerned the importance of documentation and preservation of vernacular languages in Bhutan.
The NC Deputy Chairperson then had asked what programs and activities had been conceptualized and undertaken to preserve and protect the different languages?
The Home and Cultural Affairs minister Minjur Dorji had pointed out some of the program supports like continuing to send students for linguistic training and studies, assigning Bhutanese counterpart to foreign linguists who were granted permission by Dzongkha Development Commission (DDC) to come and conduct researches on Bhutan’s languages, and independent researches that DDC will continue to undertake.
Lyonpo Minjur said the cabinet had issued an order to DDC in its 100th sitting to conduct research and documentation on other endangered languages alongside the development of Dzongkha.
The Home minister said that DDC was implementing this order.
A year has passed since the cabinet’s directive had been issued so the council in the recently concluded parliamentary session asked for a status-update on the vernacular languages.
Earlier the questions put forth was done verbally, however, this time, the same questions have been endorsed for submission, but, in written.
Dr. Sonam Kinga, said he was awaiting response from the government.
The DDC Secretary, Dasho Sherub Gyeltshen said approval of the cabinet’s proposal to maintain intellectual properties was going to be maintained and that vernacular languages falls under it.
He said vernacular languages were important and especially the three dialects, that was rare. A research on these three languages conducted by a foreign linguist professor is in the process to be finalized.
Dasho Sherub said apart from the three dialects, the DDC also means to study other dialects. Lack of funds, man power, and technical expertise, however prevents the commission to go full scale on it.
“This process for the preservation, documentation, and promotion of vernacular languages will be included in the 11FYP,” he said.
Lyonpo Minjur Dorji said all these plans had come under the 10FYP, although some works had been carried out but not much could be done due to budget constraints.
In the last one year, the DDC has initiated a survey on the Olakha language and it is likely that it will continue this year.
The DDC’s Senior Research Officer, Namgay Thinley said, they would collect all the basic grammar, speech, collection of words and vocabulary of Olakha and later make a comparison of it with another community group falling under the three villages between Gelephu and Trongsa within the Black Mountain range with an entry passage from Gelephu.
He said currently there was only one old lady alive at Rukha village (through Wangdue entrance) who spoke the pure version of this dialect.
Namgay Thinley said they will revisit the old lady and document the language to preserve its originality.
“All will depend on the policy in the end,” said Namgay Thinley.