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  • Authority, Status, and Caste Markers in Everyday Village Conversations:The Example of Eastern Nepal
  • Pustak Ghimire (bio)

This study sets out to detect the various markers that express forms of caste and community belonging, and, more generally, hierarchies in the language used in ordinary social interactions in villages in the hills of eastern Nepal, and how the somewhat rigid codes of civility that govern village society and language have recently evolved. The study is carried out from a socio-anthropological perspective rather than a linguistic or a literary one.1

Before discussing the topic in detail, I characterize the site of my research, which is the Khotang District. Firstly, it is a mixed society: the autochthonous Chamling Rai represent 39 percent of the population, Chetris 22 percent, Brahmans 9 percent, Newars, Magars, and other Himalayan communities about 5 percent each, and Dalits also 5 percent. The identity of the Chamling Rai has been preserved by their specific religious rituals and an exclusive relationship with their ancestral land. Other indigenous “Himalayan” communities (Magars, Tamangs, Gurungs, and Newars) have their own identity and rituals but they are not regarded (and they do not consider themselves) as autochthonous in Khotang.2 Like caste people (Brahmins, Chetri, and the craftsmen caste), they are “guests” in a land that is not “theirs.” Brahmin-Chetris, who are numerically equal to Chamling Rais in a large number of Village Development Committees (VDCs), draw strength from their comfortable economic position and centuries-old cultural and religious affinities with the elite who wield power in Kathmandu. This local diversity is reflected in their language: caste people speak only Nepali while indigenous communities, who use their mother tongue to talk among themselves and Nepali with other groups as the vernacular language, are usually bilingual.

Secondly, this society is somewhat homogeneous in terms of its standard of education and daily lifestyle. Local community leaders are merely farmers who are slightly richer than their neighbors. Before high schools were created in the 1970s and school textbooks became commonplace, ordinary people had an oral village culture and there was virtually no room for a written culture, books, or newspapers; indeed, reading was associated with Brahmin purohits, headmen with administrative responsibilities, and later on with teachers. Nevertheless, due to increased access to education and emigration, this society, which for centuries was purely agricultural, has become more diversified: land ownership is no longer their exclusive source of wealth. Farmers now compete with civil servants (predominantly teachers), enriched migrants, Gurkhas who retired decades ago, and construction workers now in the Middle East, who engage in local trade when they return home. The increasing diversification of local society has induced changes that, as we will see, are discernible in the language.

Thirdly, the structure of this society is basically non-egalitarian. The family is patriarchal and authoritarian to varying degrees: elders have precedence over young people, and men over women. Caste people are stratified into internal categories: in most VDCs, although there are few Brahmins, they carry more weight than their number would suggest since they have capitalized on education and they claim to be superior in local hierarchies; most Chetris are well-off farmers; “craftsmen” castes of cobblers, tailors, and blacksmiths occupy a middle position as far as their wealth is concerned, but do not benefit from any social esteem. Chamling Rai, who make up the relative majority in most villages, have often held the local power; they have never forgotten that the country is theirs nor what the “latecomers” owe them. Communities and castes compete with each other to maintain or to gain the local supremacy, and each head of the family strives to be treated by others with the respect he deserves. In this society where community, caste, age, sex, notability, wealth, and education combine to assign everyone their rank, language works as an expression of implicit hierarchies that shape the legitimacy of speaking out and the choice of words.

Fourthly, albeit plagued by frustrations and biases, the village regards itself as a big family, which makes for a harmonious environment and precludes any physical or verbal abuse. Language is, to a certain extent, codified to maintain courteous relationships between individuals. In the case...

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