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The Politics of Language Contact in the Himalaya
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Sameness and difference.

Language is what makes us human, yet languages are also what differentiate us.

The linguistic condition of our species is perhaps no better illustrated than in the Himalaya. As depicted in Edward Lear’s timeless painting of Kanchenjunga that graces the cover of this volume, the snow-capped mountains seem like formidable barriers and the foothills an impenetrable jungle to human — and hence language — contact. Yet the mountain range that forms the Himalayan chain is majestic, the foothills and valleys lush, and the high-altitude plateaus expansive — a seeming invitation to human interaction and linguistic exchange. While the geographical determination of linguistic commonality and difference is acute in the Himalayan region, most of the barriers and overtures to language contact are political, particularly with the advent of colonialism, modernity and globalization.

This original and timely collection brings together case studies from salient areas of the Himalayan region — Tibet (China), Assam (India) and Nepal — focused on the politics of language contact. Promoting a historically grounded and theoretically informed perspective, The Politics of Language Contact in the Himalaya offers nuanced insights into language and its relation to power in this geopolitically complex region. As editors, we are confident that it will be essential reading for researchers in the fields of language policy and planning, applied linguistics, and language and literary education. The detailed introduction and concluding commentary make the collection accessible to all social scientists concerned with questions of language, and we anticipate that the book as a whole will be of interest to scholars in anthropology, sociolinguistics, political science and Asian studies.

The Politics of Language Contact in the Himalaya is, in many ways, the realization of a decades-long scholarly exchange between us, the editors, about our mutual research interests and experiences in the Himalaya, an exchange made all the more stimulating because of our different disciplinary backgrounds (political science and linguistic anthropology). The 5th Himalayan Studies Conference in Boulder, Colorado in September 2017, provided the ideal scholarly forum at which to launch this new phase of our collaboration: we convened a double-panel session of early-career and established scholars to explore language and politics in the Himalaya. The lively discussion among panel participants and conference attendees was critical to enriching the five new research contributions which comprise this volume. Without the efforts of the Conference Organizing Committee, the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies which organizes the regular Himalayan Studies Conferences, and the local conference sponsor, the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, this collection would not be as timely or rich as it is.

We are grateful to a number of people and organizations who helped to bring this book into being. First of all, our thanks to the editorial team and staff at Open Book Publishers, for their professionalism and enduring commitment to reshaping the present and the future of academic publishing. In addition, we have benefitted a great deal from the assistance of Vicki Sear and Erin Guntly, both graduate students at the University of British Columbia, whose careful attention to detail has strengthened the editorial process. We are particularly indebted to Meredith Reba at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies who designed the map showing the locations of the speech communities covered in this collection.

We would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers who generously gave of their time and insights to strengthen this collection through their constructive feedback. Thanks as well to all of the contributors who submitted their work to this collection: we have enjoyed working with each of you and have learned more about the linguistic richness and diversity of the Himalayan region as a result.

Both of us are fortunate to be part of university communities with fast-growing initiatives that focus on the Himalayan region — the Tibet Himalaya Initiative at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the Himalaya Program at the University of British Columbia. We have benefitted enormously from the scholarly networks of faculty, staff, students and community partners that these two initiatives have catalyzed and are grateful to the efforts of our colleagues for nurturing such programs. Finally, our thanks go to you — the reader — for picking up this volume in paper or digital format, and for engaging with the ideas that it contains.

Selma K. Sonntag and Mark Turin

July 2019