Seke, an endangered language of Nepal, in Flatbush, Brooklyn

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As a former Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal (1965-67), I have a particular interest in all things Nepalese, especially language.  Now comes report of a spectacular linguistic phenomenon related to Nepal, and it is situated less than a hundred miles from where I'm sitting in Philadelphia.

"Just 700 Speak This Language (50 in the Same Brooklyn Building):  Seke, one of the world’s rarest languages, is spoken by about 100 people in New York", by Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, NYT (1/7/20):

The apartment building, in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, is a hive of nationalities. A Pakistani woman entered the elevator on a recent afternoon with a big bag of groceries, flicking a dupatta over her shoulder as a Nepalese nurse and the janitor, a man from Jamaica there to mop up a spill, followed her in.

It was hardly an unusual scene in New York, one of the world’s most diverse cities. But this nondescript, seven-story brick building is also the improbable home to some of the last speakers of a rare, unwritten language from Nepal that linguists worry could disappear within a generation, if not sooner.

The language, Seke, is spoken in just five villages cloistered by craggy cliffs and caves in a part of Nepal called Mustang, a region close to the border with Tibet.

There are just 700 or so Seke speakers left in the world, according to a recent study by the Endangered Language Alliance, a New York-based organization dedicated to preserving rare languages in the city.

Of those, a little over 100 are in New York, and nearly half of them live in the building in Flatbush.

Children in Nepal are often sent to schools in cities like Kathmandu and Pokhara, where Nepali is predominant.

And Nepalese television is often flooded with Bollywood movies, so many Nepalese absorb Hindi as well. (In addition to English and Seke, Ms. Gurung speaks Nepali and Hindi fluently.)

What kind of language is Seke?  It is often classified as Sino-Tibetan, but that is such a broad category that it is almost meaningless when talking about a language like Seke that is down very low on the Stammbaum.

I've heard Seke more meaningfully referred to as Tamangic.

The Tamangic languages, TGTM languages, or West Bodish languages, are a family of Sino-Tibetan languages spoken in the Himalayas of Nepal. They are called "West Bodish" by Bradley (1997), from Bod, the native term for Tibet.


I lived among Tamang, so they are familiar to me.  Another closely related group are the Gurung (language), and I was intrigued to see that some of the most active Seke speakers in New York have the surname Gurung.  How that came to be is explained by Sienna Craig, a professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College:

Although I'm not a linguist, I work very closely with the Endangered Language Alliance, and with Himalayan communities in NYC, on issues related to language, culture, representation, and social change. The community featured in the article, from Mustang*, Nepal, is the place, as you surmised, where I have lived, worked, and collaborated with people for the past 27 years.

The article also links to Voices of the Himalaya, a collaborative and community-based research project that I've been involved with for a number of years and that Dartmouth has supported in various ways. (You might not have known that Jackson Heights, in Queens, is the most linguistically diverse neighborhood in the entire US and one of the most in the world…).

The ”Gurung” thing is an example of the Nepali state placing non-relevant categories of identity on their culturally Tibetan citizens. Gurung (who actually call themselves “Tamu” in their own language) are people who live primarily just north of Pokhara, and who were some of the people most heavily conscripted into the Gurkha regiments of the British and now Indian armies. But “Gurung” like “Lama” have become rather ubiquitous surnames for all manner of culturally Tibetan northern Himalayan people, particularly in Mustang but also in other areas. It is the name on their passport, but not a true marker of identity.

I have a book coming out this year, in early fall, about migrations between Mustang and NYC.

*[VHM:  The name "Mustang" is derived from the Tibetan word meaning, "Plain of Aspiration."  Source]

If we go down a bit below Tamagnic, we come to Thakali:

Thakali is a Sino-Tibetan language of Nepal spoken by the Thakali people, mainly in the Myagdi and Mustang Districts. Its dialects have limited mutual intelligibility.

Seke (Tangbe, Tetang, Chuksang) is sometimes considered a separate language. Other names and dialect names are Barhagaule, Marpha, Panchgaunle, Puntan Thakali, Syang, Tamhang Thakali, Thaksaatsaye, Thaksatsae, Thaksya, Tukuche, Yhulkasom.


Let us view the environs where the Seke are now living from another ethnolinguistic angle.  June Teufel Dreyer grew up in the very area Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura writes about:

Although our home was just off Flatbush Avenue, it was technically in the area next to Flatbush called Midwood (originally Mitwout).  If the story’d given the address, I would almost certainly know it.  Our family didn’t have a car, and I had friends in many areas, so walked all over a good portion of the borough to visit them. And enjoyed doing it, finding new streets to explore.

Also on my walks, this time in Manhattan, I came across other ethnic-nationalist enclaves.  There was a block inhabited by Montenegrins, back when Montenegro no longer existed as a country, and another by Serbians.  Also a summer camp in New Jersey for the children of Old Church Russians, separate from the Russian Orthodox church.  The idea in all of these was to perpetuate the language and culture, with marriages being arranged within the group.  I once peeved an elementary school teacher who was instructing us 2nd or 3rd graders with the accepted mantra that New York is a melting pot.  I piped up that it seemed to me more like a stew: we all existed in the same environment, but kept separate. I got scolded, but at that time, interracial marriage meant an Italian Catholic marrying an Irish Catholic: both families got upset and agreed with each other that such a match was a bad idea and a humiliation for both sides.  For all of our concerns that America is deteriorating, some things have gotten better.

Before closing, I'd like to take a look at the name "Flatbush", which has always fascinated me.

The name Flatbush is a calque of the Dutch language Vlacke bos (vlacke or vlak, meaning "flat"; "Flatbush" meaning "flat woodland" or "wooded plain"), so named from woods that grew on the flat country.

Flatbush was originally chartered as the Dutch Nieuw Nederland colony town of Midwout (or Midwoud or Medwoud) — from the Dutch words, med, "middle" and woud, "wood" — in 1651. Both names were used in the Dutch era, and Midwood was an alternative name for Flatbush into the early 20th century. In a reversal, Midwood, now the area immediately south of Brooklyn College, is often alternatively called "Flatbush," especially among Orthodox Jews. Midwood's residents predominately feature a mix of the latter and Irish Americans.


I think I'll take a short trip up to New York to visit the Seke.  I hope that I'll be able to find a restaurant that serves momo.


[h.t. Agnes Hsu-Tang]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    January 11, 2020 @ 4:22 am

    Momo are ubiquitous in the UK; wherever a Nepalese restaurant is to be found (there are several in Cornwall alone), Momo are sure to feature on the menu.

  2. Lisa R-R said,

    January 11, 2020 @ 8:17 am

    I was hoping you would comment on this article.
    Thanks for the extra context.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    January 11, 2020 @ 9:55 am

    From June Teufel Dreyer:

    You mentioned Midwood as the area south of Brooklyn College—- which was built on land owned by my paternal great-grandmother. She lost the farm as a result of Roosevelt’s policies in the Depression. FDR’s name was a dirty word in our household for that and other reasons. Every Friday my father brought his salary home in a small manila envelope and spread the contents out on the kitchen table, where they were parsed into segments for the gas bill, electricity, food, carfare, and such. I got a dime. One week, he pushed two dimes toward me. Puzzled, since I hadn’t asked for a raise in my allowance, I asked why. He explained that they were the new Roosevelt dimes and he didn’t want to see them.

    If you do visit the Seke site, I’d love to hear your impressions. My impression is that this area has been spared yuppification, so probably looks very much the way I remember it, even though the ethnic mix has changed. My neighborhood was heavily Irish- and Italian-American, with a sprinkling of All Else. There were no strained relations: everyone got along nicely. Still, interacting socially was unheard of: the Irish, e.g., partied only with other Irish; the Italians with Italians, and Jews, the most stand-offish of all, only with other Jews. Now it would be called racist, but back then was simply The Way It Was, accepted unquestioningly by all save the occasional cross-group romantic attraction that was lamented by all parties.

  4. glasserc said,

    January 11, 2020 @ 2:03 pm

    This is my 'hood and I'm extremely excited to see this!

    My feeling is that the best momo in the city are in Jackson Heights, but Cafe Tibet on Cortelyou Road (which is closer to the area described) is pretty great (I like the item listed as sha-baklap).

  5. Victor Mair said,

    January 11, 2020 @ 11:27 pm

    From an anonymous colleague:

    My understanding is that Seke and Kaike are supposed to be very closely related. Exceedingly little has been published on these languages. I don't remember where I heard it, but there is an idea out there that these two are together more closely related to Tibetan than to the other TGTM languages (Tamang-Gurung-Takhali-Manange).

    I do hope that the Endangered Languages Alliance will be publishing some research on Seke or at least systematically collecting data on it that they make available to the research community.

  6. Leo said,

    January 12, 2020 @ 8:49 am

    @Philip Taylor: There is (or used to be) a street vendor in Exeter who serves momo. He told me he grew up in Tibet, near a large lake full of fish that apparently were never used as food. I asked if this was for religious reasons and he said no, it was for no particular reason – they just never ate the fish.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    January 12, 2020 @ 9:06 am

    From Tsu-Lin Mei:

    Sino-Tibetan Languages (2003), edited by Graham Thurgood and Randy LaPolla, has two chapters on TGTM (Tamang-Gurung-Thakali-Manang) languages.

  8. Jeff DeMarco said,

    January 12, 2020 @ 12:50 pm

    You can get wonderful momo in Columbus, Ohio. Notably at a couple of places called Momo Ghar

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 12, 2020 @ 2:51 pm

    @Jeff DeMarco:

    I was recently at The Ohio State University. Wish I had known!

    Members of my family and many friends live in Columbus. I'll tell them about it, and will definitely have some momo the next time I'm back there.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    January 12, 2020 @ 6:27 pm

    "Seke phonology: A comparative study of three Seke dialects", Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area, 25.1 (Spring, 2002), 191-210.

    Includes a good description of the tonal system. Swadesh 100 Word List.

    I have a pdf if anyone wants to see it.

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