Unknown Language #7: update

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In "Unknown Language #7", I described the case of a woman in a refugee center in Kathmandu, Nepal who spoke in an unidentifiable tongue and who wrote in an odd mixture of languages and scripts.  The post generated a large number of comments (173 at last count), with a tremendous amount of helpful information and analysis being shared by Language Log readers.

Now I have just heard from Son Ha Dinh, who first brought this case to my attention, that — with the help of Language Log readers and the diligent efforts of his colleagues — the identity of the woman has been determined.

Here is the summary report that Son Ha sent to me:

Dear all,

I am sorry I haven't posted something here even though I often thought of this forum, all the commentators, and the vexing mystery of the lady's origin.  While my colleagues in Kathmandu continued to work on the puzzle, I went on a 2-week vacation.  The only good news I got prior to leaving for vacation was that she responded well to her new environment.  With that development I was hoping that eventually she would also regain her memory.  Upon returning to Nepal, I received news of a potential breakthrough in the case: the woman mentioned the name of her adviser while she was at the university.  Using Google, my colleagues found a match and decided to email this professor.  This prof was able to identify the lady via archived photos and provided an Indian address in Delhi.  Another colleague checked out the physical address and found a vacant house.  We thought it was a dead-end, but fortunately the neighbors provided more clues which eventually enabled us to contact a family member and receive a second confirmation that her nationality is Indian.  We are now formulating the best ways to move forward for our lady.

I wanted to thank you all of you and professor Mair for all the insightful comments and suggestions (many of which we've tested and tried via sending voice and written samples to colleagues and missions around the world).

Outside of this case, I have marked this site for frequent visit and reading, so you will probably see me commenting on other posts in the future.

I am very grateful to Son Ha for sharing this report with us and for his own hard work in solving the identity of the lady.  We have learned that the last known address of the lady was in New Delhi, but  questions remain.  I still wonder whether she might originally have come from somewhere in the area between Sikkim-Bhutan and Myanmar / Burma. The route she took from Delhi to Nepal also remains a puzzle.  Perhaps we shall never know the full story behind the woman who spoke an unknown language and wrote in an indecipherable combination of scripts, but at least we know where she came from before entering the refugee center in Nepal, which is a lot more than we knew when we began this quest on February 27, 2013.  I wish to express my personal gratitude to all who participated in this worthy endeavor.


  1. angel worths said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 9:14 am

    Son Ha Dinh must be a Vietnamese name.

  2. marie-lucie said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 11:03 am

    aw, when reading an "update" of something new to you, it is appropriate to read the previous post and its comments before adding your own.

  3. Gianni said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 6:12 pm

    So pleased!

    Hope she will find her family soon.

  4. michael farris said,

    May 13, 2013 @ 12:57 am

    She's Indian…. Isn't that like saying "She's European"? It doesn't narrow it down much even in terms of language family.

    Is there a way to main confidentiality and indicate what her native language is?

    I am glad that her situation seems to be better and hope a positive way forward can be found.

  5. ohwilleke said,

    May 13, 2013 @ 5:00 am

    Congratulations on the success after so much hard work, and kudos to Google for providing the resource necessary to make a connection that might have been impossible otherwise.

    Reading between the lines, one implictation of this outcome seems to be that this woman was at least temporarily (and perhaps permanently) impaired in language function in some significant way at some time after attending university, either due to psychological or physical trauma. This trauma may well have been connected to the series of events that caused her to end up in a Nepalese refugee camp. Any university she could have attended she would have had, at one time, fluency in a language that could have been much more readily identified, and would have readily been able to identify a home on a map, and would have been able name her relatives and write down their names. This loss is very sad, whatever its cause may have been. One hopes that her next step will leave her better off.

    While an unknown language can't entirely be ruled out and is probably beyond what we can ever know (it is a familiar reality in many professions that we only see part of a story and never learn how it ends), this insight greatly strengthens the inferrence may be some in the previous comments that the limited data set did not represent any one or two single natural languages at all and instead may have represented something of an impairment driven mismash.

  6. Mike said,

    May 14, 2013 @ 7:03 pm

    Okay, so her nationality is Indian. Did we ever get anymore information about the language(s) she spoke?

  7. SHD said,

    May 15, 2013 @ 6:50 am

    It's true her nationality is Indian and there are a lot of languages spoken in India so we still don't know what her native language is. From what I've heard via people that worked directly with her, there is a high probability that her ancestors came from the NW part of India instead of the initial speculations that she came from the NE. The two languages that I know from that region are Kashmiri and Punjabi. As for the language that she initially used with us when not communicating in English, I am afraid it was a mixture of the language spoken in that NW region + her own made up language similar to a Vietnamese case that Gianni pointed out in the previous post.

    Thank you again to all LL readers :)

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

    Thanks for the update, and I'm glad to know that so much progress is being made.

  9. Eli Alberts said,

    May 18, 2013 @ 5:39 pm

    Fascinating update.

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