No "no"

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When I lived in Nepal (1965-67), I heard of the Kusunda, but never had a chance to go visit them.  Now they are in the news, because their language — an isolate that linguists believe is unrelated to any other language in the world — is on the verge of extinction, with only one remaining speaker, 48-year-old Kamala Khatri.

"The language that doesn't use 'no'", by Eileen McDougall, BBC (8/9/22)

Selections from the article:

The Kusunda are highly marginalised and impoverished within Nepali society. Today, most live in west Nepal's Dang district, a sleepy region of yellow mustard fields and misty, wooded hills. It is here the Language Commission of Nepal has been running Kusunda classes since 2019 in an effort to preserve the language.

Originally semi-nomadic, the Kusunda lived in the jungles of west Nepal until the middle of the 20th Century, hunting birds and monitor lizards, and trading yams and meat for rice and flour in nearby towns. While they are now settled in villages, they still call themselves the Ban Rajas, or kings of the forest.

But as Nepal's population grew and farming increasingly fragmented the jungles, pressure on the Kusundas' homeland increased. Then, in the 1950s, the government nationalised great swathes of forests, presenting further obstacles to their nomadic life.

The Kusunda were forced to settle, turning to jobs in labouring and agriculture. Low numbers in the group and the disparate nature of their population meant they mostly married neighbouring ethnic groups. Almost all stopped speaking their language.

For the Kusunda people, losing their language means losing a link to their past, and to their identity.

From a linguistic point of view, it is a loss in other ways, too.

Madhav Pokharel, emeritus professor of linguistics at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, has been overseeing the documentation of the Kusunda language over the last 15 years. He explains that several studies have attempted to link it with other language isolates, such as Burushaski from north Pakistan and Nihali from India. But all have failed to find any robust conclusions.

Currently, linguistic researchers believe Kusunda is a survivor of an ancient aboriginal language spoken across the sub-Himalayan regions before the arrival of the Tibetan-Burman and Indo-Aryan tribes.

"We can trace all other language groups in Nepal to people coming from outside Nepal," says Pokharel. "It is only Kusunda whose origins we don't know."

Alongside its mysterious beginnings, linguists have noted Kusunda's many rare elements. Bhojraj Gautam, a linguist with in-depth knowledge of Kusunda, describes one of the most peculiar: there is no standard way of negating a sentence. Indeed, the language has few words implying anything negative. Instead, context is used to convey the exact meaning. If you want to say "I don't want tea", for example, you might use the verb to drink, but in an adjusted form which indicates a very low probability – synonymous with the speaker's desire – of the drinking of tea.

Kusunda also has no words for absolute directions, such as left or right, with the speaker using relative phrases such as "to this side" and "to that side" instead.

Meanwhile, linguists say Kusunda does not have the set, rigid grammatical rules or structures found in most languages. It is more flexible, and phrases must be interpreted relative to the speaker. For example, actions are not divided into past and present. When saying "I saw a bird" compared to "I will see a bird", a Kusunda speaker might indicate the past action not by tense, but by describing it as an experience directly related to the speaker. Meanwhile, the future action would remain general and not associated to any subject.

Ironically, these rare qualities – a large part of what makes Kusunda so fascinating to linguists – are partly why it has struggled to continue.

The Kusunda and their supporters are not giving up.  They are organizing classes and even aiming to create a unified settlement that would bring together enough of their people to provide a speech community that would help them keep their language alive — whether it is related to any other language or no.


Selected readings

[h.t. Lisa Roosen-Runge]


  1. S Frankel said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 7:49 am

    The wiki page is worth checking out. There are numerous weirdnesses in the language, starting with the phonology:

  2. Jamie said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 9:06 am

    'Kusunda also has no words for absolute directions, such as left or right, with the speaker using relative phrases such as "to this side" and "to that side" instead'

    I can relate to that: the words "left" and "right" are near-perfect synonyms to me

  3. Victor Mair said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 9:33 am


    What you say confirms my strong impression that many people are not clear what they mean when they say "left" or "right" in giving directions. They freequently contradict themselves and reality.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 10:24 am

    From Mel Gelade:

    In Dhulikhel, where I lived in Nepal, the villagers, collectively, spoke Nepali, Newari, Hindi, Tibetan and English.

  5. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 11:44 am

    Kusunda has negatives.

    I really wouldn't rely on BBC future for anything linguistic.

    [(myl) Indeed. See "More BS from the BBC" for details.]

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 11:51 am

    Like Jamie (above), I too have great difficulty in telling left from right, and often have to stare at the palm of my hand before I can be sure. When studying horse riding in Ontario under the supervision of Felix Romens, he would frequently say to me (after a turn in the wrong direction) "no, Philip, the other left". Port and starboard, however, are completely clear, because the moment I hear the word "port" I mentally visualise approaching Maldon with the town on my left (port) and the sea to my right (starboard). "Larboard" is now very rare, but it too lacks any ambiguity or uncertainty for me.

  7. Mike Enright said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 12:12 pm

    It seems like this could convert to a snowclone. Having no word for negating a clause wraps around the horizon to become having many words for doing so.

    Somehow the way I was taught left and right, they became strongly-linked to my "port" and "starboard" hands (if you imagine the tip of your nose is the bow of the vessel). So when they evaluated my progress in learning these by asking questions, I would consider my hands. But when you're on a ship you don't simply substitute port for left. The port side of the ship is always the port side, rather than changing depending on which way the master is facing.

    The hard concept for me is "stage left" because I don't know which way the writer was facing on the stage.

  8. Chris Button said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 1:02 pm

    In my ignorance of Kusunda, I’m reading this post and keep wondering how certain things differ so fundamentally from other languages?

    If we take just Japanese for example, the future tense is simply derived from context, and a verbal inflection will take care of “no”.

  9. Brett said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 3:33 pm

    @Mike Enright: Ironically, the whole point of specifying "stage" left or right is that it does indicate the reference frame in which right and left are reckoned! (It's the one on the stage, facing toward the audience.) For the other viewpoint—in the audience, facing the stage—the terms are house left/right or (seemingly more common recently) camera left/right.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 4:43 pm

    To perhaps echo Brett, I am baffled by the claim 'Kusunda also has no words for absolute directions, such as left or right, with the speaker using relative phrases such as "to this side" and "to that side" instead' — precisely because "left" and "right" are themselves standardly talked about as relative directions, contrasting with absolute directions like north and south. Beyond explicit things like "stage left," even a fixed geographical expression like the "Left Bank" of the Seine (which remains the Rive Gauche regardless of which way the specific person calling it that is facing) is based on a convention about whether designating the banks of a river as left and right presumes the POV of someone facing downstream or someone facing upstream, and that sort of convention need not be consistent cross-linguistically.

    There's definitely a literature on cross-linguistic variation in the level of usage of absolute-v-relative.

    [(myl) Some commonly-used terminology is "egocentric" vs. "allocentric".]

  11. Chips said,

    August 13, 2022 @ 1:38 am

    I've long been puzzled by the ways in which "no" might manifest itself in many languages–especially in Aboriginal languages in northern and central Australia. I'd be more than happy for linguists familiar in these regions to comment.

    The word oft translated into English as "no", has a literal meaning of "nothing" or a "lack of something" in language. "Lawa", "Walku" "Kayaki" "Wiya" etc etc.

    For example, if asked if someone can give you something (food/drink/money/cigarettes) the response often really means "I have nothing/I don't have that thing you are asking for" etc. It's a form of politeness, not one of outright negative refusal. You may well have cigarettes in your pocket, but it's a polite form of refusal, without the bluntness of being negative or impolite to the person.

    Mind you! If you are actually smoking it's much harder to avoid sharing! The proper response in that case is to hand over your half smoked cigarette with the response "Here! Short one!"

  12. Vítor De Araújo said,

    August 13, 2022 @ 5:22 am

    The source of the 'no negation' claim seems to be this paper:

    Their claim is not exactly that the language has no negation, but rather that declarative verbal clauses don't seem to have a standard negative form. Negation can be expressed instead through other strategies, such as irrealis mood (which can have other readings beside negation, and so is dependent on context), or nominalization, since there is a negative existential ('there is not').

    (I now realize that the "in an adjusted form which indicates a very low probability" thing from the BBC article might be an attempt to explain irrealis in layperson's temrs.)

  13. Martha said,

    August 13, 2022 @ 2:04 pm

    Mike Enright: I believe I conceive of port/starboard in the opposite way. You *do* just substitute "port" for "left." It's just that it's the vessel's left, not my left, in the same way that your left is always your left, regardless of whether it's also my left.

  14. Jon said,

    August 14, 2022 @ 12:48 am

    I have no trouble telling left from right, but I used to have trouble remembering which directions port and starboard referred to.

    Then I saw a Viking boat in a museum in Norway, complete with a steerboard, a large oar fixed to the side of the boat as a primitive rudder. I could then envisage a man standing at the back of the boat, looking forward, with the handle of the steerboard in his right hand, and all was clear.

  15. Arnold Baldwin said,

    August 14, 2022 @ 8:32 am

    I can’t help Chips’ question but it is similar in the South West of Australia. The Noongar word “yoowart” means “no”, “not”, or “nothing” e.g. “yoowart yongka” — “no kangaroos (here)”. The suffix “-boort” indicates being without e.g. “dwangk” — “ear,” “dwangkaboort” — “without ear” (function), that is, deaf.

  16. Kimball Kramer said,

    August 14, 2022 @ 8:33 am

    @J.W. Brewer: North and south may be absolute, but from a viewpoint which considers the whole solar system, east and west and relative. For example, the direction “west” at the time and place you are when reading this will be the exactly opposite direction in 12 hours since the earth will have rotated 180 degrees.

  17. Kimball Kramer said,

    August 14, 2022 @ 8:41 am

    @Jon: Also, then the Viking boat approached a port–shore or dock–he was wise enough to keep the left side of the boat towards the port. That would minimize the probability that the steerboard would contact something and break off or force an unwanted change of course. Hence, “port-side”.

  18. Melissa Belvadi said,

    August 14, 2022 @ 12:49 pm

    I have this left/right problem when talking to my veterinarian about an injury to one of my dog's
    four legs. I never know if they expect me to use my own left right when I'm facing the dog's face, or from the dog's perspective. I resolve this problem by instead reverting to the metaphor of car wheels, eg. the dog's front passenger leg or rear driver's side leg. It sounds hilarious but it works extremely well as everyone knows immediately what I mean.

  19. Rebecca said,

    August 14, 2022 @ 4:46 pm

    The confusion of left and right surprised me a little because, since I feel I more often hear people say “just use left and right” when I give directions based on compass points (rather than the opposite situation). Now I wonder which is more common, confusion of left and right or of cardinal directions.

  20. Emily said,

    August 14, 2022 @ 8:36 pm

    I use "left" and "no, your other left."

  21. Jon said,

    August 15, 2022 @ 2:15 am

    Kimball Kramer, thanks for that about port-side. It all fits together.

    It's like the rule that you should mount horses from their left, because you would have a sword hanging down your left side, hampering mounting from the right.

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    August 15, 2022 @ 2:22 am

    Jon — your observation regarding horses and swords is very interesting, and makes perfect sense, yet tho' I have never worn a sword in my life I cannot imagine mounting a horse, or a motor-cycle, or even a pedal cycle, from the right — it feels so wrong in my mind that I do not think that I would even entertain the possibility in real life.

  23. Kimball Kramer said,

    August 15, 2022 @ 5:54 pm

    @Jon & @Philip Taylor: Mounting a bike from the left side minimizes the probability that a hanging piece of cloth will become entangled in the chain.

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