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A Grammar of Limbu.

The Limbus are a people who live in the hills of eastern Nepal, Sikkim, and the Darjeeling district of Bengal. Because of their migration throughout the Himalayas and to the various countries of the subcontinent, their total population is unknown, but approximately 180,000 are said to live in Nepal. The term "Limbu," a designation applied both to the people and their language, is really a Nepali ethnonym through which these people have been categorized and defined by the Nepali Hindu state and have become known to Western linguists and ethnographers. An older pair of ethnonyms, kirata/kiranti, found mainly in Sanskrit texts, is often associated with them, though how these ancient terms apply to them is not at all clear. Of the history of the Limbus, we know nothing definite until the latter part of the eighteenth century, when their "nation," known to the Gorkhalis as Limbuvan, begins to be absorbed into the nascent Nepalese state. Since that time, the Limbus have appeared as one of the more independent, even obstreperous groups, demanding from their Hindu rulers, and often receiving, rights and privileges not granted to others.

The Limbus call themselves "yakthunba" and their language "yakthunba pan." The language has four major dialects: phedappe, pacthare, chathare, and taplejune. Only the first of these is a Yakthunba term, the others being Nepali, and it is this dialect that van Driem presents in the work under review. For the research, the author lived with a Yakthunba family in Tamphula, a village in Tehrathum district in the Kosi zone of eastern Nepal, for a total of nine months in 1984 and 1985.

The book consists of four main sections: an introduction, ten chapters of linguistic analysis, appendices consisting of Yakthunba texts and verbal paradigms, a section on the writing system, and a glossary.

The work is of very high quality and the author is to be commended for presenting so detailed and elegant a grammar. The work is a most valuable contribution to the field of Tibeto-Burman linguistics. Few Himalayan languages have received such excellent treatment.

The core of the book is the ten chapters of linguistic description in which van Driem presents the phonology and morphology of Yakthunba. Verbal analysis dominates the grammar. Over two hundred pages are devoted to it. Overall the analysis is clearly and systematically presented, and specialists in the area should have no trouble in using van Driem's data. There is one general criticism that might be made. This has to do with van Driem's overuse of pretentious terminology that unfortunately adds a layer of pseudo-profundity to the obvious. This tendency is everywhere, but it is particularly pronounced in 5.3, where various verbal "aspectivizers" are given learned labels ("dimmitive," "relinquitive," etc.), all of which van Driem patiently but unnecessarily explains to the reader. The most wonderfully pompous phrase, "mechrithanatous aspectivizer," is just plain bad for what it explains (e.g., "I was tickled to death") even for a field filled with jargon such as linguistics.

The introduction gives a brief statement of what we know of the Limbus and their history. In it van Driem avoids being drawn into the many scholarly controversies now current in Nepal regarding the Limbus, their historical relation to the Kiratas, and their possible role in pre-Licchavi Nepal. There is, however, perhaps too much reliance on older works such as Chatterji's Kirata-jana-krti, with its antiquated racial terminology and fuzzy methodology. Thus, in his first sentence, van Driem characterizes the Limbus as "a sedentary agriculturalist people of the Mongoloid race." This is precisely the kind of outdated racial terminology that should be avoided, for all it does is thrust another vague ethnonym onto the Yakthunba, this time a Western one. There are other statements that might be questioned, p. xxi for example: "The codex of the Newari king Jayasthiti Malla dating from the end of the fourteenth century was an early attempt to codify the caste system in the Kathmandu Valley," a statement supported by reference to Hofer's study of the Muluki Ain. But there is no "codex" of Jayasthiti Malla dating to the fourteenth century or to any other century. A fourteenth-century work, the Gopalarajavamsavali, says nothing of caste reform, and indeed there is no known account of such a reform until the late chronicles.

The texts in van Driem's appendices cover many aspects of Yakthunba culture: food, everyday life, myth and legend, fables, anecdotes, and riddles. These van Driem gives with interlinear as well as full translations, and they give life and considerable humor to the work. Appendix III is a Limbu-English glossary. This is a very valuable reference tool, filled with ethnographic as well as linguistic material. Appendix IV discusses and presents the various forms of the script, a most welcome addition to the grammar since these materials lie scattered in works difficult to come by.

In conclusion, despite the above criticisms, the work is of a high order and is a most welcome addition to Himalayan linguistics.
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Author:Riccardi, T., Jr.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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