HKU Linguist’s Project on Endangered Language Helps to
Bring Sight to Remote Village in Nepal

1 October 2019 (Tuesday)

HKU Linguist’s Project on Endangered Language Helps to
Bring Sight to Remote Village in Nepal

Dr. Cathryn Donohue from the Department of Linguistics in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) has been working on a Tibeto-Burman language,Nubri. Her efforts to preserve this endangered language have resulted in nearly 500 villagers in the remote Nubri Valley in Nepal receiving eye treatment. More than 50 villagers even regained sight through cataract surgery.

Situated near the border with Tibet in northern central Nepal, Nubri Valley is located about a week's walk from the nearest road and is about 5 days' walk from one end to the other. The ~2000 ethnically Tibetan people living in the valley speak Nubri, a Tibeto-Burman language. It has been described as 'vulnerable' or 'definitely endangered' by UNESCO, meaning that the future of the language is uncertain. Dr. Donohue has been working on the documentation of Nubri with the local community for the past few years and hopes to contribute to the preservation of this language.

Dr. Donohue argues that the Nubri language is at a critical juncture. She said: "Evolving social practices are resulting in increased language endangerment. This is in large part due to a significant portion of the younger generations moving out of the valley for schooling where Nepali is used in the classroom. This has resulted in a sharp decrease in the use of the language among the younger Nubris, threatening the language's survival for future generations."

In an attempt to try to secure the future of the language, Dr. Donohue investigated possible maintenance efforts. She thought that introducing a writing system, allowing Nubri to be written and thus used in more domains, is one of the best ways to preserve the language. Doing this successfully requires the involvement of the entire community, a challenge in the Nubri context where it is difficult to motivate time from subsistence farming to gather from across the valley and discuss orthographic proposals.

Dr. Donohue considered another dire need in the community --- healthcare, and eyecare in particular, so necessary for subsistence farmers. She facilitated a gathering of the Nubri people by organizing eye clinics. Cooperating with Kathmandu's prestigious Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology, highly experienced with remote clinics of this kind, Dr. Donohue was able to offer eye treatments for the villagers.

To carry out the eye clinics, doctors were flown into the valley by helicopter. They held six screening clinics throughout the valley which 499 villagers attended, roughly one-quarter of the Nubri population. Doctors treated various eye issues for the villagers and diagnosed 64 cases of cataracts that needed surgery. Another surgical clinic was then set up in a central location that precipitated a gathering of villagers from across the valley. Among those who underwent surgery, there was a 78-year-old woman who had been blind for six years and whose nephew carried her on his back for more than five days to have her sight finally restored.

"The eye clinic project was the first of its kind in Nubri Valley, enabling patients who would not be able to travel to Kathmandu due to financial or physical constraints to receive appropriate treatment. In addition to restoring vision for many in this community, the project also created an opportunity for the community gathering to discuss orthographic options, and to record some of Nubri's traditional medicinal practices. It also has a longer-term impact by contributing to the documentation of Nubri language and culture, and hopefully to the preservation of the language through the introduction of a community-endorsed writing system", said Dr. Donohue.

Further details about this and other linguistic aspects of the project are available from the following website:

Dr. Cathryn Donohue is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, Faculty of Arts at the University of Hong Kong. Her research interests center on morphosyntax, with a particular focus on Sino-Tibetan languages. She has carried out fieldwork on a number of languages, including other Himalayan languages and Hong Kong's minority dialects.

Video and photos can be downloaded here

For media enquiries, please contact Ms. Agatha Fung, Development and Communications Team, Faculty of Arts, Tel: (852) 3917 2381 / email:


香港大學文學院語言學系助理教授Cathryn Donohue博士從事藏緬語系「努日語」(Nubri)研究,她致力保存這種瀕危語言的努力,間接讓超過500名居住在尼泊爾努日山谷的村民獲得眼科治療,超過50名村民因而得以重見光明。

努日山谷位於尼泊爾中北部與西藏交界處,離最近的公路要步行約一星期,從山谷的一端走到另一端需時要五天。努日語是藏緬語的一種,目前有大約2,000名居住在努日山谷的藏族居民用作日常溝通語言。努日語已被聯合國教科文組織列爲「肯定瀕危型」,即「該語言不再被孩子在家中作為母語學習」。 Donohue博士過去數年一直與當地社群合作,從事努日語的檔案編制,把語言按科學標準描述,把這種語言紀錄保存下來。



Donohue博士考慮到村民的另一項迫切需要 -- 眼科治療,於是計劃利用提供眼科服務,把他們聚集起來。她與加德滿都知名眼科診所Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology合作,憑藉他們在偏遠地區設置診所的豐富經驗,為村民提供眼科診治。




Cathryn Donohue博士是香港大學文學院語言學系助理教授。她的主要研究領域為形態句法,主要研究方向為漢藏語。她擁有許多不同語言的實地考察經驗,包括其他喜馬拉雅語言及香港少數群體的方言。

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