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Review of  A Grammar of Lepcha

Reviewer: Jakob Dempsey
Book Title: A Grammar of Lepcha
Book Author: Heleen Plaisier
Publisher: Brill
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Lepcha
Issue Number: 20.2244

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AUTHOR: Plaisier, Heleen
TITLE: A Grammar of Lepcha
SERIES TITLE: Languages of the Greater Himalyan Region
YEAR: 2007.

Jakob Dempsey, Dept. of Applied Linguistics, Yuan Ze University, Taiwan.

In 1898 the field of Tibeto-Burman studies was greatly enriched by the
publication of a 568-page dictionary, replete with examples of usage and an
extensive English index, devoted to a rather obscure language spoken in southern
Sikkim and a few surrounding areas. The language, Lepcha, despite being the
mother-tongue of perhaps only about 30,000 people (or, according to Bradley
1997, ''probably as few as 4,000''), has been the object of several dozen studies
over the last century or so (for all these figures I am relying on the book
under review). Certainly the existence of the 1898 dictionary (by Mainwaring,
extensively edited by Grünwedel), and in particular its large English-Lepcha
index, acted as an important stimulus for these studies. Thus it is no accident
that Benedict's 1972 _Sino-Tibetan – a Conspectus_, the seminal study in the
history of Tibeto-Burman research, refers so often to examples from this language.

For many decades then, scholars concerned with Tibeto-Burman (TB) historical
linguistics have often referred to the 1898 dictionary, but not without some
uneasiness due to its age and lack of a more modern linguistic approach.
Plaisier's new book is thus a precious gift to the whole field of TB studies
since it is a large-scale, modern, accurate treatment of Lepcha. Although the
book is called ''A Grammar of Lepcha'', I feel this is somewhat misleading: this
is not a thorough-going, hundreds of pages long detailed examination of Lepcha
grammar with many examples of each grammatical topic. What Plaisier has given
the world is rather a ''Manual of Lepcha'', in other words a set of materials
which, if used properly, could enable the reader to attain a practical command
of the language. In my view, her presentation of the language in this way is
actually more effective and direct. In other words, this book is more suited to
helping the reader to learn Lepcha, not simply to learn about it.

The 16-page introduction discusses the Lepcha people in respect to settlement
patterns, history, ethnological and cultural details, and finishes with a
summary of the publications (19th through 21st century) about the Lepchas and
their language. The next chapter introduces the phonological system (in which
there is little variation among the 4 major settlement areas) and includes an
extensive discussion of matters orthographical. Plaisier then refers the reader
to Sprigg 1966 for more details. The vowel symbols used in the 1898 dictionary
are rather non-conventional and confusing [ due to problems in email
transmission, please note the following usage: schwa = the vowel in AmEng luck,
love; @ = the vowel in CentEast AmEng, southernBrit cause, talk; x = a
tone-category in Drung; W = high central vowel] (e.g. ‘a’ with acute accent
=schwa, a = a , ‘o’ with acute accent = @, o = o ) , but instead of either
completely sticking with this well-known, if somewhat peculiar system, or
completely replacing it with a more standard symbology, Plaisier uses /a/ (and
also ‘a’ with a circumflex accent) for schwa , and then ‘a’ with acute accent
for low-central a , thus more or less the opposite of how these vowels are
represented in the 1898 dictionary. Although Plaisier's choices here stick
closer to Mainwaring's original vision, the main reference book that most TB
scholars have at hand, the 1898 dictionary, goes by Grünwedel's system. In any
case, Plaisier provides us with a detailed table (pages 42-43) which shows all
the basic syllabic types in Lepcha script along with four different systems of

The author points out a crucial contrast in two series of consonants, e.g. _gr-_
vs. retroflex d , i.e. true clusters vs. a series of retroflex stops; this
contrast is not presented very clearly in the 1898 dictionary. On p.25, Plaisier
informs us that the retroflex-initial words are mainly loanwords from Tibetan,
but then adds that some native Lepcha clusters are now also pronounced as
retroflex stops. More on this problem below.

Plaisier devotes considerable space to discussing the complexities of the native
Lepcha alphabet and to what extent it reflects the actual phonology. Although it
is derived from Tibetan script, it contains so many innovations (e.g. the _s_
looks almost exactly like an Arabic _s_ ) that for a Tibetanist it is probably
quite a bit easier to master, say, the Tibetan-derived Phags-pa alphabet. On her
''Acknowledgements'' page Plaisier mentions Jason Glavy, ''who developed the Lepcha
font that is used here.''

To quickly describe the rest of the book, there is a chapter on Nominal
Morphology which, within a mere 50 pages, manages to cover a wide range of
topics in an insightful and clear manner. There follow shorter chapters on
Verbal Morphology and Particles, Coordination, Subordination which, while not as
exhaustive as one might like, are well-organized and show an effective use of
modern linguistic theory in the way the topics are presented.

The next 69 pages consist of six stories or dialogues, first in the native
script, then in a parallel-lines version where the upper line is the
transliteration (also showing some prosodic information) and the lower line
gives word by word English glosses plus identification of grammatical functions.
The final section of each story is a fluent English translation which is divided
into numbered sections for reference to the previous, analytical section. A
comprehensive glossary, ordered roughly according to the Tibetan tradition, is
followed by a bibliography and index, all in all about 270 pages.

Here I make a few comments on places where I would have liked to see more
discussion, which I follow with a general evaluation.

In the phonology section, there is, unfortunately, little explicit information
about prosody aside from the remark (p.32) that stress is ''usually on the second

This reviewer was puzzled about some of the discussion of true clusters vs.
retroflex stops: for example, Plaisier's Glossary at the end of her book has
_dre_ 'demon' which almost perfectly corresponds to the Tibetan written and (in
some dialects) spoken forms, but the glossary also has _tre_ 'mule', which has
the same _dr-_ , not _tr-_ , in Tibetan. Some forms of this etymon in other TB
languages include Southern Monpa _greq_ , Bugun _grei_ , Drung _krix_, and E.
Gyarung _rke_ . These are all presumed to be loanwords from some earlier stage
of Tibetan (actually, Monpa is itself a kind of outlier Tibetan), and all these
could be explained by deriving Written Tibetan _dre_ from earlier *_gre_ (in
Central Tibetan, all _gr-_ whether written or spoken have long since assimilated
to _dr-_ which is usually pronounced as a retroflex stop). So, when we see
_kre_ 'mule' in the 1898 dictionary, what are we to think? Was that a
not-sufficiently accurate rendition for what was really _tre_ , or was it
actually a velar cluster which has since been regularized according to modern
Tibetan pronunciation, thus _kre_ > _tre_ ? That Tibetan velar initials can
still be conserved in Lepcha is seen in the Glossary's [email protected]_ 'village' (cf.
Written Tibetan [ wTib] _grong_ ) and _khyW_ 'bathe' (cf. wTib. _khrud_ ) .
Lepcha _krít_ 'hunger' looks like it is derived from wTib _bkres_• ( _-s_ > _-t_
in Lepcha), and [email protected]_ 'recover' must be a loan, cf. wTib _drag_- ( < *_grag_ )
'get well, be healed'. The whole issue of how the retroflex-stop series
developed in Lepcha, how it has interacted with the grave stop + -r- clusters,
and the date and manner in which Tibetan words entered the Lepcha language still
needs more careful research.

I managed to locate Glavy's URL concerning the Lepcha script used by Plaisier
(; one can actually download a Lepcha
font from this site. As for typing it into a document, Glavy refers to a Keyman
Lepcha keyboard program available at , but it turns out that
site has no references to Lepcha or Sikkim, so Plaisier's efforts to share
Lepcha with the world would be more effective if she could take care of this
problem. One way might be to upload the keyboard program to which is a site apparently established by Plaisier herself.

On the back cover of the book it states: ''Lepcha represents a branch unto itself
within the Tibeto-Burman languages.'' Although Plaisier's book, being more of a
''manual'' (cf. above), can serve as a useful tool for acquiring a practical
command of the language, it could probably be said that the majority of scholars
in the TB field are more interested in answers to the puzzle of Lepcha's genetic
connection to the rest of TB, and would hardly agree that this language
constitutes ''a branch unto itself''. Sprigg 1989 mentions some recent work in
this area, with different scholars coming to quite different conclusions, e.g.
that Lepcha is close to Ao (a Naga language in the Kuki-Chin-Naga group), or
that it is most related to Mikir (an outlier connected with this group), or that
it is most like Mising/Adi, or that it is connected with Magar; Bradley 1997
places it somewhere in his ill-defined ''Central TB'' group along with a number of
languages with ill-defined pedigree, i.e. Sulung, Nishi, Idu, Keman, Trung et
al. Thus Lepcha has been connected with other TB languages hundreds of
kilometers to its east or west; is it a lonely hold-out when its congeners have
all moved off far away? Or did the Lepchas, long ago, have some reason to flee
their earlier homeland and end up in Sikkim? To this reviewer (who has a
somewhat similar ''Central'' group in his 1995 dissertation) it is striking that
almost all the genetically ill-defined TB languages are to be found in a narrow
belt of mountainous regions stretching from central Nepal eastward to the great
barrier of multiple, steep north-south river valleys that stretch eastward from
northern Burma. The lexicostatistical studies seen so far on Lepcha seem a bit
lacking in methodological rigor. Does it really have an Austroasiatic
substratum? In any case, how do we explain the many common words which do not
look like anything in TB, along side all the other words which look very like
TB, but what kind of TB? A number of researchers around the world, and,
presumably, at least a few of the more educated Lepcha themselves, are
interested in these puzzles. In the book itself, Plaisier makes no mention of
these matters, so I will assume the above-mentioned statement on the back cover
to be the kind of bold generalization often found in advertisements.

Everyone has different interests and strengths; this fine work produced by
Plaisier shows her competence as a field-worker, descriptivist, and educator.
Whether or not she wishes to enter the fray surrounding the origins of the
Lepcha language and people, her new book is not only a valuable tool for
learners of the language, but also a much clearer and more reliable picture of
the phonology and lexicon, therefore of great value to other scholars already
engaged in TB lexicostatistic studies.

Bradley, David. (1997) Tibeto-Burman languages and classification. in _Papers in
Southeast Asian Linguistics No. 14: Tibeto-Burman Languages of the Himalayas_.
(Australian National University - Pacific Linguistics – Series A-86), p. 1-72.

Mainwaring, G.B. / Grünwedel, Albert. (1898) _Dictionary of the Lepcha
Language_. Bibliotheca Himalayica Series II v.6. Kathmandu: Ratna Pustak Bhandar
(1979 reprint).

Sprigg, R.K. (1966) Lepcha and Balti-Tibetan; tonal or non-tonal languages?
_Asia Major n.s._ 12.2:185-201.

Sprigg, R.K. (1989) Oral Vowels and Nasalized Vowels in Lepcha (Rong): as the
Key to a Puzzling Variation in Spelling. In _South-East Asian Linguistics:
Essays in honour of Eugénie J.A. Henderson_. London: SOAS (pages 219-235).

Jakob Dempsey is an Associate Professor in the foreign-languages/linguistics
department in Yuan Ze University, Taiwan. He has an M.A. in Tibetan and a Ph.D.
in Asian Linguistics (University of Washington, Seattle). Interests include
historical phonology and comparative dialectology (esp. TB, Chinese, Iranian,
Middle English, and Coptic). Courses taught include phonetics, English aural
comprehension, sociolinguistics, general linguistics, and Korean. Many years ago
he spent 14 months living in Afghanistan, and would like to go there again, but
not for the time being.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 9004155252
ISBN-13: 9789004155251
Pages: 256
Prices: U.S. $ 120.00