There’s a Tibetan dialect called ‘Mustang,’ and it’s staying alive in the US

The World
Nawang Tsering Gurungat at Diversity Square

Stepping off the train in Jackson Heights, Queens, on a recent Sunday, I discovered two groups doing sonic battle in a courtyard ringed with shops: a Tibetan religious service led by crimson-robed monks versus a "Bangladeshi Americans for Bernie Sanders" rally. Later I looked up the name of the place: Diversity Square.

No surprise, given this is the epicenter of the most diverse neighborhood in America.

More than 130 different languages are spoken in Jackson Heights, but many of them are from places so small, so remote, they get lost in the commotion. Take Mustang, a dialect of Tibetan with only 7,500 speakers worldwide — 800 of whom live in the US.

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Dialects like Mustang — also referred to as “Mustangi” — are waging quiet fights here, for time, attention, and survival. What exactly are they fighting against? You could say it's the pursuit of the American Dream itself. Given the challenges of starting a new life halfway across the world, even when a language is spoken at home, English is often what kids focus on learning.

As language activist Nawang Gurung explains: “Parents work 12 to 15 hours in restaurants, nanny jobs, as nail technicians. … Now if parents talk to their kids in Mustangi dialect, kids are gonna respond in English.”

Nawang has become a custodian of Mustang here in New York City. “Language represents your identity,” he explains. “Who you are. If the Mustangi dialect vanishes, it's slowly gonna mean, it has a totally new identity.”

Three Mustang sisters in Diversity Square, Queens
Pema, Domaseri and Domaseri come to Diversity Square every weekend to attend Mustang Sunday. Even in a place as diverse as Jackson Heights, it can be difficult to explain where it is they come from, the three told me.“When we say Mustang, not many people get it. And when we say Tibet, ‘Oh! that's China basically.”Alina Simone

These new identities are being forged by families who are part of a massive migration from the Himalayas, accelerated by last year's major earthquake in Nepal and a downturn in tourism. According to Nawang, the result for mountain people like the Mustang has been “a rapid population decline compared to other regions in Nepal."

His fear is that as the sparse population of Mustang speakers scatters, soon there won’t be anyone to learn from. So together with the Endangered Language Alliance here in New York, he is working to create a kind of Mustang Library of Congress. It’s part of a project called Voices of the Himalayas, a digital archive that will preserve Himalayan oral history, folklore and song, handed down over hundreds of years.

Oddly enough, Nawang’s own journey to Queens from the Himalayan village of Gilling began with an English word: chocolate.

“The only word we knew was 'chocolate' at that time. We didn't know [the] alphabet, we don't know any numbers, but we know the word, chocolate.”

With his cropped black hair, button-down shirt and hipster shoulder bag, it’s hard to imagine Nawang was once a 7-year-old sheep herderhoping to score sweets from a visiting foreigner. But one day, he made a life-changing chocolate request from an Oxford professor who had come to his village to conduct fieldwork. 

“At that time, I didn't know what lay beyond the mountains, the high big mountains…”

Within a year, he was living beyond those peaks, attending school in Kathmandu while boarding with a British family. Eventually, he wound up as a graduate student at Dallas Baptist University. It was a big opportunity, but he felt isolated and alone in Texas. Then one day, he saw a car parked in front of his school with a familiar name on the back and wondered: Who was the driver? 

“I'm so excited to see this person. I thought they were from Mustang. And waited for 2 hours and then…”

And then, two white women got in and drove away.

Afterward, he went back to his apartment and Googled "Mustang." Instead of finding his small Himalayan community, he discovered a whole lot of … car advertisements.

“I never heard, back in Nepal, about Mustang the car, yeah?”

In English these Mustangs sound the same, but they actually have nothing in common. The Mustang Valley derives its name from the Tibetan word for "fertile plain." The car is named after the horse, whose name comes from the Mexican-Spanish word “mestengo,” meaning an “animal that strays.”

Six months after the Mustang misunderstanding, Nawang transferred to New York’s Hunter College and moved to Jackson Heights, where many of the sights and sounds were familiar.

Here, he says, “it’s not lonely. … It's all interconnected — Tibet and Burmese speakers.”

It’s one of the few places outside of Nepal where it’s possible to conduct fieldwork about the Mustang dialect, and to bump intonative speakers on the street. 

There are about 8,000 people here from Tibet and Nepal, whose traditions are closely related to those of Mustang. In Jackson Heights, Nawang can grab lunch at the Himalayan Yak, or buy books written in Tibetan.

Since arriving in New York, Nawang has only become more active in the Himalayan community. He continues to work as a researcher and translator, serving as the coordinator for the Endangered Language Alliance's Voices of the Himalayas project.

The website for the project states: "Whether you are a speaker yourself, a partial speaker, or know someone who might be, we are always looking for more resources on Himalayan languages. Please get in touch!"

[Update: People have been getting in touch with us too, about whether Mustang is a dialect, a language or something else. It turns out that Mustang is described in many ways. Some linguists argue that it is a language because it is not well understood by speakers of standard Tibetan. Others call it a dialect of Tibetan. It is also characterized as a 'variety' of the Tibetan language.]  

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