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Documentation of ‘Olekha, with a Focus on Traditional Ethnobotanical Knowledge


Language ‘Olekha
Depositor Gwendolyn Hyslop
Affiliation Australian National University, College of Asia and the Pacific
Location Bhutan
Collection ID 0173
Grant ID MDP0233
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

The Olekha language has five remaining speakers living in the remote Rukha village of south central Bhutan. Most of the community today speaks Dzongkha, the national language. Phobjip is spoken just north of the area. The community has shifted to an agricultural lifestyle from a former hunter gatherer lifestyle within the past 50 years, retaining aspects of the former culture.


Group represented

In Bhutan, speakers of Olekha are well known for their intimate knowledge of their surrounding flora. Until recently – within the past couple generations – the Oleps (people from Rukha) were hunter-gatherers, exploiting the local landscape and living a semi-nomadic lifestyle in the forests surrounding the location of their current village.

In the 1980s, the government began teaching the Oleps to be agriculturalists. Very rapidly, the community has been abandoning their traditional way of life. Their traditional religion was considered to be animist, but they are now converting to Buddhism. However, they have not completely abandoned their traditional lifestyle. During the winter months they are settled in their new village but for much of the remaining ten months many are occupied with their work in the forests. Some villagers go with the cattle for extended periods of grazing while others spend time collecting the plants from the forests.


Special characteristics

In terms of classification, van Driem (1995) classified Olekha as belonging to the East Bodish branch of Tibeto-Burman, constituting the ‘archaic’ branch of the subfamily. Later, however, van Driem (pc) advocates for removing the Bodic affiliation altogether and now regards Olekha as an isolate within Tibeto-Burman.


Collection history

Olekha, one of two dialects of what has been referred to as Black Mountain Mönpa, is a highly endangered language of central Bhutan. The only published study of the language to date is van Driem (1995), a presentation of personal pronouns and some verbal paradigms. In this and other publications (e.g. van Driem 2001), van Driem refers to a couple hundred speakers of two dialects of ‘Black Mountain Mönpa’ (this collection retains the name Olekha, following the speakers’ preference). However, the depositor believes this estimate to be high. The depositor’s figures show five speakers in the village of Rukha, and an unknown number, certainly less than a few hundred, in the village of Riti (a four-day walk from Rukha).

In early 2010, the Bhutan Broadcasting Service ran a story on the ‘last speaker’ of Olekha, a woman named Ange(Grandmother) Choden in her 80s. According to the story, the villagers lamented the loss of their language, and Ange Choden’s nephew, Kuenga, was trying to teach the language to the children of the village. The program showed Kuenga teaching the children a song about body parts in Olekha. Upon seeing the program, the Bhutanese government asked the PI, Gwendolyn Hyslop, and RA, Karma Tshering, to assist DDC Research Officer, Namgay Thinley, with documentation of the language before Ange Choden passes on.

With funding from the Endangered Language Fund and the Firebird Foundation, the team travelled to Rukha village, where Ange Choden lives, and worked with her in late 2010. In their 2010 trip the team found a total of five fluent Olekha speakers, including Ange Choden. Two other native speakers are also in their eighties, and two fluent, second language speakers are in their late forties/early fifties (including Kuenga).


Other information

This project was developed out of discussion with 1) the Olekha community; 2) the Committee for the

Conservation of the Vanishing Languages and traditional Ecological Knowledge of Bhutan; and 3) the governing body concerned with language in Bhutan (DDC). An overarching theme throughout all levels of this work is to increase local capacity for research.

In 2010 the PI, RA, and Namgay Thinley, Senior research Officer of the Dzongkha Development Commission, visited the Ole village and discussed the interest of a future project. The village headman and other community members approved of the idea. In fact, the impetus to visit the village in the first place came from a news story about the ‘last speaker’ of the language (though there were a few more speakers). As the researchers carry out the language documentation, we will continue to listen to the village’s wishes and desires. Copies of any recordings to interested consultants will be distributed for their personal use.

The Committee for the Conservation of the Vanishing Languages and Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Bhutan aims to collect oral literature and continue ongoing language documentation in Bhutan. The template for the work is based on the Sabah Oral Literature Project of Malaysian Borneo (Appell 2010). Realizing that traditional knowledge, culture, and a rich oral literature was rapidly being lost among the Rungus, Dr. G. N. Appell began the Sabah Oral Literature Project,wherein the local people collected and transcribed their own oral literature and traditional knowledge. The Committee is expanding this template for work in Bhutan to include two interlinked branches: The Bhutan Language Documentation Project and the Bhutan Oral Literature Project.

The Bhutan Language Documentation Project is directed by the PI and RA, who are also working to increase local capacity for language documentation by training researchers in the DDC. Through fieldwork and elicitation they will first produce phonemic orthographies and grammatical sketches of Bhutan’s endangered languages (as they have done with Kurtöp and began with Olekha). Transcribed and translated oral literature from the Bhutan Oral Literature Project will enhance the grammatical sketch and inform eventual grammatical description.

The Bhutan Oral Literature Project trains a local Project manager in ethical and effective oral literature documentation(training with the Firebird Foundation in the U.S.). The Project Manager in turn trains a team of two (younger, educated villager and elder, cultural authority) in the same methods to collect, annotate, transcribe and translate oral literature from their own communities. The team uses the phonemic orthography devised by the Bhutan Language Documentation Project. The oral literature itself serves as a source of traditional ecological knowledge, and also serves as a source to enrich the grammatical description. Feedback from the Language Documentation side of the project further enhances transcription and translation of the oral literature.

In Bhutan, perhaps unlike elsewhere in South Asia, the ‘community’ necessarily also involves the government. The governing body assigned the task of language documentation in Bhutan is the Dzongkha Development Commission(DDC). The PI and RA have been working with the DDC since 2007.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Hyslop, Gwendolyn. 2010. Documentation of ‘Olekha, with a Focus on Traditional Ethnobotanical Knowledge. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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