Diversity of Language

Features Issue 31 Aug, 2010
Text by Keshab Poudel / Photo: Pradeep Shakya ,ECS Media

Chapagaun Village Development Committee, 7 miles south of Patan Bazaar, has three different ethnic groups who speak three languages from two different language families: Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman. In the hill and market areas, they speak the Tibeto-Burman languages Tamang and Newari. In the middle area where the residents are Brahmin, Chettris and Dalits, Nepali, an Indo-Aryan language, is the mother tongue.

Even within Newari, there are two different prevailing dialects. The language spoken at Pyangaun is different than that in Chapaguan Bazar, less than a half kilometer north.

 Chapagaun, where the population of 7,000 in the space of around 500 square kilometers speaks three different mother tongues, is by no means unique in Nepal. Almost all villages in Nepal use at least a few different languages and dialects.

 Nepal is popular with foreigners in part because of its variety of cultures formed over its long history of civilization, where Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman, Buddhism and Hinduism grew together. The diversity of languages is a constant reminder of the long process of mixing and separation that took place over the centuries.

Like the mountains of Nepal, formed by the collision between the Indian and Tibetan continental plates, the language, religion, ethnicity and culture of the Himalayan Kingdom have also been borne of a collision between north and south.

Despite its long history and importance, the diversity of languages is hardly noticed by most people from the outside world. Yet, one of the important aspects of Nepal is harmony in diversity. All four language families are in use in Nepal: not only Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman languages, but also Munda and Dravid languages. Research has shown that there are 16 languages of Indo-Aryan, 73 of Tibeto-Burman, one of Dravidian and four languages of Austro-Asiatic (Munda) extraction spoken in Nepal. According to the National Census, there are 16 major languages, with more than 100,000 native speakers. Ten languages, including Dzongkha, have less than 100 native speakers.

“Nepal is home to numerous languages and dialects due to various factors. One is its location at the convergence area of different linguistic groups from diverse sources. These are represented by hill Indo-Aryan from the west, tarai Indo Aryan, Munda, and Dravidian from the South, and hill Tibeto-Burman from the east and north,” said Dr. Harka Gurung

In the last five decades of modernization, Nepal has seen the decay of many local languages and dialects. The extinction of a language is a major threat to knowledge and ideas about its civilization. “The names of many of Nepal’s languages are derived from place names or from ethnonym of the group speaking the language. Such languages have their own historical traditions which reflect and identify the homeland of the respective speech communities,” writes late Dr. Ballav Mani Dahal, a renowned linguist of Nepal. “Due to economic pressures, however, people are compelled to migrate and migrants do not necessarily keep their language in new situations. The function of the mother tongue languages is limited, and speakers are likely to shift to the dominant language of the area to which they have shifted.” In the course of evolution, many languages may have died. Recently Kushunda is one in the process of extinction. Only a few people can speak the Kushunda language.

The Newars are one of the communities in Nepal who have been able to preserve their mother language. Like other communities, the Newars migrated to various parts of Nepal and beyond the country’s boundary, but they still keep their mother tongue with them.

“Newar (Newari or Nepal Bhasa) is one of the oldest Himalayan group of Tibeto-Burman languages, with a very rich literature,” said Tej R. Kansakar, professor at Tribhuwan University.

Of course, Newars living in different parts of the country speak different dialects, but most Newars retain Newari as their primary language. Unlike Newars of smaller towns of the Kathmandu Valley, many of the new generation in urban Kathamndu have assimilated and now speak Nepali.

“Although Nepalbhasa is my mother tongue, I can speak Nepali as well as Tamang,”said Krishna Bahadur Desar, former chairman of Chapagaun Village Development committee.” Since most Tamang and Newar people speak Nepali along with their mother tongue, only a few Brahmin and Chettri speak either Newari or Tamang.

According to the National Census, 825,458 people use Newari as their mother tongue. (A mother tongue is defined in the census as one spoken by a person in his/her early childhood.) The Newari language survives because Newars who settled in different parts of the country retain their own culture and rituals. Since Newars have tended to migrate in large groups, it is not difficult to find other Newari speakers even when moving far away.

Newars have a long history of literature and stories. There are many interesting stories passed from generation to generation which help to sustain these as a mother tongue. And in particular, many religious and other stories are written in Newari.

diversity in language/diversity in culture
The diversity of languages also contributes to enrich local culture. The case of Chapagaun is an example. Tamang in the upper hills have their own festivals and their own colorful way to perform. The Newars and Nepali mother tongue speakers each have their own way to celebrate the festivals. When these three different ethnic groups join, they create the towns rich, unique identity.

Nepal is a small country; its width and length is not large- but she is rich in the diversity of languages and ethnic groups. From one mountain to another mountain and from one valley to another, people speak different languages and different dialects.

Just as the diversity of topography and vegetation ranges from tundra to tropical, the diversity of languages is another character of the country. Thanks to the high mountain and remoteness, many places were isolated and cut off from the mainstream for centuries, keeping the mother tongue intact, or developing independently from other languages. In many areas, there was little contact even among the speakers of the same language, allowing different dialects to develop.

 In the high Himalaya, Tibeto-Burman families of languages dominate, but other areas have a mixture of language families. In terms of diversity, the tarai is the richest due to the greatest settlement from other areas. Different ethnic groups speak all four families of languages, and in some recently settled villages, residents need to speak at least two languages to carry out daily tasks.

According to the Census of 2001, all 3900 Village Development Committees and 58 Municipalities house people speaking many different Tibeto-Burman and Indo-Aryan languages.

many mother tongues
Nepal is a multi-lingual and multi-ethnic society. The 1952/54 census collected information on 36 languages but tabulated only 24. The 1961 census collected information on 52 languages but tabulated only 36. However the National Language Policy Advisory Commission has listed 60 living languages in the Kingdom. The recent census conducted by Central Bureau of Statistics 2001 lists 92 identified and some unidentified languages in Nepal. The 14th Edition of the Ethnologies suggests 125 languages. These numbers vary due to differences in determining whether a particular system is a language or a dialect and uncertainty as to whether a language is actually in use or simply still known of.

Newari people have their own literature of various genres, reaching back over a period of several hundred years. Nepali and Maithali (which is also of the Indo-Aryan group and spoken primarily in the Janakpur area) also have a written tradition. Sherpa and Tamang people are reclaiming use of the Tibetan written language. Other indigenous peoples have oral traditional literature that is only now being published in written form.

The 2001 Census recorded Nepali as a mother tongue of 11million people. 2.79 million people have Maithali as a mother tongue; 1.71 million have Bhojpuri and 1.17 million have Tharu (Daguria Rana). There are 770,116 with Newari as their mother tongue; 825,458 with Tamang; 338,925 claim Bantawa, 333,633 claim Gurung and129,771 have Sherpa as their mother tongue. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)’s World Language Report 2002 also highlight an additional 60 to 70 languages spoken in Nepal. Such languages are spoken by indigenous people of Nepal.

“With respect to the general language situation in Nepal, the minority languages are used in the areas where a particular language groups lives, along with Nepali means of communication with Nepali speakers in those areas, Bilingualism is prevalent all over the country of Nepal, while multilingualism is commonly found especially along the borders. Each language has dialectical differences to a greater or smaller extent. Such differences stand out for languages that have a large number of speakers or that are spread out either over a large area, or over an area divided by rivers or mountains thus separating the different settlements,” states the UNESCO report.

The Linguistic Survey of Nepal Project proposes to identify and analyze Nepal’s languages including details about their lexicon, grammar, variation, anthropological aspects, and other facts related to an interdisciplinary approach.

interest of foreign scholars
From Colonel Kirkpatrick who led the British mission to Nepal back in 1793  to Brian Hodgson, many western scholars have shown their interest in study- ing the diversity of language spoken in Nepal.

“While the ethnic groups of Nepal and their languages have been studied by foreign and national scholars alike for well over a century, it is only in the last decade that ethnic and linguistic sensitivities have risen to a national consciousness. One problem is that much remains to be understood about the ethnic groups of Nepal and their languages: how many languages are spoken within her boundaries, how the speakers of these languages interrelate with one another and the broader national community, and how distinct the cultures and languages within a broad ethnic groups are,” writes Yogendra Prasad Yadav, president, Linguistic Society of Nepal in the journal of the Linguistic Society of Nepal.

Despite more than a century of research, no one knows even the number, let alone the characteristics of all the languages and dialects spoken in Nepal. As Japanese researcher Sueyoshi Toba rightly observes, “right in the streets of Kathmandu, the attentive observer can see a variety of costumes as well as hear a variety of languages spoken by visitors from the hills or from the tarai. This is Nepal’s unique heritage and wealth, a reason to be proud.”