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1. Nepalese languages

Once in Nepal, communities remained completely isolated by steep valleys and high mountains and by thick forest, leading to the evolution of many distinct languages, given as 92 in the 2001 census but now put by Ethnologue at 124 distinct living languages, though this increase in number seems mostly related to distinguishing dialects within larger groups previously thought to belong to a single linguistic community. Ethnologue’s linguistic map for Nepal, reproduced in Figure 1, shows the hotchpot of languages scattered across the country.

The Linguistic Map of Nepal

Fig 1. The Linguistic Map of Nepal.

If we take Trosterud’s suggestion that at least those languages with more than 16,000 speakers should be written, we find that we should expect all languages down to and including Dhimal should be written; this is 28 languages, just under one third of the languages, in line with the proportion in the population of world languages as a whole. Table 3, lists these 28 languages plus two others, with relevant characteristics extracted from Ethnologue. Note that 8 of them have much larger populations across the border in India, with one of these, Maithili, the second largest language of Nepal. This leaves 20 Nepalese languages, only one of which, Nepali, is used in written form in all walks of life and can be considered fully literate; however most of them have at least some limited use in writing.

2. Nepalese writing

However only four of these purely Nepalese languages have any significant tradition of being written:

  • Nepali, historically known as Khas, Parbatiya and Gorkhali, with 11,053,255 speakers in 2001, has been written in Devanagari, the script used across north India and in particular for Hindi, for around 300 years.
  • Newari, with 825,458 speakers in 2001, is known as Nepal Bhasa within the linguistic community, and has been written for over a thousand years in a number of scripts.
  • Limbu with 333,633 speakers in 2001, has a traditional script Sirijanga which was probably derived from Lepcha writing (Omniglot 2010). It is claimed to have been invented in the 9th century and then revived in the 17th century by Te-ongsi Sirijonga, and then revived again in 1925 when it was formally named “Sirijanga”.
  • Lepcha (also known as Rong), with 2,826 speakers in Nepal but 48,000 in Sikkim in India, is written in a script evolved from the Tibetan script, which tradition claims was devised in the 17th or 18th centuries (Wikipedia 2012b).

Ethnologue only reports limited literacy for Newari and Limbu, not surprising since these languages were suppressed by successive Nepalese governments from the late 18th century onwards until 1990. While the writing of Limbu and Lepcha was probably only ever used for special cultural and religious texts, Newar writing was used for a wide range of purposes until the overthrow of their regime by the Gorkhas in the mid 18th century.