Culture & TraditionNepal

5 Languages of Nepal You Might Encounter

Nepal is home to 123 languages, some of which are spoken across entire regions, while others only have a small number of speakers. The more you travel around Nepal, the more you will get the chance to meet speakers of these languages. All native languages are recognised as national languages in the Constitution of Nepal, although Nepali is the official language of government administration. Many of Nepal’s smaller languages are increasingly endangered. Next time you’re travelling around Nepal, try to learn a few words in a local language–it’s a small way to help encourage awareness of Nepal’s linguistic diversity.

Here are some of the languages you might encounter on your travels.

Newar

Historically, the language of the Kathmandu Valley and surrounding regions was not Nepali but Newar. Newar was the official language of the Kingdom of Nepal from the 14th to 18th centuries, but was replaced with Nepali when the Gorkha kings took over the 18th century. There are still over a million Newar speakers today. Confusingly, the language is known in Nepal as ‘Nepal language’, but it is completely unrelated to Nepali: Newar is part of the Tibeto-Burman family, while Nepali is Indo-Aryan. Greet your Newar friends with Jwa-ja-la-paa and your palms pressed together.

Sherpa

If you spend time trekking around the Sagarmatha National Park in the Solu-Khumbu District, you’ll be walking through the traditional homeland of the Sherpas. Sherpa is not a job description, it is a cultural group with its own language, which is related to other Tibetan languages. The Sherpas of Solu-Khumbu are not to be confused with the Helambu Sherpas (also known as Yolmo), who live in the Helambu Valley, and speak a different Tibetan language. As with many Tibetan language groups Tashi Dele is the common greeting.

5 Languages of Nepal You Might Encounter

Photo credit: Tara Joyce

Tamang

Across the middle hills of Nepal you are likely to meet Tamang speakers. There are almost one and a half million speakers of Tamang, which is actually a series of dialects rather than one single language. The difference between some of these dialects is similar to that between Spanish and Portuguese. Tamang is a part of the Tibeto-Burman family, having split from the Tibetan group some time before the 7th century. Tamang is closely related to Gurung, which you may encounter if you go trekking around the Annapurna region.

Tharu

The most common language of the Terai region is Tharu, also spoken in the neighbouring regions of India. There are almost two million speakers of the different Tharu dialects. The variety spoken near the Citwan National Park is known as ‘Chitwan Tharu’. It is an Indo-Aryan language, but after many centuries of trade and migration to this fertile agricultural zone, the place of the Tharu languages in the family is not clear.

Nepali

Spoken across the country, Nepali is the main language of about half the population, making it the most common native tongue in the country. It is also the language in almost all schools (although a little language called English is also becoming popular). If you’ve learnt Hindi or another language of that family, you may recognise many Nepali words. Even if you’re a new visitor, you’ll soon be greeting people with a namaste like a local.

Top image: Creative Commons/Flickr

Article by Lauren Gawne.

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6 Comments

  1. Rukshana Kapali
    September 2, 2017 at 8:34 pm — Reply

    We also need to know thay the original name of Newar is Nepal Bhasa, not Newari with an Indic preffix. Also we need to know what Nepal was until 1920, then we know why is Newar called Nepal Bhasa and how terms Nepal Sambat, Nepal Lipi originate.

  2. Harihar
    May 21, 2017 at 11:24 am — Reply

    A Great Post!!

  3. Praveen
    December 23, 2016 at 9:05 pm — Reply

    I think in today’s multilingual context, calling ‘Nepali’ by its actual name ‘Gorkhali’ will put it in the proper context to understand Nepal’s history and diversity. ‘Nepali’ is sort of like a title, an official recognition, by the state that it values and uses this language. In the multiethnic context, it becomes more and more relevant to relativizes the lingual context and examine the political background to the domination of Gorkhali.

    Secondly, the word ‘Nepal’ is the cultural heritage of the Newars. As you may surely know, in history, ‘newar’ and ‘nepal’ were synonymous. the use of ‘nepal bhasa’ for ‘newari’ is not just strange, it is the use by an indigenous people of the proper term for their language.

  4. Alleenurp
    December 10, 2016 at 9:56 pm — Reply

    Gurung language is widely used in Nepal as well and there are a lot of Gurung communities in different parts of Nepal for instance Gumda and especially so in Pokhara but the majority are based overseas, predominantly in the UK, Singapore and Hong Kong. It has its many variations and like you mentioned, shares some similarity with the Tamang language in terms of the use of certain words. The most amazing thing is that the dominance of a particular culture in an area can have significant influence on the language the people of that area speak (I met a Newari man who was raised in a gurung village and spoke fluent Gurung language. He knew more about the Gurung language than he did about his own). My fear is that the cultural value and significance of most languages will be lost to young generations like mine who are caught up in the modern culture that value technology more than their cultural identity.

    • Neppon
      December 28, 2016 at 9:53 pm — Reply

      Gurung is one of an endangered language of Nepal.
      Pokhara is home to different ethnic groups like bahun chhetri, newar, magar and gurung as well
      But if you go to nalamukh, tersapatti,bagar then you will find some old newari houses there and the fact is newars were the oldest ethnic group of pokhara
      And the gurung language,There are thousands of tamu speakers in the villages of kaski district .
      I m also a gurung but i don’t understand our language tho

      • Rukshana Kapali
        September 2, 2017 at 8:37 pm — Reply

        I don’t think so. Because Newars did trade treaty with various kingdoms. For example: Newars collaborating with Magar kingdoms, established Bandipur Bazar. Similarly there are many Newa houses in Tibet as well. Also I suggest you to research on Trade Treaty between Kingdom of Nepal and Kingdom of Kaski.

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