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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.