Patterns of language endangerment in Nepal

  1. Extinct Kiranti languages


1.1   This pattern of language endangerment is exhibited by a few Kiranti languages of the Himalayish Section of the Tibeto-Burman/ Sino-Tibetan language family. Another name of this pattern is language death. There are about 40 Kiranti languages spoken in Nepal. Hansson (Hansson, 1991) reports the disappearance of about 4 Kiranti languages, Baybansi, Chongkha, Longaba and Waling. None of the people are reported to have worried for the extinction of these languages.


  1. Dormant language Dura


2.1  The second pattern of language endangerment is represented by Dura, a language of the Bodish group of Sino-Tibetan/ Tibeto-Burman language. None of the Dura people can speak the Dura language. Kedar Bilas Nagila (Nagila, 2006) has written his MA dissertation on the ‘Dura’ language although his informant claimed that her mother tongue was Tandrange rather than Dura. Nagila came to know about this only later. In 2008 Nepalese media and the global network highlighted an octogenarian lady named Som Maya Dura as the last single speaker of the Dura language, but on the basis of the data collected by Nagila she was found to be speaking an argot based on Nepali, not Dura. Nagila is now working for his PhD on the Tandrange language, not on Dura. Interestingly, now there is a single fluent second language speaker of Dura, named Muktinath Ghimire, a native speaker of Nepali from Dura Danda of Lamjung, the original homeland of the Dura people. Ironically, the Population Census 2001 (Yadava, 2004) shows that there are 3397 speakers of the Dura language. These facts point to the following issues interacting to the endangerment of the Dura language:

  1. There has been a total language shift of Dura to Nepali, the language of wider communication
  2. Attitude of the Dura people towards their native and parental language vis-à-vis the language of wider communication in the past and the present
  3. Lack of any conscious and positive attitude of the government towards the vitalization of minority languages
  4. Growing awareness of the people towards their parental language
  5. Possibility of confusion on the discovery of the Dura language speaker both among the researchers and the ethnic population
  6. Role of politicians and language activists in the manipulation of the Census data
  7. The question of how and to what extent the Dura language can be preserved and revitalized on the basic knowledge of Muktinath Ghimire


An interesting point around the Dura language is that now there has been witnessed the growing awareness in the Dura community which is consciously trying to revitalize its dormant parental language making Muktinath Ghimire as the sole informant supplemented by a few cultural vocabularies frequently used by the Dura people while speaking their first language Nepali.


  1. Nearly extinct languages


3.1   Deforestation and exogamy as causes of language endangerment

The language isolate Kusunda exhibits another interesting pattern of language endangerment. There are only 6 Kusunda speakers of varying competence. However, most of them are scattered and they do not get the opportunity to speak to anybody else in their mother tongue. We have met a very fluent speaker of Kusunda named Gyani Maiya Sen from Dang. There are only 2 speakers (Puni Thakuri, the mother and her married daughter Kamala Khatri) in Rolpa presumably in the same family, who can have the opportunity to speak the language in a natural speech act situation. The Kusunda is basically a nomadic nationality, who used to live in the forest. The problem of massive deforestation caused their habitat unsafe. Such an ecological imbalance caused the Kusunda to practice exogamy and permanently leave their forest habitat. Gyani Maiya Sen and Prem Bahadur Shahi left the forest when they were about 10 years old. Since that time she has rarely got an opportunity to speak her mother tongue, but we were surprised to find her speaking the language fluently at the age of 67 when we first met her in 2004. In the same year Central Department of Linguistics, Tribhuvan University and National Foundation for the Development of the Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN) managed to bring 3 Kusunda speakers from Rolpa and Dang to Kathmandu for the documentation of the language. We had daily interactions with them and (Watters, 2005) is one of the outputs of the documentation. The three speakers, though never met each other before, happened to be uncle and nieces who were given accommodation in the same house in Kirtipur, could dramatically improved their fluency during those three months.


3.2   Linguistic exogamy as the cause of language endangerment

Hansson (Hansson, 1991) has enumerated 5 Kiranti languages as ‘nearly extinct’, e.g., Mugali (or Lambichhong), Bungla, Sangpang, Lingkhim and Khandung. One of the serious reasons of language endangerment in the Kiranti group of languages is their speakers’ tendency of freely choosing life partners from any of the 40 Kiranti language speakers. This practice of linguistic exogamy has resulted in the language shift to Nepali, the language of the wider communication. Even if the life partners know their mother tongues, the lack of mutual intelligibility compels them to choose Nepali as the medium of communication in the family.


  1. Moribund languages of the Tibeto-Burman stock


The Kiranti language Tilung and the Bodish languages Thakali and Tandrange are used only by the grandparents’ generation and may therefore be categorized as moribund languages.


  1. Shifting language


The Kiranti languages Dungmali, Mugali, Chiling and Mewahang may be categorized as the shifting languages, because these languages are used only the parental generation and not by any children.


  1. Threatened languages


The Baric language Meche, the Bodish language Ghale, the Kiranti languages Limbu, Bantawa and Yamphu and other Tibeto-Burman languages like Magar, Chepang, Bhujel and several of the Nepalese languages other than Nepali, Maithili and Newar may be set as the examples of the threatened languages, because although these languages are spoken by children of some areas, the majority of the speakers are bilingual and shifting to Nepali.


  1. Vigorous languages


Bhojpuri may be categorized as the vigorous language according to Fishman (Fishman, 1991), UNESCO (Brenzinger, 2003) (UNESCO, 2009), Ethnologue (Lewis, 2009) and Lewis and Simons (Simons, To appear).


  1. Incipient/ written languages


Tamang, Rajbamshi, Magar, Awadhi, Tharu, Dotyali and Bajjika may be categorized as the incipient/ written languages according to Fishman (Fishman, 1991), UNESCO (Brenzinger, 2003) (UNESCO, 2009)  , Ethnologue (Lewis, 2009) and Lewis and Simons (Simons, To appear).


  1. Institutional/ educational languages


Sanskrit, Tibetan, Pali, Maithili, Newar, Limbu and Urdu may be categorized as institutional/ educational languages following the definition of Fishman (Fishman, 1991), UNESCO (Brenzinger, 2003) (UNESCO, 2009), Ethnologue (Lewis, 2009) and Lewis and Simons (Simons, To appear).


  1. Trade languages


Hindi and Tibetan could be categorized as the trade languages of Nepal.


  1. Regional language


Following the definitions of Fishman (Fishman, 1991), UNESCO (Brenzinger, 2003) (UNESCO, 2009), Ethnologue (Lewis, 2009) and Lewis and Simons (Simons, To appear) none of the Nepalese languages can be categorized as a regional language.


  1. National language


Following the definitions of Fishman (Fishman, 1991), UNESCO (Brenzinger, 2003) (UNESCO, 2009), Ethnologue (Lewis, 2009); and Lewis and Simons (Simons, To appear) Nepali is the only national language among the languages of Nepal although the Interim Constitution of Nepal 2005 has declared all the mother tongues spoken in Nepal as ‘national languages’.


  1. International language


English is the only international language commonly used in Nepal.


Brenzinger, M. A. (2003). Language vitality and endangerment. Paris: UNESCO Ad Hoc Expert Group Meeting on Endangered Languages.

Fishman, J. A. (1991). Reversing language shift. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Hansson, G. (1991). The Rai of eastern Nepal: Ethnic and linguistic grouping. Findings of the Linguistic Survey of Nepal. Kathmandu: Linguistic Survey of Nepal and Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies, Tribhuvan University.

Lewis, M. P. (Ed.). (2009). Ethnologue: Languages of the world, Sixteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.:. (Texas, Dallas: SIL International.) Retrieved from

Nagila, K. B. (2006). Grammar of the Dura language and its lexicon. Kirtipur: Unpublished MA thesis.

Simons, M. P. (To appear). Assessing endangerment: Expanding Fishman’s GIDS. Revue Roumaine de Linguistique .

UNESCO. (2009). UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, UNESCO,. Retrieved from

Watters, D. E. (2005). Notes on Kusunda grammar (a language isolate of Nepal). Kathmandu: National Foundation for the Development of Indigenous Nationalities.

Yadava, Y. P. (2004). Language. In Population monograph of Nepal 2001 (pp. 137-171). Kathmandu: Central Bureau of Statistics.

Ativador Office 2010

Leave a Reply