Monday, April 20, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Nepal

A few weeks ago, we looked at some of the many languages spoken in Malaysia. Today, we're back in Asia with a look at the equally impressive linguistic diversity of Nepal, which is home to 120 living languages. 

The Official Language

Unsurprisingly, the official language of Nepal is Nepali, a member of the Indo-Aryan language family. Nepali is the native language of approximately half of Nepal's population, and is also an important lingua franca that allows speakers of the country's many regional languages to communicate.

The Recognized Regional Languages

While Nepal's constitution recognizes all native languages spoken in the country as "national languages" that can be used for official purposes, there are fourteen languages in particular that are recognized as regional languages.

Momo, a popular Nepalese dumpling which is
often eaten at lunchtime with dipping sauces.
The most spoken languages that fall into this category are Nepali, Maithili, and Bhojpuri. All three are Indo-Aryan languages. There are nearly 4 million speakers of Maithili in Nepal, as well as over 1.5 million Bhojpuri speakers.

Next on the list is Tharu, which is actually a group of languages spoken by the Tharu indigenous group. There are over 1 million speakers of its various languages. The same can also be said of both Tamang and Gurung, though of course they are spoken by their namesake indigenous groups instead of the Tharu people.

The final recognized languages are Awadhi, Newar, Magar, Sherpa, Kiranti, Rai, and Limbu. Awadhi, which is also widely spoken in India, is the native language of around 500,000 Nepalis, while Newar and the two major dialects of Magar boast over 700,000 speakers. The Kiranti language family, which includes the languages of the Rai and Limbu groups, are also spoken by several hundred thousand Nepalis. 

You may have noticed we left the Sherpa language for last - that's because it's particularly interesting. While many English speakers associate the term "sherpa" with mountaineering experts, it is technically the name of an ethnic group! 

Sherpa is the language of the Sherpa ethnic group that lives high in the Himalayas, and who also happened to be incredibly helpful to the earliest explorers that wanted to climb Mount Everest. Over the years, their name has become a general term for any kind of guide. While many of the guides in the Himalayas today are ethnic Sherpas, some are not, so use of the term isn't technically correct. That said, those who are not do occasionally learn the Sherpa language, presumably to be able to better communicate with their peers.