IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions | South Asia

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Language Endangerment in Nepal

Nepal, a small Himalayan state, possesses a striking cultural diversity including linguistic plurality, largely because of its mountainous setting. This milieu confers on Nepal a unique position on the linguistic map of the world and makes it one of the most fascinating areas of linguistic research.

by Yogendra P. Yadava


No linguistic survey has so far been carried to identify Nepalese languages precisely. According to Grimes (1996), however, there are about one hundred languages and dialects spoken in Nepal. These languages (except Kusunda) belong to four language families: Indo-Aryan, Tibeto-Burman, Austro-Asiatic (Munda) and Dravidian.
Of these languages, Nepali, the language of the nation and the only official language, is the majority language spoken by fifty per cent of the total population. Quite a few of the minority languages have almost dead out. The Tibeto-Burman family, appear to be threatened by extinction.

This situation of language endangerment in Nepal can be attributed to a number of circumstances: the lack of sufficient number of speakers, of a written literature and official initiatives, demographic conditions like large-scale urban migration and concomitant gradual change of linguistic habits among the younger generation, and complex socio-economic conditions like poverty, marriage patterns, negative attitudes of some native and majority language speakers, and so on. Of them, the foremost factor is the continual use of the dominant language as the only medium of education, mass media, administration, and employment. Since opportunities are open only to the speakers of the national language, it is natural for the speakers of minor languages to shift from their traditional languages to the language of the nation.
This process of language shift has gradually given rise to a situation, referred to as 'language endangerment'. If the existing situation continues, the dying languages are on the way to be replaced by the major languages (especially Nepali, the official language) and will eventually cease to be learned by children in future. This has already happened to several languages which now remain confined only to their speakers of old generation.
Responses to this crisis have been varied. Some people are indifferent, assuming that 'death is a natural phenomenon'. Other people, mainly speakers of majority languages relish language shift with a sense of gratification, in that it will increase the number of people speaking their languages and reduce language diversity. In contrast, there is also a group of native speakers and social researchers who consider language shift and language death as a great loss to culture and human civilization.
This picture of the language situation in Nepal appears to be grim. It is high time that the government worked out some vital strategies for language maintenance and implement them with immediate effect. What is even more important is the commitment of speakers and language community. To quote Prof. Wurm's in this regard, 'what is needed is strong ethnic conscience of the native communities, as well as a policy of tolerance and support by the government and on the part of the national society.'
Yogendra P. Yadava (yadava@yp.wlink.com.np) is attached to the Royal Nepal Academy, Kamaladi, Kathmandu, Nepal.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions | South Asia