An Introduction to Nepali - Part 1

June 6th, 2013

Nepal is a tiny country that has an outsize impact on the world culture and history, partially due to the presence of Mount Everest within its borders.

Land of Languages

Nepal is a very linguistically and ethnically diverse country, sandwiched between China and India and with Tibet right there as well. In fact, the famous Sherpas who are routinely hired as mountain guides as very closely related in ethnicity to the Tibetans to the north.

Fully thirty-six languages and dialects are spoken in Nepal, with Nepali itself being spoken by just 58% of the country. This is enough to earn Nepali the status of Official Language in the country, but there are significant portions of the population that speak something other than Nepali. Up north in the mountains you’ll find Tibeto-Burmese languages like Tamang, Magar, Rai, and Limbu. The languages of the Sherpa are actually pretty much Tibetan with some regional differences, as well.

Devanagari

The original name for the Nepali language was Khaskura, which translates literally to “language of the khas.” Khas itself meant ‘rice farmers,’ reflecting a certain ancient tendency to be very literal when describing your neighbours! Later, Nepali was also known as Gorkhali. This name stemmed from the former Gorkhal Kingdom which ruled the area for several centuries; in fact, Nepal continued to be referred to as the Gorkhali kingdom into the 20th century, and only began to be referred to as Nepal in the 1930s.

Nepali is written in the same Devanagari script as Hindi – which is unsurprising when you consider that Hindi is widely spoken in Nepal as well, and of course when you take into consideration the proximity of India itself to the south. What’s fascinating about Nepali is that it after centuries of having very little literary presence in the world it has developed a strong, deep literary tradition within the last two centuries.

Beginning in the early 18th century, when old folk tales were finally collected and written down, a new crop of Nepali writers (many expatriates living in India) began building a wealth of literary works written in Nepali.

Next time we’ll explore the Nepali language in more detail, touching on the culture that lies beneath the language. I hope you’ll join your favourite German translation professional for more Nepali knowledge!

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