The Many Languages of Nepal

By Royal Mountain Travel January 7, 2013

Stone Ins

The Nepali language was originally called Khaskura (language of the Khas―rice farmers of Nepal’s western hills). Later, it was called Parbatiya (language of the people of the hills), and still later, as Gorkhali (language of the Gorkhas). Although Nepal had 11 million native speakers of the Nepali language as per Census 2001, it is spoken by many people of Nepali origin worldwide. For example, 2.9 million Indians of Nepali origin speak Nepali according to India Census 2001. But, since there are more than100 ethnicities in Nepal, there are 92 other languages as well (plus one mentioned as ‘unknown’, according to Nepal Census 2001.

Nepal’s languages can be divided according to origin: Indo-Aryan, Tibeto-Burman, Mongolian, and indigenous. According to one study (Linguistic Surveys in Nepal: A Glimpse, Dan Raj Regmi) the  Tibeto-Burman language family comprising 57 languages is the largest in terms of number of languages whereas Indo-Aryan language family, though having 17 languages, is the largest in terms of number of speakers.

Major Nepal languages (Nepal Census 2001)

Language spoken                              % of population       

Nepali                                                           48.61%

Maithili                                                          12.3%

Bhojpuri                                                         7.53%

Tharu                                                            5.86%

Tamang                                                        5.19%

Newari                                                          3.63%

Magar                                                           3.39%

Awadhi                                                         2.47%

Bantawa                                                      1.63%

Gurung                                                        1.49%

Limbu                                                          1.47%

Bajika                                                          1.05%


Maithili: It is used in south-eastern Terai: mainly Janakpur, Sagarmatha and Koshi Zones. It is also the primary language 12.18 million Indians of Bihar, Jharkhand and parts of West Bengal.

Bhojpuri: It is spoken in southern Nepal: Rautahat, Bara, Parsa, Chitwan, Nawalparasi and Rupandehi districts. It is also a major language of India: especially of Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh.

Tharu: It has different dialects influenced by neighboring Indian languages. Western Nepal’s ‘Dangaura’, ‘Kathoriya’ and ‘Rana’, are variants of Urdu and Awadhi of Uttar Pradesh and ‘Chitwania’ is a variant of Bhojpuri while ‘Kochila’ is a variant of Maithili in eastern Nepal.

Tamang: There are five dialects: eastern Tamang, northwestern Tamang, southwestern Tamang, eastern Gorkha Tamang, and western Tamang. It is spoken in Sindhupalchowk, Rasuwa, Lalitpur, Dhading, Makwanpur, Nuwakot, Ramechhap, Dolakha, Chitwan and Kavreplanchowk districts.

Nepal Bhasa: It is the language of the Newars of Kathmandu Valley. The first original book in this language is a chronicle called ‘Gopalraj Banshawali’ while the oldest book, ‘Haramekhala’ (1374 AD), is a translation.

Magar Kura: Magar Kura is the language of the Magars and is spoken in the western, mid-western and eastern hills. The script is known as ‘Akha Lip’”.The Kham Magar of the far western districts speak the Kham Magar language while the Magars of Dolpa District speak Tarali or Kaike dialects.

Awadhi: The major language of central Uttar Pradesh in India, Awadhi is spoken in Lumbini, Rapti and Bheri Zones of Nepal.

Bantawa: A part of the Kiranti group of languages, it is classified into eastern Bantawa (Dhankuta), western Bantawa (Amchoke, Sorung, Saharaja), northern Bantawa (Dilpali, Rungchenbung, Yangma) and southern Bantawa (Hatuwali, Hangkhim). It is spoken by the Rais of Nepal’s eastern hills.

Gurung: Gurung,or Tamu Kyi, is spoken in two dialects, eastern Gurung and western Gurung and spoken by the Gurungs who inhabit the Western Development Region of Nepal.

Limbu: Its script is known as Sirijangga and it is one of the two dozen Kiranti languages with four main dialects: Panchthare, Phedape, Chatthare and Taplejunge. The Limbus, who live in the eastern hills, call themselves Yakthumbas and their language as Yakthungpan,.

Bajjika: People living in Sarlahi and Rauthat districts of Nepal’s Terai speak the language. A Bihari language, it serves as a transition between Bhojpuri and Maithili.

Many Nepali languages are now endangered and according to a study (Linguistic Surveys in Nepal: A Glimpse, Dan Raj Regmi) only 18.47% (17) of the total languages have been categorized as safe languages and 16.30% (15) languages are almost safe while 23.91% (22) are endangered with 12 in the serious category.

Lewis, M. Paul (ed.), 2009. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International;


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