An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Alternative Names: Nepali was, and sometimes still is, called Khas kura or Khas bhasa (language of the Khas), Gorkhali or Gurkhali (language of the Gurkhas), Parbatiya, Parbate or Phahari (language of the mountains).

Classification: Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, Modern Indo-Aryan. The precise classification within the Indo-Aryan branch has not been established yet. Regarding its phonology, Nepali is closer to the Central Group (Hindi, Urdu) but its grammar and syntax are sometimes closer to Gujarati, Bengali and others.

Overview. The origin of Nepali and its relationship to other Modern Indo-Aryan languages is not completely settled, a problem aggravated by the lacunae in our knowledge of the history of Nepal. One possibility is that the language was introduced into the central Himalayas and the valley of Kathmandu by migrants from the west or northwest of the country, called Khas, around the 10th century. The main evidence for this theory is the finding of royal inscriptions in western Nepal that seem to attest an early form of Nepali. Another theory postulates a much later emergence of Nepali linked to the military conquest of the Kathmandu Valley by the Gurkhas.

Distribution: Nepal, Bhutan and India (Sikkim, Darjeeling district of West Bengal, and parts of Assam).

Speakers: There are around 17 million, of which 13.4 million in Nepal, 3.3 million in India, and 300,000 in Bhutan.

Status. Nepali is the official language of Nepal. It is one of the 23 official languages of India and the official language of the northeastern state of Sikkim. In the Himalayan regions it is used as a lingua franca by many speakers of Tibeto-Burman languages.

Varieties. There is little dialectal variation in spite of the lack of roads and the geographical isolation of many communities. The modern literary language is based on the Khatmandu speech.

Oldest Documents

  1. 1255.Inscription, engraved in a copper-plate, of the Khas king Asokacalla found in West Nepal and written in a language that resembles, but is not quite, Nepali.

  1. 1648.Svastānīvratakathā is the oldest literary work in Nepali.

  1. 1670.Rani Pokhari inscription of King Pratap Malla from the Kathmandu Valley is the first one written, definitely, in Nepali.


Vowels (11). All oral vowels have nasal counterparts, though nasal o [õ] is only an allophone. There are short and long vowels but vowel length is not phonemic, Besides, Nepali has two diphthongs: [əi],  [əu].


  1. Note: a tilde above a vowel indicates nasalization.

Consonants (29). Nepali has 29 consonants in total including 20 stops, 2 fricatives, 3 nasals, 4 liquids and glides. The stops are articulated at five different places being classified as: labial, dental, retroflex, palatal, and velar. The palatal stops are, in fact, affricates. Every series of stops includes voiceless and voiced consonants, unaspirated and aspirated, this four-way contrast being unique to Indo-Aryan among Indo-European languages (Proto-Indoeuropean had a three-way contrast only).

    The retroflex consonants of Nepali, articulated immediately behind the alveolar crest, are not from Indo-European origin though present already in Sanskrit. They are, probably, the result of Dravidian language influence. The three sibilants of Sanskrit were reduced to just one (dental s).


Script and Orthography

Nepali is written in Devanāgarī, an abugida (syllabic alphabet) employed also for Hindi, Marathi and Sanskrit. The Nepali Devanāgarī alphabet is ordered according to phonetics and consists of 46 letters. The last three are biconsonantal groups which are traditionally included in the alphabet. The vowel ə inherent in all consonants is not represented here (below each letter figures first the standard transliteration followed by a phonetic notation):

the vowel [ə] is rendered as a.

in the original script nasalization is marked by a dot or candrabindu (a dot inside the lower half of a circle) above the vowel while in transliteration is indicated by a tilde above the vowel.

  1. the aspirated stops and affricates are rendered as digraphs (pʰ = ph, dʰ = dh, etc).

  1. the retroflex stops [ʈ], [ɖ] are transliterated ṭ , ḍ.

  1. the affricates [ts] and [dʒ] are transliterated c and j, respectively.

  1. the Nepali script has three signs for sibilants (ś, ṣ, s) but they tend to be pronounced as [s].

  1. the voiced glottal fricative [ɦ] is transliterated h.

  1. the velar nasal [ŋ] is rendered ṅ. There are signs for the retroflex and palatal nasals (ṇ, ñ) in the script but they tend to be pronounced as [n].

  1. the glide [w] is transliterated v.


  1. Nominal

  2. gender: Nepali has no grammatical gender. The basic contrast is between animate and inanimate (non-human). However, natural gender (male, female) is marked.

  1. number: plural is formed by adding the suffix -harū to the singular. Two numeral classifiers are used in enumerations, one for human beings (the suffix -jana) and the other for non-humans (-ta/-auta).

  1. case: is non existent, except in pronouns where direct and oblique cases are distinguished. Syntactical relations are indicated by postpositions, (similar to English prepositions but placed after the noun they modify). For example:

  1. ko (m)/ kī (f): 'of'  e.g. chorāko kitab ('the boy's book').

  1. lāī: marks the direct or indirect object e.g. bābu choralāī lincha ('the father takes the son').

  1. le: instrumental and ergative marker. The latter is applied to the subject obligatorily in the transitive perfective/perfect and optionally in other transitive aspects.

  1. a or dekhi: ablative expressing time or from which place.

  1. mā: locative marker (in, at, on, etc.)

  1. pronouns: personal, demonstrative, interrogative, relative, indefinite.

  1. Personal pronouns: there are several different 2nd and 3rd person pronouns to mark status (three for the 2nd and three for the 3rd):

  1. Royals are addressed by titles.

  1. Demonstrative pronouns distinguish proximal and distal: yo (‘this’), y (‘these’), tyo (‘that’), t (‘those’).

  1. The interrogative pronouns and adverbs are ko (‘who?’), ke (‘what?’), kahā̃ (‘where?’), kun (‘which?’), kahine (‘when?’), kasarī (‘how?’). Relative pronouns are obtained from the interrogatives by replacing k with j, e.g. jo, je, jun, etc., though relative clauses are expressed, generally, by means of participles.

  1. Verbal. The verbal system is distinguished by its reliance on affixes and auxiliary verbs. Another particular feature of Nepali is the existence of negative conjugations for every verb. The use of verbal compounds is frequent.

  1. person and number: 1s, 2s, 3s; 1p, 2p, 3p.

  1. aspect: imperfective (including habitual and continuous actions), prospective (anticipated or predicted activities), perfective (completed activities), perfect (completed activities that are felt in the present). The imperfective aspect is marked by -n- or nasalization of the last vowel of the verb root; the prospective is marked by -ne, the perfective by --, and the perfect by -ek.

  1. mood: indicative, presumptive, subjunctive, imperative.

  2. The presumptive indicates probability and the subjunctive expresses a hypothetical action.

  1. tense: most finite verbal forms are a combination of a lexical verb, marked by aspect with a suffix, with the auxiliary verb 'to be' conjugated in a particular tense-mood. The latter indicates person and number, and sometimes also gender.

  1. Conjugation of the verb āunu ('to come'),  stem āu/ā, in the 1st person singular.


  1. black: verb roots; brown: aspect markers

  2. red: gender and number marking; blue: personal endings.

  1. voice: active, passive. The latter is marked by the suffix -i.

  1. derivative conjugation: causative. It is marked by the suffix āu.

  1. non-finite forms: infinitives, gerund, present participle, e-participle.

  2. Nepali has three infinitives. The first is formed by adding -nu to the verb stem. This is the citation form of the verb, and participates in a number of constructions, the most important being the one that expresses obligation. The second infinitive is formed by adding -na/nā to the verb stem; it is used in a wide variety of situations and functions like the infinitive in English. The third infinitive is formed with -ne functioning as a verbal noun or adjective with present or future meaning.

  3. The gerund is formed by attaching -i to the stem. It indicates that an action precedes another one e.g. gari (‘having done’). Now is used mainly in negative statements being replaced in the affirmative by the e-participle (see below). It is also the first member of compound words.

  4. The present participle ends in a dental voiced or voiceless stop followed by a, ā, o, ai: ta/da, tā/dā, to/do, tai/dai. It expresses an ongoing action (e.g. gardā = ‘doing’) and, besides, in conjunction with the postposition -le it means ‘because of’.

  5. The participle ending in -e has a wide array of functions: conditional (on its own), adjectival (when suffixed with the postposition -ko), and gerund (suffixed with -ra). It is also employed to form compound tenses: perfectives (without any other suffix) and perfects (suffixed with -ko) as shown in the conjugation table above.


Word order in the sentence is Subject-Object-Verb. Syntactical relations are conveyed mainly by postpositions. There are no articles. Infinitives and participles, instead of conjunctions, usually join clauses. Non-finite verbal forms are frequently used instead of finite verbs.


Sanskrit, Hindi and English are the main sources of Nepali loanwords. Persian and Arabic are lesser, but still significant, contributors to its vocabulary particularly in the terminology of government and administration, law and war. Comparatively few Nepali words come from Newari and other Tibeto-Burman languages.

Basic Vocabulary

one: ek

two: dui

three: tīn

four: cār

five: pā̃c

six: cha

seven: sāt

eight: āṭh

nine: nau

ten: das

hundred: say

father: pitā, bābu, bā, buvā

mother: āmā, mātā, jananī

elder brother: dāi, dāju

younger brother: bhāi

elder sister: didī

younger sister: bahinī

son: put, chorā

daughter: chorī

head: śir

face: mukha

eye: ā̃khi, ā̃khā

hand: hatā

foot: pad, caraṇ

heart: hṛdaya, hiyo, muṭu

tongue: jibro

Key Literary Works (forthcoming)

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Nepali'. T. Riccardi. In The Indo-Aryan Languages, 590-636. G. Cardona & D. Jain (eds). Routledge (2007).

  2. -A Course in Nepali. D. Matthews. Routledge (1988).

  3. -Modern literary Nepali: An Introductory Reader. M. J. Hutt. Oxford University Press (1997).

  1. Top   Home   Alphabetic Index   Classificatory Index   Largest Languages & Families   Glossary



Address comments and questions to: