Nihali language

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Native to India
Region Jalgaon Jamod, on the border of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh
Coordinates 21°03′N 76°32′E / 21.050°N 76.533°E / 21.050; 76.533
Native speakers
(2,000 cited 1991)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 nll
Glottolog niha1238[3]

Nihali, also known as Nahali or erroneously as Kalto, is a threatened language isolate that is spoken in west-central India (in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra), with approximately 2,000 people in 1991 out of an ethnic population of 5,000.[4] The Nihali tribal area is just south of the Tapti River, around the village of Tembi in Nimar district of Central Provinces during British Raj, now in Madhya Pradesh.[5] Speakers of the Nihali language are also present in several villages of the Buldhana district in Maharashtra such as Jamod, Sonbardi, Kuvardev, Chalthana, Ambavara, Wasali, and Cicari. There are dialectal differences between the Kuvardev-Chalthana and the Jamod-Sonbardi varieties.[6]

The language has a very large number of words adopted from neighboring languages, with 60–70% apparently taken from Korku (25% of vocabulary and much of its morphology), from Dravidian languages, and from Marathi, but much of its core vocabulary cannot be related to them or other languages, such as the numerals and words for "blood" and "egg". Scholars state that less than 25% of the language's original vocabulary is used today.[6] There are no longer any surviving monolingual speakers of the language. Those well-versed in modern Nihali are likely to speak varieties of Hindi, Marathi or Korku as well.[7]

Franciscus Kuiper was the first to suggest that it may be unrelated to any other Indian language, with the non-Korku, non-Dravidian core vocabulary being the remnant of an earlier population in India. However, he did not rule out that it may be a Munda language, like Korku. The Endangered Languages Project surmises a relationship with Kusunda, Ainu and the Andamanese languages, as part of Joseph Greenberg's Indo-Pacific hypothesis.[citation needed] The Nihali have long lived in a symbiotic but socially inferior relationship with the Korku people and are bilingual in Korku, with Nihali frequently spoken to prevent the Korku from understanding them. The original Nihali were poor labourers, who served as agricultural workers for communities other than their own.[8] Kuiper suggested that the differences might also be argot, such as a thieves' cant.[5]

Norman Zide described the situation this way:

Nihali's borrowings are far more massive than in such textbook examples of heavy outside acquisition as Albanian. It seems to compare more in this repect [sic] to some of the more "broken-down" dialects of Gypsy, such as those spoken in the United States and Western Europe. The recent history of the Nihalis includes a massacre organized by one of the rulers in the area in the early nineteenth century, this apparently in response to their increasingly destructive marauding. Since then, the group---decimated in size---has functioned largely as raiders and thieves, with traditional outside associates who disposed of the stolen goods. The group has long been multilingual, and uses Nihali as a more or less secret language which is not ordinarily revealed to outsiders. Earlier investigators attempting to learn the language were, apparently, deliberately rebuffed or misled.[9]

Kuiper's assumptions stem from the fact that several lower-class groups in India had secret languages to conceal communication from oppressive upper-class groups.[2] Today, some Korku-speakers refuse to acknowledge the Nihali and describe the emergence of the Nihali into their community as a civil disturbance.[2]

The Nihali live similarly to the Kalto. That and the fact that Kalto has often been called Nahali led to confusion of the two languages.


Front Back
I i: u u:
e e: o o:
a a:

Lengthening of vowels is phonemic. The vowels [e] and [o] have lower varieties at the end of morphemes.

Nasalization is rare and tends to occur in borrowed words.

There are 33 consonants. Unaspirated stops are more frequent than aspirated stops.[6]

External links[edit]

Audio sample highlighting Christian influences in the Nihali community


  1. ^ Nihali at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ a b c Anderson, Gregory (2008). The Munda Languages. New York, New York: Routledge. p. 772. ISBN 0-415-32890-X. 
  3. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Nihali". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  4. ^ "Did you know Nihali is threatened?". Endangered Languages. Retrieved 2016-05-04. 
  5. ^ a b Franciscus Bernardus Jacobus Kuiper, "Nahali: a comparative study", Part 25, Issue 5 of Mededeelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandsche Akademie van Wetenschappen, Afd. Letterkunde, N.V. Noord-Hollandsche Uitg. Mij., 1962 
  6. ^ a b c Nagaraja, K.S. (2014). The Nihali Language. Manasagangotri, Mysore-570 006, India: Central Institute of Indian Languages. p. 7. ISBN 978-81-7343-144-9. 
  7. ^ Nagaraja, K.S. (2014). The Nihali Language. Central Institute of Indian Languages. p. 3. ISBN 978-81-7343-144-9. 
  8. ^ Nagaraja, K.S (2014). The Nihali Language. Manasagangotri,Mysore-570 006: Central Institute of Indian Languages. p. 250. ISBN 978-81-7343-144-9. 
  9. ^ Norman Zide, "Munda and non-Munda Austroasiatic languages". In Current Trends in Linguistics 5: Linguistics in South Asia, p 438