Nihali language

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Region Jalgaon Jamod, on the border of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh
Ethnicity 5,000 Nihali
Native speakers
2,000 (2007)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 nll
Glottolog niha1238[2]

Nihali, also known as Nahali or erroneously as Kalto, is a moribund 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.[3] The Nihali tribal area is just south of the Tapti River, around the village of Tembi in Nimar district of Madhya Pradesh.[4] 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.[5]

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.[5] 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.[6]

For centuries, most Nihali have often worked as agricultural labourers, for speakers of languages other than their own. In particular, Nihali labourers have often worked for members of the Korku people, and are often bilingual in the Korku language. Because of this history, Nihali is sometimes used by its speakers only to prevent native Korku speakers and other outsiders from understanding them.[7]

Research into the Nihali language[edit]

Franciscus Kuiper was the first to suggest that Nihali 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] Kuiper suggested that Nihali may differ from neighbouring languages, such as Korku, mostly in its function as an argot, such as a thieves' cant.[4] Kuiper's assertions stem, in part, from the fact that many oppressed groups within India have used secret languages to prevent outsiders from understanding them.[8]

Linguist Norman Zide describes the recent history of the language as follows: "Nihali's borrowings are far more massive than in such textbook examples of heavy outside acquisition as Albanian." In this respect, says Zide, modern Nihali seems comparable to hybridised dialects of Romany spoken in Western Europe. Zide claims that this is a result of a historical process that began with a massacre of Nihalis in the early 19th century, organised by one of the rulers of the area, supposedly in response to "marauding". Zide alleges that, afterwards, the Nihalis "decimated in size", have "functioned largely as raiders and thieves ... who [have] disposed of ... stolen goods" through "outside associates". Zide adds that Nihali society has "long been multilingual, and uses Nihali as a more or less secret language which is not ordinarily revealed to outsiders" and that early researchers "attempting to learn the language were, apparently, deliberately rebuffed or misled".[9]

Some Korku-speakers refuse to acknowledge the Nihali as a distinct community, and describe the emergence of the Nihalis as resulting from a disruption of Korku civil society.[8]

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.[5]

External links[edit]

Audio sample highlighting Christian influences in the Nihali community


  1. ^ "Nihali". UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in danger. UNESCO. Retrieved 2018-03-12. 
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Nihali". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  3. ^ "Did you know Nihali is threatened?". Endangered Languages. Retrieved 2016-05-04. 
  4. ^ 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 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ Nagaraja, K.S. (2014). The Nihali Language. Central Institute of Indian Languages. p. 3. ISBN 978-81-7343-144-9. 
  7. ^ Nagaraja, K.S (2014). The Nihali Language. Manasagangotri,Mysore-570 006: Central Institute of Indian Languages. p. 250. ISBN 978-81-7343-144-9. 
  8. ^ a b Anderson, Gregory (2008). The Munda Languages. New York, New York: Routledge. p. 772. ISBN 0-415-32890-X. 
  9. ^ Norman Zide, "Munda and non-Munda Austroasiatic languages". In Current Trends in Linguistics 5: Linguistics in South Asia, p 438