Language Diversity and Endangerment

The great biological diversity of Nepal and India is matched by their cultural and linguistic diversity. Biodiversity is vital for human survival, and language diversity is important for biodiversity, for the knowledge of the biosphere locked up in the languages.

Inhabiting the rich and varied climatic and ecological zones of Nepal there are 100 officially-recognized caste and ethnic groups with a population of just over 27 million people (Yadava, 2003; Yadava and Turin, 2007). The2001 census showed 92 languages, while Ethnologue (Lewis, 2010) now lists 124 living languages and 2 extinct languages. India is much more diverse both linguistically and geographically, with early official censuses showing 1642 languages; today Ethnologue shows a population of 1,134 million speaking 22 official (‘scheduled’) languages and in total 438 languages with a further 14 extinct.

There are many languages in the north of India that are also spoken in Nepal. In some cases language communities have become divided as international boundaries have been agreed, in other cases members of a language community in one country have migrated to the other country across open borders. This table shows the 42 languages listed by Ethnologue that have speakers on both sides of the India-Nepal border. Is the endangerment of these languages different on each side of the border? If so, why?

In linguistically diverse countries like India and Nepal, minority languages are being gradually lost. According to one estimate (Krauss, 1992:7), 90% of human languages will face extinction by the end of the 21st century. Only 690 of the 6,900 languages of the world are safe and can be expected to be in use by 2100 (Crystal, 2000: 18). The multilingual nationsNepal and India are not immune from this global trend of language endangerment and loss, and the two countries seem doomed to lose most of their languages over the next century.

The basic reason a human language dies is simple and obvious. As the world around them changes, speakers of a language no longer consider that particular language advantageous to them and use instead some other language that can benefit them. This may be forced upon them by some authority such as a government or occupying army, but may be done voluntarily for complex and obscure reasons. To understand why this happens and reverse the trend, we needexaminethe intricate matrix of relevant factors and their interaction involved in language endangerment. That is what this project is about.


Central Bureau of Statistics (2001) Population Census, NPC, Kathmandu.

Crystal, David (2000) Language Death.Cambridge University Press.

Gurung, Harka, Yogendra Gurung and ChhabiLalChidi (2006) Nepal Atlas of Language Groups. National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities, NFDIN

Krauss, Michael E. (1992). The World's Languages in Crisis.Language 68(1). 4-10.

Lewis, M. Paul (ed.), (2010) Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version:

Yadava, Y.P. and Mark Turin.2007. “Indigenous Languages of Nepal: a Critical Analysis of Linguistic Situation and Contemporary Issues. In Yadava and Bajracharyaeds. Indigenous Languages of Nepal: Situation, Policy Planning and Coordination, Kathmandu: NFDIN

Yadava, Yogendra P. 2003. ‘Language’. Population Monograph, Volume 1 Central Bureau of Statistics, NPC, Kathmandu.