Kiranti languages

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EthnicityKirati, Rai, Yakkha, Limbu, and Sunuwar
Eastern Nepal and India (Sikkim, Darjeeling, Kalimpong & Bhutan
Linguistic classificationSino-Tibetan
  • Eastern
  • Central
  • Western

The Kiranti languages are a major family of Sino-Tibetan languages spoken in Nepal and India (notably Sikkim, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, and Bhutan) by the Kirati people.

External relationships[edit]

George van Driem had formerly proposed that the Kiranti languages were part of a Mahakiranti family, although specialists are not completely certain of either the existence of a Kiranti subgroup or its precise membership.[1] LaPolla (2003), though, proposes that Kiranti may be part of a larger "Rung" group.


There are about two dozen Kiranti languages. The better known are Limbu, Sunuwar, Bantawa Rai, Chamling Rai, Khaling Rai, Bahing Rai, Yakkha language, Vayu, Dungmali Rai, Lohorung Rai and Kulung Rai.

Kiranti verbs are not easily segmentable, due in large part to the presence of portmanteau morphemes, crowded affix strings, and extensive (and often nonintuitive) allomorphy.


Overall, Kiranti languages are:

Ethnologue adds Tilung Rai to Western Kiranti, based on Opgenort (2011).

Opgenort (2005)[edit]

Opgenort (2005)[2] classifies the Kiranti languages as follows, and recognizes a basic east-west division within Kiranti.


Gerber & Grollmann (2018)[edit]

Historical linguists, as early as 2012, do not consider Kiranti to be a coherent group, but rather a paraphyletic one due to lack of shared innovations.[3] Gerber & Grollmann (2018) gave a formal proof of the paraphyletic nature of Kiranti. A Central-Eastern Kiranti group is considered to be valid by Gerber & Grollmann (2018), but they consider "Western Kiranti" unclassified within Trans-Himalayan languages.[4]

Independent branches (formerly part of "Western Kiranti") that are unclassified within Trans-Himalayan (Sino-Tibetan):

Sound changes[edit]

Sound changes defining each subgroup (Gerber & Grollmann 2018):

  • Central-Eastern Kiranti (*voiceless > preglottalised; *voiced > voiceless; *ʔk > kʰ; *ʔc > cʰ)
    • Lhokpu, Dhimal, Toto
    • Central Kiranti (*ʔp > b; *ʔt > d)
    • Upper Arun (*ʔp > b; *ʔt > d; *r > j)
    • Greater Yakkha-Limbu (*ʔp > pʰ; *ʔt > tʰ; *r > j)

Independent branches (formerly part of "Western Kiranti") that are unclassified within Trans-Himalayan (Sino-Tibetan):

  • Dumi-Khaling (innovative verbal dual marker -i)
  • Chaurasiya-Northwest (*kʷ > ʔw ~ ʔb)
    • Wambule, Bahing, Sunuwar; ? Jero; ? Hayu
  • Thulung-Tilung-Kohi (*p > t; *b > d)


Research on proto-Kiranti includes work on phonology and comparative morphology by van Driem,[5] reconstructions by Michailovsky (1991)[6] and Sergei Starostin 1994.[7] Michailovsky and Starostin differ by the number of stop series reconstructed (three vs four) and the interpretation of the correspondences.

Opgenort introduces the reconstruction of preglottalized resonants;[8][9] his reconstruction is generally based on Starostin's four series system. More recently, Jacques proposed reconstruction of proto-Kiranti verb roots in a framework following Michailovsky's system,[10] and analyzes the other initial correspondences (in particular, the series reconstructed as non-aspirated unvoiced stops by Starostin) as due to morphological alternations and inter-Kiranti borrowing. In addition, he presents a preliminary discussion of the reconstruction of stem alternation and stress patterns on the basis of Khaling and Dumi.[11]


  1. Matisoff 2003, pp. 5-6; Thurgood 2003, pp. 15-16; Ebert 2003, pg. 505.
  2. Opgenort, Jean Robert. Comparative and Etymological Kiranti Database Archived 2019-02-24 at the Wayback Machine.
  3. Jacques, Guillaume (2012). "Agreement Morphology: The Case of Rgyalrongic and Kiranti". Language and Linguistics: 84.
  4. Gerber, Pascal; Grollmann, Selin (20 November 2018). "What is Kiranti?: A Critical Account". Bulletin of Chinese Linguistics. 11 (1–2): 99–152. doi:10.1163/2405478X-01101010.
  5. van Driem, George (1990). "The Fall and Rise of the Phoneme /r/ in Eastern Kiranti: Sound Change in Tibeto-Burman". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. 53 (1): 83–86. doi:10.1017/S0041977X00021273. JSTOR 618970. S2CID 128967034.
  6. Michailovsky, Boyd. 1991. Big black notebook of Kiranti, proto-Kiranti forms. (unpublished ms. contributed to STEDT).
  7. Starostin, Sergei A. 1994-2000. Proto-Kiranti reconstruction (online database).
  8. Opgenort, Jean-Robert (2004). "Implosive and preglottalized stops in Kiranti" (PDF). Linguistics of the Tibeto–Burman Area. 27 (1): 1–27.
  9. Opgenort, Jean Robert (2005). A Grammar of Jero: With a Historical Comparative Study of the Kiranti Languages. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-474-1508-4.[page needed]
  10. Jacques, Guillaume (27 November 2017). "A reconstruction of Proto-Kiranti verb roots" (PDF). Folia Linguistica. 51 (s38–s1): 177–215. doi:10.1515/flih-2017-0007. S2CID 149278651.
  11. Jacques, Guillaume (2016). "Tonogenesis and tonal alternations in Khaling" (PDF). Tone and Inflection. pp. 41–66. doi:10.1515/9783110452754-003. ISBN 978-3-11-045275-4.



Further reading[edit]

  • Ebert, K. 1994. The structure of Kiranti languages, comparative grammar and texts: Kiranti subordination in the South Asian areal context. Zürich: Arbeiten des Seminars für Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft (ASAS).
  • Lahaussois, Aimée (2023). "Ideophonic patterns in Kiranti languages and beyond". Folia Linguistica. 57 (1): 1–36. doi:10.1515/flin-2022-2053.

External links[edit]

Template:Kiranti languages Template:Languages of Nepal

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