|Region||Sikkim, India; parts of Nepal and Bhutan|
Official language in
Despite spirited attempts to preserve the language, Lepcha has already effectively been lost everywhere in favour of Nepali. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) lists Lepcha as an endangered language with the following characterization.
The Lepcha language is spoken in Sikkim and Darjeeling district in West Bengal of India. The 1991 Indian census counted 39,342 speakers of Lepcha. Lepcha is considered to be one of the indigenous languages of the area in which it is spoken. Unlike most other languages of the Himalayas, the Lepcha people have their own indigenous script (the world's largest collection of old Lepcha manuscripts is kept in Leiden, with over 180 Lepcha books).
Lepcha is the language of instruction in some schools in Sikkim. In comparison to other Tibeto-Burman languages, it has been given considerable attention in the literature. Nevertheless, many important aspects of the Lepcha language and culture still remain undescribed.
There are very few remaining households where the younger generation actively speaks the language, and these households are few and far between. The entire Lepcha area is bilingual. Revitalization efforts are minimum and have had no major impact in conserving the language where it was indigenously spoken. Dwindling population and culture loss have rendered the use of Lepcha superficial and its importance has remained confined to only where cultural and ceremonial activities where it is required as a part of a tradition is endured.
Lepcha is spoken by minorities in the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal, as well as parts of Nepal and Bhutan. Where it is spoken, it is considered to be an aboriginal language, pre-dating the arrival of the Tibetan languages (Sikkimese, Dzongkha, and others) and more recent Nepali language. Lepcha speakers comprise four distinct communities: the Renjóngmú of Sikkim; the Támsángmú of Kalimpong, Kurseong, and Mirik; the ʔilámmú of Ilam District, Nepal; and the Promú of southwestern Bhutan. Lepcha-speaking groups in India are larger than those in Nepal and Bhutan.
Lepcha is internally diverse, showing lexical influences from different majority language groups across the four main Lepcha communities. According to Plaisier (2007), these Nepali and Sikkimese Tibetan influences do not amount to a dialectical difference.
Script and romanization
The Lepcha script (also known as "róng") is a syllabic script featuring a variety of special marks and ligatures. Its genealogy is unclear. Early Lepcha manuscripts were written vertically, a sign of Chinese influence. Prior to the development of the Lepcha script, Lepcha literary works were composed in the Tibetan script.
Lepcha language is romanized according to varying schemes, the prevailing system being that of Mainwaring (1876). Most linguists, including Plaisier (2007), whose system is used in this article, have followed modified versions of Mainwaring's system. Other linguists and historians have used systems based on European languages such as English, French, and German.
Lepcha consonants appear in the chart below, following Plaisier (2007)::21–32
|Nasal||m ⟨m⟩||n ⟨n⟩||ɲ ⟨ny⟩||ŋ ⟨ng⟩|
|Plosive||voiceless||p ⟨p⟩||t ⟨t⟩||ʈ ⟨tr⟩||c ⟨c⟩||k ⟨k⟩||ʔ ⟨ʔ⟩|
|aspirated||pʰ ⟨ph⟩||tʰ ⟨th⟩||ʈʰ ⟨thr⟩||cʰ ⟨ch⟩||kʰ ⟨kh⟩|
|voiced||b ⟨b⟩||d ⟨d⟩||ɖ ⟨dr⟩||ɡ ⟨g⟩|
|Fricative||voiced||v ⟨v⟩||ʒ ⟨j⟩|
|voiceless||f ⟨f⟩||s ⟨s⟩||ʃ ⟨sh⟩|
|Approximant||w ⟨w⟩||l ⟨l⟩||j ⟨y⟩||h ⟨h⟩|
Retroflex phonemes /ʈ/, /ʈʰ/, and /ɖ/ are written in Lepcha script as ᰀᰥkr, ᰝᰥ hr, and ᰃᰥ gr, respectively. Most, though not all, instances of retroflex consonants indicate a word is of Tibetan origin. To distinguish this retroflex sound in Lepcha script, a dot may be written underneath: ᰀᰥ᰷, ᰝᰥ᰷, and ᰃᰥ᰷. Native instances of non-retroflex ᰀᰥ kr, ᰝᰥ hr, and ᰃᰥ gr may be pronounced either as written or as ⟨tr⟩, ⟨thr⟩, and ⟨dr⟩. For example, tagrikup, "boy," may be said either [ta ɡri kɯʔp̚] or [ta ɖi kɯʔp̚].
Lepcha has three glide consonants that may occur after certain initial consonants: /r/, /j/, and /l/. When the phoneme /r/ operates as a glide, it can combine with /j/ as a double-glide: ᰕᰥᰤᰩᰮ mryóm, "to spread over the ground, creep." Notably, syllables with the glide /l/ are given their own independent forms in the Lepcha script.
Velar consonants /k/ and /ɡ/ preceding front vowels /i/ or /e/ are palatalized as [kʲ] and [ɡʲ], respectively. Fricatives /s/ and /ʃ/ are merged before /i/.
Lepcha speakers tend not to distinguish between /z/ and /ʒ/, pronouncing both as [z]~[dz]~[ʒ]. Additionally, initial /ŋ/ is occasionally realized as [ɦ]. Under the influence of Nepali, some Lepcha speakers have lost the distinction between /pʰ/ and /f/, and between /v/ and /w/.
Of the above phonemes, only /m/, /n/, /ŋ/, /k/, /t/, /p/, /r/, and /l/ may be syllable-final. Native speakers tend to neutralize the difference between final /n/ and /ŋ/. In syllable-final position, stops are realized as an unreleased stop, usually pronounced with a simultaneous /ʔ/: for example, /k/ becomes [ʔk̚].
According to Plaisier (2007), Lepcha has eight vowels::17–21
|Close||i ⟨i⟩, ⟨í⟩||ɯ ⟨u⟩||u ⟨ú⟩|
|Close-mid||e~ɛ ⟨e⟩||o ⟨o⟩|
|Mid||ə ⟨a⟩, ⟨â⟩|
The phoneme denoted by ⟨í⟩ is shortened and appears in closed syllables; ⟨i⟩ is longer and appears in open syllables. The phoneme /e/ is realized as [e] in open syllables and in closed syllables before /ŋ/ or /k/. Closed syllables ending in /p/, /m/, /l/, /n/, /r/, and /t/ show free variation between [e], [ɛ], and even [ɪ]. Distinctions between /o/ and /ɔ/ are often lost among non-literate speakers, particularly those highly fluent in Nepali language, which does not contrast the sounds.
Lepcha grammar features nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs. Word order is typically subject–object–verb (SOV). Lepcha morphology is somewhat agglutinative, though most bare Lepcha lexicon is made up of one- or two-syllable words. Nouns are arranged into either head-first or head-last noun phrases. Relative clauses and genitive phrases precede nouns, whereas markers for demonstratives, definiteness, number, case, and other particles follow the noun. Lepcha is an ergative language, where the ergative case indicates transitivity and completedness of the event. There is no grammatical agreement between different parts of speech (i.e. verb conjugation). Adjectives follow nouns they modify, function as predicates, or stand independently as nominal heads. Adverbs generally directly precede verbs, and reduplication is generally productive for adverbs of time (e.g. nám, "year" → nám-nám, "yearly").
According to Plaisier (2007), Lepcha has only two true "cases" that modify the noun morphologically: the definite article -re and the dative case marker -m. All other noun markers, including for example the genitive marker, are actually invariable postpositions. A series noun markers may follow a single noun. Together, these cases and postpositions are:
|-ᰠᰴ / -ᰎᰴ
|-ᰛᰬ -re||definite, topic|
|- ᰮ -m||dative|
Plurals are marked differently according to whether they are human (-sang) or non-human (-pong) nouns. Notably, the plural is not used when the noun is followed by a number.
|First person||ᰃᰨ go
|ᰀᰦᰉᰧᰶ kányí||ᰀᰦᰚᰫ káyú|
|Second person||ᰝᰩ hó
|ᰣᰦᰉᰧᰶ ʔányí||ᰣᰦᰚᰫ ʔáyú|
|Third person||ᰝᰪ hu
|ᰝᰪᰉᰧᰶ hunyí||ᰝᰪᰚᰫ huyú|
Oblique forms appear in italics above. Lepcha personal pronouns can refer only to humans; otherwise demonstratives are used. Personal pronouns may take the definite article -re.
Many Lepcha nouns can be grouped into one of several classes based on associated characteristics. For example, many animal names begin with the Lepcha script syllabic /sâ/: ᰠᰲᰶ sâr means "goat," ᰠᰶᰛᰤᰨᰮ sâryom means "otter," ᰠᰶᰜᰩᰭ sâlók means "rhinoceros," and ᰠᰝᰪ sâhu means "monkey." Other noun classes include /sâ/ and /ka/ for plants, and /pe/ or /pâ/ for snakes and bamboo products.
Lepcha verbs generally function as predicates or, in relative clauses, as modifiers before a head-noun. Verbs may also be nominalized by a combination of suffixes. For example, zo, "eat," may be suffixed to produce zo-shang-re, "eating."
Many intransitive verbs incorporate a causative -/y/- infix, sometimes followed by a -/t/ suffix, to take a transitive sense: ᰕᰦᰭ mák, "die" → ᰕᰤᰦᰭ myák, "kill;" ᰏᰶ plâ, "come forth" → ᰏᰤᰶ plyâ, "bring forth;" ᰄᰫ glú, "fall down" → ᰄᰤᰳ/ᰄᰤᰬᰳ glyat/glyet, "drop."
Verbs are followed by grammatical suffixes and particles. Verbal particles indicating sureness, polite requests, authoritativeness, dubiousness, and other nonlexical information follow clauses. Below is a chart of such verb- and clause-final suffixes and particles largely following Plaisier (2007):
|English||Lepcha (Latin)||Lepcha (Róng/Lepcha script)|
|Reach a height||Thók||Template:Huge|
|To be short||Tan||Template:Huge|
|What comes first||Ták||Template:Huge|
|A spec of Sterculia||Ke-hlyám kun||Template:Huge|
|Be on strong legs||Krang||Template:Huge|
|To be drawn together||Chom||Template:Huge|
|A spec of Solanum||Ke-lim-bi||Template:Huge|
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- "Statement 1: Abstract of speakers' strength of languages and mother tongues - 2011". www.censusindia.gov.in. Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India. Retrieved 7 July 2018.
- Plaisier, Heleen (2007). A grammar of Lepcha. Tibetan studies library: Languages of the greater Himalayan region. 5. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-15525-1.
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- Lepcha language at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
- van Driem, George (2001). Languages of the Himalayas: An Ethnolinguistic Handbook of the Greater Himalayan Region. Brill. ISBN 90-04-12062-9.
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- Plaisier, Heleen (13 November 2010). "Information on Lepcha Language and Culture". Retrieved 16 April 2011.
- Mainwaring, George Byres (1876). A grammar of the Róng (Lepcha) language, as it exists in the Dorjeling and Sikim hills. Calcutta: Printed by C. B. Lewis, Baptist Mission Press.