Languages of Nepal

Nepal ethnic groups

Nepal ethnic groups

In an area about the same size as Illinois, smaller than New England, Nepal boasts an amazing array of languages.

The 2011 National census lists 123 mother tongue languages. Nepali is the official language, and is spoken by nearly half of the people (although with multiple dialects). The others are all “national languages,” which are accepted as official at the regional level.

These languages can be quite different. In fact, they belong to at least four major language families. Most of the languages are in the Tibeto-Burman group, but only 18% of the people speak these. The largest population percentage is for languages in the Indo-Aryan family. There are also a number of Dravidian languages and Austroasiatic languages.

Courtyard friends

Courtyard friends

Nepal also has several indigenous village sign languages, as well as the official Nepali Sign Language (which is unrelated to oral Nepali). I actually learned a few words of the latter while waiting for a friend at a restaurant where the staff were mostly sign language speakers. When they asked what I wanted to order, at least I could say “I’m waiting for my friend.”

Lava Deo Awasthi

Lava Deo Awasthi

My friends in the photo above are signing “peace” and either “Spiderman is great” or “I love you” (I didn’t ask). These are not necessarily in official Nepali Sign Language.

Along these lines, I was fortunate to meet Lava Awasthi, the Chairperson of the Nepal Language Commission. He said that although there are 123 national languages, the Commission suspects that there are many more. And in addition to the four well-established language families, there may be at least one, maybe two more. So, this is an active area of research. The terrain of course makes it difficult to study for the same reason that there are so many languages in a relatively small territory in the first place.

Welcome to Nepal

Tourist Police NepalIt’s hard to imagine a more welcoming place than Nepal. People of all ages greet each other and visitors with a big smile accompanying a “Namaste.”

Tourists are still rare enough in many areas that little children are fascinated–staring, giggling, and waving. Their parents show then how to bring their hands together for “Namaste,” and get a big smile when you reciprocate.

There are welcome signs everywhere, on mats, doorways, posters, wooden carvings, and painted cloths. The signs are in Sanskrit (svāgatam) or Nepali (swagat cha), although those welcomes usually employ the Devanāgarī script (स्वागतम्).

There are also many welcomes in English. These often use two words, “wel come,” or hyphenation, “wel-come.”

Officialdom, even the police, also displays a welcoming attitude. Listen to the poem below, from a card distributed by the Tourist Police.

Always at your service

If you are lost or confused, we provide clarity.
If you are nervous or scared, we encourage strengthening your confidence.
If you need information, we provide them.
If you don’t know where to go, we guide you.

We are there when you need us.

Dial 1144.

Let us serve you.

A Day of Languages

From the European Day of Languages website

From the European Day of Languages website

Today is the European Day of Languages. It was proclaimed by the Council of Europe at the end of the European Year of Languages and has been celebrated ever since (2001).

There are about 225 languages indigenous to Europe. However, nearly half of EU citizens do not speak a language other than their mother tongue (EU, 2006). With a growing population of immigrants and refugees, European cities have become even more multilingual. For example, in London about 300 languages are spoken.

The European Union has now set a target for children to learn at least two foreign languages from an early age, both to enhance intercultural understanding and to improve the European economy.

The European Day of Languages

In that context, the aim of the European Day of Languages is to encourage language learning, specifically, to

  • highlight the importance of language learning and diversify the range of languages learned,
  • promote the rich linguistic and cultural diversity of Europe,
  • encourage lifelong language learning in and out of school.

People are encouraged to study a new language, or to take special pride in their existing language skills. There is also emphasis on learning a language other than English. Events are organized for children, on TV and radio programs, and in language classes and conferences.

A Day of Languages for the US?

The US has a linguistic diversity similar to Europe’s. It’s not a trivial task to count how many languages are spoken in any region, but it’s clear that there are well over 300 languages spoken in the US (Ryan, 2013), including at least 134 indigenous languages and many more spoken by more recent immigrants, such as the English.

Shouldn’t the US, or perhaps, North America, also have a Day of Languages? As in Europe, it would be good for the economy. It could help remind us all of the wonderful resource in our rich linguistic and cultural diversity. And, most importantly, it might also help us be less prone to lump people in categories of “the other.”

I have to add that it would be nice to have September 26 as a national holiday.


European Union (2006, February). Europeans and their Languages Special Eurobarometer 243.

Ryan, Camille (2013, August). Language use in the United States: 2011. American Community Survey Report.

Lee M. Hollander



I thought about Lee Hollander while returning to the US via Reykjavik.

Professor Hollander lived across the street from the house that three law students and I rented for a year while attending the University of Texas in Austin. He was 88 years old then, but still very fit and active. He would walk to campus every day, a distance of a mile and a half, when many younger residences insisted on driving.

He received many honors for his translations and studies of Scandinavian literature, including being made Knight of the Order of the Icelandic Falcon. One book I treasure is his translation of the the Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse poems, which were preserved in the Icelandic 13 C manuscript Codex Regius.

The Poetic Edda

The Poetic Edda

Hollander lost his academic job during WWI because he was a German teacher. In 1920, after the war, he came to the University of Texas, and contributed there for the rest of his life.

Hollander was forced to retire officially because of old age during the year that I was born, but he continued his research and teaching of Germanic studies, publishing many works on Old Norse and translations of sagas. His work continued until after I had received my PhD and left the University.

He died on his way home from the campus on October 19, 1972.

The Way of the Lycians

Our neighbor

Our neighbor

If I could rank civilizations in terms of how important and interesting they are divided by how much I know about them, Lycia would be near the top. Of course, that works only if I leave out the many I know nothing about.

Lycia is a region along Turkey’s Mediterranean coast between Antalya and Koycegiz. Its rivers, including Xanthos and Alakir drain the Anatolian plateau and are among the largest in the country. The entire region is mountainous, with some peaks rising over 10,000 feet. The mountain ranges encroach on the sea, pausing only enough to allow for beautiful beaches.

Barley in the Bezirgan yayla

Barley in the Bezirgan yayla

Our B&B is in a yayla (summer pasture) about 3000 feet above the sea. Nearby, the Kaputaş beach provides a good example of the topography.

It’s at the base of Kaputaş canyon, a narrow cleft at the foot of the Taurus mountains. The beach is 200′ wide and 70′ deep, with a scarp rising 80′ straight up behind. You can reach the beach by boat or by a staircase with 187 steps (seemed like more to me). Off its eastern end the sea has eroded the Blue Cave, nearly 200′ across, and a favorite of small tour boats and inner tube riders.

Kapitaş beach at the base of the canyon

Kapitaş beach at the base of the canyon

The Lycian civilization developed within this region. They probably came from Crete around 1400 BC. They had their own language and unique script, still not fully understood. They had unique customs and funerary architecture.

Even though they lived in mountainous terrain with seemingly inaccessible villages, the Lycians formed a union while the rest of the Greek world was warring city states. They had representative government when Greek cities still had rule of the whole body of citizens. In the later Lycian League, they had a bicameral legislature, panels of judges, and other complex civic structures.

Lycians used matrilineal lineage: People identify themselves by their mother and their mother’s mother, not the father. Moreover, offspring of a Lycian woman are automatically legitimate, whereas those born to a Lycian man and a foreigner are illegitimate. Herodotus thought that this was unique, but many other cultures employ a similar system. Our B&B host cites it as evidence that the Celts derive from Lycia.



The Lycians resisted domination, being the last in Asia Minor to become a province of the Roman empire. They won some of their battles, either by force or diplomacy, but the losses were dramatic and tragic.

In 540 BC, the Persian commander Harpagos attacked Xanthos, the largest and most prominent city. Finally succumbing to a blockade, the Xanthians gathered all the women, children, slaves, and household goods and set fire to them, then fought on until every Xanthian had been killed or committed suicide. Every item of value had thus been destroyed. Later, 80 Xanthian families who had been elsewhere during the fighting returned and rebuilt the city. The poem below, found at the Xanthos site, describes this event:

We made our houses graves
And our graves are homes to us
Our houses burned down
And our graves were looted
We climbed to the summits
We went deep into the earth
We were drenched in water
They came and got us
They burned and destroyed us
They plundered us
And we,
For the sake of our mothers,
Our women,
And for the sake of our dead,
And we,
In the name of our honor,
And our freedom,
We, the people of this land,
Who sought mass suicide
We left a fire behind us,
Never to die out…

Poem found on a tablet in the Xanthos excavations, translated by Azra Erhat

Keçiler (goats) on Lycian Way

Keçiler (goats) on Lycian Way

This scene was repeated when Brutus sacked the city in 42 BC. He offered a reward to any Roman soldier who could save a Xanthosian by preventing his suicide. But only 150 survived.

Despite these tragedies, in most cases the Xanthians succeeded against plunderers, until their artifacts were finally conquered by the British Museum in 1838.

Much evidence of the Lycian civilization still remains, as do, I suppose, descendants of those early peoples. The 300 mile long Lycian Way, which runs through our village, near Kaputaş beach and Xanthos, is Turkey’s first long-distance, waymarked path. Along the way one can see endless structures from the Lycian era and imagine its history stretching back 3400 years.

Kemal Hakki Tor’s Lycia is a good introduction to the area.

The Black Citadel of Opium

Afyon citadel

Afyon citadel

Afyonkarahisar (Turkey) is a cool name for a town.

To start, it’s seven syllables. How many towns can claim that? In the US, Philadelphia has five, Indianapolis has six. The full name for Llanfairpwllgwyngyll (Wales) has around 15 syllables, and there’s a town in Thailand with even more. However, among towns that people regularly say and name on signs, Afyonkarahisar must be in a select group.

Poppies (Papaver somniferum)

Poppies (Papaver somniferum)

The meaning of Afyonkarahisar is striking, too. “Hisar” means citadel or fortress, and refers to the stunning rock/castle in the center. It’s 570 steps up, which should convey a sense of its height.

“Kara” means black and “Afyon” means opium, which is widely grown in the area. So, Afyonkarahisar is the Black Citadel of Opium.

Ottoman era houses

Ottoman era houses

You can see poppy growing in many places around Afyonkarahisar. This is essential for one of the regional specialities, Kaymak, a creamy dairy product, made from the milk of water buffalos. The water buffalo are fed the residue of poppy seeds (haşhaş) after it has been pressed for oil. Kaymak is often traditionally eaten with honey as a supplement to breakfast.

Opium seed paste

Opium seed paste

Haşhaş (or opium seed paste) itself is sometimes served at breakfast. I learned that it is given to children to calm their stomachs and to help them sleep through the night (hush-hush?). Since my own stomach has been queasy lately, I’m hoping a generous serving will benefit me as well.

Down at the bottom of the citadel is an old town, with many houses from the Ottoman era. We stayed in one that’s been converted into a charming hotel: Şehitoğlu Konaği. Other than bumping my head, which seems to be a problem everywhere I go, I enjoyed the step into the past, with elaborate woodwork, long sofas, and many pots, pitchers, and plates made of copper or silver.

Personal questions

Lonely Planet publishes a good Turkish phrasebook, which has been handy in many situations. It provides some basic information about the language, the country, and the culture. I’d recommend carrying a copy, unless you’re fluent in Turkish.

But like any guidebook, the advice about social interactions is necessarily simplified, often essentializing differences. For example, the book advises:

Avoid asking questions about someone’s age, religion, or sexual preference, as the Turkish prefer not to discuss these topics openly. They love talking about politics, but exercise a little caution when expressing your opinion – some Turks verge on the fanatical when it comes to the ‘p’ word.

Phrases such as “the Turkish” or “They” are red flags, which can never be universally valid. I accept the advice to avoid personal questions on a first meeting, but I’ve found that at least some of the “They” actually like to talk about these topics. I’ve been asked: How old are you? Where do you live? What religion are you? How tall are you? What do you think about Obama? What do you think of Turkey?

When in an eczane (drugstore), I took advantage of the free scale to weigh myself. A druggist peered at the scale to check my number and then gave his approval. That may have been professional monitoring, but I sensed simple curiosity at work as well.

I’m sure that some of the They “love talking about politics,” but we were cautioned not to bring up politics with two men, who despite being friends and colleagues, had radically different political views. On the other hand, in the US, I know many people who “verge on the fanatical when it comes to the ‘p’ word.” Maybe they all have Turkish heritage.

The phrasebook also suggests,

When you meet someone of the opposite sex who has strong religious beliefs, avoid shaking hands or kissing them. Instead, greet them with the Arabic words selamin alekküm. (p. 105)

Again, broadly useful advice, but off in so many particulars. Turkish people we have met seem to vary widely in terms of talk and gestures. Some women initiate the double cheek kiss. Moreover, in a city, especially in university communities, there are people from all over the world with diverse habits. “The Turkish” vary a lot in terms of their international experiences and customs. And I haven’t heard selamin alekküm used in greetings.

One might also ask how to know whether someone has strong religious beliefs if that topic hasn’t come up. You can guess by clothing styles, but that’s far from infallible. I have a friend here who is deeply religious, but dresses in a modern style and drinks alcohol. Some women dress very conservatively, but for reasons of family or personal choice, not religion.

At another point, the phrasebook suggests,

When talking with people you’ve just met, or those you’re talking to in the polite siz (you) form, it’s considered rude to cross your arms or place your hands in your pockets. (p. 108)

This reminds me of a different guidebook that warns “the Chinese” do not like it when you point a finger at them. In my experience, most people sense that crossed arms, hands in pockets, pointing at people, and so on, are at best informal, and usually off-putting. I might just as well suggest to a Turk, “when meeting someone in the US for the first time, especially in a formal situation, don’t stand there with your arms crossed or point your finger at them. The American doesn’t like that.”