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The Nihali Language (Grammar, Texts and Vocabulary)

The Nihali Language (Grammar, Texts and Vocabulary)
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Item Code: NAW206
Author: K.S. Nagaraja
Publisher: Central Institute Of Indian Languages, Mysore
Language: Nihali and English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9788173431449
Pages: 344
Other Details: 8.50 X 5.50 inch
About the Book

India is the homeland of languages of five different families- Dravidian, Austroasiatic, Indo-Aryan, Tibeto-Burman and Andamanese. There are a few languages which are not part of any of these genetic groups and Nihali happens to be one of them. Nahals come under scheduled tribes and their population is estimated to be around 4000. The Language Tables of Census of India 2001 enumerate a total of 122 languages at the national level- 22 Scheduled and 100 Non-Scheduled. This is an outright understatement of the existing reality. There are around 200 languages in the country out of which 75% to 80% are spoken by the tribal communities, which are ignored by the criterion of having less than 10,000 speakers. To remedy the situation the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore has undertaken a massive national project to protect and preserve these endangered languages. Globalization and overwhelming importance of English are commonly cited as causes of language endangerment in India. But even the major regional languages like Telugu, Marathi, Hindi or Odiya also act as killers of minor tribal speeches. Over the past millions of years, the Indian experience had been one of retention of minor tongues, but with the intrusion of electronic media of regional languages, the younger generation is shifting its loyalty towards them at the cost of its mother tongue. Under such circumstances the study of Nihali by Prof. Nagaraja is a vital addition to our understanding of the current phenomenon of language endangerment.

As the title suggests the present volume consists of grammar, texts and vocabulary besides a brief introduction. Dr. Nagaraja has commenced his fieldwork on Nihali in the late 1990s and since then he has been eliciting and analysing the data, intermittently for the last one and half a decade. The Nihali speakers of Buldana district of Maharashtra, spread over 5-6 villages, have been his main informants. The speakers are bilinguals speaking Nihali and Korku (some of them know Marathi or Hindi). The impact of Korku on Nihali is noticed at all levels and the scholar’s intensive work on the former unearthed the different areas of convergence.

The grammatical analysis and description are carried out within the model of modern American Structural linguistics. Establishment of functional sounds, their contrasts, distribution and allophones together with syllable structure form the description of phonology. The term grammar comprises the. raditional morphology as well as syntax with convincing examples drawn from elicited data and texts. Under noun morphology person, number, gender and case are detailed together with pronouns and numerals. The morphosyntax of verb-structure reveals the unique structural patterns of Nihali. The original analysis is supported by nearly 250 phrases, clauses and sentences, each point dwelling and dealing with structural nuances. Dr. Nagaraja’s Nihali Language: Grammar, Texts and Vocabulary is a landmark of his years of linguistic fieldwork on different minor, neglected and tribal languages. He has firsthand experience of working on Austroasiatic, Tibeto-Burman and Dravidian group of languages. One may recall his earlier grammatical treatises on Khasi, Korku and Konyak together with texts and multilingual dictionaries.

One of the seminal issues regarding Nihali 1s about its genetic affiliation. It is shown that Nihali shares certain phonological and grammatical features with Korku (of Austroasiatic group) and more lexical items, which may be due to contact in a bilingual situation. Nihali still remains as an isolate of the Central Indian linguistic area.

Nihali texts represent the narratives dealing with several aspects of tribal life including the traditional knowledge, life style, equality of persons, joy and sorrow of the people and their philosophy of life. The texts are represented in phonetic transcription, rather than transliteration, to preserve the spoken style of the narratives. Each sentence 1s numbered, with word-to-word meaning and free translation into English. Nihali lexical items are given in the English alphabetical order with their meanings on the left side and the source of borrowing, if any, on the right (in a three-column arrangement).

Nihali was identified as a separate speech in the mid 1950s by the late Sudhibhushan Bhattacharya and after a lapse of nearly six decades, the present volume is the first original detailed study of this endangered language isolate. It will be of great interest to the students and scholars of Linguistics, Anthropology, Folklore, Lexicography, Education and Language Planning. Dr. Nagaraja deserves the appreciation of academic community for his unceasing seminal linguistic Geldwork and language analysis, with untiring commitment.


It is well-known that there are seven language families in India - Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Austroasiatic, Tibeto-Burman, Austronesian [Onge-Jarawa], Great Andamanese and Tai-Kadai, and each and every language belongs to one of these families. However, there are at least two languages which have defied such categorization, ‘namely Burushaski, spoken in the North-West frontiers of our country, and Nihali/Nahali, spoken in a couple of villages of the Buldana district of Maharashtra. At present, the Nihals living in the parts of Madhya Pradesh speak Nimari, an Indo-Aryan language. However, in some places like the Buldana district of Maharashtra, the Nihals do speak their own language but it is highly influenced by Korku and other languages. That is why it was felt necessary to study this language.

Nihali is not only a ‘language isolate’, it is critically endangered as it is spoken by around three thousand speakers. These two aspects make it a ‘must-study’ language. Paradoxically even then all these veers there was very little study on it. Now Dr. K. S. Nagaraja has filled this gap with a detailed study on the language. The work being published is an outcome of the research he did as a Fellow at this Institute between 2010 and 2012. So, fittingly this is being brought out under the Institute’s banner. The language holds a great challenge to the scholars to explore the possibilities of its relationship with other languages; and also try to explain the reasons tor loss of extensive native vocabulary and structures.

It has been the endeavour of this Institute to encourage scholars to work on Indian languages, particularly on non-scheduled and endangered ones. From that point of view, it is a very important work filling the void. It is hoped that it finds favour with the linguists’ community.


The term nahal in the Nihali/Nahali language means ‘tiger’ or lion’. Russel and Hiralal (1916) describe the Nahal or Nihal as a hybrid of the Bhil and Korku. They were also identified with an ancient community, called Nahalka, mentioned in Padma Purana as an offshoot of the Nishada. The Nahals are subdivided into Raghuvanshi and Tavadia sections. The Korku, who first migrated to the Berar region of Madhya Pradesh, found the Nahal in possession of the hills. Gradually, the Nahals lost their land. They are notified under the nomenclature Nihal/Nahul as a scheduled tribe, and are grouped along with the Korku, Bopchi, Mouasai, Bondhi and Bondeya. At present, the Nahals of this area speak Nimari, an Indo-Aryan language. However, in some places like Buldhana district of Maharashtra, Nahals speak their own language, which is highly influenced by Korku and other languages. The Nahals are further divided into a number of totemic clans (nata). Monogamy is the norm. They mainly subsist on agriculture labour. They are mostly employed as labourers in agricultural fields by other communities. (From K.S.Singh’s People of India book)

Nihali, also Nahali, had 3600 speakers according to 1961 census of India reports. The speakers are found in an area of about fifty square miles in the northern extremes of Buldhana district of Maharashtra. Though Nihals are found in Amravati district of Maharashtra and East Nimar district of Madhya Pradesh, in the foothills of the western-most range of the Satpuda mountains they no longer speak their own speech form. According to the available information there are no monolingual adult Nihals. Only two brief descriptive articles have appeared on this language so far. However, comparative studies have been somewhat richer, since the genetic relation of Nihaliis a matter of dispute. Konow believed the language to be Munda, with heavy Dravidian and Indo-Aryan accretion. But even the Munda element consists largely of Korku loans, and in 1941 R. Shafer proposed that Nahali represents an altogether separate stock. F.B.J. Kuiper has shown that over 20 percent of the available vocabulary of Nahali is unrelated to that of any Indian linguistic family. The present study corroborates with this view.

The Nihali language has great significance, due to its uniqueness, in not having any known relationship with any known language. In this regard Sudhibhushan Bhattacharya had conducted a fieldtrip in 1954-55. After that, though some data was collected from the Nahals of Buldhana district of Maharashtra, in the sixties of previous century under the Munda project, it came to light only in 1996, in the form of Nihali lexicon published in a Journal called Mother Tongue in the USA. Other than that, no scholar had shown any interest in this language. In order to fill this vacuum in 1996 a pilot study was conducted by the present scholar to ascertain where these speakers are living. That fieldtrip was successful in locating these speakers, in a place called Jamud, and in the neighbouring areas in Buldhana district of Maharashtra. There are not many villages where this language is spoken.

This aspect has been well illustrated by Kuiper in his work. He has shown that there 1s hardly 25% native vocabulary left. So, the future of the language is at stake. The intension of the present investigator is to collect data exhaustively so that a comprehensive view of the language can be obtained.

In around five-six villages in that district these speakers are located, but in small numbers. There is no exclusive village where these speakers live. Most of them are bilinguals or multi-linguals: knowing at least Korku, a Munda language of higher social prestige and having large number of speakers in the area; and/or local varieties of Marathi/Hindi as well. Most Nihals are landless labourers, so economically very poor. Because of it, they come in contact with other language speakers for their Own survival. As their number is quite small, education, which is very recent, has to be imparted to them through other languages. So, their language has been influenced very much by Korku and to some extent by other languages. The intension of the present investigator is to collect data exhaustively so that a comprehensive view of the language can be obtained. Since 1998 yearly some data has been collected on the language spoken in Buldhana district of north Maharashtra by the present writer. So far all the villages where Nihals live and speak the language have been covered. Based on the data, a preliminary Phonemic analysis and a tentative grammatical sketch have been prepared.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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