Nepali is the national language of Nepal. Besides being spoken as a mother tongue by more than 48% of the population of Nepal, it is also spoken in Bhutan and India. The language is recognized in the Indian constitution as an official language of India.
The variety presented here is standard Nepali as spoken in Nepal. There are three major dialects: eastern, central, and western . Though many dialects can be distinguished in Nepal and other South Asian countries, there is reported to be little variation in phonology from one to another .
Table 1 presents the oral and nasal vowels of Nepali.
|High||i, ĩ||u, ũ|
|Upper mid||e, ẽ||o|
|Lower mid||ʌ, ʌ̃|
Table 1: The vowels of Nepali
As the above list shows, there are five nasal vowels, as indicated with tildes (~). The high mid back vowel /o/ does not have a nasal counterpart at the phonological level; although the vowel [õ] does exist phonetically in the language, it is often in free variation with its oral counterpart, as in [hotso] ~ [hõtso] 'short', [bʱeɽaa] ~ [bʱẽɽaa] 'sheep'. Nasal vowels are not frequent in the Nepali lexicon, compared to a language such as French in which the number of nasal vowels is large. They occur mostly in verbs. According to Bandhu et al. , the evidence for the distinctiveness of vowel nasalization is not nearly as strong as that for the distinctiveness of the six oral vowels. They state that minimal pairs are easily obtainable only for the vowel /a/. Examples are shown below:
Other minimal pairs include /naũ/ 'name' vs. /nau/ 'barber' and /gaũ/ 'village' versus /gau/ 'sing!' (2nd p. sg. imperative). At the phonetic level, oral vowels can be nasalized when preceded by a nasal consonant.
The orthographical system includes two diphthongs, a heritage of Sanskrit: "ai" and "au". However, there are more diphthongs in the spoken language. Pokharel recognizes ten diphthongs, as shown below.
Table 2: Nepali diphthongs
|Tap or Flap||ɾ|
Table 3: Consonants of Nepali.
The glides /j/ and /w/ are contrastive in the consonant system, but do not contrast with /i/ and /u/. All consonants but /ɦ/, /w/ and /j/ also occur as geminates (doubled in length). Apart from forming lexically distinctive words, as in /tsʌpʌl/ चपल 'unstable' and /tsʌppʌl/ चप्पल 'slipper', gemination also forms the intensive degree of adjectives, as in /miʈʈho/ 'very delicious', compare /miʈho/ 'delicious'.
Loanwords from Sanskrit introduce further consonants that are not active in the phonological inventory of the spoken language. They occur in borrowed words, where they are proscriptively pronounced as described in Sanskrit grammars. The retroflex nasal [ɳ] occurs in the speech of some speakers, in words such as /baɳ/ वाण 'arrow'. A posterior sibilant [ʃ] occurs in such words as /nareʃ/ नरेश 'king'. The language does not have any minimal pairs opposing /s/ and /ʃ/, and speakers sometimes use these sounds inconsistently.
Bandhu C.M. 1968. Nepali Bhasako Utpatti. (5th edition 1995.) Sajha Prakashan, Kathmandu, Nepal. (बन्धु, चुडामणि (२०२५) नेपाली भाषाको उत्पत्ति, साझा प्रकाशन, काठमाडौँ (२०५२))
Bandhu C.M., Dahal B. M., Holzhausen A. and Hale A. (1971). Nepali Segmental Phonology. Summer Institute of Linguistics, Tribhuvan University Kirtipur, Nepal.
Dahal, M.D. (1974). A description of Nepali: Literary and colloquial, PhD Dissertation, University of Pune, India.
Pokharel, M.P. (1989), Experimental analysis of Nepali sound system, PhD Dissertation, University of Pune, India.
पोखरेल मा प्र (2000), ध्वनिविज्ञान र नेपाली भाषाको ध्वनि परिचय, नेपाल राजकीय प्रज्ञा प्रतिष्ठान, काठमाडौँ ।