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Tamang: A Cross-Varietal Documentation and Descriptive Study


Language Tamang
Depositor Thomas Owen-Smith
Affiliation SOAS University of London
Location Nepal
Collection ID 0234
Grant ID IGS0087
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

Tamang (ISO-639: taj)is an endangered Tibeto-Burman language spoken in the Middle Hills of Nepal(27°5’N, 85-86°E), primarily in the districts of Dhading, Makwanpur, Rasuwa, Nuwakot, Kathmandu, Lalitpur, Bhaktapur, Sindhupalchok, Kabhre, Sindhuli, Dolakha and Ramechap (West to East). Tamang exhibits considerable geographical variation which is still poorly understood. All varieties of the language are now threatened by Nepali.

The Tamang consider the cardinal geographical split in the language to be between Eastern and Western Tamang. The Trisuli River in Nuwakot and Rasuwa districts is considered the boundary line, and the linguistic differences appear to be complemented by differences in dress, religion and social customs (Campbell).

Amrit Hyonjan, himself a Tamang from Ramechap district, has proposed two main varieties within Eastern Tamang, which he calls “Temale” and “Sailunge” (1997), after the areas of Temal and Sailung which are old Tamang clan centres. Bryan Varenkamp’s sociolinguistic study of Tamang (1996) agreed with Hyonjan’s distinction, and he called the varieties “Central Eastern” and “Outer Eastern” respectively.

Genetically, Tamang was classified by Shafer as belonging to Gurung Branch of the Bodish Section of the Bodic Division of Tibeto-Burman (1955), however more recently scholars (eg. Noonan, van Driem) have preferred to call the branch “Tamangic”.

Its closest linguistic relatives are considered to be Gurung, Thakali, Manange, Nar-Phu and Chantyal, all traditionally spoken to the West of Tamang itself. To the East of the Tamang area are spoken the Kiranti languages, and in the middle of the area lies the Kathmandu Valley, where traditionally Newar is spoken. To the North and in pockets within the Tamang area are spoken various Tibetan “dialects” and closely related languages, including most importantly Sherpa, Yölmo, and the Kyirong and Langthang dialects of Tibetan. In more northerly areas Tamang speakers have long possessed a high level of bilingualism in these languages, and ethnic boundaries between Tamang and Tibetan groups have traditionally been somewhat porous (Campbell). Nepali is now spoken throughout the region. Little is known of the contact relationships between Tamang and neighbouring languages.

Old texts are rumoured to exist in the language, written in Tibetan script, (Macdonald, 1975), however literacy amongst the Tamang (except for lamas) is much more widespread in Nepali (ie. Devanagari script) than in Tibetan, therefore in recent years most writing in Tamang has been in Devanagari.

This collection aims to produce a wide-ranging documentation of Tamang with a focus on the most endangered varieties, including a corpus of audio, video and texts, a descriptive study of features shared and diverging between varieties, and a polylectal trilingual dictionary in Tamang, Nepali and English. These will contribute to efforts to maintain Tamang as a viable contemporary language.


Group represented

Speakers in a large but sparsely populated area in Central and Eastern Nepal.

Despite being amongst the larger ethnic minorities of Nepal, the Tamang have for centuries been a severely disadvantaged group, a legacy which continues today with the community’s low levels of wealth, development, literacy, and participation in political and national life (Tamang, 1992; Rai, 2008). For a similar length of time their (Buddhist) culture and most things associated with it were also spurned by the (Hindu) national mainstream (Campbell, 1997), assigning the Tamang language a low social prestige at a national level.

Modern communications and transport, increased migration both into and out of traditional ethnic heartlands, and economic pressures are spurring a rapid language shift from minority languages to Nepali throughout the country. Many ethnic minorities, including large groups like the Magar and Gurung, have already experienced drastic declines in their language following greater assimilation into the economic and cultural mainstream (van Driem, 2001), from positions less marginalized than the Tamang.This trend indicates that Tamang is in an extremely precarious position.


Language information

Tamang is a Tibeto-Burman language spoken over a large but sparsely populated area in Central and Eastern Nepal. All varieties of the language are now threatened by Nepali.


Other information

The task of documenting Tamang is significantly complicated by the fact that it is spoken over an extended and remote area, and exhibits very wide geographical diversity. Indeed, one can question whether or not it is possible to consider Tamang a coherent language at all. Noonan (2003) uses the term “Tamang complex”, which appears to designate a group of closely related languages, the relations between which are not clearly understood. Nevertheless, officially-pronged exonyms can have an important bearing on a group’s perception of themselves, and over recent decades the Tamang’s self-awareness as an ethnic group has grown (Sonntag, 1995).

This collection intends to produce not only a variegated documentation of Tamang, but also to make an important contribution to the debate regarding the theory and practice of documenting polylectal endangered languages.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Owen-Smith, Thomas. 2014. Tamang: A Cross-Varietal Documentation and Descriptive Study. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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