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Lepcha language

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

RegionSikkim, India; parts of Nepal and Bhutan
Native speakers
66,500 (2011-2013)[1][2]
Lepcha script and Tibetan alphabet
Official status
Official language in
 India (Sikkim)
Language codes
ISO 639-3lep
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Lepcha language, or Róng language (Lepcha: ᰛᰩᰵᰛᰧᰵᰶ; Róng ríng), is a Himalayish language spoken by the Lepcha people in Sikkim, India and parts of West Bengal, Nepal and Bhutan.


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.[4][5]

The Indian census reported 50,000 Lepcha speakers,[6] however the number of native Lepcha speakers in India may be closer to 30,000.[4]


Lepcha is difficult to classify, but George van Driem (2001) suggests that it may be closest to the Mahakiranti languages, a subfamily of the Himalayish languages.[7]

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.[4]

Roger Blench (2013) suggests that Lepcha has an Austroasiatic substratum, which originated from a now-extinct branch of Austroasiatic that he calls "Rongic".[8]


Lepcha is a non-tonal Sino-Tibetan language, although it does have phonemic stress or pitch that may be marked in the Lepcha script.[4]:37 Much of its lexicon is composed of monosyllabic elements.[5]

Notably, words that are commonly considered obscene or taboo in other languages are not treated as such by native speakers.[5]

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.[9] Prior to the development of the Lepcha script, Lepcha literary works were composed in the Tibetan script.[5]

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.[4]



Lepcha consonants appear in the chart below, following Plaisier (2007):[4]:21–32

Labial Dental Alveolar Retroflex Palato-alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
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⟩ ⟨th⟩ ʈʰ ⟨thr⟩ ⟨ch⟩ ⟨kh⟩
voiced b ⟨b⟩ d ⟨d⟩ ɖ ⟨dr⟩ ɡ ⟨g⟩
Affricate voiceless ts ⟨ts⟩
aspirated tsʰ ⟨tsh⟩
voiced z~dz ⟨z⟩
Fricative voiced v ⟨v⟩ ʒ ⟨j⟩
voiceless f ⟨f⟩ s ⟨s⟩ ʃ ⟨sh⟩
Approximant w ⟨w⟩ l ⟨l⟩ j ⟨y⟩ h ⟨h⟩
Trill r ⟨r⟩

Retroflex phonemes /ʈ/, /ʈʰ/, and /ɖ/ are written in Lepcha script as ᰀᰥ kr, 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].[4]

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: ᰕᰥᰤᰩᰮmryóm, "to spread over the ground, creep." Notably, syllables with the glide /l/ are given their own independent forms in the Lepcha script.[4]

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/.[4]

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/.[4]

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].[4]


According to Plaisier (2007), Lepcha has eight vowels:[4]:17–21

Front Central Back
Unrounded Rounded
Close i ⟨i⟩, ⟨í⟩ ɯ ⟨u⟩ u ⟨ú⟩
Close-mid e~ɛ ⟨e⟩ o ⟨o⟩
Mid ə ⟨a⟩, ⟨â⟩
Open-mid ɔ ⟨ó⟩
Open a ⟨á⟩

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.[4]


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").[4]


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:[4]

Postposition Meaning
-ᰠᰴ / -ᰎᰴ
-ᰛᰬ -re definite, topic
- ᰮ -m dative
-ᰠᰦ -sá genitive
-ᰀᰦ -ká locative
-ᰕᰪ -mu only
-ᰉᰬᰳ -nyet both

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.[4]

According to Plaisier (2007), Lepcha personal pronouns are as follows:[4]

Dual Plural
First person ᰃᰨ go
ᰀᰠᰪ kasu
ᰀᰦᰉᰧᰶ kányí ᰀᰦᰚᰫ káyú
Second person ᰝᰩ hó
ᰣᰦᰌᰨ ʔádo
ᰣᰦᰉᰧᰶ ʔányí ᰣᰦᰚᰫ ʔáyú
Third person ᰝᰪ hu
ᰝᰪᰌᰨ hudo
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.[4]

Thematic classes

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/: ᰠᰶᰲ sâr means "goat," ᰠᰶᰛᰤᰨᰮ sâryom means "otter," ᰠᰶᰜᰩᰭ sâlók means "rhinoceros," and ᰠᰝᰪsâhu means "monkey." Other noun classes include /sâ/ and /ka/ for plants, and /pe/ or /pâ/ for snakes and bamboo products.[5][10]


Lepcha verbs generally function 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."[4]

Many intransitive verbs incorporate a causative -/y/- infix, sometimes followed by a -/t/ suffix, to take a transitive sense: ᰕᰦᰭmák, "die" → ᰕᰤᰦᰭ myák, "kill;" ᰏᰶplâ, "come forth" → ᰏᰤᰶ plyâ, "bring forth;" ᰄᰫglú, "fall down" → ᰄᰤᰳ/ᰄᰤᰬᰳglyat/glyet, "drop."[4]

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):[4]

Suffix or
-wám/-ʔám/-bám progressive
nón resultant
-tho exhaustive
-hát perfective
-shang infinitive
-bú factual
-re definite
le polite request
ma assertive
ce authoritative
te dubiousness
lyók inference

Verbs are negated by a circumfix, ma–n(e): khut, "to be able," becomes ma-khut-ne, "to be unable."[4]

See also


  1. ^ "Lepcha". Ethnologue. Retrieved 8 August 2018.
  2. ^ "Statement 1: Abstract of speakers' strength of languages and mother tongues - 2011". Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India. Retrieved 7 July 2018.
  3. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Lepcha". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Plaisier, Heleen (2007). A grammar of Lepcha. Tibetan studies library: Languages of the greater Himalayan region. 5. BRILL. ISBN 90-04-15525-2.
  5. ^ a b c d e "Lepchas and their Tradition". Official Portal of NIC Sikkim State Centre. National Informatics Centre, Sikkim. 25 January 2002. Archived from the original on 17 October 2017. Retrieved 16 April 2011.
  6. ^ Lepcha language at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  7. ^ van Driem, George (2001). Languages of the Himalayas: An Ethnolinguistic Handbook of the Greater Himalayan Region. Brill. ISBN 90-04-12062-9.
  8. ^ Blench, Roger. 2013. Rongic: a vanished branch of Austroasiatic.
  9. ^ Coulmas, Florian (1996). The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems. Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-21481-X.
  10. ^ Mainwaring, George Byres (1898). Albert Grünwedel (ed.). Dictionary of the Lepcha-language. Unger bros. (multiple entries)

Further reading

This page was last edited on 26 February 2020, at 07:02
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