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Reviewed by:
  • Newār (Nepāl Bhāsā)
  • David E. Watters
Newār (Nepāl Bhāsā). Austin Hale and Kedār P. Shrestha. Languages of the World/Materials 256. Munich: Lincom Europa, 2006. Pp. xvii + 252. €68.00 (paper).

This excellent grammar of Newār (Nepāl Bhāsā ‘the language of Nepal’) by Austin Hale and Kedār P. Shrestha comes as a welcome addition to our growing body of knowledge of the Tibeto-Burman languages of Nepal. It is a bit of an irony, though, that a full-fledged grammar of modern Newār written for a general linguistic audience has been so long in the making. The Newārs, inhabitants of Kathmandu Valley, formerly known as “Nepāl,” have long been known to the outside world. They have enjoyed a central place in the annals of Himalayan exploration and travel, and in the past hundred years or so, numerous scholars, both Newār and foreign, have produced dictionaries, grammar sketches, and studies of diverse aspects of the language. But not until now have the numerous strands of linguistic scholarship been brought together, including the authors’ unique perspectives, and made accessible in a single volume. Hale and Shrestha have done us a great service.

It is not known how long the linguistic forebears of Newār have occupied the Kathmandu Valley, but early Newār palm-leaf inscriptions have been discovered dating back to the twelfth century a.d. In the centuries following, the Newārs began to develop a rich urban culture and an advanced literary tradition. From the time of the demise of the Licchavi rulers emanating out of northern India, the Newār language began to replace [End Page 89] Sanskrit as the official language of medieval Nepal, and it enjoyed that status until the invasion of the Shah kings of Gorkha in the late eighth century. Since then Newār has been suppressed, and in 1905 Chandra Shamsher Rana, in an official declaration, usurped the name “Nepali” for the Indo-Aryan Pahari language of the Gorkha invaders. But if the census figures of 1991 and 2001 can be trusted, Nepāl Bhāsā, the original “language of Nepal,” is now on the rebound.

Numerous hypotheses have been put forward on where Newār fits into the Tibeto-Burman family tree, and though Hale and Shrestha make no attempt at settling such matters, they provide us with a solid grammar that enables us to answer the more fundamental questions about the language’s unique character and its overall linguistic typology. This is not a fly-by-night grammar cobbled together after a few month’s fieldwork, but is based on many years of careful research and an interlinearized, natural text corpus of no less than nine thousand records from a wide collection of modern writings and numerous spoken genres.

To an admirable extent, Hale and Shrestha take account of their linguistic predecessors. They are well aware of the arguments for competing hypotheses, give credit where credit is due, and are not shy about adopting the elegant solutions of others. They keep their ears attuned to native intuitions about spelling conventions, semantic nuances, and local sensitivities.

The book consists of nine chapters (or sections), beginning with the contrastive phonology of the language in chapter 1 (pp. 1–22), followed by a detailed description of the rich and varied morphological systems of the major word classes—nouns, pronouns, quantifiers (including classifiers), verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Allomorphy abounds, both for stems and affixes, and much of chapter 2 (pp. 23–75) centers around a description of the conditions under which the various surface forms are realized. An unusual collocation is the occurrence of an ergative marker before or after a marker of spatial location, in either case resulting in an ablative reading.

Also in chapter 2, Hale and Shrestha introduce an important distinction that has major relevance throughout the rest of the grammar—the distinction between “conjunct” and “disjunct” tense inflections in the verb. The distinction is linked to the epistemic notions of locus of knowledge, volitionality, control, and coreferentiality between subordinate and matrix clauses. Some verbs are “fluid,” capable of coding either intentional or nonintentional action...


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pp. 89-92
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