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Reviewed by
David E. Watters
SIL International, Asia Area
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.

Chapters 3–7 deal with syntactic issues, beginning with the composition of the noun phrase (chapter 3, pp. 76–124). An interesting distinction is made between different types of modifiers in the noun phrase. Some modifiers of the “quantifier” class take the full set of classifier units based on the animacy and shape of the head noun, while “attributives” and “determiners” take a reduced set, –gu and –mhə (plus plural –pĩ:), based only on animacy. The classifiers that appear on quantifiers are referred to as “classifiers,” and those that appear on attributives and determiners as “agreement” markers. The argument that most adjectives are a kind of relative clause is based, in part, on this distinction.

The verb complex, as shown in chapter 4 (pp. 125–71), is one of the more interesting parts of the grammar and seems to have captured the interest of the authors more than any other topic. They present a logical and coherent interpretation of auxiliaries, serial verbs, and converbal constructions. Grammaticalization and historical-functional explanation are emphasized more here than in most other parts of the book.

Chapter 5 on the clause (pp. 172–89) is primarily a categorization of clause types based on the inherent semantics of the verb. The framework adopted appears to be that developed by Pike and Hale in the early 1970s (e.g., Hale 1973; Pike and Pike 1977). In addition to the core semantic roles of agent, experiencer, and patient, location is also [End Page 90] given a central role. The resulting category labels are a bit unusual in a present-day linguistic context.

In chapter 6 (pp. 190–206), Hale and Shrestha deal with relativization and nominalization. All relative clauses in Newār are based on the same structure, the only difference between a subject relative clause and an object relative clause being the pivot or gapped argument. Though relative clauses are nominalizations, the markers of nominalization (inanimate –gu or animate –mhú) are viewed as agreement markers, not nominalizers (nor as classifiers). This is so even for headless relative clauses that take nominal-case marker endings; the authors argue that the verb agrees with the deleted head.

Nominalized clauses also function as arguments of verbs higher clauses. Such nominalized clauses have no gapped argument and are always marked by the inanimate agreement marker –gu, because they are “necessarily abstract” (p. 192). Stand-alone, unembedded nominalized clauses also occur, their primary function being to “introduce situations with long-term implications for the story, or to elaborate themes, or to provide summaries of previous events” (p. 195).

Chapter 7 (pp. 207–28) deals with clause combining, the first type of which is the converbal construction. Converbal constructions serve a host of semantic clause-linking functions—temporal succession, simultaneity, manner, reason and cause, concession, and others. Somewhat noteworthy is the fact that the same nonfinal verb marker is used in clause chains regardless of whether the chained clauses share subjects or not. Another type of clause combining is that of conjunction (beginning on p. 219).

Chapter 8 (pp. 209–30) deals with topic marking. Finally, chapter 9 (pp. 231–32) offers with a short (eight sentences) Newār text with interlinear analysis.

In this otherwise consistently excellent grammar, I have found only one or two minor shortcomings. One flaw is the occasional use of idiosyncratic labels for categories whose terminological status is well established in the descriptive literature. The two classical intransitive types, for example—those with agentive subject and those with patientive subject—are referred to as “Intransitive” and “Receptive,” respectively. More puzzling, ‘He saw me’ (p. 176) is categorized as “Transitive,” while ‘He saw the star’ (p. 178) is categorized as “Bi-Receptive.” Both have ergative-marked subjects and the only apparent difference between the two is in the differential marking of the object. There are other terminological anomalies as well, such as the unusual use of the term “complement clause” for an infinitival clause (p. 84), along with lack of use of the term on pp. 192–95. (To be fair, a rationalization is given for its nonuse on p. 192, but, in my opinion, not a convincing one.)

Also, it is a pity that the authors were forced to work within the framework of a grammar series so limited in page length. We would have liked to see more. The authors might have been better served by a different publisher, though, of course, that might have priced the grammar out of the market.

There is no question that Hale and Shrestha’s Newār grammar is a work of lasting, high quality. Only rarely will one find a grammatical treatise that brings together so knowledgeably and so fairly the opinions of so many distinguished specialists while at the same time making a solid contribution in its own right. For such a brief book it is broad in its treatment and remarkable for its depth of content. It will surely prove to be an inspiration to linguists everywhere and an extremely valuable resource for Tibeto-Burmanists.


Hale, Austin 1973 Toward the Systematization of Display Grammar. In Clause, Sentence, and Discourse Patterns in Selected Languages of Nepal. Part 1, edited by [End Page 91] Austin Hale, 1–37. Summer Institute of Linguistics Publications in Linguistics and Related Fields 40. Norman: Summer Institute of Linguistics and the University of Oklahoma.
Pike, Kenneth L., and Evelyn G. Pike 1977 Grammatical Analysis. Summer Institute of Linguistics Publications in Linguistics 53. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.