On Nihali

Authored by: Norman H. Zide

The Munda Languages

Print publication date:  March  2008
Online publication date:  April  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415328906
eBook ISBN: 9781315822433
Adobe ISBN: 9781317828860


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The interest in Nihali, such as it is, in certain narrow academic quarters, lies in the fact – possible fact – that it is (in interesting ways) no language at all but a ‘so-called’ or seeming language, and/or that it is a mystery, a lost – possibly ‘p aleolithic’ – language (something like the Tasaday of the Philippines, what Tasaday was purported to be but without the heavy public relations flak that surrounded it). It is, perhaps, the only remnant in India of an ancient – pre-Munda, pre-Dravidian, pre-Ind o-Aryan language family, with no living relatives, but, perhaps, a sister language of the language the Bhils spoke before they lost their own language and it was supplanted by the various Indo-Aryan ‘Bhilis’. Nihali has been noticed by historical linguists for the very high percentage of borrowed vocabulary, and the variety of (proposed) sources for that borrowing, and the ‘suspiciously simplified’ syntax of the language. What is a mystery academically and popularly can be an administrative headache. Early notices of the Nihals describe them as nuisances, hill marauders and plunderers, ‘caterans’ who were ‘incorrigible’, and needed to be exterminated, and almost were on a couple of occasions. (I use Mundlay’s spelling, Nihali, which represents the local pronunciation; Kuiper and others write ‘Nahali’. Berger’s paper goes into the history of the name. The name the Nihals use for themselves is Kalto or Kaltu.) It is due to the work of Professor F.B.J. Kuiper that Nihali has been brought to the attention of Indologists, and what we say here addresses matters that Kuiper has been the first to foreground, and to treat in impressive detail.

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