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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

The Linguistic Prehistory of the Western Himalayas



Manuel Widmer


The western Himalayas are an ancient linguistic area in which Indo-European (IE) and Tibeto- Burman (TB), the two largest language families of Eurasia, have been in close and longstanding contact for more than three millennia (see Masica 1991; van Driem 2001). The region thus constitutes an ideal laboratory for studying the long-term effects of language contact between two typologically very divergent language families. However, detailed investigations of such contact phenomena presuppose detailed knowledge about the history of the languages that are spoken in the region. Unfortunately, our understanding of the linguistic prehistory of the western Himalayas is still very fragmentary. This talk aims at filling this gap and shedding light on the linguistic past of this area based on a historical study of selected languages from the region. The talk will draw on field data from poorly described and endangered TB minority languages that were collected by the author between 2010 and 2016. In the western Himalayas, the border between the IE and TB languages nowadays runs along the Himalayan mountain range. This border area is occupied by the so-called “West Himalayish” (WH) languages, a group of fifteen endangered minority languages that belong to the TB family and separate the Tibetic linguistic area, which spans over the northern flank of the Himalayan range and the Himalayan Plateau, from the Indo-Aryan linguistic area, which extends over the Himalayan foothills and the Gangetic plain.

Figure 1. The linguistic geography of the western Himalayas
Figure 1. The linguistic geography of the western Himalayas

There is no evidence for major migration movements and/or language shifts in the western Himalayas during the past few centuries. This suggests that the current linguistic situation has persisted for a long time. At the same time, there is reason to believe that the WH languages, which are nowadays only spoken by small-sized ethno-linguistic communities that are scattered over remote and inaccessible regions of the North Indian Himalayas, must have had a wider geographical distribution in the past. This study will adduce evidence for this hypothesis based on a historical study of the WH subgroup. In a first part, the talk will address the internal classification of the WH subgroup. Based on lexical and grammatical evidence, it will be demonstrated that WH consists of two main branches, a western branch (marked with symbol ○ in Figure 1) and an eastern branch (marked with symbol △ in Figure 1) (see Widmer forthcoming). This classification will then be compared with the contemporary distribution of WH languages. It will be shown that closely related WH languages are often separated from each other by territories occupied by Indo- Aryan or Tibetic communities, which corroborates the hypothesis that the WH subgroup was once spread over a wider territory. In a second part, the talk will reconstruct the former distribution of WH languages based on both linguistic and non-linguistic evidence. It will be demonstrated that

  1. the eastern WH languages bear affinities to the language of Zhangzhung, a polity that once controlled major parts of the Himalayan plateau before it was conquered by the Tibetan empire in the 7th century CE (see Denwood 2008), and that
  2. numerous western Tibetic varieties contain both lexical and morphological borrowings of WH origin.

This suggests that WH languages were once spoken in major parts of the Himalayan Plateau. It will further be shown that several WH communities were highly mobile societies until the recent past and used to migrate to the Himalayan foothills together with their livestock in winter (see Zoller 1983; Willis 2007). Speakers of the WH language Jangrami (no. 7 in Figure 1), for example, used to spend the winter months in the valley of Kullu, where the closely related WH language Kanashi (no. 4 in Figure 1) is spoken to the present day. This suggests that WH communities may once have permanently settled the Himalayan foothills, but were then gradually pushed into the Himalayan range by Indo-Aryan communities, who may have arrived in the area as early as 1,500 BCE (see Masica 1991). Finally, the talk will point to directions for future research and identify further languages that may have been in contact with WH in ancient times, e.g. the languages of the Karakoram (e.g. Burushaski, Dardic languages) and the languages of the Central Himalayas (e.g. Tamangic). The talk will thus contribute to a better understanding of the linguistic prehistory of the western Himalayas and demonstrate the value of endangered, underdescribed minority languages for the study of ancient linguistic areas. 


Denwood, Philip. The Tibetans in the West. Journal of Inner Asian Art & Archaeology 3, 7–21. 

Masica, Colin P. 1991. The Indo-Aryan languages (Cambridge Language Surveys). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

van Driem, George. 2001. Languages of the Himalayas: an ethnolinguistic handbook of the greater Himalayan region, 2 vols. Leiden: Brill. 

Widmer, Manuel. Forthcoming. A grammar of Bunan (Mouton Grammar Library 71). Berlin: de Gruyter Mouton. 

Willis, Christina. 2007. A descriptive grammar of Darma: an endangered Tibeto-Burman language. Austin: University of Texas at Austin dissertation.

Zoller, Claus Peter. 1983. Die Sprache der Rang pas von Garhwal (Raṅ Pɔ Bhāsa): Grammatik, Texte, Wörterbuch. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

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