Nihali language

Nihali language
Spoken in India
Region Jalgaon Jamod, on the border of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh
Native speakers 2,000
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3 nll

Nihali, also known as Nahali or erroneously as Kalto, is a language isolate spoken in west-central India (in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra) by around 2,000 people (in 1991) out of an ethnic population of 5,000. The Nihali tribal area is just south of the Tapti River, around the village of Tembi in Nimar district of Central Provinces during British Raj, now in Madhya Pradesh.[1] The language has a very large number of words adopted from neighboring languages, with 60-70% apparently taken from Korku (25% of vocabulary and much of its morphology), from Dravidian languages, and from Marathi, but much of its core vocabulary cannot be related to these or other languages, such as the numerals and words for 'blood' and 'egg'.

Kuiper was the first to suggest that it may be unrelated to any other Indian language, with the non-Korku, non-Dravidian core vocabulary being the remnant of an earlier population in India. However, he did not rule out that it may be a Munda language like Korku. The Nihali have long lived in a symbiotic but socially inferior relationship with the Korku people, and are bilingual in Korku, with Nihali frequently spoken to prevent the Korku from understanding them. Kuiper suggested that the differences might also be argot, such as a thieves' cant.[1] Norman Zide described the situation this way:

Nihali's borrowings are far more massive than in such textbook examples of heavy outside acquisition as Albanian. It seems to compare more in this repect [sic] to some of the more "broken-down" dialects of Gypsy, such as those spoken in the United States and Western Europe. The recent history of the Nihalis includes a massacre organized by one of the rulers in the area in the early nineteenth century, this apparently in response to their increasingly destructive marauding. Since then, the group---decimated in size---has functioned largely as raiders and thieves, with traditional outside associates who disposed of the stolen goods. The group has long been multilingual, and uses Nihali as a more or less secret language which is not ordinarily revealed to outsiders. Earlier investigators attempting to learn the language were, apparently, deliberately rebuffed or misled.

The Nihali live similarly to the Kalto; this, combined with the fact that Kalto has often been called Nihali, has led to confusion of the two languages in the literature.


  1. ^ a b Franciscus Bernardus Jacobus Kuiper, "Nahali: a comparative study", Part 25, Issue 5 of Mededeelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandsche Akademie van Wetenschappen, Afd. Letterkunde (N.V. Noord-Hollandsche Uitg. Mij., 1962), 
  2. ^ Norman Zide, "Munda and non-Munda Austroasiatic languages". In Current Trends in Linguistics 5: Linguistics in South Asia, p 438

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