Linguistic Survey of India – Sikkim (Part 1)


The Linguistic Survey of India (LSI) is an ongoing project of the Government of India that aims to document and study how languages have changed in the country over the years. It considers shifts in society, administrative regions and the reorganisation of states based on linguistic identity. This project has been undertaken by the Language Division, Office of the Registrar General, Government of India.

Part of this project is the Linguistic Survey of India – Sikkim (Part 1) which studies eleven languages spoken in Sikkim. The survey was carried out between 1995 and 2000, followed by another visit in 2008 for the updating of the data. Although Nepali is the most common language spoken in the state, this present volume does not take it into consideration; the author instead chooses to present a comparative analysis of Nepali across various Indian states in Part 2 of the survey.

The survey works on the census framework according to which ‘language’ and ‘mother tongue’ are ‘co-terminus’ or mean the same. This Part presents eleven languages – Bhotia, Tibetan, Gurung, Sherpa, Tamang, Lepcha, Sunwar, Mangari, Newari, Limbu and Rai.

The present-day LSI is an extension of the survey first proposed by George Abraham Grierson, an Irish linguist who documented Indian languages during the pre-Independence era. This project “supplements and complements” Grierson’s work conducted when Sikkim was under British rule.

The document is divided into 11 chapters. The first chapter is the introduction, which highlights the history and linguistic composition of Sikkim, Grierson’s classification, research methodology, a brief introduction about the tribal and linguistic communities surveyed, and the distribution of language speakers. Chapters 2 and 3 present the languages of the Bhotia group in comparison with Tibetan and Sherpa. Chapters 4 and 5 include Pronominalized Himalayan Group languages (where there is no use of relative pronouns), and the remaining chapters present the six Non-Pronominalised Himalayan group of languages.

A comparative lexicon of 500 terms across the 11 studied languages is presented at the end of the volume.


  1. Sikkim saw several invasions from the neighbouring states of Nepal and Bhutan since the 17th century, the report states. The attack by the Shah Dynasty of Nepal was one of the most powerful invasions, which led to Nepali becoming the majority community in the state – 62.61 per cent of the population according to the Census of 2001.

  2. Bhotia, Lepcha, Limbu and Sherpa (Tibeto-Burman languages), and Nepali (Indo-Aryan language) are taught in school as official languages of the state, and English is used as the medium of instruction. However, Hindi is beginning to gain popularity as a medium of intergroup communication.

  3. After the inclusion of Sikkim in the Indian Union in 1947, youth (aged 14-25 years) are increasingly speaking in Nepali, Hindi and English. This trend has been observed among speakers of the 11 languages surveyed in this part (not including Nepali). As a result, around 52.57 per cent of Sikkim’s population is now bilingual.

  4. According to the 1901 Census of India, the language group of the Bhotias was referred to as ‘Tibetan’ by Europeans. However, ‘Bhotia’ is a more accurate name as it incorporates several dialects spoken in Tibet, Baltistan, East Nepal and Sikkim.

  5. The name Sherpa is derived from the Tibetan word ‘Sharva’ which refers to people of the east (inhabitants of East Nepal). The report states that there are 13,922 speakers of the Sherpa language in Sikkim. Among them, 78.29 per cent are bilingual – commonly speaking Nepali and Hindi.

  6. Limbu and Rai are pronominalised languages. Limbu speakers are mainly concentrated in the western districts of Sikkim. As returned in 2001 Census, out of 34,292 Limbu speakers in Sikkim, 24,863 are the bilinguals.

  7. The oldest inhabitants in Sikkim are considered to be the Lepchas, according to G.A. Grierson. While Nepali and English are used for most official correspondence in administration, the Lepcha language is more commonly seen in informal oral communication. As returned in 2001 Census, out of 35,728 Lepcha speakers in Sikkim, 26620 are bilingual. Lepcha possesses its own ancient script called ‘mutencse rom ameenam’.

  8. Tamang (also called Murmi) is a sub-group of Himalayan languages, whose speakers are mainly found in Sikkim and in northern parts of West Bengal in the districts of Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. In Sikkim, 10,089 people speak the Tamang language. As high as 82 per cent of these speakers are bilingual, and most commonly speak Nepali. Tamang has recently acquired a script called Tamhig, which is taught in schools as a vernacular language.

  9. Gurung is a critically endangered language that had only 82 speakers all across India according to the 1961 census. After 1961 census, there is no official data on the Gurung language as the Government of India mandates that a language spoken by less than 10,000 speakers at national level cannot appear in the Census.

  10. Newari, a non-pronominalised language of the Tibeto-Burman subgroup, has its speakers concentrated in Sikkim. However, it is spoken by less than 10,000 speakers and could not be surveyed after the Census of 1961. Newars have traditionally been traders.

  11. Mangari (or Magar) is a non-pronominalised Himalayan language. There are 1,136 speakers of the languages as per Census 1961.

  12. Sunwar, spoken by Mukhiyas, belongs to the Tibeto-Chinese family of languages. It had 297 speakers in the Census of 1961. The Government of Sikkim has made efforts to preserve the language by providing financial aid to create dictionaries and glossaries in the Sunwar language, as well as promoting folk culture through songs and poetry.

    Focus and Factoids by Lasya Digvijay.


Language Division, Office of the Registrar General, Government of India


Language Division, Office of the Registrar General, Government of India


Nov, 2009