Chapter 7 The Many-Faceted Linguistic Landscape of Kinnaur

In: The Linguistic Landscape of the Indian Himalayas
Anju Saxena
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This monograph endeavors to contribute to the documentation of the linguistic situation of a particular region in the Indian Himalayas—the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh—which so far has been very poorly described. The aim has been to gain a better understanding of the languages traditionally spoken in this region, i.e., Sino-Tibetan and Indo-Aryan languages, both as independent linguistic entities and as parts of a multi-faceted linguistic ecology.

This aim has determined the structure of the text, together with the practical constraint imposed by the desire to stay within a reasonable length of exposition.

In the first chapter, the geography, demography and administrative organization of Kinnaur were described, in order to provide a background to the following linguistic investigations.

The languages traditionally spoken in Kinnaur belong to the (mutually unrelated) Sino-Tibetan (ST) and Indo-Aryan (IA < Indo-European) language families. The ST languages have been sociolinguistically dominant in Kinnaur until recently, to the extent that one of them—Kinnauri—has functioned as a lingua franca at least in Lower Kinnaur. At the same time, the genealogical relationships among these ST varieties—the KST varieties—are insufficiently investigated, which to a large extent is because the varieties themselves are poorly described.

In Chapters 2 and 3 of this monograph, I have provided linguistic sketches—based on my own primary fieldwork—of two of the KST varieties, which have been chosen so as to represent the extreme poles of these varieties: Kinnauri, spoken in the extreme south of the district, in Lower Kinnaur, is described in Chapter 2, and Navakat, spoken in the extreme north, in Upper Kinnaur, is described in Chapter 3. As far as the linguistic structures of the varieties and my data have allowed, the sketches have been structured along parallel lines.

In Chapter 4, the IA language Kinnauri Pahari—coterritorial with Kinnauri and some other KST varieties—was described in a similar fashion.

Hopefully, the sketches of Kinnauri and Navakat will have shown that these two KST varieties are quite different, which raises the question of how these and the other recognized KST varieties are interrelated. In Chapter 5, I turn to a broader investigation—again based on my own primary fieldwork—of the relationships among nine KST varieties (those of the villages Nichar, Sangla, Chitkul, Kalpa, Kuno, Labrang, Poo, Ropa and Nako). There has not been any comparative linguistic study of the KST varieties (except by the present author; see Saxena 2011; Saxena and Borin 2011, 2013), and consequently no systematic basis for examining how they relate to one another. The aim of Chapter 5 was to examine the genealogical relationships among these nine KST varieties using a computational approach applied to empirical primary language data, mainly basic vocabulary (a modified Swadesh list), but also some grammatical features.

The procedure which was used for comparing the basic vocabulary lists is similar to recent works in dialectometry and lexicostatistics in relying on a completely automatic comparison of the items in the word lists. However, it differs from most of these works (McMahon et al. 2007 being a notable exception) in its usage of rules tailored to the particular linguistic configuration under investigation, rather than a general method for string comparison. In this respect, it falls somewhere in between traditional genealogical linguistics—where expert statements are required about the cognacy of items—and these modern approaches—which rely entirely on surface form for determining identity of items—although closer to the latter than the former. In this way, the monograph also makes a contribution to the theoretical and methodological discussions of measuring linguistic distances, beyond providing empirical classification of the KST varieties.

The results of the comparison showed that the investigated KST varieties can be classified into three (or possibly four) groups, where the varieties spoken at Sangla, Nichar, Ropa and Kalpa form one group, and those of Poo, Kuno and Nako (Navakat) form another. The varieties of Chitkul and Labrang fall somewhere in between these two distinct groupings, being (separately) closer to one or the other group concerning some linguistic features, but distinct with regard to other linguistic features. In Chapter 5, I also made a more detailed comparison between Kinnauri and Navakat on the basis of the richer linguistic data available to me on these varieties (see Chapters 2 and 3), which confirms the results of the broader comparison, specifically that Navakat (and consequently also the varieties of Poo and Kuno) should be placed together with the Tibetan varieties, rather than under the West Himalayish node of Sino-Tibetan. The combined evidence of this study thus supports a grouping of the nine investigated KST varieties approximately like the one shown in Figure 23 (= Figure 18 in Chapter 5).

In Chapter 6, I investigated the relationship between Kinnauri and Kinnauri Pahari, which took us into the realm of language contact and areal linguistics. This investigation shows that both Kinnauri and Kinnauri Pahari exhibit linguistic features characteristic of the other language, but in many cases it seems most reasonable to posit wider areal influences as the reason for the similarities, rather than direct borrowing between the two languages. A particular confounding factor is the existence of less prestigious—Kinnauri Pahari and other languages of the so-called scheduled castes—and more prestigious—above all the state and national language Hindi—Indo-Aryan varieties in relationship to Kinnauri. Since these Indo-Aryan languages share many features by virtue of being closely related, it is not always possible to determine which sociolinguistic configuation is responsible in every particular case of borrowing into Kinnauri.


Figure 23

Lower-level classification of the investigated KST varieties (branch lengths are not significant)

The results of the investigation of the linguistic structures discussed in Chapter 6 can be summarized as in Table 74 (= Table 73 in Chapter 6). The terms MAT (replication of linguistic matter, i.e., linguistic form or substance) and PAT (replication of linguistic linguistic pattern or structure) are due to Matras and Sakel (2007).

Except for the inclusive–exclusive feature, irrespective of the direction of influence, the spread of features is wider than just restricted to the contact between Kinnauri and Kinnauri Pahari in the Sangla region.

In all the instances where Kinnauri exhibits the “Indo-Aryan” pattern, it distinguishes itself from Navakat. This again confirms the conclusions from Chapter 5. If one were to plot isoglosses for the KST varieties, they will divide the region into at least two parts, where the Sangla area as a whole (or Kinnauri in particular) and Navakat will end up separated by a large number of isoglosses; it is very likely that the isoglosses delimiting Kinnauri will group it with other West Himalayish languages such as Kanashi.

Table 74

Borrowing between Kinnauri (ST) and Kinnauri Pahari (IA)

Type of borrowing




Names of the days and months


Agentive nominalizer


PAT (and partly MAT)



PAT only



Source of aspect markers


The finite verb structure


Inclusive–exclusive distinction


Convergence of PAT

Higher numeral system

This concludes our overview of the linguistic situation of Kinnaur. Hopefully I have been able to add to the linguistic documentation of the languages of Kinnaur—in particular Kinnauri, Navakat, and Kinnauri Pahari, but also in some degree of other varieties spoken within its borders. I also hope to have been able to shed some further light on the genealogical and areal connections among the languages of Kinnaur and also those spoken in the larger context of the western part of the Indian Himalayas.

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