|Region||Sikkim, India; parts of Nepal and Bhutan|
|Lepcha script and Tibetan alphabet|
Official language in
Lepcha is spoken by minorities in the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal, as well as parts of Nepal and Bhutan. Where it is spoken, it is considered to be an aboriginal language, pre-dating the arrival of the Tibetan languages (Sikkimese, Dzongkha, and others) and more recent Nepali language. Lepcha speakers comprise four distinct communities: the Renjóngmú of Sikkim; the Támsángmú of Kalimpong, Kurseong, and Mirik; the ʔilámmú of Ilam District, Nepal; and the Promú of southwestern Bhutan. Lepcha-speaking groups in India are larger than those in Nepal and Bhutan.
Lepcha is internally diverse, showing lexical influences from different majority language groups across the four main Lepcha communities. According to Plaisier (2007), these Nepali and Sikkimese Tibetan influences do not amount to a dialectical difference.
Roger Blench (2013) suggests that Lepcha has an Austroasiatic substratum, which originated from a now-extinct branch of Austroasiatic that he calls "Rongic". Lepcha words of Austroasiatic origin identified by Blench (2013) are as follows.
- dyáŋ 'foot'
- a-boŋ 'mouth'
- kam 'jaw'
- it 'excrement'
- kâju 'dog'
- dyuk 'monkey'
- klyɔŋ 'granary'
- ban 'knife'
- ryǔm 'needle'
- hrup 'float-net in fishing'
- nam 'year'
- ʔúŋ 'water'
- krón 'to scratch'
- háp 'to shut'
- cet 'to thrust, stab, pierce'
- pit 'to squeeze'
- dáp 'to cover'
- dop 'burn'
- dút 'to pull out'
- ságram 'under, below'
- krɔŋ 'hard'
- roŋ 'horn'
- láp 'bury'
- kap 'to cover'
Script and romanization
The Lepcha script (also known as "róng") is a syllabic script featuring a variety of special marks and ligatures. Its genealogy is unclear. Early Lepcha manuscripts were written vertically, a sign of Chinese influence. Prior to the development of the Lepcha script, Lepcha literary works were composed in the Tibetan script.
Lepcha language is romanized according to varying schemes, the prevailing system being that of Mainwaring (1876). Most linguists, including Plaisier (2007), whose system is used in this article, have followed modified versions of Mainwaring's system. Other linguists and historians have used systems based on European languages such as English, French, and German.
Lepcha consonants appear in the chart below, following Plaisier (2007)::21–32
|Nasal||m ⟨m⟩||n ⟨n⟩||ɲ ⟨ny⟩||ŋ ⟨ng⟩|
|Plosive||voiceless||p ⟨p⟩||t ⟨t⟩||ʈ ⟨tr⟩||c ⟨c⟩||k ⟨k⟩||ʔ ⟨ʔ⟩|
|aspirated||pʰ ⟨ph⟩||tʰ ⟨th⟩||ʈʰ ⟨thr⟩||cʰ ⟨ch⟩||kʰ ⟨kh⟩|
|voiced||b ⟨b⟩||d ⟨d⟩||ɖ ⟨dr⟩||ɡ ⟨g⟩|
|Fricative||voiced||v ⟨v⟩||ʒ ⟨j⟩|
|voiceless||f ⟨f⟩||s ⟨s⟩||ʃ ⟨sh⟩|
|Approximant||w ⟨w⟩||l ⟨l⟩||j ⟨y⟩||h ⟨h⟩|
Retroflex phonemes /ʈ/, /ʈʰ/, and /ɖ/ are written in Lepcha script as ᰀᰥ kr, ᰝᰥ hr, and ᰃᰥ gr, respectively. Most, though not all, instances of retroflex consonants indicate a word is of Tibetan origin. To distinguish this retroflex sound in Lepcha script, a dot may be written underneath: ᰀᰥ᰷, ᰝᰥ᰷, and ᰃᰥ᰷. Native instances of non-retroflex ᰀᰥ kr, ᰝᰥ hr, and ᰃᰥ gr may be pronounced either as written or as ⟨tr⟩, ⟨thr⟩, and ⟨dr⟩. For example, tagrikup, "boy," may be said either [ta ɡri kɯʔp̚] or [ta ɖi kɯʔp̚].
Lepcha has three glide consonants that may occur after certain initial consonants: /r/, /j/, and /l/. When the phoneme /r/ operates as a glide, it can combine with /j/ as a double-glide: ᰕᰥᰤᰩᰮmryóm, "to spread over the ground, creep." Notably, syllables with the glide /l/ are given their own independent forms in the Lepcha script.
Velar consonants /k/ and /ɡ/ preceding front vowels /i/ or /e/ are palatalized as [kʲ] and [ɡʲ], respectively. Fricatives /s/ and /ʃ/ are merged before /i/.
Lepcha speakers tend not to distinguish between /z/ and /ʒ/, pronouncing both as [z]~[dz]~[ʒ]. Additionally, initial /ŋ/ is occasionally realized as [ɦ]. Under the influence of Nepali, some Lepcha speakers have lost the distinction between /pʰ/ and /f/, and between /v/ and /w/.
Of the above phonemes, only /m/, /n/, /ŋ/, /k/, /t/, /p/, /r/, and /l/ may be syllable-final. Native speakers tend to neutralize the difference between final /n/ and /ŋ/. In syllable-final position, stops are realized as an unreleased stop, usually pronounced with a simultaneous /ʔ/: for example, /k/ becomes [ʔk̚].
According to Plaisier (2007), Lepcha has eight vowels::17–21
|Close||i ⟨i⟩, ⟨í⟩||ɯ ⟨u⟩||u ⟨ú⟩|
|Close-mid||e~ɛ ⟨e⟩||o ⟨o⟩|
|Mid||ə ⟨a⟩, ⟨â⟩|
The phoneme denoted by ⟨í⟩ is shortened and appears in closed syllables; ⟨i⟩ is longer and appears in open syllables. The phoneme /e/ is realized as [e] in open syllables and in closed syllables before /ŋ/ or /k/. Closed syllables ending in /p/, /m/, /l/, /n/, /r/, and /t/ show free variation between [e], [ɛ], and even [ɪ]. Distinctions between /o/ and /ɔ/ are often lost among non-literate speakers, particularly those highly fluent in Nepali language, which does not contrast the sounds.
Lepcha grammar features nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs. Word order is typically subject–object–verb (SOV). Lepcha morphology is somewhat agglutinative, though most bare Lepcha lexicon is made up of one- or two-syllable words. Nouns are arranged into either head-first or head-last noun phrases. Relative clauses and genitive phrases precede nouns, whereas markers for demonstratives, definiteness, number, case, and other particles follow the noun. Lepcha is an ergative language, where the ergative case indicates transitivity and completedness of the event. There is no grammatical agreement between different parts of speech (i.e. verb conjugation). Adjectives follow nouns they modify, function as predicates, or stand independently as nominal heads. Adverbs generally directly precede verbs, and reduplication is generally productive for adverbs of time (e.g. nám, "year" → nám-nám, "yearly").
According to Plaisier (2007), Lepcha has only two true "cases" that modify the noun morphologically: the definite article -re and the dative case marker -m. All other noun markers, including for example the genitive marker, are actually invariable postpositions. A series noun markers may follow a single noun. Together, these cases and postpositions are:
|-ᰠᰴ / -ᰎᰴ
|-ᰛᰬ -re||definite, topic|
|- ᰮ -m||dative|
Plurals are marked differently according to whether they are human (-sang) or non-human (-pang) nouns. Notably, the plural is not used when the noun is followed by a number.
|First person||ᰃᰨ go
|ᰀᰦᰉᰧᰶ kányí||ᰀᰦᰚᰫ káyú|
|Second person||ᰝᰩ hó
|ᰣᰦᰉᰧᰶ ʔányí||ᰣᰦᰚᰫ ʔáyú|
|Third person||ᰝᰪ hu
|ᰝᰪᰉᰧᰶ hunyí||ᰝᰪᰚᰫ huyú|
Oblique forms appear in italics above. Lepcha personal pronouns can refer only to humans; otherwise demonstratives are used. Personal pronouns may take the definite article -re.
Many Lepcha nouns can be grouped into one of several classes based on associated characteristics. For example, many animal names begin with the Lepcha script syllabic /sâ/: ᰠᰲᰶ sâr means "goat," ᰠᰶᰛᰤᰨᰮ sâryom means "otter," ᰠᰶᰜᰩᰭ sâlók means "rhinoceros," and ᰠᰶᰝᰪsâhu means "monkey." Other noun classes include /sâ/ and /ka/ for plants, and /pe/ or /pâ/ for snakes and bamboo products.
Lepcha verbs generally function predicates or, in relative clauses, as modifiers before a head-noun. Verbs may also be nominalized by a combination of suffixes. For example, zo, "eat," may be suffixed to produce zo-shang-re, "eating."
Many intransitive verbs incorporate a causative -/y/- infix, sometimes followed by a -/t/ suffix, to take a transitive sense: ᰕᰦᰭmák, "die" → ᰕᰤᰦᰭ myák, "kill;" ᰏᰶplâ, "come forth" → ᰏᰤᰶ plyâ, "bring forth;" ᰄᰫglú, "fall down" → ᰄᰤᰳ/ᰄᰤᰬᰳglyat/glyet, "drop."
Verbs are followed by grammatical suffixes and particles. Verbal particles indicating sureness, polite requests, authoritativeness, dubiousness, and other nonlexical information follow clauses. Below is a chart of such verb- and clause-final suffixes and particles largely following Plaisier (2007):
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