Maithili Linguistic Research: State-of-the-Art

By Yadav, Ramawatar | Contributions to Nepalese Studies, January 2000 | Go to article overview
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Maithili Linguistic Research: State-of-the-Art

Yadav, Ramawatar, Contributions to Nepalese Studies


Maithili, a descendant of the Magadhi Apabhramsa, is an eastern Indo-Aryan language. According to an estimate (Davis 1973:316), it is spoken by approximately 21 million people in the eastern and northern regions of the Bihar State of India and the southeastern plains, known as the tarai, of Nepal. As a matter of fact, it is not easy short of a new linguistic survey of Bihar to ascertain the exact number of the speakers of Maithili in contemporary Bihar. Ever since the first Indian census for the Bengal Presidency in 1872, censuses of India have tended to underreport the figure lot Maithili-Maithili being erroneously viewed as a dialect of Hindi, or of a spurious language and a chimera called Bihari. For example, the 1961 census figure of less than 5 million (4,982,615) Maithili speakers in Bihar is, regrettably, grossly inaccurate vis-a-vis the figure of more than 9 million (9,389,376) estimated by Sir George Abraham Grierson as early as 1891 (Brass 1974:64). In a guesstimate of raw 1971 census figure arrived at by adding up the total population of the districts of Purnea, Saharsa, Darbhanga, Muzaffarpur, Bhagalpur, Monghyr (half) and Santhal Pargana (half), G. Jha (1974:4-6) argues that around 23 million (22,998,706) people speak Maithili in Bihar. Adding up the. Nepal 1971 census figure of 1,327,242 Maithili speakers to the population of Maithili speakers of Bihar, a total of more than 24 million (24,325,948) speakers may be said to speak Maithili in India and Nepal. In a yet further survey of the 50 most-spoken languages in the world, carried out by Grimes (1996:588) and reported on the Internet, it is stated that Maithili occupies the position of the 40th most-spoken language in the world and that it is spoken by 24.3 million `first language speakers' in India and Nepal.

Demographically, Maithili is the second most widely spoken language of Nepal and the constitution of Nepal recognizes it as one of the `languages of the nation' (rastriya bhasa) of Nepal. True, Maithili is not yet recognized as an official state language of Bihar; nor has it been included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India. Maithili, however, has been recognized as an autonomous modern Indo-Aryan language of India by the Sahitya Akaderni since 1965. Today, Maithili is recognized as a distinct language and taught as such in the Indian universities of Calcutta, Patna, Bihar, Bhagalpur, Mithila and Benares, and the Tribhuvan University of Nepal. Maithili is also taught as a school subject in the secondary schools of India and Nepal.

Since Hindi is used as the medium of instruction in north Bihar schools, most literate Maithili speakers of Bihar are bilingual in Hindi. By the same token, the literate Maithili speakers of Nepal are bilingual in Nepali--Nepali being the medium of instruction in the schools of Nepal. Literate Maithili speakers in the Nepal tarai also tend tO be bilingual in Hindi due to constant travel across the border in india for social commerce and preponderant use of Hindi newspapers, magazines, and films. However, the illiterate rural masses of Maithili speakers in India and Nepal are by and large monolingual.

On the boundaries of Maithili, a number of modern Indo-Aryan languages are spoken: Bangla in the east, Bhojpuri in the west, Nepali in the north, and Magahi in the south. Within its own territory in India, Maithili has both contiguity and contact with Santhali--a Munda language. During 14th to early 18th centuries, Maithili also came in close contact with Newari (a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in the Kathmandu Valley) and it, in fact, occupied a pride of place in the royal court of the Malla Kings of Nepal.

Within the boundaries of India and Nepal, Maithili is characterized by considerable internal, regional, and social, especially caste variations (Yadav 1995, 1999) -- the full extent of which has not been adequately surveyed since Grierson (1883-87).

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