A Grammar of Kham

A Grammar of Kham

A Grammar of Kham

A Grammar of Kham


This is a comprehensive grammatical documentation of Kham, a previously undescribed language from west-central Nepal, belonging to the Tibeto-Burman language family. The language has an unusual structure, containing a number of characteristics that are of immediate relevance to current work on linguistic theory, including split ergativity and its demonstrative system. Its verb morphology has implications for the understanding of the history of the entire Tibeto-Burman family. The book, based on extensive fieldwork, provides copious examples throughout the exposition. It will be a valuable resource for typologists and general linguists alike.


The discovery of the Kham group of languages in Nepal in 1969 is one of the remarkable finds in Tibeto-Burman linguistics this century–it happened against the backdrop of nearly two centuries of fairly intense linguistic activity in the whole of the Indian subcontinent. It was in this setting, for example, that Sir William Jones, in 1786, made his now-famous pronouncement before the Royal Asiatic Society in Calcutta that Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit had all 'sprung from some common source'; a source, which, 'perhaps, no longer exists.' His pronouncement profoundly changed the face of linguistics; language origins and language evolution became the new challenge of linguistic inquiry in the nineteenth century.

Sparked by the imagination of a new-found science, the British in India expanded their range of inquiry and began amassing a wealth of linguistic materials from numerous Himalayan languages and dialects–some, like Kusunda, with as few as a dozen speakers. Because the British had no direct access to Nepal, most of the early samples were collected by British military officers from Nepalese tribesmen serving as mercenaries in the British Gurkha army. Colonel Kirkpatrick, for example, collected a short vocabulary of the Magar language, spoken by one of the 'military tribes' of Nepal, as early as 1793, and Francis Hamilton, a British historian and philologist, deposited a more complete specimen of the same language in the Company's library sometime before 1814.

A few years later, Brian Hodgson, the British Minister at the Court of Nepal, beginning as early as 1828, published notes, observations, and essays on the languages and customs of several tribes of Nepal. Grierson's monumental 'Linguistic Survey of India,' published between 1903 and 1909, contains in one of its volumes (contributed by Sten Konow) a broad sampling of Himalayan languages with comprehensive notes on their vocabularies and grammars. Shafer, in an unpublished work of fifteen volumes on Sino-Tibetan linguistics between 1937 and 1941, and later in an edited version of the same work, published between 1966 and 1973, includes works on all the major Himalayan languages from every recognized branch of Tibeto-Burman.

Against this backdrop of linguistic activity, the failure to document Kham in any of its varieties is indeed a curious oversight. Kham, after all, is no small language–it is mother tongue to no less than forty or fifty thousand people living in the remote, upper valleys of mid-western Nepal. I first became aware of the possible existence of such a language from an American anthropologist, John Hitchcock, who had approached the edges of their tribal territory on a month's trek sometime in 1960–1962. He cordially apprised me of their general whereabouts in 1969. It was upon his advice and the . . .

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