Ban Raja
PronunciationKusunda: [miɦjɑːk] (listen)
Native toNepal
RegionGandaki Zone
Ethnicity270 Kusunda (2011 census)
Native speakers
87 (2014)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3kgg
Kusunda language.png
Ethnologue locations: (west) Dang and Pyuthan districts (dark grey) within Rapti Zone; (center) Tanahun District within Gandaki Zone
EndangeredLanguages.com location: red
WALS location: purple (Gorkha District)
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Kusunda or Kusanda (endonym Mihaq Kusunda: [miɦjɑːk] (listen)) is a language isolate spoken by a few among the Kusunda people in western and central Nepal. As of 2022, it only has a single fluent speaker, although there are efforts underway to keep the language alive.[2]


Gyani Maiya Sen Kusunda, a late native Kusunda speaker, expressing her desire for the active use of the Kusunda language in an excerpt from 2019 documentary "Gyani Maiya".

For decades the Kusunda language was thought to be on the verge of extinction, with little hope of ever knowing it well. The little material that could be gleaned from the memories of former speakers suggested that the language was an isolate, but, without much evidence, it was often classified along with its neighbors as Tibeto-Burman. However in 2004 three Kusundas, Gyani Maya Sen, Prem Bahadur Shahi and Kamala Singh,[3] were brought to Kathmandu for help with citizenship papers. There, members of Tribhuvan University discovered that one of them, a native of Sakhi VDC in southern Rolpa District, was a fluent speaker of the language. Several of her relatives were also discovered to be fluent. In 2005 there were known to be seven or eight fluent speakers of the language, the youngest in her thirties.[4] However the language is moribund, with no children learning it, since all Kusunda speakers have married outside their ethnicity.[4]

It was presumed that the language became extinct with the death of Rajamama Kusunda on 19 April 2018.[5] However Gyani Maiya Sen and her sister Kamala Kusunda survived him and further data were collected.[6] The sisters, together with author and researcher Uday Raj Aaley, have been teaching the language to interested children and adults.[7]

Aaley, the facilitator and Kusunda-language teacher, has written the book Kusunda Tribe and Dictionary.[8] The book has a compilation of more than 1000 words from the Kusunda language.


David E. Watters published a mid-sized grammatical description of the language, plus vocabulary (Watters 2005), although further works have been published since.[9] He argued that Kusunda is indeed a language isolate, not just genealogically but also lexically, grammatically and phonologically distinct from its neighbors. This would imply that Kusunda is a remnant of the languages spoken in northern India before the influx of Tibeto-Burman- and Indo-Iranian-speaking peoples; however it is not classified as a Munda nor a Dravidian language. It thus joins Burushaski, Nihali and (potentially) the substrate of the Vedda language in the list of South Asian languages that do not fall into the main categories of Indo-European, Dravidian, Sino-Tibetan, and Austroasiatic.

Before the recent discovery of active Kusunda speakers there had been several attempts to link the language to an established language family. B.K. Rana (2002) maintained that Kusunda was a Tibeto-Burman language as traditionally classified. Merritt Ruhlen argued for a relationship with Juwoi and other Andamanese languages; and for a larger Indo-Pacific language family, with them and other languages, including Nihali.[10]

Others have linked Kusunda to Munda (see Watters 2005); Yeniseian (Gurov 1989); Burushaski and Caucasian (Reinhard and Toba 1970; this would be a variant of Gurov's proposal if Sino-Caucasian were accepted); and the Nihali isolate in central India (Fleming 1996, Whitehouse 1997). More recently a relationship between Kusunda, Yeniseian and Burushaski has been proposed.[11]



Phonetically, Kusunda has six vowels in two harmonic groups, which are arguably three vowels phonemically: a word will normally have vowels from the upper (pink) or lower (green) set, but not both simultaneously. There are very few words that consistently have either always upper or always lower vowels; most words may be pronounced either way, though those with uvular consonants require the lower set (as in many languages). There are a few words with no uvular consonants that still bar such dual pronunciations, though these generally only feature the distinction in careful enunciation.[4]

Kusunda vowels
Vowels Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e ə o
Open a


Kusunda consonants seem to only contrast the active articulator, not where that articulator makes contact. For example, apical consonants may be dental, alveolar, retroflex, or palatal: /t/ is dental [t̪] before /i/, alveolar [t͇] before /e, ə, u/, retroflex [ʈ] before /o, a/, and palatal [c] when there is a following uvular, as in [coq] ~ [t͇ok] ('we').[4]

In addition, many consonants vary between stops and fricatives; for instance, /p/ seems to surface as [b] between vowels, while /b/ surfaces as [β] in the same environment. Aspiration appears to be recent to the language. Kusunda also lacks the retroflex consonant phonemes common to the region, and is unique in the region in having uvular consonants.[4]

Labial Coronal Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
plain sibilant
Nasal m n ŋ ɴˤ
Stop voiceless p~b t~d t͡s k~g q~ɢ ʔ
voiced b~β d d͡z g~ɣ
aspirated () () (t͡sʰ) (~x) ()
breathy () () (d͡zʱ) (ɡʱ)
Fricative s ʁ~ʕ h
Approximant w l j
Flap ɾ

[ʕ] does not occur initially, and [ŋ] only occurs at the end of a syllable, unlike in neighboring languages. [ɴʕ] only occurs between vowels; it may be |ŋ+ʕ|.[4]


Kusunda has several cases, marked on nouns and pronouns, three of which are nominative (Kusunda, unlike its neighbors, has no ergativity), genitive nor accusative persons.[4]

Singular Plural
1st person tsi tok
2nd person nu nok
3rd person gina
Singular Plural
1st person tsi, tsi-yi tig-i
2nd person nu, ni-yi ? nig-i
3rd person (gina-yi)
Singular Plural
1st person tən-da (toʔ-da)
2nd person nən-da (noʔ-da)
3rd person gin-da

Other case suffixes include -ma "together with", -lage "for", -əna "from", -ga, -gə "at, in".

There are also demonstrative pronouns na and ta. Although it is not clear what the difference between them is, it may be animacy.

Subjects may be marked on the verb, though when they are they may either be prefixed or suffixed. An example with am "eat", which is more regular than many verbs, in the present tense (-ən) is,

am "eat"
Singular Plural
1st person t-əm-ən t-əm-da-n
2nd person n-əm-ən n-əm-da-n
3rd person g-əm-ən g-əm-da-n

Other verbs may have a prefix ts- in the first person, or zero in the third.

See also


  1. ^ "UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in danger".
  2. ^ McDougall, Eileen. "The language that doesn't use 'no'". www.bbc.com. Retrieved 2022-08-11.
  3. ^ Rana, B.K. (2004-10-12). "Kusunda language does not fall in any family: Study". email with pasted news article. Himalayan News Service, Lalitpur, 2004-10-10. Archived from the original on 2012-12-10. Retrieved 2007-09-12.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Watters (2005).
  5. ^ "Rajamama, lone Kusunda language speaker, dies". Retrieved 2018-06-18.
  6. ^ Aaley, Uday Raj; Bodt, Timotheus (Tim) Adrianus (2019). New data on Kusunda (Report). Humanities Commons. doi:10.17613/1zy2-k376.
  7. ^ "Resuscitating dying Kusunda language". The Kathmandu Post. 4 January 2019. Retrieved 17 September 2019.
  8. ^ "Book that traces Kusunda tribe's history hits shelves". The Kathmandu Post. 1 August 2017. Retrieved 17 September 2019.
  9. ^ Donohue & Gautam (2013).
  10. ^ Paul Whitehouse; Timothy Usher; Merritt Ruhlen; William S.-Y. Wang (2004-04-13). "Kusunda: An Indo-Pacific language in Nepal". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 101 (15): 5692–5695. Bibcode:2004PNAS..101.5692W. doi:10.1073/pnas.0400233101. PMC 397480. PMID 15056764.
  11. ^ van Driem, George (2014). ‘A Prehistoric Thoroughfare between the Ganges and the Himalayas’. In: Jamir, Tiatoshi/Hazarika, Manjil eds 50 Years after Daojali-Hading: Emerging Perspectives in the Archaeology of Northeast India. New Delhi: Research India Press. 60–98.

Further reading