Róng ríng
The word 'Róng ríng' written in Lepcha (Róng) Script
RegionSikkim, India; parts of Nepal and Bhutan
Native speakers
66,500 (2011-2013)[1][2]
Lepcha script
Tibetan script
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-3lep
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Lepcha language, or Róng language (Lepcha: ᰛᰩᰵᰛᰧᰵᰶ; Róng ríng), is a Himalayish language spoken by the Lepcha people in Sikkim, India and parts of West Bengal, Nepal, and Bhutan.

Despite spirited attempts to preserve the language, Lepcha has already effectively been lost everywhere in favour of Nepali.[citation needed] The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) lists Lepcha as an endangered language with the following characterization.

The Lepcha language is spoken in Sikkim and Darjeeling district in West Bengal of India. The 1991 Indian census counted 39,342 speakers of Lepcha. Lepcha is considered to be one of the indigenous languages of the area in which it is spoken. Unlike most other languages of the Himalayas, the Lepcha people have their own indigenous script (the world's largest collection of old Lepcha manuscripts is kept in Leiden, with over 180 Lepcha books).

Lepcha is the language of instruction in some schools in Sikkim. In comparison to other Tibeto-Burman languages, it has been given considerable attention in the literature. Nevertheless, many important aspects of the Lepcha language and culture still remain undescribed.[citation needed]

There are very few remaining households where the younger generation actively speaks the language, and these households are few and far between. The entire Lepcha area is bilingual. Revitalization efforts are minimal and have had no major impact in conserving the language where it was indigenously spoken. Dwindling population and culture loss have rendered the use of Lepcha superficial and its importance has remained confined to cultural and ceremonial activities where it is required as a part of a tradition that has endured.[citation needed]


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.[3][4]

The Indian census reported 50,000 Lepcha speakers,[5] however the number of native Lepcha speakers in India may be closer to 30,000.[3]


Lepcha is difficult to classify, but George van Driem (2001) suggests that it may be closest to the Mahakiranti languages, a subfamily of the Himalayish languages.[6]

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.[3]

Roger Blench (2013) suggests that Lepcha has an Austroasiatic substratum, which originated from a now-extinct branch of Austroasiatic that he calls "Rongic".[7]


Lepcha is a non-tonal Sino-Tibetan language, although it does have phonemic stress or pitch that may be marked in the Lepcha script.[3]: 37  Much of its lexicon is composed of monosyllabic elements.[4]

Notably, words that are commonly considered obscene or taboo in other languages are not treated as such by native speakers.[4]

Script and romanization

Main article: Lepcha script

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.[8] Prior to the development of the Lepcha script, Lepcha literary works were composed in the Tibetan script.[4]

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.[3]



Lepcha consonants appear in the chart below, following Plaisier (2007):[3]: 21–32 

Labial Dental Alveolar Retroflex Palato-
Palatal Velar Glottal
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⟩ ⟨th⟩ ʈʰ ⟨thr⟩ ⟨ch⟩ ⟨kh⟩
voiced b ⟨b⟩ d ⟨d⟩ ɖ ⟨dr⟩ ɡ ⟨g⟩
Affricate voiceless ts ⟨ts⟩
aspirated tsʰ ⟨tsh⟩
voiced z~dz ⟨z⟩
Fricative voiced v ⟨v⟩ ʒ ⟨j⟩
voiceless f ⟨f⟩ s ⟨s⟩ ʃ ⟨sh⟩
Approximant w ⟨w⟩ l ⟨l⟩ j ⟨y⟩ h ⟨h⟩
Trill r ⟨r⟩

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 either be pronounced as written or as ⟨tr⟩, ⟨thr⟩, and ⟨dr⟩. For example, tagrikup, 'boy', may be said either [ta ɡri kɯʔp̚] or [ta ɖi kɯʔp̚].[3]

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: ᰕᰥᰤᰩᰮ mryóm, 'to spread over the ground, creep'. Notably, syllables with the glide /l/ are given their own independent forms in the Lepcha script.[3]

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/.[3]

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/.[3]

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].[3]


According to Plaisier (2007), Lepcha has eight vowels:[3]: 17–21 

Front Central Back
Unrounded Rounded
Close i ⟨i⟩, ⟨í⟩ ɯ ⟨u⟩ u ⟨ú⟩
Close-mid e~ɛ ⟨e⟩ o ⟨o⟩
Mid ə ⟨a⟩, ⟨â⟩
Open-mid ɔ ⟨ó⟩
Open a ⟨á⟩

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.[3]


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').[3]


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:[3]

Postposition Meaning
-ᰠᰴ -sang human plural
-ᰎᰴ -pong non-human plural
-ᰛᰬ -re definite, topic
-ᰍᰪ/-ᰍᰪᰰ -nu/nun ergative, ablative
- ᰮ -m dative
-ᰠᰦ -sá genitive
-ᰀᰦ -ká locative
-ᰕᰪ -mu only
-ᰉᰬᰳ -nyet both

Plurals are marked differently according to whether they are human (-sang) or non-human (-pong) nouns. Notably, the plural is not used when the noun is followed by a number.[3]

According to Plaisier (2007), Lepcha personal pronouns are as follows:[3]

Dual Plural
First person ᰃᰨ go
(ᰀᰠᰪ kasu)
ᰀᰦᰉᰧᰶ kányí ᰀᰦᰚᰫ káyú
Second person ᰝᰩ
(ᰣᰦᰌᰨ ʔádo)
ᰣᰦᰉᰧᰶ ʔányí ᰣᰦᰚᰫ ʔáyú
Third person ᰝᰪ hu
(ᰝᰪᰌᰨ hudo)
ᰝᰪᰉᰧᰶ hunyí ᰝᰪᰚᰫ huyú

Oblique forms appear in parentheses above. Lepcha personal pronouns can refer only to humans; otherwise demonstratives are used. Personal pronouns may take the definite article -re.[3]

Thematic classes

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⟩, e.g., ᰠᰲᰶ sâr 'goat', ᰠᰶᰛᰤᰨᰮ sâryom 'otter', ᰠᰶᰜᰩᰭ sâlók 'rhinoceros', and ᰠᰝᰪ sâhu 'monkey'. Other noun classes include ⟨sâ⟩ and ⟨ka⟩ for plants, and ⟨pe⟩ or ⟨pâ⟩ for snakes and bamboo products.[4][9]


Lepcha verbs generally function as 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'.[3]

Many intransitive verbs incorporate a causative -y- infix, sometimes followed by a -t suffix, to take a transitive sense:

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):[3]

Suffix or
-wám/-ʔám/-bám progressive
-tho exhaustive
-hát perfective
-shang infinitive
-bú factual
-re definite
nón resultant
le polite request
ma assertive
ce authoritative
te dubiousness
lyók inference

Verbs are negated by a circumfix, ma-⟩...⟨-n(e), e.g., khut 'to be able' becomes ma-khut-ne 'to be unable'.[3]


These are some sample words published in Renato Figuerido's Lepcha dictionary.[10]

Caption text
English Lepcha (Latin) Lepcha (Róng/Lepcha script)
Lady Ku-mo ᰀᰪᰕᰨ
Let kón ᰀᰩᰰ
Proceed ᰌᰧᰶ
Reach a height Thók ᰋᰩᰭ
Riverbank Klóp ᰁᰩᰱ
A cut ᰕᰩ
To pull  Krút  ᰀᰥᰫᰳ
Go  Nóng ᰍᰩᰵ
Flabby  Thyor ᰋᰤᰨᰲ
Reflective Light  Lóng ᰜᰩᰵ
Palm  Lyók ᰜᰤᰩᰭ
To be short  Tan  ᰊᰰ
Meat  Ke-rung  ᰀᰬᰛᰪᰵ
Overclouded  Muk  ᰕᰪᰭ
What comes first Ták  ᰊᰦᰭ
Mother  A-mo  ᰣᰕᰨ
To knot Tyep  ᰊᰤᰬᰱ
A spec of Sterculia  Ke-hlyám kun  ᰀᰬᰞᰤᰮ ᰀᰪᰰ
Be on strong legs  Krang  ᰀᰥᰴ
Dirt  Me-ri  ᰕᰬᰛᰧ
To slice Líp  ᰜᰧᰶ
Entire  Shem  ᰡᰬᰮ
Cold  Hyáng  ᰝᰤᰦᰵ
To be drawn together  Chom  ᰇᰨᰮ
One's Self  Te-do ᰊᰬᰌᰨ
Wide  Veng  ᰟᰬᰵ
To arrest  Tho ᰋᰨ
To crush  Shíp ᰡᰧᰶ
Mouth  A-bong  ᰣᰓᰨᰵ
To twist  Kar  ᰀᰲ
Arrow  Sa-li  ᰠᰜᰧ
Egg  Tí  ᰊᰧᰶ
To sit  Ngan  ᰅᰰ
Flow round  Kyúl  ᰀᰤᰫᰯ
Overclouded  Pe-mang  ᰎᰬᰕᰴ
House  A-dóng  ᰣᰌᰩᰵ
Carry  Bú  ᰓᰫ
Dream  Mong  ᰕᰨᰵ
A corner  Tung-kyang  ᰊᰪᰵᰀᰤᰴ
Basket  Dyóng  ᰌᰤᰩᰵ
Large Túng  ᰊᰫᰵ
Husband  Evo ᰣᰬᰟᰨ
Grain  Gró ᰃᰥᰩ
Rice basket  Ku-mu  ᰀᰪᰕᰪ
Placenta A-yeng-tyol  ᰣᰚᰬᰵᰊᰤᰨᰯ
Quick  Rem  ᰛᰬᰮ
Sew Hrap  ᰝᰥᰱ
A spec of Solanum Ke-lim-bi  ᰀᰬᰜᰧᰮᰓᰧ

See also


  1. ^ "Lepcha". Ethnologue. Retrieved 8 August 2018.
  2. ^ "Statement 1: Abstract of speakers' strength of languages and mother tongues - 2011". www.censusindia.gov.in. Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India. Retrieved 7 July 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Plaisier, Heleen (2007). A grammar of Lepcha. Tibetan studies library: Languages of the greater Himalayan region. Vol. 5. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-15525-1.
  4. ^ a b c d e "Lepchas and their Tradition". Official Portal of NIC Sikkim State Centre. National Informatics Centre, Sikkim. 25 January 2002. Archived from the original on 17 October 2017. Retrieved 16 April 2011.
  5. ^ Lepcha language at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  6. ^ van Driem, George (2001). Languages of the Himalayas: An Ethnolinguistic Handbook of the Greater Himalayan Region. Brill. ISBN 90-04-12062-9.
  7. ^ Blench, Roger (31 December 2013). "Rongic: a vanished branch of Austroasiatic". Academia.edu.
  8. ^ Coulmas, Florian (1996). The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems. Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-21481-X.
  9. ^ Mainwaring, George Byres (1898). Grünwedel, Albert (ed.). Dictionary of the Lepcha-language. Unger bros.
  10. ^ Figuerido, Renato B. (2014). "Freelang Lepcha-English dictionary".

Further reading