RegionJalgaon Jamod, on the border of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh
Ethnicity5,000 Nihali
Native speakers
2,500 (2016)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3nll
Nihali-speaking area spanning the border between Maharashtra to the south and Madhya Pradesh to the north

Nihali, also known as Nahali or erroneously as Kalto, is an endangered language isolate that is spoken in west-central India (in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra), with approximately 2,000 people in 1991 out of an ethnic population of 5,000.[2] The Nihali tribal area is just south of the Tapti River, around the village of Tembi in Burhanpur district of Madhya Pradesh.[3] Speakers of the Nihali language are also present in several villages of the Buldhana district in Maharashtra such as Jamod, Sonbardi, Kuvardev, Chalthana, Ambavara, Wasali, and Cicari. There are dialectal differences between the Kuvardev-Chalthana and the Jamod-Sonbardi varieties.[4]

The language has a very large number of words adopted from neighboring languages, with 60–70% apparently taken from Korku (25% of vocabulary and much of its morphology), from Dravidian languages, and from Marathi, but much of its core vocabulary cannot be related to them or other languages, such as the numerals and words for "blood" and "egg". Scholars state that less than 25% of the language's original vocabulary is used today.[4] There are no longer any surviving monolingual speakers of the language. Those well-versed in modern Nihali are likely to speak varieties of Marathi, Hindi or Korku as well.[5]

For centuries, most Nihali have often worked as agricultural labourers, for speakers of languages other than their own. In particular, Nihali labourers have often worked for members of the Korku people, and are often bilingual in the Korku language. Because of this history, Nihali is sometimes used by its speakers only to prevent native Korku speakers and other outsiders from understanding them.[6]

Linguistic situation

Franciscus Kuiper was the first to suggest that Nihali may be unrelated to any other Indian language, with the non-Korku, non-Dravidian core vocabulary being the remnant of an earlier population in India. However, he did not rule out that it may be a Munda language, like Korku. Kuiper suggested that Nihali may differ from neighbouring languages, such as Korku, mostly in its function as an argot, such as a thieves' cant.[3] Kuiper's assertions stem, in part, from the fact that many oppressed groups within India have used secret languages to prevent outsiders from understanding them.[7]

Linguist Norman Zide describes the recent history of the language as follows: "Nihali's borrowings are far more massive than in such textbook examples of heavy outside acquisition as Albanian." In this respect, says Zide, modern Nihali seems comparable to hybridised dialects of Romani spoken in Western Europe. Zide claims that this is a result of a historical process that began with a massacre of Nihalis in the early 19th century, organised by one of the rulers of the area, supposedly in response to "marauding". Zide alleges that, afterwards, the Nihalis "decimated in size", have "functioned largely as raiders and thieves ... who [have] disposed of ... stolen goods" through "outside associates". Zide adds that Nihali society has "long been multilingual, and uses Nihali as a more or less secret language which is not ordinarily revealed to outsiders" and that early researchers "attempting to learn the language were, apparently, deliberately rebuffed or misled".[8]

Some Korku-speakers refuse to acknowledge the Nihali as a distinct community, and describe the emergence of the Nihalis as resulting from a disruption of Korku civil society.[7]

The Nihali live similarly to the Kalto. That and the fact that Kalto has often been called Nahali led to confusion of the two languages.


Vowel phonemes of Nihali
Front Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a

Lengthening of vowels is phonemic. The vowels [e] and [o] have lower varieties at the end of morphemes.

Nasalization is rare and tends to occur in borrowed words.

Consonant phonemes of Nihali
Labial Dental/
Retroflex Palatal Velar
Nasal m n ɳ ɲ
voiceless p t ʈ k
aspirated ʈʰ tʃʰ
voiced b d ɖ ɡ
breathy ɖʱ dʒʱ ɡʱ
Fricative s ʂ ʃ h
Rhotic r ɽ
Approximant ʋ l j

There are 33 consonants. Unaspirated stops are more frequent than aspirated stops.[4]


Below are some Nihali basic vocabulary words without clear external parallels (in Korku, Hindi, Marathi, Dravidian, etc.) listed in the appendix of Nagaraja (2014).

Body parts
head pe(ː)ñ
hair (head) kuguso
eye jikit
ear cigam
nose coːn
tooth menge
mouth kaggo
hand bakko
shoulder ṭ/tagli
belly bhaːwri
intestines koṭor
navel bumli
liver gadri
blood corṭo
bone paːkṭo
skin ṭoːl (< Dravidian)
Animals and plants
bird poe; pyu
egg kalen
snake koːgo
fish caːn
louse keːpe
mosquito kaːn
fly (insect) eḍ(u)go
tree aːḍḍo
Natural phenomena
water joppo
rain maːnḍo
stone caːgo, caːrgo
salt coːpo (< Dravidian)
Material culture, kinship
road, path ḍãːy, ḍa(ː)y
house aːwaːr
name jumu, jyumu

(In Nihali, many verbs are suffixed with -be.)

eat ṭ/tyeː-
drink ḍelen-
bite haru-
blow bigi-, bhigi-
die betto-, beṭṭo-
kill paḍa-
laugh haːgo-
cry, weep aːpa-
go eːr-, eṛe
come paːṭo, pya
give beː-
see ara-
hear cakni

Pronouns and demonstratives

The personal pronouns in Nihali are (Nagaraja 2014: 34):

singular dual plural
1st person jo tye:ko ingi
2nd person ne na:ko la
3rd person eṭey hiṭkel eṭla < eṭey + la

Nagaraja (2014: 139) notes that Nihali has a different demonstrative paradigm than that of Korku.

Nihali Korku
'what' nan co:(ch)
'who' nani je
'why' naway, nawa:san co:- ~ co:ch
‘when’ meran ~ miran co:-la
‘where’ mingay ṭone ~ ṭongan 'at where'
‘how much’ m(i)yan co-ṭo
‘how’ naw-ki co-phar
‘whose’ nan-in je-konṭe ‘whose child’
‘which (book)’ nu-san (pustak) ṭone-bukko ‘which (book)’


Nihali morphosyntax is much simpler than that of Korku and other Munda languages, and is unrelated to that of Munda languages (Nagaraja 2014: 144). Word order is SOV.

See also


  1. ^ Seidel, Frank (2015-10-09), "Describing endangered languages", Language Documentation and Endangerment in Africa, Culture and Language Use, vol. 17, Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, pp. 277–312, doi:10.1075/clu.17.12sei, ISBN 978-90-272-4452-9, retrieved 2020-12-14
  2. ^ "Did you know Nihali is threatened?". Endangered Languages. Retrieved 2016-05-04.
  3. ^ a b Franciscus Bernardus Jacobus Kuiper, "Nahali: a comparative study", Mededeelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandsche Akademie van Wetenschappen, Afd. Letterkunde, N.V. Noord-Hollandsche Uitg. Mij., 1962 (5, Pt 25)
  4. ^ a b c Nagaraja, K.S. (2014). The Nihali Language. Manasagangotri, Mysore-570 006, India: Central Institute of Indian Languages. p. 7. ISBN 978-81-7343-144-9.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location (link)
  5. ^ Nagaraja, K.S. (2014). The Nihali Language. Central Institute of Indian Languages. p. 3. ISBN 978-81-7343-144-9.
  6. ^ Nagaraja, K.S (2014). The Nihali Language. Manasagangotri, Mysore-570 006: Central Institute of Indian Languages. p. 250. ISBN 978-81-7343-144-9.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location (link)
  7. ^ a b Anderson, Gregory (2008). The Munda Languages. New York, New York: Routledge. p. 772. ISBN 978-0-415-32890-6.
  8. ^ Norman Zide, "Munda and non-Munda Austroasiatic languages". In Current Trends in Linguistics 5: Linguistics in South Asia, p 438