Nepali Sign Language

Nepali Sign Language
Native to Nepal
Native speakers
20,000 (2014)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 nsp
Glottolog nepa1250[2]

Nepali Sign Language or Nepalese Sign Language (Nepali: नेपाली साँकेतिक भाषा) is the main deaf sign language of Nepal. It is a somewhat standardized language based informally on the variety of Kathmandu, with lesser input from varieties of Pokhara and elsewhere. As an indigenous sign language, it is not related to oral Nepali. Although as yet unofficial, in practice it is recognized by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, and is used (albeit in a somewhat pidginized form) in all schools for the deaf. In addition, there is legislation underway in Nepal which, in line with UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) which Nepal has ratified, should give Nepalese Sign Language equal status with the oral languages of the country.


Sign languages, it has been argued, generally come into existence when a "critical mass" of deaf come together in one place and time, and this event is generally associated with the founding of schools for the deaf.[3] Although the beginnings of Nepali Sign language are similarly often attributed to the introduction sign language into schools for the deaf, it would be surprising if in fact there had been no sign language at all prior to this point in time.

However, what we now know of as Nepali Sign Language probably does owe its origins to the first school for the deaf in Nepal, established in Kathmandu in 1966, by an ENT Doctor in a room of the hospital where he worked. The school was later moved to a children’s home in Naxal. The aim of the school was to teach speech therapy to deaf children to have them learn to speak. Even so, deaf people who went to the school at this time recall using signs with each other during and after school. The oral policy continued until the arrival of the Patricia Ross, who tried to have total communication introduced into the school in 1985.

In 1980, 13 young Kathmandu deaf established the Deaf Welfare Association. This was the first association of any type established by disabled themselves and run under their own leadership & management. Later the name of the organization was changed to Kathmandu Association of the Deaf (KAD). One of the chief goals of KAD was social reform of deaf people with an effort to promote and further develop sign language. At the time sign language was still banned in the deaf school; however, KAD worked hard to keep it alive at deaf gatherings on weekends. Later KAD developed a one-handed fingerspelling system for devanagari with the support of UNICEF.

Role of other sign languages in development

As we will see below in the section on work on the first NSL dictionary was undertaken by an American in conjunction with KAD. Although this American was hearing, she had a basic knowledge of the American Sign Language and had worked with deaf in Jamaica previously as a volunteer. Although the process of collecting signs focused on Nepalese Sign Language itself, it is hard to imagine that the process did not occasionally involve Ross interjecting signs she already knew. Thus, it is hard to imagine that there was no influence from other languages (e.g. ASL) during this process. In addition, Nepalese deaf had already had contact with some Italian and Swedish Deaf who had come Nepal as tourists.

Generally speaking then, NSL developed as a natural language established by the deaf community of Kathmandu valley, but we cannot deny the influence of the other sign languages, nor of artificial systems of sign such as Total Communication or Simultaneous Communication. This influence from outside due to contact (with, for example Indian Sign Language and with structural principles introduced from artificial sign systems used in the United States) was strong during its initial stage of the formation, but in different ways and to different degrees remains strong to this day (although the contact is more with International Sign, American Sign Language and various European sign languages used by visiting deaf tourists and by deaf from European funding organizations). There are also, not surprisingly, semantic overlaps with spoken Nepali (and perhaps other spoken languages).[4]


Although much work remains yet to be done, it is clear that Nepalese Sign Language is not used natively by the overwhelming majority of deaf people in Nepal. There are a number of reasons for this. The main reason, however, is that, as with hearing Nepalese, the majority of deaf in Nepal live in villages, surrounded by non-signing hearing population and not in contact with NSL users. Since the overwhelming majority of deaf children in Nepal as in all countries are born into hearing families without a single signing member, Nepalese Sign Language is primarily learned first at schools for the deaf. However, as these schools are few in number, and not readily accessible to most, it can be concluded that most deaf Nepalese have no opportunity to acquire Nepalese Sign Language under normal circumstances. (To a certain small extent, the National Deaf Federation Nepal, in programs funded by the Swedish Deaf Association (SDR), Deaf Way-UK and other funders, sends trained deaf sign language instructors to remote villages to teach deaf there (and their families and fellow villagers) the basics of Nepalese Sign Language. Unfortunately, such instructors are few in number, and cannot possibly reach all deaf Nepalese.

While the vast majority of non-hearing Nepalese do not have the opportunity to acquire NSL,[5][6][7][8][9] those who are a part of the country’s active Deaf communities are often well connected to wide international network of signers through formal relationships with foreign Deaf organizations and personal relationships with foreign signers initiated and maintained through channels such as tourism, Facebook, and Skype chatting.

Both of these extremes affect NSL. Researchers have discussed the homesign systems generated by Deaf Nepalese in the absence of or in addition to NSL, which are one source of linguistic variation in the language[9][10][11] and the potential impact of late exposure to NSL on signing practice.[9] In addition, scholars have noted that first exposure to signing practice often takes place in schools for the deaf, where classes are taught primarily by hearing teachers who use Signed Nepali or Sign-Supported Nepali (that is, signing that uses lexical items from NSL but grammatical constructions from spoken Nepali); this code can become another source of variation in Deaf Nepalese' signing repertoire.[8][10]

Role of the Nepali Manual Alphabet

As mentioned above, a one-handed fingerspelling system for devanagari, the Nepali manual alphabet, was developed by KAD with the support of UNICEF. Although the idea behind this alphabet may have been motivated by foreign fingerspelling alphabets (especially American manual alphabet and the International manual alphabet), in fact only a few of the forms of the letters can be said to derive directly from those foreign alphabets (i.e. अ from “a”, ब from “b”, म from “m”, and र from “r”).

The Nepalese Manual Alphabet is used not for NSL per se, but for code switching into Nepali (i.e. when a signer spells out a personal or place name, or a Nepali word). The importance of the forms of this alphabet are, however, not restricted to this function. Indeed, fingerspelling handshapes have been widely used in development of new signs, through a process perhaps borrowed from America's various systems of Signed English, whereby the initial letter of the Nepali word is incorporated into the NSL, thus creating so-called "initialized signs". Perhaps more than anything else, it is this system of initialized signs which makes the lexicon of NSL structurally different from the lexicon of Indian Sign Language.[12]


The classification of Nepalese Sign Language is currently under dispute.[12]

Older work has suggested that Nepalese Sign Language is not related to other sign languages. Wittmann (1991)[13] posits that NSL is a language isolate (a 'prototype' sign language), though one developed through stimulus diffusion from an existing sign language, likely Indo-Pakistani Sign Language or the systems that underlay it. Gallaudet University reports that NSL was "developed by the Peace Corps from local and American signs".[14]

Woodward (1993)[15] compared sign-language varieties in India, Pakistan and Nepal and found cognate rates of 62–71%. He concluded these are separate languages of the same family. Zeshan concludes that “IPSL may be in use throughout India, Pakistan, and Nepal with varying degrees of dialectal variation”.[16]

Although it is indisputable that Nepalese Sign Language shares a significant number of signs with the various varieties of sign languages of the Indian Subcontinent (specifically Delhi and Bombay varieties of Indian Sign Language) and Karachi variety of Pakistani Sign Language),[12] argues that previous work, especially that of Woodward and Zeshan cited above, suffer from numerous flaws, both in theory, method, data and conclusion. Both use lexicostatistical methods which have been widely criticized (and discarded) by historical linguists for decades. In addition, although both modify the word lists on which they perform their statistics, they nevertheless apply cutoff percentages derived from the standard word lists.

Although it is unclear how or where Zeshan obtained her data (as she has never been in Nepal), Woodward is clear: his data is obtained from the first "dictionary" of Nepalese Sign Language.[17] This dictionary, as many first attempts, has numerous flaws, including the fact that at least one of the sign language informants had received his education in India, and thus his sign language at least is likely to be influenced by Indian Sign Language, thus potentially skewing the data in favor of Woodward's conclusions.

As Morgan shows, an analysis of the sign languages as currently used in Nepal (i.e. the national sign language) and India (standard Indian Sign Language), argues for two alternative conclusions.[12] One likely alternative is that Nepalese Sign Language was never a member of a proposed Indo-Pakistani Sign Language family, and all supposed cognate signs are either the result of borrowing (NSL has been influenced by ISL signing practices, particularly in the schools for the deaf in the south of the country),[18] a shared South Asian gestural base (which Zeshan herself alludes to as an area which needs further research),[19] or of chance similarity. Another possible alternative is that at one point in time Nepali SIgn Language and Indo-Pakistani Sign Language did in fact share a common source, but subsequent (and rapid) changes in NSL (and likewise in IPSL) over the past 30 years have resulted in a situation where the two languages are no longer related.


Work on documenting the lexicon of Nepalese Sign Language started in the mid-1980s. The first work collecting signs in Nepal that we know of was started in 1985. Patricia Ross, an American Peace Corps volunteer, was a pioneer in sign language research in Nepal. However, her work with Kathmandu Association of the Deaf (KAD) was to collect already existing signs, not creating new signs. As she herself writes: "The initial stumbling block in initiating total communication in Nepal was the lack of any recorded sign language. Many people did not know that there was a fully developed system of Nepalese signs. Despite the fact that sign was not used in the schools, the deaf people, out of their own need to communicate, had developed an intricate system of signs".[20] Regarding the process of collecting signs, Ross further stated: "I would write down words and the students would discuss and argue about what the proper sign was. Slowly and patiently the students taught me their signs, their language."[20] Ross's work collecting NSL signs eventually lead to the publication of the first Nepalese Sign Language dictionary.[21]

Subsequently, the National Deaf Federation Nepal (at that time called National Federation of Deaf and Hearing Impaired, or NFDN) published a much more extensive dictionary,[22] and continues to work on both documenting and supplementing the Nepalese Sign language lexicon.


Despite the incongruity of applying the term phonology to a sign language, like other sign languages Nepalese Sign Language also has a sub-morphemic level of structuring which is analogous (to a certain degree at least) to phonology in spoken languages.

As such, the standard sign language model of phonology (first developed by William Stokoe for American Sign Language and originally called cherology[23]) can be applied to Nepalese Sign Language as well, according to which signs are analyzable according to five parameters:

Although linguistic research on Nepalese Sign Language is still in its infancy, and we do not have a complete list of for any of these parameters we can safely state that:

One of the problems of phonemic analysis on NSL, which is also manifest in other sign languages, is the absence of extensive lists of minimal pairs such as are typically found for all spoken languages. While such pairs are impossible to find for all possible minimal pairs, a sufficient number of such pairs can be produced to justify the method. Such pairs are especially easy to find in cases of initialized signs; thus, for example, while the index finger with tip indexic the back of the opposite wrist indicates the generic term TIME (Nepali: समय /samaj/), a म /ma/ handshape indicates OPPORTUNITY (Nepali: मौका /mauka:/), a फ /pʰa/ handshape indicates FREETIME (Nepali: फुर्सत /pʰursat/), etc.


Nepali Sign Language shares a number of features with most sign languages studied to date:


Morphology in NSL, as in languages in general, comes in two types: derivational morphology and grammatical or inflectional morphology.

One feature which is difficult to ignore is incorporation. This feature is a pervasive one, and one which blurs the border between phonology, which is "supposed" to be meaningless (i.e. capable of distinguishing meaning without having meaning of its own) and morphology, where all forms have meaning. Thus for example, we have incorporation of handshapes from the Nepali manual alphabet into lexical items as we saw above the sections above on manual alphabet and lexicon.

Incorporation also occurs in NSL verbs, in what are often referred to as "classifier predicates". Here, as in many other sign languages studied,[24]) the pattern is ergative-accusative, with subjects of intransitive verbs (e.g. ONE-PERSON in "One person passed by in font of me")), and objects of transitive verbs (e.g. "thick classifier" in "I ate a buff burger").

William Stokoe, the "founder" of (American) Sign Linguistics, proposed a theoretical revision called "Semantic Phonology".[25] Under such a proposal, the sign for TEA चिया /chiya:/ could be seen as a complete predicate, with the "classifier"—in this case the Nepali manual alphabet handshape च /cha/ standing for TEA चिया /chiya:/ -- being incorporated into a "verb" DRINK.

Frequently, and especially at the level of the lexicon, instruments are also incorporated.

Many verbs also agree in person (and number) with the subject and object (often the indirect object, as e.g. "He stared at me" with the sign LOOK-AT directed from third person to first person. However, there is no grammatical or semantic criteria, other than it being transitive which can determine whether a verb will manifest agreement or not. To a limited extend the phonological feature of being "body anchored" (that is, having contact with the body at some point during execution) can limit agreement (e.g. a sign which starts with a body contact will be less free to show subject agreement, and a sign which ends with body contact will be less free to show object agreement).

Thus, in sentences of the type "I gave a book to you" we may have a single sign GIVE, inflected for agreement (motion of the verb begins from the signer (= I) and moves towards the recipient [= you]), and the handshape of the verb GIVE is modified to incorporate a "thick classifier" handling classifier handshape (= object the size and shape of a BOOK).


Typically, in discourse, sentences are short, and verbal arguments (actants) are often left to context (leading to average clause length of less than 2 signs). In addition, NSL (like other sign languages), tends to be topicalizing; that is, the topic is fronted (moved to the front of the clause). Given these two facts, it is hard to a "Basic Word Order" for NSL; nevertheless, in those instances where both agent and patient are lexicalized and where there is no topicalization (e.g. in artificially elicited sentences in isolation), the word order tends to be SOV (Subject-Object-Verb) --- just like Nepali and most members of the South Asian Sprachbund.

Discourse features

Discourse in Nepali Sign Language shares many features with discourse in other sign language:

1) Discourse tends to be firmly "anchored" deictically, both within the space-time of the speech situation and also within the space-time of the narrative situation. As space in front of and around the signer can both represent real world space, but also the narrative world space, in addition to being used grammatically, index points and other spatial references are frequent, and may shift between the various frames.

2) Clause length in discourse tends to be rather short, so that, for example, clauses with transitive verbs will very rarely have both agent and patient expressed lexically.

3) What would in spoken discourse be called "co-speech gesture" in fact is fully integrated into the communicative semiotic of sign language discourse. The same is true of action embodiment (mimed action).

4) As the signer has at their disposal several multiple articulators (i.e. not only both hands, which may be used as independent articulators, but also their own body (in the form of embodied action), it is possible for extremely complex discourse events to be expressed simultaneously, whereas in spoke language they would have to be expressed by a long chain of sequential lexical and grammatical morphemes.

Other indigenous sign languages of Nepal

In addition to the national sign language, several local indigenous 'village' sign languages have been identified.[26] The following “village sign languages” have been identified: Jhankot Sign Language, Jumla Sign Language, and Ghandruk Sign Language. Although insufficiently studied, they each appear to be mutually unintelligible to native signers of Nepalese Sign language, and thus qualify as separate sign languages.

See also


  1. Nepali Sign Language at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Nepalese Sign Language". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Such a scheme while heuristically useful, may in fact be an oversimplification.
  4. E. Mara Green (2008) “Nepali Sign Language and Nepali: Social and Linguistic Dimensions of a Case of Inter-Modal Language Contact.” In Non-Speech Modalities: Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, 2009 Special Session.
  5. Raghav Bir Joshi (1991) Nepal: A paradise for the deaf? Sign Language Studies 20: 161- 168.
  6. Little et al. 1993
  7. Devkota 2003
  8. 1 2 E. Mara Green (2003) Hands That Speak, BA Thesis, Amherst College
  9. 1 2 3 Erika Hoffman-Dilloway (2011) Lending a hand: Competence through cooperation in Nepal’s Deaf associations, Language in Society 40, 285–306.
  10. 1 2 Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway (2008) Metasemiotic Regimentation in the Standardization of Nepalese Sign Language, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Vol. 18, Issue 2, pp. 192–213.
  11. Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway (2010) Many Names for Mother: The Ethno-Linguistic Politics of Deafness in Nepal, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 33: 3, 421 — 441.
  12. 1 2 3 4 MW Morgan (2012). "Through and Beyond the Lexicon: A Semiotic Look at Nepal Sign Language Affiliation." Paper given at Himalayan Languages Symposium, Varanasi, India on 11 September 2012.
  13. Henri Wittmann (1991). "Classification linguistique des langues signées non vocalement." Revue québécoise de linguistique théorique et appliquée 10:1.215–88.
  14. "Sign Language". Gallaudet University. Retrieved 4 October 2012.
  15. Woodward, J. (1993) The Relationship of Sign Language Varieties in India, Pakistan, and Nepal. Sign Language Studies 78: 15–22.
  16. Ulrike Zeshan (2003) Indo-Pakistani Sign Language Grammar: A Typological Outline. Sign Language Studies 3/2: 157-212.
  17. P. Ross, and NK Devkota (1989). Nepali Sign Language Dictionary: The Welfare Society for the Hearing Impaired. Kathmandu: Shayogi Press.
  18. Shilu Sharma (2003) The origin and development of Nepali Sign Language. Kathmandu: Tribhuvan University M.A. thesis.
  19. Ulrike Zeshan (2005). Regional variation in Indo-Pakistani Sign Language : Evidence from content questions and negatives. In: U. Zeshan (ed.), Interrogative and Negative Constructions in Sign Languages. Sign Language Typology Series No. 1. Nijmegen: Ishara Press, p. 322.
  20. 1 2 Patricia Ross (1990). Peace Corps Times.
  21. P. Ross & N.K. Devkota (1989). Nepali Sign Language Dictionary: The Welfare Society for the Hearing Impaired. Kathmandu: Shayogi Press
  22. K. Acharya & D. Sharma (2003). Nepali Sign Language Dictionary. Nepal National Federation of the Deaf & Hard of Hearing (NFDH). Kathmandu. Quality Printers
  23. William Stokoe (1960)
  24. MW Morgan (2009)
  25. William Stokoe (1991) Semantic Phonology. Sign Language Studies, 71: 107-114.
  26. The term "village sign language" is increasingly used as if it were a technical term describing a typologically distinct category of sign languages. Although such a class of sign languages MAY exist, it is not the intention here to imply that any of the following sign languages actually falls into such a category. Rather, they are sign languages which have arisen in a village context, and which are distinct from the national sign language, in this case Nepalese Sign Language. Further research will have to be done to determine if they share any features with those sign languages elsewhere in the world which have been called "village sign languages" (e.g. Kata Kolok in Bali, Adamorobe Sign Language in Ghana, etc.).
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