The Newar verb in Tibeto-Burman perspective

© George van Driem, 1993

Newar is the Tibeto-Burman language native to the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal. A divergent and conservative dialect of the language is spoken in Dolakha some 130 km east-northeast of Kathmandu. This Newar language community represents an ancient Newar settlement dating at least as far back as the Licchavi period, ca. 300-879 AD. Based on Carol Genetti’s (1990) description of Dolakha Newar grammar, a comparative study is made of the verbal systems of Classical Newar, modern Kathmandu Newar and Dolakha Newar. The conjunct vs. disjunct conjugation of modern Kathmandu Newar derives from the Classical Newar system. On the other hand, Classical Newar retains the vestiges of a verbal agreement system like that of Dolakha and simultaneously exhibits the rudiments of the conjunct vs. disjunct system operative in modern Kathmandu Newar. The Classical Newar conjugation is found to derive from a more complete verbal agreement system more faithfully reflected in the Dolakha verb.

The agreement morphology of the Dolakha verb is compared with the conjugations of related Tibeto-Burman languages. This comparison yields morphological evidence for a close genetic relationship between Newar and the Kiranti languages within the Tibeto-Burman language family. For example, the Dolakha reflex of the Tibeto-Burman third person agreement proto-morpheme *<-u> is a suffix, and this suffix specifically indexes the syntactic role of patient. Finally, the Newar kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley were great centres of culture exposed to migration and influence from without. This contrasts sharply with the remoteness of the sheltered Newar community at Dolakha. The evident archaism of Dolakha verbal morphology therefore corroborates the hypothesis that language change is slowed down by the stability of a linguistic community through time (van Driem 1993a).