Nepal has a spoken language and writing tradition that dates back thousands of years. These arose as part of the general development of civilizations and cultures in South Asia from the first millennium BC to the present day, following many changes brought about by external invasion and influence. When compared to its massive neighbors India and China, the world’s most populous countries, containing more than half of the world’s population, it’s easy to lose sight of Nepal’s uniqueness. Nepal, on the other hand, has a distinct identity.
Nepal has a population of only 22 million people in 1998, but it is very diverse, with 70 languages or dialects (Toba 1992, Malla 1989b), many of which were unwritten until recently, but others with writing dating back more than a thousand years. Table 1 displays the most important of these languages, categorizing them into major language groups and displaying the number of speakers from the 1981 census as well as the percentage of the population. Many of the languages have only a few thousand speakers or fewer, with the Tibeto-Burmese group accounting for many of these small population languages. A few people speak the Austo-Asian language Satar, as well as the Dravidian language Dhangar.
All South Asian writing systems are descended from the Brahmi system, which was developed around 2,300 years ago. Brahmi and its derivatives are alphabetic writing systems, as are the Roman system for Western European languages, the Cyrillic system for Russian and other Eastern European languages, and the Perso-Arabic system for Arabic and other West Asian languages. The ideographic system, which is used in Chinese and Japanese, is another type of writing system (though Japanese also can be written in their Kana alphabet or syllabary).
The languages of South Asia and neighboring areas evolved their own distinct writing systems from the Brahmi base, which today look very different from one another. As a result, Brahmi-derived scripts are used to write Tibetan, Hindi, Newari, Hindi, Tamil, and even Thai. All of these scripts have maintained a strong relationship between how the language is written and how it is spoken, resulting in scripts that are largely phonetic. Because different languages use different sounds, the scripts differ noticeably and significantly.
Some of these scripts appear to be identical, and the Devanagari system for Hindi is similar to that of Newari and Hindi. But they differ not only in style and appearance but also in the essence of the writing, the letters that comprise it. This is why it is difficult, if not impossible, to write a language in the writing system of another language; for example, Newari cannot be adequately written using the unmodified Hindi writing system.
In the last 15 years, it has become necessary to incorporate these writing systems into computers. Initial attempts to do so were unsatisfactory, which led to the current standardization proposal. It was critical in developing this proposal that the nature of the various writing systems in use in Nepal be understood and agreed upon.