WikiJournal of Humanities/A grammatical overview of Yolmo (Tibeto-Burman)

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Article information

Submitting author: Lauren Gawne[a][i] 
Additional contributors: Wikipedia community

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  1. Department of Languages and Linguistics, La Trobe University, Australia


Yolmo is a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in Nepal. Also known as Helambu Sherpa, it is a Tibetic language. This article gives an overview of the language, including information about the dialects spoken, history of documentation, and a grammatical overview. The grammatical overview brings together work on different dialects, providing an outline of the sound system, noun phrase, verb phrase and clause structure.


 Map of Nepal with dialects of Yolmo an Kyirong indicated

Lauren Gawne, CC-BY 3.0

 Sermathang village with the Himalaya in the background

Lauren Gawne, CC-BY 3.0

 Nayagaun, Lamjung, Nepal

Lauren Gawne, CC-BY 3.0

 Cover of Gawne 2016

Lauren Gawne, CC-BY 3.0

Yolmo (Hyolmo), or Helambu Sherpa, is a Tibeto-Burman language of the Hyolmo people of Nepal (ISO 639-3: scp, GlottoCode:[1] yolm1234). Yolmo is spoken predominantly in the Helambu and Melamchi valleys in northern Nuwakot District and northwestern Sindhupalchowk District. Dialects are also spoken by smaller populations in Lamjung District and Ilam District, and also in Ramecchap District (where it is known as Syuba). It has a very high level of similarity with Kyirong Tibetan,[2] and weaker but still observable similarities to Standard Tibetan and Sherpa.[3] There are approximately 10,000 Yolmo speakers,[4] although some dialects have larger populations than others.

Language name

Yolmo is both the name of the language (glottonym) and the ethnic group of people who speak the language (ethnonym). Yolmo is also written Hyolmo, Yholmo or Yohlmo. The 'h' in all of these spellings marks that the word has low tone.[5] Sometimes the language is referred to as Yolmo Tam, tam is the Yolmo word for 'language'.[6]

The language is also referred to as Helambu Sherpa. This usage was common in the 1970s (see, for example, Clarke's work from the early 1980s).[7] This name appears to have been an attempt by Yolmo speakers to align themselves with the widely recognised and prosperous Sherpas of the Solu-Khumbu district. While there are many cultural affinities between the two groups, the Sherpa language is not mutually intelligible with Yolmo.[3] With a growing recognition of Nepal's ethnic minorities (Janajati), Yolmo people have moved away from associating themselves with the Sherpas in recent decades.[8]

Language family

Yolmo is part of the family of languages called Kyirong-Kagate.[9] The languages of this family are located along the Himalayan hills and mountains mostly on the Nepal side of the border, although Kyirong is in the Tibet Antonymous Region. Along with Yolmo, Kyirong and Syuba, other languages in the family include Tsum, Nubri and Gyalsumdo.

The language family is better considered be Kyirong-Yolmo.[5] Yolmo has far more speakers (at least 10,000) than Kagate (Syuba) (1,500), Yolmo speakers are found in multiple districts, including Melamchi, Lamung and Ilam, while Kagate speakers are based in Ramechhap. Also, Kagate is an exonym, and speakers now prefer the endonym Syuba, which carries less pejorative stigma than the caste-associated term Kagate ('papermaker').

This is part of a larger cluster of Tibetic languages, which all have their roots in the language that was the basis for Classical Tibetan.[10]


Yolmo speakers traditionally reside in the Helambu and Melamchi Valley regions in the Nuwakot and Sindhupalchowk districts of Nepal. Yolmo speakers migrated to the area, across the Himalaya, from the Kyriong, in what is now Southwest Tibet, over 300 years ago.[7] This migration appears to have occurred slowly over multiple generations, rather than one large migration event.[11] Main villages where Yolmo speakers reside include Melamchi Ghyang, Tarke Ghyang, Nakote, Kangyul, Sermathang, Norbugoun, Timbu, and Kutumsang.

Yolmo speakers are Buddhist, with the role of head Lama patrilineal.[7] Yolmo Lamas are called upon to perform religious rituals for the Tamang-speaking communities that live in villages below the Yolmo-inhabited areas. This has created a strong socio-cultural link between the two groups that is reflected in traditional marriage practice where Tamang women marry into Yolmo villages.[12] There is also a distinct local tradition of pòmbo (often referred to as 'shamanism' in the literature on this topic[8][13]). The pòmbo tradition, passed from father to son, is focused on healing, particularly with regard to 'soul loss'.[8] This practice appears to be evolving fit with the modern focus on Buddhism among Yolmo people. For example, pòmbo blood sacrifices are no longer performed as commonly.[14] While there are similarities, including a shared etymology, these local practitioners are not formally associated with the Bon of Tibet.

Traditionally Yolmo people were yak herders and traders.[15] They currently practice a combination of mixed agriculture involving livestock herding, hotel management, restaurants, and trading. Although outward migrants would often return to village life,[16] speakers of Yolmo are increasing settling in Kathmandu, or moving overseas, which has an effect on transmission of the language as speakers move towards dominant languages of formal education such as Nepal and English.[17]

For more on the history of Yolmo speakers, see the Yolmo people page.


There are a number of dialects of Yolmo, spread throughout Nepal (Figure 1), thanks to migration in recent centuries, including in Lamjung[18] and Ilam.[19] There are also closely related languages that should be considered when discussing Yolmo, including Kagate (Syuba) and Langtang. Some of these varieties have been documented in more detail than others. Some of the dialects also have more mutual intelligibility, which means it is easier for the speakers to understand each other. Below is a list of established dialects, including what is known about each.

Melamchi Valley Yolmo

The variety of Yolmo documented by Anna Marie Hari is mostly spoken in the Melamchi Valley area. Hari documented the variety of Yolmo mostly spoken around the villages of Sermathang (Figure 2) and Chhimi. Hari also encountered speakers from other areas in the Melamchi and Helambu valleys, and suggested there are two dialects across this area. mostly distinguished by vocabulary. The two dialects are the 'western' dialect, mostly in Nuwakot district and the 'eastern' dialect, which Hari's work focuses on.[3] While discussing these dialects Hari also observes that the variety spoken around Tarkeghyang is different again, suggesting there may be more than two dialects spoken in the area.

Hari produced a Yolmo-Nepali-English dictionary of the language with Chhegu Lama,[6] and a sketch grammar.[3] Hari also translated the New Testament of the Bible into Yolmo.[20] Original cassette recordings of her work have been digitised and archived with PARADISEC.[21] Unless otherwise stated, all discussion of the grammar of Yolmo on this page is drawn from the work on Melamchi Valley Yolmo.


Northwest of the Yolmo-speaking areas in the Langtang valley of the Rasuwa District are three villages that speak a language that is mutually intelligible with Yolmo.[22] This language also shares features with Kyirong and is likely part of a dialect continuum between Yolmo and Kyirong.

Lamjung Yolmo

Lamjung Yolmo is spoken by around 700 people in five villages of the Lamjung District of Nepal (Figure 3).[18] Yolmo speakers have been residing in this area for over a century.[5] Gawne has written a sketch grammar[18] (Figure 4) and a Lamjung Yolmo-Nepali-English dictionary.[23] There is also a digital archive of Lamjung Yolmo recordings archived with PARADISEC.[24]

Ilam Yolmo

A dialect of Yolmo is reportedly spoken in the Ilam District of far east Nepal.[19] There is very little documentation of this variety, but it is mutually intelligible with Syuba.[25] Recordings from the dialect are available as a subset of an online collection of Syuba materials archived with PARADISEC.[26]

Syuba (Kagate)

Although Syuba has a distinct name, and a separate ISO 639-3 code (SYW), linguistically it can be considered a dialect of Yolmo.[25] Syuba speakers say their families migrated to the area more than a century ago.[25] Hari, who worked on both Yolmo[3] and Syuba[27] observes that "to quite a large extent they are mutually intelligible dialects".[3] The lexical similarity between Syuba and Melamchi Valley Yolmo is at least 79%, with the similarity between Syuba and Lamjung Yolmo even higher (88%). There is a higher level of similarity between Yolmo and Syuba than there is between either of these languages and Kyirong.[2] This all suggests that the separated dialects may have more in common with each other than with the main dialect area.[28] In 2016 the Syuba community published a Syuba-Nepali-English dictionary. [29]

Three open access collections of Syuba, MH1 digitised from Monika Hölig's 1970s recordings,[30] SUY1 documentation by Lauren Gawne (2009-2016),[26] MTC1 a 2013 BOLD documentation by the Mother Tongue Centre Nepal.[31]

Language vitality

Using the Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (EGIDS), Ethnologue gives Yolmo a vitality rating of 6a 'Vigorous', but does not cite a source for this claim.[32] The vitality of the language varies depending on the location. In the Melamchi Valley area the language is spoken mostly by older adults. The younger generations having largely shifted to Nepali, though the language is being maintained for religious practices.[3] The shift towards Nepali for younger speakers has also been observed in Lamjung, as this is the language used in schools.[33] The Syuba variety in Ramechhap is currently still spoken across all generations, including children. Mitchell & Eichentopf give it an EGIDS rating of 6a 'Vigorous', which is the likely reference for the Ethnologue rating.[34][32] This is a recent survey with primary data presented, and is in concord with the first author's own observations of this community. There is insufficient data on the Ilam or Langtang variety to assess their vitality at this stage.

Language contact

All Yolmo speakers who I have met have been minimally bilingual in the national language Nepali. For older speakers Nepali was mostly used for interaction with people outside their community, and they may be less proficient, while younger speakers are likely to have attended school in Nepali and are proficient and, to some degree, literate.

While there is relatively little influence of Nepali on basic vocabulary (such as the Swadesh list below), Nepali words are commonly adopted into Yolmo. In Hari & Lama's dictionary of over 4000 entries there are over 200 entries marked with some kind of Nepali influence.[6] The extent to which Nepali words have been reconfigured to Yolmo phonology has not been systematically studied. One observation is that Nepali verbs take a suffix -ti before any tense or aspect marking. This suffix is not voiced in any environment, unlike the perfective aspect marker -ti.[18]

In the Helambu area Tamang women would marry into the villages, but they appeared to move to Yolmo-speaking when they married in[12] (although contact with Tamang may account for some features of Yolmo, such as the general fact evidential, below).[35]

Individuals may also have other languages in their personal repertoire, through marriage to someone form a different language group, international work or engagement with tourists from different countries. English is increasingly common as a language of education.


Yolmo does not have a written tradition although there are attempts to develop an orthography based on Devanagari, the script used to write the national language Nepali, as seen in the publication of two dictionaries.[6][23] Syuba speakers also settled on a Devanagari orthography for their dictionary.[29] All of these dictionaries also present the languages in Roman orthographies.


The modifications to Devanagari are minor, and are intended to ensure that all sounds in the language can be represented. None of the orthographies use the 'inherent schwa vowel', meaning that a consonant without an overt vowel is not treated as having an implied vowel. Consonants remain the same as in the existing Devanagari tradition, with the use of joined digraphs to represent additional sounds in the language, such as the combination of क (k) and य (y) for the palatal stop क्य ([c] 'kh'), स (s) and य (y) for the palatal fricative स्य ([ʃ] 'sh'), र and ह for the voiceless liquid र्ह ([r̥] 'rh'), and ल and ह for the voiceless lateral ल्ह ([l̥] 'lh').

Vowel length is unmarked in the Syuba dictionary, in the two Yolmo dictionaries the standard Devanagari length distinctions are made, with the addition of a small diacritic below the 'a' vowel ( ा) to indicate a longer vowel. The Hari & Lama[6] and Gawne[23] dictionaries both use ह (h) after the vowel to mark low tone (e.g. टाह ʈà 'pheasant'), while in (the Syuba orthography a visarga represents the low tone (टाः ʈà 'pheasant'). High tone is left unmarked.


All three dictionaries also make use of variations on a Romanised orthography, although this does not appear to be used or preferred by Yolmo speakers, and is intended for the English-literate audience of the dictionaries. Consonants predominantly take their form from the International Phonetic Alphabet, with some exception where there is a more common preference in English, such as digraphs for the palatal stops ([c] 'ky', [ch] 'khy', [ɟ] 'gy') and non-superscript for aspiration (e.g. phá 'pig'). This is represented in the consonant chart in the Phonology section.

The vowels in Yolmo follow the International Phonetic Alphabet, except for [ɔ] which uses 'o' for ease of typing. Long vowels are represented by double characters, e.g. [ɲíː] 'two' is represented as ɲíi, except in the Syuba dictionary[29] where vowel length is not indicated in either the Devanagari or Roman scripts. For tone Hari[6][3] uses a 'h' after the vowel to represent low tone, (e.g. toh 'stone') with high tone unmarked (e.g. to 'rice'), Gawne[23] uses the International Phonetic Alphabet convention of using accents over the vowel to mark high and low tone (e.g. 'rice' and 'stone'), while the Syuba dictionary uses a superscript L at the start of the syllable to mark low tone (e.g. Lto 'stone') with high tone unmarked.[29]

On this page the orthography mostly follows Hari's transcription,[6][3] as outlined in the phonology. Unlike Hari, representation of tone follows the International Phonetic Alphabet, with accents to mark high and low tone (e.g. 'rice' and 'stone' respectively). This avoids Hari's use of 'h' to represent both low tone and the sound [h].[33]

Grammatical overview

The sections below contain an overview of the key features of the grammar of Yolmo. Information is mostly drawn from Hari's grammar of the language,[3] supplemented by the Yolmo-Nepali-English dictionary she co-wrote with Chhegu Lama.[6] Differences between this variety and other documented dialects are indicated where relevant. Links to other related languages will also be made where relevant.

All example sentences are presented with an interlinear gloss. This breaks down the words on a morpheme level, giving information about the meaning of each morpheme using a standard set of glossing abbreviations. All examples are cited back to the original publication they are drawn from. Some glossing has been regularised, or added where it was not included in the original.



There are 36 consonants in Yolmo, which are summarized in the table below. The form is given in IPA and then to the right in brackets is given the form used in this article, if different.[3]

Labial Apico-Dental Lamino-post-alveolar Retroflex Palatal Velar Glottal
Voiceless stop p t ʈ c (ky) k
Aspirated stop (ph) (th) ʈʰ (ʈh) cʰ (khy) (kh)
Voiced stop b d ɖ ɟ (gy) ɡ
Voiceless fricative s ɕ h
Voiced fricative z ʑ
Voiceless affricate ts
Aspirative affricate tsʰ (tsh) tɕʰ (tɕh)
Voiced affricate dz
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Voiceless liquid r̥ (rh)
Voiced liquid r
Voiceless lateral l̥ (lh)
Voiced lateral l
Semivowel w j (y)

Not all consonants are equally frequent. In particular [h], [r̥] and [l̥] are not particularly frequent, nor are vowel-initial words.


There are five places of articulation for vowels. There is a length distinction at each place of articulation. The form of each vowel is given in IPA and then to the right in brackets is given the form used in this article, if different.

Front Mid Back
High i iː (ii) u uː (uu)
Mid e eː (ee) ɔ (o) ɔː (oo)
Low a aː (aa)

Below are some minimal pairs that demonstrate the vowel length distinction. The diacritic above the vowel is the tone marker, the acute accent indicates that all of these examples are high tone. This is explained in more detail in the section on tone.

tɕí 'one'
tɕíi 'what'
‘rice (cooked)'
tóo 'be hungry'

Vowel-length distinctions are not common across Tibetic language, but they are also attested in Syuba[27] (although Syuba speakers do not consider them salient enough to encode in the orthography[29]) and in Kyirong for open syllables.[36]

Unlike many other Tibetic languages, including Kyirong, and Standard Tibetan, Yolmo does not have a front rounded [y]. This is true for all dialects of Yolmo documented to date, including Syuba. Langtang, however, does have this vowel.[22]


Like other Tibetic languages, Yolmo has tone, which is located on the first vowel of a word.[37] Hari presents a four tone contrast of Melamchi Valley Yolmo; high level, high falling, low level and low falling.[3] Acoustic evidence from Lamjung Yolmo and Kagate indicates that there is only acoustic evidence for a contrast between two tones; low and high.[23] Below are some examples of tone minimal pairs:

'body hair'
kómba ‘thirsty’
kòmba ‘temple’

Low tone words can be marked with breathy voice, but this is not always the case. The practice of indicating low tone with a 'h' following the vowel in some orthographies is related to this breathy property of low-tone vowels. The high tone, which uses modal voice, is left unmarked.

Tone is predictable in some environments. It is always high following aspirated stops, aspirated affricates and voiceless liquids (which speakers treat as equivalent to aspirated). Examples of all of these include:

pháa 'pig'
thí 'ruler (for measuring)'
ʈháa 'blood'
khyá 'you, plural'
khá 'mouth'
tshá 'salt'
tɕhá 'pair'
rhílmu 'round'
lhá 'god'

Tone is always low following voiced stops, voiced fricatives and voiced affricates. Examples of all of these include:

ɖù 'grain'
gyàa 'place'
gùri 'cat'
dzàdi 'nutmeg'
dʑùbu 'huge/much'
ʑèe 'udder'

On words with more than one syllable the tone is marked on the initial syllable. Subsequent syllables eventually level off. Tone on all words is influenced by prosody, and may become more or less neutralised in running speech.[38]

The only prefixes in the language are the negator prefixes mà- and mè-. Both have low tone, however if the following root has high tone it will not change tone because of the preceding low suffix.[3]

There are no morpho-phonemic variations discussed for the language. The only related feature are a small set of verb minimal pairs where transitivity is distinguished by tone:

làŋ 'to rise'
láŋ 'to raise'
tàp 'to fall'
táp 'to be scattered'
ròp 'to break'
róp 'to break something'

Syllable structure

Yolmo has the syllable structure (C)(C)V(C).[18] This means that the minimum a syllable needs is a vowel. Syllables can also have up to two consonants before the vowel and one after the vowel.

V òo 'there'
VC ùr 'fly'
CV 'son'
CVC pùp 'keep warm'
CCV prù 'write'
CCVC prùl 'snake'

All consonants and vowels can occur word-initial, with a restricted set able to occur in the second syllable. The set of syllable initial consonant clusters includes /pr, br, kr, py, phy, sw, kw, thw, rw/.

All vowels can occur syllable-final, and final consonants include voiceless unaspirated bilabial /b/ and velar stops /k/, voiced liquids /l,r/, the voiced labio-velar /w/ and all nasals except the palatal /m, n, ng/.

Morphophonemic processes

There is a regular process by which the suffixes undergo a change depending on the nature of the verb that they are attached to. Suffixes that begin with a voiceless stop, such as the non-past -ke, the imperative -toŋ or the hortative -ka, all undergo regular morphophonological processes. If they occur after a syllable with a final sound that is voiced they will also be voiced, if they occur after an unvoiced final sound, or an /r/ the start of the suffix will be unvoiced. The examples below are with the non-past -ke:

tá-ge watch-non.pst
tén-ge show-non.pst
zàp-ke dress.up-non.pst
mùr-ke chew-non.pst

The only forms that cannot be predicted by this process is if the suffix is after /i/ or /e/, both of which are high front vowels. The voicing cannot be predicted in this context, and the suffix is sometimes voiced and sometimes unvoiced. Below are examples of verbs with both /i/ and /e/:

pí-ge pull.out-non.pst
ɕí-ge die-non.pst
ɕé-ke tell-non.pst
kyé-ke give.birth-non.pst

There is also a tendency for suffixes that begin with -k/ -g to omit the initial sound after a vowel. This is not as regular a process as the voicing alterations described above. Below are some examples of this process:

Form Gloss Translation
ŋà=i 1sg=gen 'my'
ɖò-en go-non.pst 'go'

Word order

Yolmo has the basic word order of Subject-Object-Verb. This is common in the Tibeto-Burman family.

ŋà=ki sà-sin
1sg=erg rice.cooked eat-pst
'I ate rice' (Gawne 2016: 69)


The noun phrase in Yolmo includes either a noun or a pronoun. The noun phrase with a noun can also include a determiner, adjective and number marker, while the options are more limited with a pronoun or proper noun. Noun suffixes include case markers, plural marker and numeral classifiers.

The order of the noun phrase is (Determiner) Noun=Plural(-Focus Marker)(=Case) (Numeral Classifier) (Number) (Adjective).[18]


The Yolmo definite determiner is the same as the third person inanimate pronoun 'it/this'. It occurs before the noun:

det child
'The child' (Hari 2010: 31)

The indefinite is marked using the numeral tɕíi 'one', which comes after the noun, like other numbers:

person one
'A person' (Hari 2010: 91)


Yolmo pronouns are presented in the table below. There is an inclusive/exclusive distinction for first person plural pronouns, a gender distinction for third person singular and an animacy distinction for third person.

Singular Plural
First person ŋà òraŋ/ùu (inclusive)

ɲì (exclusive)

Second person khyé khyá
Third Person khó (masc.)




dìya (inanimate)

Reflexive ràŋ

The first person plural òraŋ is more commonly found in the Western dialects of Melamchi and Helambu Valley Yolmo, as well as Lamjung Yolmo, while ùu is more common in the Eastern dialects. It is possible to create a dual form by adding ɲíi to the plural form (e.g. khyá ɲíi 'you two'), although this is optional.

The third person plural khúŋ can also be used as a polite form for a single third person.

Pronouns do not take determiners, number, or adjectives.

Interrogative pronouns

Interrogative pronouns are used to form questions. Yolmo has the following attested interrogative pronouns:

nàm 'when'
kàla 'where'
tɕípe, tɕíle, tɕí mée 'why'
tɕí 'what'
kàndi 'which one'
súgi 'whose'
súla 'whom'
kànɖu, kànmu 'how'

Hari gives both and kàla (kà with the dative suffix) as forms for 'where' in Melamchi Valley Yolmo, but only kàla is attested in Lamjung Yolmo.[23] There are also a number of forms for 'why', tɕípe and tɕíle are attested in both Melamchi Valley Yolmo and Lamjung Yolmo, but only tɕí mée in Melamchi Valley Yolmo. This is because it uses the verb mée 'say' as part of the construction, which is not in Lamjung Yolmo (see the section on reported speech, as well as the word list). The kànmu form of 'how' is attested in Lamjung Yolmo, while kànɖu is used in Melamchi Valley Yolmo, with an optional -mu suffix to make kànɖu-mu. Hari and Lama also note the form kànɖu-bar in the Western regions.[39]

Note that the words súgi and súla are complex forms, súgi is 'who' with the genitive case suffix, and súla is with the dative case suffix.

For more on the structure of interrogative clauses, see the section on question formation.

Proper nouns

Proper nouns include people's names, place names and the names of deities. They do not take determiners, number, or adjectives.


The plural marker in Melamchi and Lamjung Yolmo is =ya.The plural is treated as a clitic as it occurs after an adjective if there is one, rather than always attaching directly to the noun:

kháŋba tɕímbu tɕhímbu=ya
house big big=pl
'The big houses' (Hari 2010: 28)

Plural marking is optional if an overt number is used with the noun, or if the number is clear from context:

pèmpiʑa súm
women three
'There are three women' (Gawne 2016: 55)

The plural form in Syuba is =kya,[27] which is more similar to the Kyirong form,[36] suggesting the Yolmo =ya is an innovation.

Focus marker

Yolmo has a nominal focus marker -ti. The focus marker gives prominence to the noun it is attached to. In the example below, the older brother is singled out, contrasted with other relatives who perhaps did not obtain such wealth:

áda-di ɲìma ɲèdzen tɕhúkpu kàl-di oŋ-sin day every rich went-pfv come-pst
'The older brother became richer every day.' (Hari & Lama 2004: 271)

Hari also notes for Melamchi Valley Yolmo that there is a focus marker -ka, which is used specifically to mark something as contrary to expectation.

kháŋba tɕhímbu tɕhímbu=ya-la-ga tè-ku
house big big=pl-loc-foc reside-ipfv
'I realize that they are living in big houses.' (Hari 2010: 27)

Nouns can also take the emphatic suffixes -ni and -raŋ, which are also used for other parts of speech (see section on lexical emphasis).

Case marking

Yolmo uses post-positional suffixes to mark the case of nouns. Similar to other Tibetic languages, Yolmo uses a single case form for multiple functions. Case marking is treated as a clitic, as clitics come at the end of the whole noun phrase, rather than directly attaching to only the noun. Below the cases are listed with their functions.

Case marker Function
=ki genitive, ergative, instrumental
=la locative, allative, dative
=le(gi) ablative

The case markers are phonologically bound, with the =ki form becoming voiced in some environments, it is also reduced to =i in some environments. See the section on morphophonemic processes for more on this.

Where there is also a plural the case marker comes after the plural, as in the example below:

tɕàmu=ya=gi kòŋa tɕú thál kyée
hen=pl=erg egg ten num.clf lay
'The hens laid ten eggs' (Hari 2010: 23)

Ergative case

Yolmo has optional ergative case-marking. Ergative marking means that subjects of intransitive verbs are unmarked, the same as objects of transitive verbs. Subjects of transitive verbs are distinguistshed from both of these with the =ki marker (in contrast to nominative-accusitive languages like English, where the subjects of both intransitive and transitive verbs are marked in contrast with objects of transitive verbs).

Below is an intransitive sentence, with the subject ŋà taking no marking:

ŋà ŋù-sin
1sg cry-pst
'I cried'

In contrast with this ergative-marked transitive, where the subject ŋà is marked with the ergative:

ŋà=gi ɕò úp-sin
1sg=erg yoghurt cover-pst
'I covered the yoghurt' (Hari 2010: 39)

Speakers do not always use the ergative case, which is why it is considered 'optional':

ŋà sà-ke
1sg rice.cooked eat-non.pst
'I eat rice' (Gawne 2016: 69)

Ergative marking is more common for past tense, and non-habitual actions. There also appears to be some effect of animacy, and the ergative appears to be used as a strategy in discourse to mark agentivity.[40] This form of optional ergativity is common across the Tibeto-Burman family.[41]

Dative case

Dative case is typically used to indicate, broadly, the noun to which something is given. The Yolmo dative has this function, but it also has a function in 'dative subject' constructions. The dative subject occurs with a small set of intransitive verbs, and denote personal, and usually internal, states.

ŋà=la kà-en
1sg=dat potatos like-non.pst
'I like potatos.' (Hari 2010: 42)

The use of dative subjects is common in languages of this area, and is also attested more broadly.


Yolmo has a base-20 counting system.[39] As can be seen in the examples above, cardinal numbers can be used in noun phrases.

The Yolmo number system is very similar to that of Standard Tibetan and other Tibetan varieties. In the table below is the Yolmo number, taken from Hari's dictionary[6].

Yolmo English Yolmo English Yolmo English
tɕíi 1 khál tɕíi tɕíi 21 ʑìpkha 400
ɲíi 2 khál tɕíi ɲíi 22 ŋápkya 500
súm 3 khál tɕíi súm 23 ʈùpkya 600
ʑì 4 khál tɕíi ʑì 24 tìngya 700
ŋá 5 khál tɕíi ŋá 25 kyèkya 800
ʈùu 6 khál tɕíi ʈúu 26 kùpkya 900
tìn 7 kál tɕíi tìn 27 tóŋra 1000
kyèe 8 khál tɕíi kyèe 28
9 khál tɕíi kù 29
tɕú 10 khál tɕíi tɕú 30
tɕúuʑi 11 khál ɲíi 40
tɕíŋii 12 khál tɕú 50
tɕúusum 13 khál súm 60
tɕúpɕi 14 khál súm tɕú 70
tɕéeŋa 15 khál ʑì 80
tɕíiru 16 khál ʑì tɕú 90
tɕúptin 17 khál ŋá 100
tɕápkye 18 khál tìn tɕú 150
tɕúrku 19 khál tɕú 200
khál ɕíi 20 khál tɕéeŋa 300

In Lamjung Yolmo, the base-20 system is only used by a small number of older speakers, with others using a base-10 system. For example, 'twenty' is ɲídʑu, 'thirty' is súmdʑu, 'forty' is ɕíptɕu, etc. Even then, once people reach 20 the usually switch to counting in Nepali.[18]

Ordinal numbers are formed by addition of the suffix -pa, or alternatively with the suffix -pu for ordinals relating to people, in Melamchi Yolmo. Ordinals are typically only formed up to 20.

Numeral classifiers

Yolmo also has an optional numeral classifier thál. This is used to emphasise number. In the example in the section on case marking above, the speaker is emphasising that the hens laid a large number of eggs.

Lamjung Yolmo also has the classifier mènda which can only be used with humans.[18]


Adjectives occur within the noun phrase. Adjectives usually come after the noun so 'small child' would be pìʑa tɕháme (lit. 'child small'). Adjectives can also occur before the noun, especially in casual speech.[18] Many adjectives are derived from verb forms, and often end with -pu, -po, -pa or -mu, but they do not act as verbs, as we see in languages like Magar and Manage.[42] Hari also notes that there are some adjectives that appear to not have a known verbal origin.[43] Adjectives can occur as the head of a noun phrase, but this is very uncommon.

tɕhómbo 'big'
rìŋbu 'long'
màrmu, màrpu 'red'
kárpu, kármu 'white'
dzìba 'afraid'
ʈòmbo 'warm'

It is possible to create a new adjective from a verb, using the -pa nominalising suffix. The verb stem is often reduplicated; rùl- 'to rot' becomes rùl rùlba 'rotten' and pàŋ- 'to be wet' becomes pàŋ pàŋba 'wet'.[18]


There are three main types of verbs in Yolmo, lexical verbs, auxiliary verbs and copula verbs. The lexical verbs inflect for tense, aspect, mood and evidence and can take negation. The infinitive form of verbs takes the suffix -tɕe. The infinitive is used in a number of constructions, including the habitual and complementation.

Copula verbs

The copula verbs and their functions are given in the table below. Copulas are not inflected for person, number or politeness level and many do not distinguish tense:[3][5]

Egophoric Dubitative Perceptual General Fact
Equation yìn/yìngen/yìmba yìnɖo


Existential yè/yèba

yèken/yèba (past tense)

yèʈo òŋgen/òŋge

Equation copulas are used to link two noun phrases, while existential copulas are used for functions of existence, location, attribution and possession.[5] Hari describes the forms that end in -pa (voiced in this environment so they become -ba) as more emphatic, unlike lexical verbs with a -pa suffix they do not indicate past tense, and are not used exclusively in question structures.[3]

Some copula verbs can also be used as verbal auxiliaries, particularly in constructions marked for aspect, where they contribute evidential, tense or epistemic information. The negative forms of each copula are given in the section on negation.

Below the different evidential and epistemic functions of each copula type are discussed.


The egophoric, or personal,[44] is used to indicate that the speaker has personal knowledge about the information. In the example below, the speaker would not be reading the name of the book, but already know the name as they show it to someone else:

òo tɕhée=gi mìn gyàldzen tsému púŋgyen má-ẽ yìmba
that book=gen name gyaldzen tsemu puŋgyen say-non.pst cop.ego
'This book is called 'Gyaldzen Tsemu Punggyen.' (Hari 2010: 66)

Unlike in Standard Tibetan,[45] the speaker does not need to be personally close to an individual to use the egophoric while talking about them.

Different varieties of Yolmo prefer different forms of the egophoric as the default; In Helambu they prefer yìn, in Lamjung yìmba and Ilam yìŋge. yèken is past tense forms of the existential (yèke in Lamjung), with the form yèba also often used in past tense structures, as well as questions. The past form cannot be further decomposed, as the form -ken/-ke is the non-past tense suffix for lexical verbs.

There are some structures where the egophoric is used as the default, such as conditionals.


Unlike the other copulas, which mark evidential distinctions, the dubitative copulas are epistemic forms used for reduced certainty. They are related to the -ʈo dubitative suffixes for lexical verbs. In the example below, the speaker does not have any direct evidence that Rijan is in the house, but thinks that is where he might be:

rídʑan khím=la yèʈo
Rijan house=dat cop.dub
'Rijan is probably in the house.' (Gawne 2016: 88)


The perceptual, or sensory, evidential is used to mark information acquired through direct sensory evidence, either through sight, one of the other senses, or internal state (such as feeling an ache).

dèla ʈháa
here blood
'I see there is some blood here.' (Hari 2010: 60)

Hari calls the perceptual forms mirative, as indicating knowledge through sense often occurs for information recently acquired. Only the dùba form, with the emphatic suffix -pa, appears to indicate some amount of surprise or counter-expectation.

General fact

The general fact form is used for uncontroversial and universally known facts. This verb is used in functions of existence, location, attribution and possession, and is not used in equational structures.

ɲì yùl=gi ɕìmbu òŋgen
2pl.ex village=gen potato tasty cop.dub
'The potatoes of our village are tasty.' (Hari 2010: 52)

The form is òŋgen in Melamchi Valley Yolmo and òŋge in Lamjung Yolmo, demonstrating a link with the non-past tense suffix. The verb itself is from the lexical verb òŋ- 'come'. It cannot be used for facts about the past. This copula is not attested in Standard Tibetan or any other Tibetic language outside of Yolmo.

Lexical verb stems

The Melamchi Valley variety of Yolmo exhibit verb stem alterations in the context of some verb structures.

Verb stems with short front vowels have their vowels lengthened (e.g. /i/→/ii/), short back vowels are fronted and lengthened (e.g. /o/ and /a/→/ee/, /u/→/i/). These changes occur mostly with perfective structures and imperatives. Below are some examples of this alternation using the verb má- 'say':

ŋà -ke
'I say' (Hari 2010: 35)
ŋà mée-di
'I have said' (Hari 2010: 35)
'say it!' (Hari 2010: 35)

When these structures are negated, the negative prefix is lengthened rather than the verb stem, which maintains the vowel change (this does not occur in the imperative).

ŋà màa-
'I have not said' (Hari 2010: 35)

These alterations do not occur in Lamjung Yolmo[18] or Syuba.[5]

Auxiliary verbs

There is a small set of auxiliary verbs in Yolmo. The auxiliary - is the same as the lexical verb - 'sit' and is used to add imperfective aspect:[3]

she eat aux-ipvf AUX.PE
'she is eating'

A subset of the copulas can also be used as verbal auxiliaries; yìn, yè, yèken and. These contribute evidential information and for yè/yèken also some tense information. As you can see in the example above the copula is being used as an auxiliary, so they can co-occur with the other auxiliaries.


Yolmo has a major tense distinction between past and non-past. These are marked with suffixes on the lexical verb, -sin is the past tense marker and -ke or -ken is the non-past marker.[3]

Past tense

The past tense form is -sin.

ŋà=gi ɕò úp-sin.
1sg=erg yoghurt cover-pst

The past tense form -sin can also occur with the perceptual evidential in an auxiliary position. This is not possible with the non-past tense suffix, nor can any other copula be used as an auxiliary with the past tense suffix. Hari suggests this structure is inferential, in that the speaker did not have to witness the event,[3] Gawne describes it as 'narrative past'.[18]

tɕhú-kúla tshúr gyùr-sin
water channel this.side change-pst
'I see, the water channel has changed course to this side.' (Hari 2010: 45)

Melamchi Valley Yolmo also has a past tense form -kyo that Hari refers to as the 'main-point past/ telling past’,[3] this form is not found in Lamjung Yolmo.

There is also the form -pa, which Hari says is always used in question structures. In Lamjung Yolmo there are some examples where it is used in declaratives rather than questions, with a past-tense meaning.

ŋà tɕhám-pa
1sg dance-pst
'I danced.' (Gawne 2016: 107)

Non-past tense

The non-past tense is used for both present and future constructions. Hari gives the forms -ke and -ken for Melamchi Valley Yolmo, but only -ke is attested in Lamjung Yolmo.

ŋà=la kà-en
1sg=dat potatos like-non.pst
'I like potatos.' (Hari 2010: 42)

Hari refers to this form as the 'intentional present' but it can also be used in future constructions:

kyée-di ɲì-ti pèza ɕi ɖò-en
this be.born-perf 2pl-emph child four go-non.pst
'After this one is born we will have four children.' (Hari 2010: 53)


There are a number of verb suffixes that are used to mark aspect, these broadly fall into categories of imperfective and perfective, as well as habitual. When an aspect form is used, a copula verb is also used.


The imperfective is used for events that are ongoing or not complete. The -ku suffix is attested in both Melamchi Valley and Lamjung Yolmo. It can only be used with the copula verb.

tìriŋ kháwa là thóŋ-gu
today snow mountains be.seen-impf
'Today the snow mountains can be seen.' (Hari 2010: 43)

The imperfective form -teraŋ can be used with either the or copula verb. In Lumjung Yolmo some speakers pronounce it as -tiraŋ.[18] Hari refers to the -teraŋ construction as the 'perfect continuous aspect', because it can be used to refer to something that was ongoing until a particular point, as per this first example:

tànda sámma-ni ɖìbu tér-teraŋ
now until-foc money give-impf aux.ego
'Up to now he has been giving money.' (Hari & Lama 2004: 278)

Gawne describes it as an imperfective, as it does not appear to have this perfect aspect function in Lamjung Yolmo, as per this example:

kòlela tè-teraŋ
3sg.f slowly sit-impf
'She is slowly sitting down.' (Gawne 2016: 109)

The auxiliary verb can also be used to mark an imperfective construction. Neither -ku nor -teraŋ are used if the negative prefix is on the main verb. The auxiliary verb can be used in negative constructions, and takes the negative prefix, rather than the main verb. In the example below, the -teraŋ imperfective is used as the negative prefix is on the auxiliary:

ŋà lèn-diraŋ mà-tè
1sg sing-impf neg.pst-aux aux.ego
'I was not singing.' (Gawne 2016: 111)


The perfective aspect suffix is used for events that can be described as whole, without reference to the duration like the imperfective. The perfective form in Yolmo is -ti.

mèŋgaŋ-la-ni thóola tɕhám tɕhímbu káp-ti
cooking.shed-loc-foc above board large cover-pfv aux.ego
'The cooking shed was covered with large boards.' (Hari & Lama 2004: 270)

Mutliple verbs with perfective aspect can be used together to create a clause chaining structure. It is distinct from the nominal focus suffix -ti.


Habitual aspect marks that an event is usual, customary or frequent. There is no specific habitual aspect suffix for Yolmo. Speakers will either use a verb with an infinitive, or with no suffix.

ŋà ɲìma ʈàŋmaraŋ khúra
1sg day every bread eat aux.ego
'I eat bread every day.' (Gawne 2016: 112)


Mood is marked in Yolmo with a set of verb suffixes. The main mood suffixes are given in the table below

Particle Function
-toŋ Imperative
-ka or -tɕo/tɕu Hortative
-ɲi Optative
-ʈo Dubitative


The polite imperative suffix is -toŋ (voiced as -doŋ after voiced codas and some vowels). An overt subject is not used, and the same imperative form is used regardless of person or number:

'Speak!' (Hari 2010: 46)

The less polite form of the imperative is consists of an unmarked verb stem:

'Speak!' (Hari 2010: 46)

There are also a small number of irregular imperatives that are formed without the imperative suffix, particularly 'eat!', from - 'eat'.

If there is an honorific form of the verb it can be used, unmarked, as the most polite form of the imperative:

'Please eat' (Hari 2010: 113)

The negative form of the imperative (the prohibitive) uses the mà- form of the negator prefix with the verb stem. The imperative suffix is not included.

'Don't speak!' (Hari 2010: 46)


Gawne notes two verbal suffix forms for the hortative in Lamjung Yolmo, a -ka and a -tɕo.

The -ka form is used with all persons except first person singular.

òraŋ -ka
‘Let’s eat!’ (Gawne 2016: 114)

The suffix remains in negated horatitves:

ɲì -tɕhám-ka
‘Let’s not dance!’ (Gawne 2016: 114)

The -tɕo form is used with first person singular, as well as with other persons. It also remains in negative constructions.

ŋà khím=ki -tɕo
1PL.EXCL house=GEN work do-HORT
‘Let me do the house work!’ (Gawne 2016: 114)

-tɕo appears to be less strong, and tends to be used more frequently. Hari gives the form as -tɕo (she also calls it an optative, but it appears to be a hortative)

tìriŋ khó dèla-raŋ tè-tɕo
today 3SG.M here-EMPH sit-HORT
‘Let him stay here today.’ (Hari & Lama 2004: 174)


Hari does not list an optative suffix.[3] Gawne gives the optative -ɲi in Lamjung Yolmo.[18]

ŋà ɲàl-ɲi tè-ku
‘I want to sleep.’ (Gawne 2016: 115)

Hari & Lama (2004: 146) list ɲi- as a verb that expresses a 'strong wish’, clearly linking to the Lamjung Yolmo optative form.


Hari describes the dubitative as 'probable future',[3] indicating the sense of decreased certainty that the dubitative mood marks. The forms -ʈo, -ɖo and -ro are found in Melamchi Valley Yolmo as part of the morphophonemic voicing process, but the -ro form is not found in Lamjung Yolmo.[18]

khúŋ-gi sèn sà-ro
3PL-ERG corn.mash eat-DUB
'they will probably eat corn mash’ (Hari & Lama 2004: 237)

This verb suffix is related to the dubitative form of the copula.


Negation is marked on lexical verbs by prefix. There are two prefix forms, mè- is for negation in non-past tense (present and future), while - is used for past tense, as well as negation of imperatives (mà-tàp! 'don't fall'!).

ŋà -tàp
'I do not/will not fall.' (Hari 2010: 132)
ŋà -tàp
1SG NEG.PST-fill
'I did not fall.' (Hari 2010: 132)

The negated forms of copulas are slightly irregular. They are listed in the table below in brackets underneath the regular forms:

Egophoric Dubitative Perceptual General Fact
Equation yìn/yìngen/yìmba




Existential yè/yèba


yèken/yèba (past tense)

(mèke/méba) (past tense)








Verb paradigm

Below are verb paradigms for two verbs, the first is the intransitive verb ŋù 'cry' and the second is the transitive verb 'eat'. Both are given mostly with third person subject, although this is not particularly important as subject person does not affect the form of the verb. For both verbs you can see the change in verb stem. For dialect specific variation, click on the link back to each specific form.

Form Syuba English Syuba English
Infinitive ŋù-dʑe 'to cry' sà-tɕe 'to eat'
Simple non-past khó ŋù-en 'he cries' khói tó sà-en 'he eats rice'
Simple past khó ŋù-sin 'he cried' khói tó sà-sin 'he ate rice'
'Telling' past khó ŋù-gyo 'he cried' khói tó sà-gyo 'he ate rice'
Past/question form khó ŋìi-ba 'did he cry?'/'he cried' khói tó sèe-ba 'did he eat rice?'/'he ate rice'
Imperfective khó ŋù-gu dù 'he is crying' khói tó sà-gu dù 'he is eating rice
Imperfective khó ŋìi-deraŋ yè 'he is crying' khói tó sèe-deraŋ yè 'he is eating rice
Imperfective (Aux) khó ŋìi tè-ku dù 'he is crying' khói tó sèe tè-ku dù 'he is eating rice
Perfective khó ŋìi-deraŋ yè 'he has cried' khói tó sèe-di yè 'he has eaten rice'
Habitual khó ŋù yè 'he cries (every day)' khói tó sà yè 'he eats rice (every day)'
Imperative ŋíi 'cry!' tó sò 'eat the rice!'
Hortative ŋù-ka / ŋù-tɕo 'let's cry!' sà-ka / sà-tɕo 'let's eat!'
Optative ŋù-ɲi 'I want to cry' sa-ɲi 'I want to eat'
Dubitative khó ŋù-ʈo 'he is probably crying' khói tó sà-ro 'he is probably eating rice'
Negative, non-past khó mà-ŋì 'he is not crying' khói tó mè-sà 'he is not eating rice'
Negative, past khó mà-ŋì 'he did not cry' khói tó mà-sèe 'he did not eat rice'

Clause structure

This section outlines some of the main features of the structure of clauses in Yolmo.


Nominalisation is the process by which words undergo a change that allows them to act as nouns. While nominalisation is common process, it is particularly pervasive in Bodic languages, where it can be used for a variety of functions, including the formation of complement clauses and relative clauses.[46] The common Bodic nominaliser -pa [47] productively functions in Yolmo as a suffix that can mark past tense, question structures or emphasis. There are other nominalising forms in Yolmo.

Hari describes a number of nominalisers in Melamchi Valley Yolmo. The first is the nominalising suffix -ka:

saudʑi kár-ka yàabu tér-ku
this shopkeeper weight-NMLZ good give-IPFV AUX.PE
‘This shop keeper gives good weight.’ (Hari 2010: 30)

A number of other nominalising suffixes that attach to verbs have more specific functions:

Suffix Fuction
-naŋ appearance of state or action
-taŋ displaying a forceful show
-luŋ have time for an activity
-lu way of doing something

In Lamjung Yolmo the most productive nominaliser is -kandi.[18] None of the others described above have been attested. This form is not attested in Hari's description of Melamchi Valley Yolmo, but is probably related to the -ka form described above.

ŋà=ki ʈìlbu yúŋ-kandi thé-ku
1SG=ERG bell ring-NMLZ hear-IPFV AUX.PE
‘I hear the ringing of bells.’ (Gawne 2016: 132)

There is also a locative nominaliser -sa, which creates a noun that denotes location:

ŋà dzàra sà-sa=la ɖò-en
1SG snack eat-NMLZ.LOC=LOC go-NON.PST
‘I want to go to the snack place.’ (Hari 2010: 33)


An adverbial structure modifies the verb in some way.

Temporal adverbial subordination

Temporal adverbs can create subordinated clauses.

sà-kandi tòŋla ŋà làkpa ʈhú-ke
eat-NMLZ before 1SG hand wash-NON.PST
‘I wash my hands before eating.’ (Gawne 2016: 130)

Below is the list of temporal adverbs observed in Yolmo to date, some are independent words, and others are verbal suffixes:

Adverb Translation Additional information
nàm 'when'
gàrila 'at the time' Nepali loanword
bèlala 'at the time' Nepali loanword
-kamu 'at the time' only attested in Lamjung Yolmo
tòŋla 'before'
tíŋla 'after'
-tile 'after'
-timaraŋ 'after'
yìndʑu 'since' only attested in Melamchi Valley Yolmo

Manner adverbs

Manner adverbs create a subordinated clause that expresses the manner of an action. The manner adverb is lèemu (lìmu in Lamjung).

khúŋ tábu límu gyùbu tɕóŋ-ku
3PL house like fast run-NMLZ AUX.PE
‘He runs fast like a horse.’ (Gawne 2016: 129)

The forms tíle and dènmu are also found in Lamjung Yolmo,[18] but not yet attested in other varieties.


Conditional constructions are formed through the use of the suffix -na on the verb in the protasis clause (the 'if' clause). Speakers will either use the -na suffix directly on the verb, or leave the verb unmarked at attach the -na suffix to the verb meaning ‘say’ (mée in Melamchi Valley Yolmo, làp in Lamjung Yolmo).

nám mà-kyàp làp-na ŋà phíla ɖò-ke
rain NEG.PST-fall say-COND 1SG outside go-NON.PST
‘If it doesn’t rain I will go outside.’ (Gawne 2016: 130)


A complement clause is a clause that functions as an argument of another clause. In Yolmo the embedded complement clause takes the infinitive suffix -tɕe.

ɲì=la yìgi prù-tɕe ʈèmba sàl-toŋ
1PL.EXCL=DAT letter write-INF remember-IMP
‘Remember to write us a letter!’ (Gawne 2016: 134)

The optative mood suffix -ɲi in Yolmo can also be said to be acting as a complementiser.


A relative clause is depended on a main clause. Different relativising strategies are used in the two described varieties of Yolmo. In Melamchi Valley Yolmo the non-past tense form -ken(-gi) is used for non-past constructions, and the past tense form -kyo(-gi) is used for past tense constructions (for each the -gi is optional). Similarly, in Lamjung Yolmo, -ke-ki can be used for non-past relativised clauses and -pa-ki for past relativised clauses. This difference reflects the fact that the past tense form -kyo is not found in Lamjung Yolmo.

òze bèle aʑi=gi gòo thóo=la tɕáŋ-gyo-gi làawor phók táŋ-sin
that time sister=gen head above=loc hang-rel mill.stone intensifier send-pst rs
'At that moment (the monster) swiftly loosened the mill stone which was hanging just above the head of the elder sister.' (Hari 2010: 76)
khyá=ki prù-prù-pa-ki yìgi
2pl=gen write-write-rel letter
'The letter that you wrote.' (Gawne 2016: 134)

In Lamjung Yolmo, the nominaliser -kandi can be used to make a relative clause:

khím sáŋma -kandi nà-sin
house clean do=nmlz person ill-pst
'The person who cleans the house is ill.' (Gawne 2016: 135)

Clause chaining

The perfective suffix -ti is used to chain clauses together. Multiple verbs with this suffix can be stacked to create a complex series of events.

tɕádzuŋma tɕíi òŋ-ti ʈúu-ti khér-sin
bird one come-pftv pick.up-pftv carry.away-pst
'A bird came, picked up (a fish) and took (it) away.' (Gawne 2016: 136)

Question formation

Word order does not change to form questions in Yolmo. Rising intonation at the end of the utterance can indicate it is a question. A set of interrogative pronouns are used for open content questions.

The -pa suffix, which was introduced in the section on past tense is used in question structures.

khé -pa
2sg rice.cooked eat-q
‘Did you eat cooked rice?’ (Gawne 2016: 139)

The reply would be with the regular past tense, and not the -pa suffix:

ŋà -sin
1sg rice.cooked eat-pst
‘I ate rice.’ (Gawne 2016: 139)

The copula form used in a question matches the form the question-asked anticipates the question-answerer will use in their answer. That is, if they anticipate the answer will use the perceptual evidential , this is the form they will use in asking the question.[48]

Reported speech

Yolmo has two strategies for reporting speech, the first is using the lexical verb or làp 'say', the second is using the clause final evidential particle ló.[49]

Lexical verb

In Melamchi Valley Yolmo the main lexical verb of saying is má, in Lamjung Yolmo it is làp. Hari and Lama note that làp is found in Melamchi Valley Yolmo, but in restricted use.[6] If the speaker, and the person the speech is directed at are overtly marked, these usually proceed the reported content (although they are frequently not overt in natural speech). The 'say' verb prototypically occurs after the reported content, although if the reported content is quite long the verb may occasionally come before it.[49]

khó-ni níŋdʑi ɕóŋ-gen-gi pèza-raŋ mìmba áma-gi pò-la -en
3sg-foc love feel child-emph cop.neg.emph mother-erg people near-dat say-non.pst
'Mother says to people nearby, "He is not a lovable child!"' (Hari & Lama 2004: 383)

The lexical verb 'say' is also used in a number of other constructions, including conditionals.

Reported speech evidential

The reported speech particle also indicates that the speaker is reporting a prior utterance, but has a different focus. The reported speech particle does not account for who the speaker way, but instead primarily serves to focus on the fact the information is reported, and not directly witnessed by the speaker. In the example below from Syuba, it is not made explicit if the report comes from Maila, or another person. The reported speech evidential occurs frequently in narratives.

tíriŋ Maila tóm phré-si
today Maila bear meet-PST RS
‘Today Maila met a bear.’ (Höhlig 1978: 22)[50]

This is part of the wider evidential system of Yolmo, which is also found in the copula verbs above.

Lexical emphasis

There are two emphatic suffixes that can be used with a number of word classes. This is in contrast to the emphatic form -ti, which is only used with nouns. The first is -ni, and the second is -raŋ, which Hari & Lama note is a frequently used emphatic marker in informal speech.[6] The distinction between all of these forms is unclear, although Hari refers to the -ni form as used for 'moderate focus',[43] so it is perhaps less emphatic for nouns than the -ti suffix.

Clause final particles

Yolmo has a series of sentence final particles that can be used to achieve a range of effects. The table below gives some of the particles in Yolmo and a brief description of their function.[3][5]

Particle Function
reported speech
yàŋ emphasis/focus
làa polite
óo invoking/encouraging

The reported speech marker is an evidential form, as it indicates the source of the information as someone else. This structure is described in the section on reported speech.


Yolmo has a subset of honorific vocabulary which is used when talking to, or about, people of higher social status, particularly Buddhist Lamas. Honorific lexicon includes nouns, verbs and adjectives. The table below gives some examples, including the regular word, the honorific form, and the English translation.[3]

Regular form Honorific form English
tér nàŋ 'give'
ɲí lòo zìm 'sleep'
ɕè 'eat'
ába yàp 'father'
áma yùm 'mother'
káŋba ɕàp 'foot/leg'
gòo ú 'head'
ɕìmbu ɲéebu 'tasty'

The use of honorifics in Syuba and Lamjung Yolmo is not as common, although some speakers still recognise and use these forms.[5]

100 word Swadesh list

Below is a 100 word Swadesh list in Yolmo. The Yolmo forms are taken from Hari and Lama,[6] who note some variation between the Eastern (E) and Western (W) varieties in the Melamchi and Helambu Valley area. Where the form is different in other varieties this is indicated in the right-hand column of the table. This variation shows that the Lamjung variety and Syuba have more in common with each other lexically than they do with the Melamchi Valley variety.



English Yolmo Variation
1. I ŋà
2. thou khyá
3. we ɲì
4. this
5. that òo òodi in Lamjung Yolmo and Syuba
6. who?
7. what? tɕí
8. not mè-, mì-
9. all thámdʑi dzàmma in Lamjung Yolmo, thámdze in Syuba
10. many màŋbu
11. one tɕíi
12. two ŋyíi
13. a tɕhímbu, tɕhómbo only hómbo reported in Lamjung Yolmo and Syuba
14. long rìŋbu
15. small tɕhéemu tɕéemi in Lamjung YOlmo
16. woman pìihmi pèmpiʑa in Lamjung Yolmo and Syuba
17. man khyówa khyópiʑa in Lamjung Yolmo and Syuba
18. person
19. fish ɲà
20. bird tɕà-tɕìwa tɕádzuŋma in Lamjung Yolmo and Syuba
21. dog kyíbu, khyí khí in Lamjung Yolmo and Syuba
22. louse kiɕíkpa, kyíɕi ɕí in Lamjung Yolmo and Syuba
23. tree tòŋbo, tùŋbu only tòŋbo reported in Lamjung Yolmo and Syuba
24. seed sén
25. leaf làpti, lòma
26. root tsárkyi, tsárŋyi, tsárnɲe
27. bark páko, phíko, kóldaŋ phába in Lamjung Yolmo
28. skin páaba (E), páko (W) gòoba in Lamjung Yolmo and Syuba
29. lesh ɕá
30. blood ʈháa
31. bone rèko, rìiba (E) ròko in Lamjung Yolmo and Syuba
32. grease khyákpa tɕháa
33. egg tɕàmu kòŋa
34. horn ròwa rùwa in Syuba
35. tail ŋáma, ŋéma ŋámaŋ in Lamjung Yolmo
36. feather ʈò (E), ʈòo (W) ɕókpa in Lamjung Yolmo
37. hair ʈá
38. head gòo
39. ear námdʑo
40. eye míi
41. nose náasum (E), nárko (W) only náasum reported in Lamjung Yolmo and Syuba
42. mouth khá
43. tooth
44. tongue tɕéle tɕé in Lamjung Yolmo and Syuba
45. fingernail sému
46. foot káŋba
47. knee káŋba-tshíi tshíiŋgor in Lamjung Yolmo, pìmu in Syuba
48. hand làkpa
49. belly ʈèpa
50. neck dzìŋba
51. breast òma
52. heart níŋ
53. liver tɕìmba
54. drink thúŋ-
55. eat sà-
56. bite kàp-, áa táp-
57. see tá, thóŋ-
58. hear thée-, ɲìn- thée-, ɲèn in Lamjung Yolmo and Syuba
59. know ɕée-
60. sleep ɲí lòo- ɲàl- in Lamjung Yolmo and Syuba
61. die ɕí-
62. kill sé-
63. swim tɕál kyàp-
64. fly ùr-
65. walk ɖò-
66. come òŋ-
67. lie ɲàl-
68. sit tè-
69. stand làŋ-di té-
70. give tér-
71. say má-, làp- only làp- in Lamjung Yolmo and Syuba
72. sun ɲìma
73. moon dàwa, dàyum dàgarmu in Lamjung Yolmo and Syuba
74. star kárma
75. water tɕhú
76. rain nám kyàp-
77. stone
78. sand pèma
79. earth sása, thása, sáʑa, sáptɕi sébi in Syuba
80. cloud múkpa
81. smoke tìpa, tèpa only tìpa reported in Lamjung Yolmo and Syuba
82. fire
83. ash thála
84. burn tìi-, bàr-, tshíi-
85. path làm
86. mountain kàŋ
87. red màrmu, màrpu
88. green ŋòmbo, ŋùmbu
89. yellow sérpu
90. white kárpu, kármu
91. black nàkpu
92. night kùŋmu
93. hot ʈòmo ʈòmbo in Lamjung Yolmo and Syuba
94. cold ʈàŋmu
95. full kàŋ
96. new sámba
97. good yàabu
98. round kòrmu (circular), rhílmu (spherical)
99. dry kámbu
100. name mìn Unlike almost all other Tibetic languages, this word is mìn and not mìŋ

Additional information


Thanks to the speakers of Lamjung Yolmo, Melamchi Valley Yolmo, Ilam Yolmo and Syuba, who took the time to share their language with me. Thanks to all the speakers of these languages, as well as Kyirong and Langtangpa Tam, who have shared their language with other researchers. My own research has been funded by a number of organisations, including The University of Melbourne and the Australian Research Council (Discovery Project DP0878126) for Lamjung Yolmo, and Firebird, Stack Exchange, Awesome Foundation (Ottawa), Nanyang Technological University (Tier 1 grant) and Endangered Language Documentation Programme (grant 0388) for Syuba.

Competing interests

The main author has no competing interest.

Ethics statement

No primary research was performed for this paper.


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