Yolmo language

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Helambu Sherpa
Native to Nepal
Ethnicity Yolmo
Native speakers
10,000 (2011 census)[1]
Eastern Yolmo (Sermathang, Chhimi)
Western Yolmo (Nuwakot District)
Lamjung Yolmo
Ilam Yolmo
Language codes
ISO 639-3 scp
Glottolog yolm1234[2]

Yolmo (Hyolmo),[3] or Helambu Sherpa, is the native Tibeto-Burman language of the Hyolmo of south-central Nepal. Yolmo is spoken predominantly in the Helambu and Melamchi valleys in northern Nuwakot District and northwestern Sindhupalchowk District. It has a high level of lexical similarity to Sherpa (61% lexical similarity) and Standard Tibetan (66% lexical similarity).[4][1] The language is spoken mostly by older adults, with the younger generations having largely shifted to Nepali, though the language is being maintained for religious practices.[5]

Yolmo does not have a written tradition although there are incipient attempts in Nepal to write the language in Devanagari. Two recent dictionaries write Yolmo in Devanagari and give a Romanisation as well.[6][7]

General Information

There has been an attempt in recent years to introduce a written form of various Sherpa languages and dialects (including Yolmo/Helambrum Sherpa) that is based on Tibetan script. Yolmo, as well as other variations of Sherpa language, is related to a Tibetan dialect spoken in the eastern Tibetan Kham province in the 15th century, but has developed independently for nearly 500 years. There are many regional differences and many dialects have absorbed words from the Nepali and English language.

Some community leaders are supportive of a written script for the Yolmo language despite low literacy rates amongst Sherpa people. Younger generations are more likely to use Devanagari script. Neither the Devanagari nor the Latin alphabet adequately represent certain Yolmo sounds. Devanagari is used for modern Nepali. This adds to the Nepalization and loss of Yolmo as well as Sherpa linguistic culture in general. [8]


Helambu is the traditional homeland of the Yolmo people and the upper Melanchi Valley is occupied by them as well. The total population of Yolmo in Melamchi Valley was 4577 in 2002. Their main settlements are Melamchi Ghyang, Tarke Ghyang, Nakote, Kangyul, Sermathang, Norbugoun, Timbu, and Kutumsang. Melamchi Ghyang, Tarke Ghyang, and Sermathang are the most densely populated areas. They are religiously Buddhist and the whole Helambru region is rich with religious structures as well as monuments. The majority of the larger Yolmo Sherpa villages can be considered to be temple villages which contain ghyangs (socio-religious institution of Yolmo community) and have an established religious routine and community obligation to maintain these facilities. The larger gomba complexes, like the Melanchi ghyang, are artistic, architectural wonders enriched with frescos, thankas and ancient texts of great historical value.

Traditionally the Yolmo people were herders and traders. It wasn't until recently when they started to rely on tourism, waged labor, as well as work abroad for income. They currently practice a combination of mixed agriculture involving livestock herding, hotel management, restaurants, and trading. Being a mountainous environment there is marginal land that yields low productivity. The name 'Yolmo' is derived from the Tibetan language[disambiguation needed] and is defined as a 'place screened by snow mountain or glaciers'. The original settlers arrived in the Kyirung region of Tibet by the 18th century which is a 3-4 day trek from Helambru. When a Tamang community fled from Tibet they had no Lama to perform ritual ceremonies of the Buddhist and Tibetan traditions whenever someone from their community died. Yolmo Lamas were invited into the community in order to fulfil the purification ceremonies. This has created a ritual dependency between the Tamang Community and the Yolmo people. This adds to the belief that the accumulation of the Yolmo people in there various locations didn't happen all at once but sporadically over multiple decades and generations.[9]



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 more frequently used in Roman orthography if different.[4]

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)


There are five places of articulation for vowels, with a length distinction for each place of articulation:

Front Mid Back
High i iː u uː
Mid e eː ɔ ɔː
Low a aː


Yolmo has lexical tone. Hari indicates there is a four tone contrast[4] but acoustic evidence indicates that there are likely only two tones; low and high.[7] Low tone words can be marked with breathy voice, but this is not always the case. Tone is marked using acute and grave accents over the first vowel of the word, with acute used for high tone and grave used for low tone, some people use unmarked for high tone and indicate low tone with a following h, for example puh for 'son' below. Below are some examples of tone minimal pairs:

'body hair'


kómba ‘thirsty’

kòmba ‘temple’

Tone is predictable in some environments. It is always low following voiced stops and affricates, and is always high following all aspirated stops, affricates and voiceless liquids. The verbal negator prefixes ma- and me- both have low tone, however if the following root has high tone it will not change tone because of the preceding low suffix.[4]

Word order

Yolmo is a verb-final language and is Subject-Object-Verb.

ŋà=ki sà-sin
1sg-erg rice.cooked eat-pst
'I ate rice'

Adjectives usually come after the noun so 'small child' would be pìʑa tɕhómbo (lit. 'child small'), but some people will place them before the noun, especially in casual speech.


The noun phrase in Yolmo consists of an obligatory noun or pronoun, and may also include a determiner, case-marker, numeral classifier, number marker or focus marker.


Singular Plural
First person ŋà òraŋ/ùu (inclusive)

ɲì (exclusive)

Second person khyé khyá
Third Person (masc.) khó

(fem.) mò

(inanimate) dì

Reflexive ràŋ

The first person plural form òraŋ is more frequent in the Western dialects while the form ùu is more frequent in the Eastern dialects. Dual forms can be created by adding ɲíi to the plural forms, although it is optional.


The plural marker in Yolmo is =ya. Plural marking is optional if the number is clear from context or if an overt number or adjective is used with the noun.

Case marking

Yolmo uses post-positional suffixes to mark the case of nouns. Similar to other Tibetic languages, Yolmo case markers often have multiple functions. Below the cases are listed alongside their function:

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. Where the noun has a plural marker the case-marking suffix comes after the plural- marking suffix.


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.

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:[4][10]

Egophoric Dubitative Perceptual General Fact
Equation yìn/yìngen/yìmba yìnɖo
Existential yè/yèba

yèken/yèba (past tense)




Equation copulas are used to link to noun phrases, while existential copulas are used for functions of existence, location, attribution and possession.[10] The egophoric and perceptual are evidential distinctions, while the dubitative is used for reduced certainty. The general fact form is used for uncontroversial and universally known facts. 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/yèba are past tense forms of the existential. Some copula verbs can also be used as verbal auxiliaries.

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 progressive aspect:[4]

she eat aux-ipvf AUX
'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 dù 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.[4]


There are a number of verb suffixes that are used to mark aspect, these broadly fall into categories of imperfective and perfective.


Mood is marked with a number of different suffixes. These attach to the lexical verb and are listed below:

Imperative -toŋ

Hortative -ka or -tɕo

Optative -ɲi

Dubitative -ʈo

It is worth noting that there is a small class of irregular imperatives; - 'eat' becomes .


Negation is marked on lexical verbs with the prefix mà-. Copula forms have slightly irregular forms so they are listed in the table below:

Egophoric Dubitative Perceptual General Fact
Equation yìn/yìngen/yìmba




Existential yè/yèba


yèken/yèba (past tense)










Below is a list of clause final particles found in Yolmo and a brief description of their function.[4][10]

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

The reported speech marker is part of the wider evidential semantics in Yolmo, which are also found in the copula verbs above.


Yolmo has a set of lexical distinctions used for people of higher social status, particularly Lamas. Honorific lexicon can include nouns, verbs and adjectives. In the table below are some examples including normal lexical forms, the honorific forms and the English.[4]

Regular form Honorific form English
tér nàŋ 'give'
ɲí lòo zìm 'sleep'
káŋba ɕàp 'foot/leg'
gòo ú 'head'
ɕìmbu ɲéebu 'tasty'

The use of honorifics is not as common in the Ilam and Lamjung varieties, although people still recognise some forms.[10]

Common Phrases


Sherpa (Roman) English
Khyoro min kang hin ? / Khyoro minla kang si ? What is your name ?
Nye min Lhakpa hin. / Nye minla Lhakpa siwi. My name is Lhakpa.
Khyoro khangba keni hin ? / Zimkhang keni hin ? Where is your house ?
Nye khangba yambula hin.

Kenidi? / Keniphepki?

My house is in Kathmandu.


Nga skulla diwi. I'm going to school.
Cho baje kyasung ? What time is it now ?
Dash baje kyasung. It is ten o'clock.
Lo cho lepki ? How old are you ?
Lo khaljik tang nga lepkiwi. I am 25 years old.
Tama khyurung ? And you ?

Small Talk[8]

Sherpa (Roman) English
Di kang hin ? What is this ?
Di kitap hin. This is a book.
Phokiti kang hin ? What is that ?
Phokiti naksha hin. That is a map.
Tasam khyurung kangki ? What are you doing nowadays ?
Nga tasam treking laka kiiwai. I am working in Trekking.
Nam lemu chungsung. The weather is nice.
The weather is nice. I'm hungry.
Komba lasung. I'm thirsty.
Kanisu pheu ? / Kanisu wau ? Where do you come from ?
Thangbu ? / Thangburang ? How are you ? / Are you fine ?
Las, thangburang. Yes, I'm fine.


Sherpa (Roman) English Sherpa (Roman) English Sherpa (Roman) English
chik 1 khalzhik tang chik 21 saizhi 400
nyi 2 khalzhik tang nyi 22 sainga 500
sum 3 khalzhik tang sum 23 saithuk 600
zhi 4 khalzhik tang zhi 24 saidin 700
nga 5 khalzhik tang nga 25 saige 800
thuk 6 khalzhik tang thuk 26 saigu 900
din 7 khalzhik tang din 27 hazarchik 1000
ge 8 khalzhik tang ge 28
gu 9 khalzhik tang gu 29
chitamba 10 khalsum 30
chuchik 11 khalzhi 40
chirnyi 12 khalnga 50
chupsum 13 khalthuk 60
chupji 14 khaldin 70
chenga 15 khalge 80
churuk 16 khalgu 90
chuptin 17 saichik 100
chapke 18 saichik tang khalzhik tang chik 121
churku 19 sainyi 200
nyishu / khalzhik 20 saisum 300


  1. 1.0 1.1 Yolmo at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Helambu Sherpa". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Also rendered Yholmo, Yohlmo, Yohlmu Tam, Yol-mo, Ölmo
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 Hari, Anne Marie (2010). Yolmo Sketch Grammar. Kathmandu: Ekta Books.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Endangered Languages Project
  6. Hari, Anne Marie; Lama, C. (2004). Yolmo-Nepali-English Dictionary. Kathmandu: Central Dept. of Linguistics, Tribhnvan University.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 Gawne, Lauren (2010). Lamjung Yolmo - Nepali - English Dictionary. Melbourne: Custom Book Centre, The University of Melbourne.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Sherpa, Lhakpa Doma; Sherpa, Chhiri Tendi; Krämer, Karl-Heinz; Sherpa, Pasang (2006). Sherpa conversation and basic words. Ratna Books.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Pokharel, Binod (2010). "Adaptation and Identity of Yolmo". Occasional Papers. Retrieved May 2, 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Gawne, Lauren (2013). "Report on the relationship between Yolmo and Kagate" (PDF). Himalayan Linguistics. 12(2): 1–27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>