Maithili Language Explained in Briefly

Imagine a language with a script so visually distinct it unlocks centuries of stories, songs, and traditions and cultures. This is Maithili language, a member of the Indo-Aryan language family, nestled within the Indo-European linguistic tapestry. Spoken by over 30 million people primarily in India’s Bihar state and Nepal’s Terai region, it even boasts a remarkable literary heritage dating back a millennium.

Maithili lanaguage is a significant part of Nepal’s rich cultural diversity.

Maithili’s significance has been a journey of recognition. Once categorized under Hindi, it gained independent language status in India in 2003. Renowned poets like the 14th-century Vidyapati, whose love poems still echo in Maithili folk songs, have elevated this vibrant language. While the Tirhuta (Mithilakshar) script adds historical charm, modern Maithili embraces the widely-used Devanagari script.

In this article, we’ll embark on a journey through Maithili. We’ll explore its origins, its unique sounds and structures, celebrate the literary masterpieces it inspired, and understand its place in the modern world.

History and Importance of Maithili in Nepal

Maithili, a language of both India and Nepal, gained immense popularity thanks to poets like Vidyapati and Govindadasa. Its sweetness even charmed Bengali poets, who adopted it for their own compositions called Brajabuli literature. Rabindranath Tagore, the famous poet, also employed Maithili in his early works.

Maithili’s influence extended heavily into Nepali literature. Nepali poets often imitated the language, leading to the development of Sukumara Sahitya. Additionally, Maithili served as a court language in Nepal, with Sanskrit dramas featuring Maithili songs.

Interestingly, Maithili also left its mark on the medieval literature of Orissa and Assam. Songs by Ramananda Raya, along with prose passages in Assamese dramas of the period, clearly showcase Maithili’s influence.

Nepal is a diverse nation with many languages woven into its fabric. Maithili stands as one of the prevalent living languages, spoken primarily in the Terai region. Speakers in this area often understand Bhojpuri, Hindi, and Nepali alongside Maithili.

While considered a rich and independent language, Maithili exhibits variations across its speakers. Dialects in Nepal differ based on factors like region, caste, education level, and social status. These fascinating variations within Maithili, particularly in areas like Saptari district, remain an exciting area for future linguistic research.

Maithili: A Language Steeped in History

Maithili, also known by names like Tirhutiya, Dehati, or Bihari, is a language spoken across two South Asian countries: India and Nepal. As its name suggests, Maithili is the inherent language of Mithila, an ancient kingdom ruled by King Janak and the birthplace of Janaki (Sita). This region, also referred to as Tirabhukti or Tirhut, encompassed parts of modern-day Darbhanga and Muzaffarpur districts in Bihar, India. However, due to historical events, present-day Mithila sits divided between Nepal and India.

Geographical Reach and Modern Use

Maithili boasts a significant number of speakers, with nearly 30 million using it primarily in the northeastern part of the Indian state of Bihar and the eastern Terai region of Nepal. Additionally, pockets of Maithili speakers can be found in West Bengal, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh. In Nepal, Maithili holds a vital position, spoken by approximately 12% of the population and recognized as the second most prevalent language after Nepali (according to the 1991 CBS census).

Scholarship in Maithili Language

Linguistic studies, like those by Trangott and Pratt, highlight how a single language varies across regions, social classes, ethnic communities, and individual demographics. Maithili is no exception, and its study offers insights into its grammar, phonology, vocabulary, historical development, and sociolinguistic contexts. Yadava (1999) and works like Sayapatri (2055 B.S.) contribute to this growing exploration of Maithili language, literature, and culture.

Pioneering Works

Hoernle’s “A Comparative Grammar of Gaudian Language with Special Reference to Eastern Hindi” (1880) positioned Maithili as an Eastern Hindi dialect but acknowledged its similarities to Bengali and Nepali. S. Jha’s “The Formation of the Maithili Language” (1958) remains a significant diachronic study, tracing Maithili’s evolution from Old Indo-Aryan origins and meticulously exploring its connections to Sanskrit.

Grierson’s “An Introduction to Maithili Language of North Bihar” (Parts I and II, in 1881 and 1882 respectively) is a vital synchronic description of Maithili. His work on dialects within the greater Bihari language group further illuminated Maithili’s position within the linguistic landscape. Hoernle and Grierson’s “A Comparative Dictionary of Bihari Language” (1985) and Grierson’s “Linguistic Survey of India” (originally in 1903) constitute landmark works on Maithili.

Additional Contributions

Despite Grierson’s distinction of Maithili, works like Kellog’s (1893) continued to treat it as a Hindi dialect. Nonetheless, Kellog’s copious use of Maithili examples and notes are valuable. More recent explorations include Summer Institute of Linguistics syntax studies and the Royal Nepal Academy’s multilingual dictionary (1973-74).

Geography and Dialects of Maithili

Dialects: A Reflection of Communities and Regions

Maithili, like many languages, exhibits fascinating variations across different regions, communities, and time periods. These variations, known as dialects, reflect the influence of social, religious, geographic, and historical factors on how the language is spoken. According to S. Jha’s landmark work “The Formation of the Maithili Language,” Maithili boasts seven major dialects:

Maithili Language Geography
Image and data: World Data Info
  • Standard: Spoken in North Darbhanga
  • Southern: Found in South Darbhanga, East Muzaffarpur, North Monghyr, North Bhaganpur, West Purnea
  • Eastern: Used in East Purnea
  • Chikachiki: Prevalent in South Bhagalpur, North Santal Parga, Monghyr
  • Western: Dominant in West Muzaffarpur, East Champaran
  • Jolhi: Spoken by Muslim communities in North Darbhanga
  • Central Colloquial: Further divided into:
    • Eastern Dialect of Sotipura
    • Dialect spoken by lower-caste people in the Madhuban sub-division

Geographical Distribution

Maithili, belonging to the Indo-European family of languages, is primarily spoken in the Terai regions of both India and Nepal.

  • India: Maithili is prevalent in the northern and eastern parts of Bihar, with smaller communities found in West Bengal, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh.
  • Nepal: Maithili is spoken across Nepal’s Terai districts with varying concentrations and can even be found in some areas outside the Terai. Eastern Maithili is primarily spoken in Morang, Sunsari, Saptari, Siraha, and Udayapur.

The Saptari district of Nepal, bordering India, is particularly known for its Maithili speakers. While other languages are also present, Maithili remains the most common language in this district.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking in Maithili here, watch this video:

Revised by Prof. Dr. Yogendra Yadav, former professor of linguistics.