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Number of Speakers: 25 million (Gordon 2005)

Key Dialects: Standard Maithili, Southern Standard Maithili, Eastern Maithili (Khotta, Kortha, Kortha Bihari), Western Maithili, Jolaha, Central Colloquial Maithili (Sotipura), Kisan, Dehati.

Geographical Center: Mithila: Northeastern Bihar, India

Maithili is spoken primarily in the Bihar region of India by twenty-two million people. The areas of Bihar where Maithili is spoken include Muzaffarpur, Kosi, Purnia, Munger, Bhagalpur, and the Himalayan foothills in the north. Within India, but outside Bihar, Maithili is spoken by several thousand people in the geographically removed cities of Delhi, Calcutta, and Bombay. Close to three million people speak Maithili in Nepal as well, making it the second most widely spoken language in the country. In India, it is considered the sixteenth major language according to the International P.E.N. (Poets, Essayists, and Novelists). The language is known by a variety of names and spellings: Maitli, Maitili, Methli, Tirahutia, Bihari, Tirhuti, Tirhutia, and Apabhramsa. Many Maithili speakers are fluent in Hindi, Nepali, and English as well.

Maithili belongs to the Indo-European language family. More specifically, it is a Bihari language of the Eastern subgroup of the Indo-Aryan branch of Indo-Iranian. Bhojpuri and Magahi are closely related languages.

Among the eight primary dialects of Maithili (see above), variation is rooted less in geography than in the socio-religious caste system of Indian society. Thus, members of different castes and their subdivisions speak slightly different varieties of Maithili. Given that there is considerable mutual intelligibility among all dialects, including those spoken in Nepal, these differences are ultimately minor and on a relatively small scale (restricted to subtle differences in phonology and morphology). For instance, Brahmin and non-Brahmin dialects average 91% lexical similarity (Gordon 2005).

Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, Maithili was written in Tirhuta (Maithili Lipi or Mithilaksara), a variety of the syllabic Bengali alphabet used by Bihari Brahmins. Maithili is currently written in the Devanagari script, as is Hindi, Marathi, and Nepali, among others.

The Maithili phoneme inventory is extensive, consisting of thirty consonants and eight vowels, depending on the analysis. Aspiration and nasalization, unlike length, are contrastive (the former being a salient characteristic of the Maithili sound system). Gemination is a notable characteristic of Maithili phonotactics as well. The syllable structure of Maithili is (C)(C)V(V)(C)(C), where C abbreviates ‘consonant’, V abbreviates ‘vowel’, and items in parentheses are optional. Maithili, like most Indo-Aryan languages, is a stress language. Nonetheless, stress is much weaker in Maithili than in English and plays a less significant grammatical role in distinguishing words. Although there are exceptions, the general pattern is that stress falls on the penultimate syllable. In monosyllabic words, stress falls on the sole syllable.

Maithili is an SOV language. Postpositions are attested and possessors, articles, and modifiers generally precede head nouns (some adjectival modifiers may follow the nouns they modify). Maithili has no inflectional case system. That is to say, regardless of the role played by the noun phrase, the form of that expression does not change. Instead, case relations are indicated by means of postpositions. Traditional grammars attribute six cases to the language (e.g. nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, comitative, instrumental, and ablative). In subject position, nouns obligatorily inflect for person, gender, and animacy. The verbal system of Maithili is rather complex. Verbs inflect for person (first, second, third), mood (indicative, interrogative, imperative, hortative, optative), voice (active, passive), tense (prior past, past, present, prior future, future) and aspect (completive, recent completive, imperfect, perfect continuous, intentional) [n.b. tense and aspect are inseparably linked and thus many different combinations of the two are possible]. Verbs obligatorily agree with their subjects and occasionally with their object(s) with respect to person alone (number and gender agreement are unattested). Constructions involving sequences of multiple uncoordinated or unsubordinated inflected verbs (so-called “compound verbs”) are productive in the language and characteristic of the language area. Although affixation is not generally prevalent in Maithili, some constructions make use of affixes. For example, causatives are formed by way of suffixation, as is typical in Indo-Iranian languages.

Maithili is an official language of India. Although it is spoken in homes, villages, and cities with other Maithili speakers, it is infrequently used for business or social interaction outside the home by the working class. Maithili is spoken by the Brahmin and other high caste or educated Hindus, who exercise great influence over both the language and culture. Language education is well developed and maintained in both India and Nepal. Instruction is instituted both at the level of primary and secondary (higher) education by means of university instruction and dedicated Maithili academies. The language has a long literary tradition and its poetry is well known and respected. Various forms of mass communication are carried out in Maithili, including radio, film, television, and literature (poetry, newspapers, and magazines). Close to 50% of Maithili speakers are literate in both their native language and a second language (Gordon 2005).

Little is known definitively about the history and origin of Maithili. The language is claimed to have developed from the Magadhan Prakrit. Written records of Maithili date back as far as the eighth century A.D. Some Maithili scholars claim that the Caryapadas were written in some form of Old Maithili. Maithili was the literary language of all of eastern India in medieval times and was an official (approved) language of the court as well. Writing in the fourteenth century, the poet Vidyapati popularized the language and solidified its place of importance in literature.

Davis, Alice Irene. 1984. Basic Colloquial Maithili. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Grierson, George A. 1980. Seven Grammars of the Dialects and Subdialects of the Bihari Language. Volumes 1-8. Varanasi: Bharatiya Publishing House.

Jha, Subhadra. 1958. The Formation of the Maithili Language. London: Luzac.

Jha, Sunil Kumar. 2001. Maithili. Some Aspects of Its Phonetics and Phonology. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Masica, Colin P. 1991. The Indo-Aryan Languages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Yadav, Ramawatar. 1984. Maithili Phonetics and Phonology. Mainz: Selden and Tamm.

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