'Olekha language

ʼOlekha, Monkha, Monpa, ʼOle Mönpa
Black Mountain Monpa
Native speakers
500 (2007)[1]
Tibetan script
Language codes
ISO 639-3ole
Rindzi Phup, one of the last speakers of the ʼOle Mönpa language
Rindzi Phup, one of the last speakers of the ʼOle Mönpa language. Photo by George van Driem

ʼOle, also called ʼOlekha or Black Mountain Monpa, is a Sino-Tibetan language spoken by about 1,000 people in the Black Mountains of Wangdue Phodrang and Trongsa Districts in western Bhutan. The term ʼOle refers to a clan of speakers.[3]


According to the Ethnologue, ʼOlekha is spoken in the following locations of Bhutan.

Dialects are separated by the Black Mountains.


Black Mountain Monpa is spoken in at least 6 villages. The variety spoken in Rukha village, south-central Wangdi is known as ʼOlekha.[4] Out of a population of 100-150 people (about 15 households) in Rukha village, there is only one elderly female fluent speaker and two semi-fluent speakers of ʼOlekha.[4]

George van Driem (1992)[5] reports a Western dialect (spoken in Rukha and Reti villages) and Eastern dialect (spoken in Cungseng village).


ʼOle was unknown beyond its immediate area until 1990,[citation needed] and is now highly endangered, and was originally assumed to be East Bodish.[6] George van Driem described ʼOle as a remnant of the primordial population of the Black Mountains before the southward expansion of the ancient East Bodish tribes.[7]

More recently, Gwendolyn Hyslop (2016),[4] agreeing with van Driem, has suggested that ʼOle is an isolate branch of the Sino-Tibetan family that has been heavily influenced by East Bodish languages.[8] Because of the small number of cognates with East Bodish languages once loans are identified, Blench and Post provisionally treat ʼOle as a language isolate, not just an isolate within Sino-Tibetan.[6]

External relationships[]

ʼOle forms a distinct branch of Sino-Tibetan/Tibeto-Burman. it is not closely related to Tshangla language of eastern Bhutan, also called "Monpa" and predating Dzongkha in the region, which belongs to a different branch of the family.[8]

Gerber (2018)[9] notes that Black Mountain Mönpa has had extensive contact with Gongduk before the arrival of East Bodish languages in Bhutan. The following comparative vocabulary table from Gerber (2018: 13-16) compares Gongduk, Black Mountain Mönpa, and Bjokapakha, which is a divergent Tshangla variety.

Gloss Gongduk Black Mountain Mönpa Bjokapakha
hair (on head) θɤm guluŋ tsham
tongue dəli ʼliː
eye mik mek ~ mik miŋ
ear nərəŋ naktaŋ nabali
tooth ɤn ʼaː ~ waː sha
bone rukɤŋ ɦɤtphok ~ yöphok khaŋ-
blood winiʔ kɔk yi
hand/arm gur lɤk ~ lok gadaŋ
leg/foot bidɤʔ dɤkpɛŋ ~ tɛ̤kɛŋ bitiŋ
faeces ki cok khɨ
water dɤŋli cö, khe ri
rain ghö ŋamtsu
dog oki cüla ~ khula khu
pig don pɔk phakpa
fish kuŋwə nye̤ ŋa
louse dɤr θæːk shiŋ
bear bekpələ wɤm ~ wom omsha
son ledə bæθaː za
house kiŋ mhiː̤ ~ mhe̤ː phai
fire mi ’aːmik ~ ’aːmit
to hear lə yu- goː- nai tha
to see tɤŋ- tuŋ- thoŋ-
to look məl- ~ mɤt- mak- gotto
to sit mi- ~ mu- buŋ- ~ bæŋ- laŋ-
to die komθ- θɛː- ~ θɛʔ- shi-
to kill tɤt- θüt- ~ θut- ~ θit- she-
1sg pronoun ðə jaŋ
2sg pronoun gi nan
3sg pronoun gon hoʔma (mas.); hoʔmet (fem.) dan
1pl pronoun ðiŋ ɔŋdat (incl.); anak (excl.) ai
2pl pronoun giŋ iŋnak nai
3pl pronoun gonmə hoʔoŋ dai


Hyslop (2016)[4] notes that ʼOlekha has borrowed heavily from East Bodish and Tibetic languages, but also has a layer of native vocabulary items. Numerals are mostly borrowed from East Bodish languages, while body parts and nature words are borrowed from both Tibetic and East Bodish languages. Hyslop (2016) lists the following ʼOlekha words of clearly indigenous (non-borrowed) origin.

  • six: wok
  • head: peː
  • face: ék
  • rain:
  • earth: tʰabak
  • ash: tʰækʰu
  • stone: loŋ
  • fire: ámik
  • grandfather: tana
  • grandmother: ʔɐˈpeŋ
  • chicken: ˈkɤgɤ
  • mustard: pekoŋ
  • cotton: ʔɐˈpʰɪt
  • eggplant: ˈpandala
  • foxtail millet: ʔamet

The pronouns and lexical items for all foraged plants are also of indigenous origin. Additionally, the central vowel /ɤ/ and voiced uvular fricative /ʁ/ are only found in non-borrowed words.[4]

Words whose origin is not certain (i.e., may or may not be borrowed) are:[4]

  • nose: (perhaps borrowed from East Bodish?)
  • arm: lok (perhaps borrowed from Tibetic?)
  • wind: lǿ
  • water:
  • mother: ʔɔmɔ
  • father: ʔɔpɔ
  • dog: tʃylɔ
  • sheep: lu
  • barley: nápʰa
  • bitter buckwheat: máma


  1. ^ ʼOle at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Olekha". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ van Driem, George (July 1992). "In Quest of Mahākirānti" (PDF). Center of Nepal and Asian Studies Journal. 19 (2): 241–247. Retrieved 23 October 2011.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Gwendolyn Hyslop. 2016. Worlds of knowledge in Central Bhutan: Documentation of ʼOlekha. Language Documentation & Conservation 10. 77-106.
  5. ^ van Driem, George. 1992. The Monpa language of the Black Mountains. Presented at ICSTLL 25.
  6. ^ a b Blench, R. & Post, M. W. (2013). Rethinking Sino-Tibetan phylogeny from the perspective of Northeast Indian languages
  7. ^ van Driem, George L. (1993). "Language Policy in Bhutan" (PDF). London: SOAS, University of London. Archived from the original on 1 November 2010. Retrieved 2011-01-18.
  8. ^ a b van Driem, George L. (2011). "Tibeto-Burman subgroups and historical grammar". Himalayan Linguistics Journal. 10 (1): 31–39. Archived from the original on 12 January 2012.
  9. ^ Gerber, Pascal. 2018. Areal features in Gongduk, Bjokapakha and Black Mountain Mönpa phonology. Unpublished draft.

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