Nepali Nuances – VI: Variety is the Spice of a Language

-Dr. Sonam B. Wangyal

Today we will consider some of the several number of words we use to give an absolutely specific meaning to one particular item. I have already written that we have over a dozen specific terms for our ten digits and that is true of many other things. Here three items will be under the scanner: bamboo, hair and the family brood.

For us a bamboo is not just a hollow plant that grows slim and tall but a whole variety of plants, each with its own unique function. Before getting bamboozled by the variety let me just remind you of our flute or ‘bāsuri‘ which translates as, and it could not be more apt, a bamboo with a melody (bās = bamboo, sur = melody). Now to the varieties of that slender plant: ‘kansay bās‘ is the reed-like bamboo that grows near the banks of rivers and ‘gulyo bās/bāns‘ is the sweet one and therefore fit for the table. But probably the more preferred edible variety is the ‘tāmay bās‘ from which the best ‘tāmako achār’ can be made. For the animals we have the ‘gopay bās’ (‘go‘ = cow) whose leaves are used as fodder for the cows and buffalos. ‘Choya‘ mats or ‘doko‘ are not too common nowadays but the ‘nānglo‘ is still a common household item and the better ones are made from the ‘choyo bās’ whose split pieces and shavings are known as ‘choya‘. Then there is the handsome one called ‘philingay bās‘ or the sparkling bamboo and finally the ubiquitous ‘mālingo bās‘ which once gave our forefather ‘bāsko kalam‘ (pen) and has been giving us, then and now, the famous ‘lingay ping‘. I had mentioned that the Nepali bamboo has the potential to bamboozle and that is so because we have additionally ‘nibha nigālo bās‘, ‘poreng bās‘, ‘pahelo nigalo bās‘, ‘malbās‘, ‘deubās‘, ‘pahelo bās‘, ‘kansay nigalo bās‘, ‘balu bās‘, ‘kalo bās‘, ‘titay bās‘, ‘ban nigalo bās‘, ‘thudi nigalo bās‘, ‘paryang bās‘, ‘philing (lāhuray) bās‘, ‘kat bās‘, ‘kālo nigālo bās‘, ‘chiniya bās‘, ‘ghoray nigālo bās‘ etc.

We are not very hairy people but our vocabulary more than compensates this minor deficiency. The hair on our body is represented by not one but three terms: ‘kesh‘, ‘bāl‘ and ‘rau‘. But we like to be more specific and the Nepali equivalent for eyebrow is ‘ākhi bhow‘ (bhui) and for eyelashes it is ‘parelā‘. For moustache and beard it is ‘jungā‘ and ‘dāri‘. The hair on the head is ‘kapāl‘ and should that grow down to the shoulders it is ‘julphi‘ and if even longer (and unkempt) it is ‘bābari‘. Should it grow lengthier yet then it is ‘jhākro‘. Should a larger portion of the body be covered with hair we call that ‘jhusulay‘ and should the hair be shorn of the head and just a small tuft be left then it is ‘tuppi‘. We even have terms for the hidden growths: in the armpits it is ‘jairay‘ and what lies in the groin is ‘jāha‘. A long time ago a scholar friend of mine told me that ‘nāthay‘ could possibly refer to the hair on the toes, it sounded appropriate, but try as I might it I could not verify it and the dictionaries repeatedly gave the meaning as “a rogue, a villain, literally: ‘with a rope through the nose'”, c/f ‘nāthnu‘ or to pierce a bullock’s nose for putting a rope through. After having almost given up I struck gold in Ramchandra Dugana’s “Sangchhipta Nepali Kosh” (4th. edition, 1995) where it gave the meaning as, another of those that are hidden whiskers, the hair in the nostrils. Dugana’s does not provide us with any explanation or source references but considering that my copy was the fourth revised edition of the 1950 Nepali Bhasa Prakashani Samiti’s scrutinized first edition I accepted it without a wink.

We are by nature prolific breeders and it is only of late that families have been planned and reduced to manageable numbers. In the olden days it was customary for the elders to bless a child with the usual, ‘Santānālay dārā-kārā dhākōs‘ (May your offspring plaster the hills.). It is a small surprise therefore that the pecking order in the family brood be sufficiently long. We commence with ‘jethaa‘ for the eldest followed by ‘mailaa‘, ‘saila‘, ‘kaila‘, ‘thaila‘, ‘antaray‘, ‘jantaray‘, ‘khantaray‘, ‘mantaray‘ and ‘kancha‘. But just in case another toddler accidentally popped up the ‘kancha‘ was further stretched to ‘thulo kancha‘ and ‘sanu kancha‘. Wow! That makes a complete football team but we must keep in mind the impossibility of having only sons. Now add on ‘jethi‘, ‘maili‘ ‘saili‘ etc and you have more than a crowd. There was a time when we were actually plastering the hills and it came to such a point that Nepal Radio had to regularly broadcast, in complete contrast to the traditional blessings, “Santānālay dārā-kārā dhākōs na bhana.”

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