Everyone’s a sociolinguist

[Cross posted from Drinking Chiya]

People in general, but especially in Nepal love talking about language. Even when I haven’t asked anything or expressed interest in language, things will come up about it all the time. Two examples, one that just happened and one from a couple weeks ago.

I was just heading downstairs, lost in my thoughts, and didn’t notice that my landlady/grandma was heading up the stairs until I had almost started on a collision course with her – and I was visibly startled. “Tarsaeko?” she asked. When it was obvious I didn’t know the word, she used a more familiar word (daraaeko? were you frightened?) and then gave a visual demonstration of the difference between daraaunu (to be frightened) and tarsanu (also to be frightened, but in more of a skittish, momentary way, I think). She followed this by saying that Nepali is hard because there are so many different words with similar meanings.

Then, she laughed and said, and then once you go to the village they talk differently there. In Kathmandu, people use “typical” words (typical, the English, thrown into the middle of a Nepali sentence – I am fascinated by the Nepali-English meaning of typical, which is not the American English meaning). But in other places, in the villages, they use different words. Like in Kathmandu, people say, khayo (he/she ate) but in other places they say khaekho. Khaeko, I asked? which is something I’ve heard often – I don’t want to get too deep into the semantics of talking about the past in Nepali, but basically khayo is a past perfect form (something happened, and it’s over), while khaeko is generally imperfect (something happened and didn’t necessarily end). But many Nepali speakers (especially people who speak Nepali as a second language and a Tibeto-Burman language as a first language) use khaeko for lots of different purposes, without the distinction between khayo and khaeko that Kathmandu people make. When I echoed khaeko, my landlady said, no, they say khaekho, emphasizing that it’s the second letter of the alphabet (kha, not ka). In Kathmandu we say khayo, but in Pokhara (a city farther west), they say khaekho, she laughed. I’m not convinced this is actually accurate, but it’s the kind of thing people say all the time – here we say this thing (which is totally normal), but over there they say something that’s totally weird.

The second example comes from a friend whose uncle worked as a doctor in the far west of Nepal. He was surprised to see a woman balancing several bags of goods and also several children on her back and various parts of her body. “Sister,” he asked, “how do you manage to carry all those things?” She responded with something that, to his Kathmandu ear, meant “it’s no problem, I just clench them all between my buttcheeks”! It turns out that the word that in Kathmandu just means butt is generalized in the far west to mean the back in general – she was saying that she balances everything on her back.

I, of course, thoroughly enjoy these comments. They’re not a focus of my research at the moment, but they provide a helpful reminder that everyone around me has thoughts and opinions about language and how different kinds of people speak – and they’re also often pretty funny.

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