Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Reduplication in Nepali

[Warning: The following post is chock full of dorky half-baked linguistic musings. It is probably boring and inaccurate but analyzes words like ukasmukas and waakwaak. Reduplication is a process in many languages whereby all or part of the root of a word is repeated.]

The Uses of Reduplication in Nepali (that I have found so far):

1) Onomatopoeia (which maybe doesn't count as reduplication technically?)

     waakwaak     -     vomit
     bhokbhok      -      simmering boil (with water)
     gurangguDung -  thunder
     sururururur   -     the sound of a babbling river  

2) Intensity

        u    chiTTo     uDyo
        It   quickly    flew
        (It flew quickly.)

        u     chiTTo     chiTTo     uDyo
        It    quickly     quickly    flew
       (It flew very quickly.)

3) Number

     tapaaílaai     ke     chhahinchha?
     To-you       what     is-needed
     (What do you need?) - what single thing

     tapaaílaai     ke     ke     chhahinchha?
     To-you      what   what   is-needed
     (What do you need?) -  what multiple things

4) Conversational
     malaai     tarkaari-sarkaari     dinus
     to-me    vegetable-"segetable"   give
     (Give me vegetable-segetables!)

This form appears similar to the English partial reduplication in "taxes, schmaxes!" but the meaning is more subtle. My Nepali teacher told me it just makes the sentence sound better. I originally encountered it in a Nepali reader that contained stories and biographies, so it might be a device used in story-telling. I need to learn more.

5) Miscellaneous Grammatical

     ustai               -     the same
     ustai ustai      -     similar

I would expect ustai ustai to mean 'exactly the same.' But reduplication appears to have the opposite effect in this case. Is it de-emphasis?

     ko                -          when
     kohi kohi     -          someone

     ke                -          what
     kehi kehi   -             some(things)

     kahile          -          when
     kahile káhi   -          sometimes

There is a whole paradigm for deriving "some-X" from the question words that involves full or partial reduplication. Maybe plurality is an inherent part of that concept?

6) Mysteries

     chijbij            -         things
     rangichangi  -        colorful        
     lugbug          -          approximately
     jhillimilli       -          sparkly
     ukasmukas   -          completely full
     chukchuk      -          fidgety

These are some of my favorite words in the Nepali language. They often seem like they are partially reduplicated, but the only one that seems certain is rangichangi because the word rang means 'color.' Unfortunately I have found no other nouns that can become adjectives in this way. Which is a shame, because it would be a great process. I think we should use it in English. Instead of saying something is "wonderful" we should say that it is "wonderychundery."


  1. In English we have "just so" and "it is so" to mean exactly as one has said, and so-so to mean approximately all right or mediocre. This is close, but not an exact parallel to "ustai" and "ustai ustai".

    John Tate

  2. This post is the bombychomby.

    John T, your example reminded me of the Spanish así así, which I think also means so-so.

  3. Wow, sounds like there's a parallel in English and Spanish. I wonder if "so," "así" and "ustai" are all etymologically related since they all come from Indo-European languages.

  4. I love these words! I would include simsimme (paani) as one of the onomatopoetic ones.

    The one you have listed as 'conversational' is interesting. I've also heard it as things like 'chiyaa-siyaa' or 'khaajaa-saajaa', as a sort of 'chiyaa and things like that.' My favorite use of that kind of reduplication (and if you're listening for it you'll hear it all the time)was a story about something in the States where the speaker had arrived, done 'parking-sarking' and then moved on to the rest of the story.

    To up the language nerd ante, if you've ever read Murray Emeneau's 1956 paper 'India as a Linguistic Area,' he talks about certain kinds of reduplication as areal features of languages in the subcontinent. So it's not just Nepali that has these things going on.

  5. You're totally right! People told me 'chiyaa-siyaa' means 'chiyaa and stuff like that.' Food seems to be the domain where I hear this the most: 'chiyaa-siyaa,' 'khaajaa-saajaa,' 'biskut-siskut,' 'tarkaari-sarkaari.' I wonder why that is.

    Also, I've got plenty of language nerd friends and a lot of nepal-obsessed friends but not many language nerd nepal-obsessed friends. We definitely need to hang out when you get to Nepal.

  6. Have u come across these?
    nyak jyak parnu - to strangle and manhandle someone
    chyak ki chyak dinu - to punch someone repeatedly
    lattai latta-le dinu- to kick the shit out of somebody
    chyap chyap- greasy, oily surface
    chip chip- wet surface
    hwaal hwaal ulti garnu - to vomit excessively
    Thwaak Thwaak Thok-nu --to hammer
    plyat-plit hunu-- well...i cant really do justice to this expression. find out what it means with ur friends in Nepal.usually it refers to the peeling of the skin when injured , or the condition after u poke a clotting wound
    chaaTaak chiTik hunu- to be smartly dressed
    These expressions are usually verbal modifiers.