Thursday, January 20, 2011

Language and Power III: Tea Shops and Sanskrit

[Previously here and here]

Nepali instructors generally spend the first few days of Nepali class teaching 'Tea Shop language.' This is a register of Nepali in which verbs are not conjugated to agree with nouns and nouns are not marked for number or gender:

ma jaane          timi jaane           haami jaane       
'I go'                 'you go'              'we go'

Ramko      didi      chha.
Ram's       sister     is
'Ram has a sister.'

Ramko      dui      jaana      didi      chha.
Ram's       two     count      sister      is
'Ram has two sisters.'

Later on an instructor will teach the formal conjugations and agreement for number:

ma jaanchhu    timi jaanchhau    haami jaanchháu       
'I go'                     'you go'                     'we go'

Ramko      didi      chha.
Ram's       sister     is
'Ram has a sister.'

Ramko      dui      jaana      didiharu      chhan.
Ram's       two     count      sisters             are
'Ram has two sisters.'

Which of these two registers Nepalis use depends on the social situation, and it is very difficult for a foreign speaker to determine which to use at any given time. The second register is more formal, and is also considered more 'correct' and 'pure.' My current approach is to always use the formal register when talking to strangers. Because of this approach I have been told more than once that I speak Nepali better than most Nepalis. While this is pretty easily proven false by the fact that I usually have to make them repeat the statement before I understand it, many Nepalis (who by and large speak Nepali as a second language) speak only in Tea Shop language, and it seems to carry the same sort of stigma that many informal dialects in the United States carry.

But even this higher register is considered technically 'incorrect.' To understand a newspaper or a politician's speech you must additionally learn how to mark verbs and adjectives for gender and that the genitive marker distinguishes between plural and singular:

Ramko      didi      chhin.
Ram's       sister     is (feminine)
'Ram has a sister.'

Ramkaa               dui      jaana      didiharu      chhan.
Ram's (plural)      two     count      sisters           are (feminine plural)
'Ram has two sisters.'

So there is a third, even higher register of grammatical formality. This is associated with upper class, native Nepali speakers, but I don't know if I've ever heard anybody use it when speaking with me (and this is completely separate from the royal language of patronage I mentioned here). In fact, when I first started reading newspapers I would assume they were written in Hindi because it was the first time I encountered this, and it looks very different. Oftentimes travel guide books will use this register for their 'Helpful Nepali Phrases' section, but I think your average Nepali has difficulty understanding this register.

Even besides the grammar, the highest register is 'Sanskritized,' meaning that there is a lot of Sanskrit vocabulary. Just like many of our ten-dollar words in English come from Latin or Greek and provide shades of meaning that differ from their rough Germanic equivalents ('excavate' vs. 'dig'), the more prestigious Nepali words are more directly derived from Sanskrit. Only the very educated know these words. I encountered that back in 2008 when few people in my village understood what chatrabritti 'scholarship' meant, and I encountered it again during the Mahayagya ceremony I mentioned here, in which the priest translated Sanskrit to Nepali but in a register that was too high for most of the villagers to understand. 

In terms of prestigious loanwords, the Sanskrit words are being pushed out today by their English equivalents ('bhidyaalaya' 'school' is now oftentimes just 'iskul'), which provides another layer of obscurity for the Nepali speaker. Technical terms in medicine will almost always have a Sanskrit term already associated with them, but doctors will often use the newer, more modern-seeming English loanword. 

All of this means that within the Nepali language itself it is easy to determine who belongs within the power structure of the educated elites by the variety of language that they use. This is true for English speakers too, of course, but I would hazard that it is more significant in Nepal. For example, this is from a September 4 policy paper by Martin Chautari, "Attendance and Participation in the Constituent Assembly," in which party members were questioned as to their lack of participation (Janajatis represent the indigenous groups):

"For Janajatis, the problem of not being able to speak 'pure' Nepali and not being understood in one's own language was stressed."

UPDATE: In the United States, the Mississippi Senate just passed an immigration status bill similar to the one in Arizona. While "race, color, and national origin" cannot be used as a reasonable suspicion for the police to check an individual's immigration statues, English language speaking ability can. Here is an example of the standard variety in the United States claiming a similar privilege, wouldn't you say? From "Mississippi Senate passes immigration status bill" on the Clarion-Ledger.

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