When I started this blog, I honestly thought I would be writing more about language. I was a linguistics major in college and love thinking about and trying to understand the complexities of language. So in honor of my major, I thought I would write a post about Nepali…
Nepali is part of the Indo-European language family, a big family that includes many of the languages spoken in Europe, across Afghanistan and Iran, and into parts of the India subcontinent. All of these languages from English to to Farsi to Hindi are descended from one language, what linguists call “Proto-Indo-European.” Before I started learning Nepali, although I knew that Nepali and English are distantly related, it never really meant much to me.
After I started learning Nepali, I began to see a lot of words that look very similar to English words, and this distant relationship between Nepali and English became more tangible and real to me. I learned words like naam, which means “name” and daant, which means “tooth” in English but sounds very similar to the French word for tooth, “dent,” and is related to the English word “dental.” I was talking to my grandfather about Nepali last year, and it came up that the word for “well” (as in “are you well?”) is sanchai or sancho in Nepali. He thought this might share a root with the word “sane” in English, which also in one sense means “well.” A few more of these cognates include:
manche, which means “man” or “person”
naya, which means “new”
musa, which means “mouse”
Even the word “go” in English is related to the word for “go” in Nepali. The verb for “to go” is jannu, but in the past tense, it is gae (first person, past tense), which does look very similar to “go.”
Although similar sounding words often share a root, it is not always so. To check these words that I think may be related, I use this Etymological dictionary. If you type in the English word, then it will give you its roots in older languages like Old English, Latin, and Proto-Indo-European (PIE). You may also find a note that gives the equivalent word in Sanskrit (abbreviated as Skt.), from which Nepali is descended. If the English word is related to the Sanskrit word, and the English word sounds similar to the Nepali word, then I can be pretty sure the English and Nepali words share a common root.
For one of the seminars I took during senior year of college, I had to read a book called Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us by Nicholas Evans. It’s a great read that gives a lot of fascinating facts about a lot of different languages. As I was flipping through the book, I found this quote by the author about the Nepali word lakh,
Hindi and other Indian languages have a unit ‘lakh,’ meaning 100,000. (The Sanskrit word laksa, from which ‘lakh’ derives, comes from the same root as the German word ‘lachs’ “salmon” and its Yiddish and now English counterpart ‘lox’; the extension to 100,000 was based on a metaphor of huge numbers of swarming salmon.
Doesn’t that just blow you away? I always thought of “lox” as a distinctly European word, but to find out that it’s origin goes beyond Europe is amazing.
I’m not sure why these remnants of that ancient, common language are so fascinating to me. I guess they remind me that it’s very likely Tri and I come from the same stock of people. We’ve had quite a few friends and family tell us that we look alike, so maybe we even share a distant ancestor 🙂
If you’re interested in this kind of thing, another fun thing to do is to check out the Romani language, spoken by the Romani people in Europe. Many believe that the Romani people originated in South Asia, and a look at their language supports that possibility.
Here’s a list of Romani phrases.
Look at the third one down, amaro baro them, meaning “our big land” or “our ancestral land.” The amaro looks an awful lot like the Nepali word hamro, meaning “our,” and the baro looks a lot like the Nepali word bado and Hindi word bada, which both mean “big.” Although the Romani people’s migration out of South Asia began over a thousand years ago, they were able to maintain their language.
For more examples from the Romani language, check out this online dictionary.