Nepali again

A textbook mentioned the difference between a cook (a person) and a cooker (a machine). I mentioned that I wouldn’t naturally say cooker – I’d say stove or oven (and I’m not sure what the difference between those actually is). A Nepalese student said that the Nepali word for cooker is kukara. The first possibility is that this is complete coincidence, the second is that Nepali borrowed the word from English, and the third is that the two words share a Proto-Indo-European root. I later found from Google Translate that the Nepali word for stove is sṭōbha and the word for oven is ōbhana, which makes me suspect that all three words have been borrowed from English. Etymology.com traces cook to PIE *pekw- “to cook, ripen” and oven to *aukw- “cooking pot”, but stove only as far as Old English, with a cognate in Old High German. 

If a language borrowed a word from another language, it means either that the word and/or the person/thing/place it refers to didn’t exist in the culture of that language, or that the borrowed word has supplanted the original one. None of the Nepalese students were able to tell about traditional cooking – maybe all cooking was done over an open fire, maybe they had an oven of some kind. If they had an oven of some kind, then they would have had a name for it. Ovens of different kinds were developed in many different cultures around the world. The first requirement is heat, the second is a way of containing it.

Until my students have more knowledge of traditional Nepali cooking, or of the history of the Nepali language, I will never know. Even I’m at the limit of my knowledge. Wikipedia’s article on Nepalese cuisine doesn’t mention any implements. 

(In fact, Dictionary.com records that a cooker can be person employed in certain industrial processes, but at least 99% of the time a person is a cook.)

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Languages of Nepal

(Note: I am not an expert on the languages Nepal. The following has been gleaned from teaching Nepalese students, especially recently, and Wikipedia.)

I have mentioned that Nepali is an Indo-European language (here and here), and therefore has some words which are cognate (or might be) with English. Yesterday a Nepalese student said that he and another Nepalese student speak different first languages (alongside standard Nepali as a second language), but don’t understand the other’s language. I caught what one said his language is, made easier by the fact that he uses the ethnic group/language name as his surname. For privacy I won’t tell you which one. I looked at Wikipedia’s list of languages of Nepal and found that that language is actually Sino-Tibetan, and thus more closely related to the languages of China.

Today I asked the other what his first language is, and it is the name of his his ethnic group, but he doesn’t use it as his surname. It is Sino-Tibetan as well, but saying that two Nepalese languages are both Sino-Tibetan says as much about their mutual intelligibility as saying that Romanian and Bulgarian are both Indo-European does (they are from different branches of Indo-European – Romance and Slavic respectively). There is comparatively less information about Sino-Tibetan languages on the internet, and what there is is dominated by Chinese, Tibetan and Burmese, being three national-level languages. (Possibly the two students’ languages are from the same branch (Wikipedia’s article on Sino-Tibetan languages colour-codes them as ‘other’), which might make them as mutually intelligible as Norwegian and Swedish, or Serbian and Croatian, but this seems not to be the case.)

So, three of my current students (an Indian student in another class), speak an ethnic or regional language, their national language (Hindi and Nepali) and their current level of English. And I speak approximately 1.1 languages. Luckily, people want to learn my language, otherwise I’d be out of a job.

Wikipedia’s article on the languages of Nepal states that the 2011 census lists 123 languages spoken in Nepal, but some of those are Indian and others are completely foreign (for example, 8 speakers of Arabic, 16 of Spanish and 34 of French). Slightly fewer than half are Indo-European, but they have larger numbers of speakers each, including the top four, accounting for over 66% of Nepalese between them (adding second language speakers of Nepali totals more than 100%, because many speakers of languages 2-4 also speak Nepalese as a second language (it is a compulsory subject at school, and the medium of instruction in most)). Slightly more than half are Sino-Tibetan, but they have fewer speakers each, under 10,000 in most cases and under 100 in some others. Wikipedia’s article on the demographics of Nepal lists 26 ethnic groups with more than 100,000 members, then combines the rest as ‘more than 100 caste/ethnic groups’, so in effect each caste/ethnic group has its own language.

When the jester sang for the king and queen

One question sparked three very interesting points about language and language learning. 

A few weeks ago I bought two boxes of question and answer cards based on colourful cartoon-style pictures of ‘Wonders of the World’ and ‘Moments in History’. I found them in the children’s section of a standard bookshop, so I guess they’re for children growing up in English-speaking countries, but most of the questions are also suitable for English language learners. I’ve used them in some classes already, and they’ve generally worked well.

One picture showed a medieval banquet with a king and queen (or lord and lady) and several others sitting at a table eating and a person in brightly coloured clothes standing in front of them doing something. One of the questions was “What colour is the jester’s collar?”.

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