IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 24 | Regions | Central Asia



Learning Himalayan Body Parts

It was four years ago, in late November or early December, that I was sitting outside on a bamboo mat facing the eastern Himalayas. Beside me sat Rana Bahadur Thangmi, a respected shaman and village elder, and the father of my host. I had been staying in his son's house for a few weeks, orientating myself and beginning to learn the Thangmi language.


In the late morning sunlight of that day, I decided to try out my first full Thangmi sentence. Thangmi is a Tibeto-Burman language with a complex verbal agreement system, making it rather difficult for an outsider just to pick up. In the time that I had been there, I had collected a wide range of linguistic and ethnographic data, and was now ready to try some of it out. It was a Saturday so the village children were home rather than at school, and the area around our house was buzzing with activity. Rana Bahadur looked regal and dignified in a bright red woollen hat as he shared a home-rolled cigarette with his wife. I had decided on my practice sentence: it was to include a subject, an object, two adjectives and, of course, one of those difficult verbs. I looked at him and chose the correct personal pronoun, a respectful form, and then made it into a possessive form. I recalled the adjectives for red and beautiful, the noun for hat and the suitable ending of the verb 'to be'. In short, I was ready.

'O respectful father, village elder and shaman of high-standing...' I proclaimed unnaturally loudly in my 'I'm speaking to a foreigner voice', '...your red hat is beautiful'. My first sentence was complete. The reaction: silence, total silence. Women's mouths dropped, hands went up to cover eyes in shame, children stopped pulling the legs off beetles, and men turned to look at me. Rana Bahadur glanced up from where he was drawing a map in the earth with a stick. 'What did you say, my new grandson?' My accent was probably difficult to follow. After all, they had never heard a white man speak their language before. Moreover, he was a little hard of hearing. 'Your red hat is beautiful' I said again, but this time with conviction and satisfaction, pronouncing every syllable as clearly as I could. Silence again. Tortured beetles fell to the ground. Rana Bahadur began to shake his head slowly and let out a deep sigh. He was most definitely not amused.

'Grandson', he finally said in Nepali so that I would fully understand, 'your country is a long way away'. He started most sentences like this, so I was not unduly concerned. 'And you have made a great effort and sacrificed much to come and live with us' he said. Nothing untoward so far. 'And now...', he continued, 'you have the nerve to insult me in front of my family and my village...have you no shame?'. My contentedness at my linguistic achievement withered as it dawned on me that I hadn't said quite what I had intended to say. As the giggling started and as children began to whisper to each other and point at me, I desperately looked around for assistance. A young man, about my age, was peering down from the porch of the house in front of which I was sitting. He was shaking his head with a mixture of disgust and pity. Making eye contact with him, I gestured incomprehension with my hands. In answer, he shook his head as he pointed to his hair and then nodded as he pointed to his groin. My first Thangmi sentence hadn't come out as planned.

I spent the rest of the afternoon apologizing and attempting to undo what I had said. Thankfully, Rana Bahadur, being a considerate man, forgave my linguistic transgression. To this day though, my Thangmi friends giggle whenever I say 'hat' in their language. After a few glasses of the local firewater, however, I can't remember for the life of me whether tuturi or tupuri means 'hat' or...well, you know.

Mark Turin is completing a grammar of the Thangmi language. He is an PhD candidate at the CNWS, Leiden, the Netherlands and a member of the Himalayan Languages Project.
E-mail: markturin@compuserve.com

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 24 | Regions | Central Asia