Nepal’s Linguistic Heritage

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Sita peered through the parda onto the courtyard. The hakim had ordered the visitor’s shamiana to be set up there and had then sent the rest of the sawari around to the back. While she watched, mashals were lit, and the guards made loud salaams as the visitor emerged from his tent, adjusting his sripech as he straightened up.

Fortunately those are not the opening lines for a novel. But the seven Nepali words in those three sentences all have something in common: Do you know what it is?

They are all words that came to Nepali via the Persian language spoken by the Mughals, who ruled India for 500 years. Persian is called Farsi today, and that word is the same as Parsee, the term for followers of the Zoroastrian faith who emigrated to western India, particularly Mumbai, when Islam became the dominant faith in Persia, now Iran.)

The cultural acquisition of new words from other languages is universal. The spell-check on my computer accepts two of these words as English: hakim (“judge” – Arabic to Persian to Hindustani “senior official” to Nepali) and salaam (“peace,” also Arabic, a greeting from one Muslim to another, now used to mean a salute, most recently the Lal Salaam of the Maoists). English probably acquired these two words from Arabic through Europe rather than Persia or India, but English words like pajama and bungalow entered the language directly from the Subcontinent.

Parda, shamiana, sawari, and mashal are all acquisitions from Arabic or Persian words meaning the same things: “curtain,” “tent,” “procession” or in modern times “motorcade”) and “torch.” Sripech is more interesting. It is from the Persian word for an ornament, often jeweled, worn at the front of a turban or headdress. In Mughul India these were common and were exchanged as gifts. The word came to mean “crown” in Nepali, for the centerpiece and long plume that are an integral part of the Nepali image of royal headgear.

Other words also evolved as they traveled. Masala, today meaning spice or a spice mixture, starts in Arabic as masalih, “things conducive to good”; then is used as “ingredients” in Persian; and from there comes to us in Nepali and English – it’s another word the spell-checker accepts.

Hawa, “air”; achar, “condiment”; adalat, “court”; and wakil, “lawyer,” are all Persian words passed on to Nepali in direct form. Badmas, “naughty,” is Persian (bad = evil) and Arabic (ma-ash = means of livelihood).

Baksheesh is also a direct transfer. Interestingly English has no exact translation: “bribe” and “gratuity” both miss the mark by a bit. The German word trinkgeld, “drink money,” and the common Nepali-to-tourist-English translation “tea money” are closer.

The Gurkha soldiers’ name for England, Belaiti, became Blighty, a term the British took up affectionately for their homeland. The derivation is Arabic: wilayat, “kingdom.” Bhandar is from Persian bandar, a port or a quay, which became used in India to mean “customs house” and then “warehouse.” Bhansar, “Customs,” is probably derived from the same word.

Mausam became the Nepali word for weather directly from the Persian word for season. The sirdar who guides a Himalayan trek is the Persian sardar, “leader.” Sarkar is Persian for “head of affairs”: We use it for the State and, until recently, for royalty — a form not common in Mughul times.

The root kar, as in karyalaya, “office,” geetkar, “singer,” and many more words, is Persian for “worker.” The jelabee that the worker might have with his or her tea is the Persian zalibiya, a sweet made from sugar and ghee. If that worker left Singha Durbar (Persian, “court”) to get it, he or she might find it at Babar (Babar Shumsher JBR, named for the Mughal emperor Babar, which means “lion” in Persian) Mahal, the Persian word for “apartments.”

This list is by no means exhaustive. If you can think of a few more words, then shahbash.