Learn Nepali

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40 sec. video:



I would like to let those who are starting without any knowledge of Nepali whatsoever have a go at it first.


Let me explain.

As promised in the comments to this post, "Alien encounters", especially this one, #7-8, I learned Nepali during Peace Corps training by total immersion in the language.

I still remember clearly, fifty-one years later, the first three pairs of sentences our Nepali instructor taught us.  My purpose in making the short video above is so that you can experience the same thrill of learning a language by direct means that we did in Peace Corps training.

I wish to stress that, when we began learning Nepali, none of us knew anything whatsoever of the language.  We didn't know a single word or grammatical construction, and our teachers never used English (some of them didn't even know English at all).

Yet, after three months, we had to be able to make our way through the Nepal countryside to our posts and to survive there for the next two years.  In most cases, we wouldn't meet anyone who knew a word of English for months on end.

So, try this method for yourself.  Listen to the three pairs of sentences.  Try to figure out what they mean.  Then start to analyze them.  What parts of speech are the different words?

After those who don't know any Nepali or closely related language have a chance to tell us what they mean and something about their construction, then others can join in.  After a reasonable number of comments have been registered and the meaning and grammar of the sentences are clear, I will add a few philological remarks of my own.

[Thanks to Yixue Yang for making the video]


  1. Mark Liberman said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 8:56 am

    This is an interesting example of the start of a Pikean "monolingual demonstration". But I really don't think that it bears on the question of alien encounters in any way at all.

    As I observed in the cited post:

    The trouble with this model is that "aliens" are likely to be, well, alien. All human languages are quite similar in many ways — but aliens' modes of communication might be very different.

    There's no guarantee that their senses and their modes of action are going to be a good fit to ours. They might communicate via skin color changes like cuttlefish, except maybe theirs are only visible in the ultraviolet. Or maybe they can modulate and sense electric fields, like electric eels. They might use gestural and postural changes in a body that's very different from ours, or rapid morse-code-like modulations of sound at a dozen different frequencies independently and simultaneously. Maybe pheremone-like chemical signals are a crucial part of the process.

    Your attempt at instruction assumes, for a start, that the alien can hear and analyze sounds in the relevant frequency range, and is disposed to think that such sounds might be a medium of communication. It also assumes that things happening over a time period of a couple of seconds will be interpreted as coherent objects of interpretation, rather than events on a scale of milliseconds or minutes. It assumes that the alien is a single entity, rather than emergent properties of a swarm of billions of ant- or bee-like creatures (just as you are an emergent property of a collection of billions of cells).

    And so on, through a long list of assumptions any or all of which might well be false.

    If aliens are just funny-looking humans, then your Peace Corps training methods might work. But if not, then the aliens may not ever even recognize that you exist, or that you're making sounds, or that your sounds are supposed to communicate something.

  2. NSBK said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 9:15 am

    I am 26, male, an AmE speaker, with a BA in Linguistics (which I don't use at my job). My main exposure to learning other languages is with Spanish and Japanese. I did study Sanskrit in college, but with a heavy emphasis on its phonology and morphology and relationship to PIE — I never advanced to the point where I could really say I retained much specific lexicon or syntax.

    I had to watch the video a few times to try to transcribe what I think I'm hearing (I use double quotes for that here), but here goes:

    I am assuming based on the rest of the video that you initially said "yo kei ho" fully twice, but it is just cut off at the beginning into "kei ho". (Another transcription note — I am using "ei" for the vowel in the AmE word "hey".)

    At first I thought "yo kei ho" meant 'pen', and was confused when you kept holding the pen and then said "yo kalam ho" for apparently the same object. For a moment I thought it was the angle and not the object, as though you were teaching me 'up' vs 'left' vs something else. Of course I would have expected 'up' vs 'down' or a different pair of opposites if I were learning direction, so that didn't make much sense as an interpretation.

    Then you picked up the paper and said the same (first) thing again. That was confusing as well, because I thought those two things may just be names of different directions, or two equivalent names for 'pen'. And I didn't think you would introduce a homophone in the first lesson, because you don't seem to be that mean of a person. And of course you then transitioned to the third different phrase, which I heard as "yo kagacho, yo kagatch ho". I assume you slowed down the second time in order to make it clear that tho "ho" end part was on its own there.

    Now I am thinking, maybe "yo kei ho" is something you are saying to introduce the object, and that "yo kalam ho" means 'pen' and "yo kagatch ho" means 'paper'.

    So I felt good when you picked up the book and said "yo kei ho" again. I expected you to say that twice, and then something that means 'book'. And you indeed go on to say a fourth phrase, "yo kitab ho", which I now associate with 'book'.

    Now here is something I did not pick up on immediately, but only after rewatching the clip about five times: it seems like you have a slightly different inflection when you say "yo kei ho" vs saying the next phrase particular to the object. The inflection on "yo kei ho" seems like a question, and the specific phrases seem like an answer of sorts. That helped me with another question in the back of my head: what are "yo" and "ho" about? Surely in Nepali each phrase does not always start with "yo" and end with "ho" (a concept that exists in my mind from the speech patterns of a character that showed up in a single story arc of the recent Doctor Who series).

    I came to the conclusion that "yo kei ho" is actually a question, 'what is this?', and the remaining phrases are 'this is (an) X'.

    So maybe: "kalam" = 'pen' (n.); "kagatch" = 'paper' (n.); "kitab" = 'book' (n.); "kei" = 'what' (intrg.pn.); "yo" = 'this' (dem.pn.); "ho" = 'is' (v./copula). And honestly since "yo" and "ho" are in each utterance of Nepali that I know, they may be swapped, but I guess I like the verb/copula coming at the end for whatever reason. Maybe my more recent study of Japanese? In any case, if I make that assumption then it would seem that Nepali is a SOV language.

    Hopefully this is something along the lines you were looking for!

  3. Victor Mair said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 9:29 am


    Good thinking! Thanks for the very careful and detailed analysis.

    As one example of your extraordinary perceptivity, you are right that an initial "yo" got clipped off right at the beginning.

    I'll wait a bit for others to weigh in before opening the flood gates to all commenters.

  4. dfan said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 9:32 am

    I am embarrassed to admit that it never occurred to me that "yo kei ho" could be a question! I spent a while scratching my head over how it could apply each time along with another sentence. The best I could do was "This is an object." Of course "What is this?" makes a hundred times more sense.

  5. Brian K said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 9:37 am

    While I agree with the substance of Mark's criticism (this xkcd comes to mind), I either do not agree with or do not understand one of his example assumptions: he suggests that communication in this manner would not be possible if an alien were an "emergent property" of other entities, before going on to admit that a human can be understood in this exact same way. I do not see where there is a "single entity" assumption in this approach, beyond the reasonable supposition that a being capable of interplanetary travel has some capacity for communication.

    For the larger debate, I tend to take a via media. Many aspects of human communication have arisen out of the specific circumstances of living on this earth: proportions are affected by gravity, the audio and visual spectrum perceptible to humans is relatively small (even in comparison to creatures living on the same planet), etc. I think we can take this idea of "otherness" a little too far, though, forgetting that as far as we know the universe is governed by the same physical laws (thermodynamics, gravity, etc.), even if we do not grasp their full complexity. The very fact that we are assuming a setup for this encounter (presumably a spaceship and some kind of meeting space between two entities) presumes a whole lot in common already. I do not think it is unreasonable to hope that some kind of language learning could take place using this method: think, for instance, of how much we understand of ant pheromones (to return to the cartoon) or bee dances. Presumably sound wave frequencies are measurable, even if not immediately identifiable as an attempt at communication.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 9:38 am

    Aliens could come in all shapes, sizes, and types. Trying to talk to them in any human language in all likelihood wouldn't work, so if you're going to communicate with them at all, you'd have to adopt some of the other strategies I suggested in my long comment to the "Alien encounters" post. But Nepalis are human beings, so learning to talk to them using the method employed in the video above is one very effective way to do it. It certainly worked wonders for me.

  7. Ethan Bradford said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 10:03 am

    Like dfan, I didn't get the Q&A aspect till I read NSBK. It is unnatural to have Q&A with one person; if you could afford more than one instructor, that would be better demonstrated with two people.

    I got a big hint the aliens wouldn't have from "kitab" being the Arabic for book (I know only a few words of Arabic, but that's the "textbook example" of inflection in Arabic).

  8. NSBK said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 10:41 am

    On further reflection, I don't think I was totally unbiased in my analysis. Something felt strangely familiar about the exchange I was listening to, but because I didn't remember the words themselves at all, I didn't comment on it initially.

    But seeing that there are a few people who did not get the question-answer thing must have triggered the memory — now I remember having already read about Professor Mair learning a language where the instructor asked a question about an object and responding to their own question.

    And indeed, after some Google searching, I found that there is a LL post from April of last year, which I must have read back then and kept in the back of my mind: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=18580

    So now I feel like a fake. Since it's the internet, I suppose you could believe me or not, but I really didn't look up that original post until after I wrote my analysis and submitted the comment. Still, that means I can't say for sure that I would have been able to discern the question-reponse like nature of the lesson on my own.

  9. Murray Smith said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 10:44 am

    @ Mark Liberman

    For a full demonstration of a 'Pikean "monolingual demonstration"', there is a YouTube video of Dan Everett at Michigan. Just fascinating.


    [(myl) I linked to that demonstration, and gave other information about such methods, in the post that Victor is reacting to but perhaps has not read.]

  10. Brian said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 10:45 am

    The idea that "yo kay ho" meant "what is this" occurred to me right near the end of my viewing. (I only watched the video once.) So "kalam" = pen, "kagat" = paper, "kitab" = book, and "kay" = what. And "yo X ho" means something like "this is X".

    Of course, the context that this is an attempt to start teaching me a language I don't know has already been established, so that helps.

    An alternate theory occurred to me soon after the video ended — namely that "yo kay ho" could instead mean "look at this". In that case "kay" might be some particular variation of the verb "look" … meaning something closer to "to be looked at". But my original theory feels more likely to be the start of a pedagogical display.

  11. cameron said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 10:58 am

    The language most closely related to Nepali that I know is Persian. It's quite interesting to me that all three of the nouns in your 40 second instructional example are Arabic-via-Persian borrowings. The pronunciation is different than the equivalent Persian words, but they're clearly recognizable as the same words. I would have guessed Nepali would have fewer Persian/Arabic borrowings than other Indic languages. Apparently not.

  12. cameron said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 11:04 am

    I like how people are transliterating that word as "kay", it might as well be "que".

  13. cass said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 11:06 am

    (Had two semesters of Sanskrit in school over a decade ago taught by a linguistics professor. Don't remember much of it, sadly. Also had other historical linguistics, IE linguistics, and Greek and Latin coursework back then – was a Linguistics minor but had enough linguistics coursework for a major if I had fulfilled the modern and non-IE language requirements which Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit did not. My school didn't offer a class teaching methods like this – I would have jumped at the chance to take one – professors and other students talked about such courses where you interview a native speaker of an obscure language and you have to figure out information about it throughout the course.)

    yo keho, yo keho, yo kalamho, yo kalamho (pen)
    yo keho, yo keho, yo kagajho, yo kagajho (paper)
    yo keho, yo keho, yo kitabho, yo kitabho (book)

    Mostly I picked up on kalam = pen, kagaj = paper, and kitab = book, with yo X-ho meaning "this is" or 'this is my". Ke I guessed might be a category to which all three fit – an object, something involved with writing, or "mine".

    It's possible the k- is a grammatical prefix since all three nouns describing the objects start with a k but that could be coincidence.

    I did not pick up on "yo keho" being a question.

  14. Sniffnoy said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 11:24 am

    Yes, it also didn't occur to me that "yo kei ho" could be a question; so my best guess was that "kei" meant "writing", since it applied to all three of the pen, the paper, and the book. Other than that I came to the same conclusions as NSBK.

  15. Leslie said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 12:22 pm

    Just adding my observation to others, that I was surprised and amused that I got such a big boost on this by knowing Turkish, which has the same Arabic borrowings for pen, paper (although that one sounds very different), and book.

  16. PS said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 12:37 pm

    I am a native Hindi speaker, so the video itself was completely clear, right from the first line.

    Re. Persian/Arabic loan words: Hindi (and I presume, Nepali too) often have a Sanskrit and a Persian/Arabic loanword for the same object that can be used interchangeably (e.g. pustak, पुस्तक, vs. kitaab,किताब, for "book"). On the other hand, for some objects the two different loanwords are not quite interchangeable (e.g, kalam कलम for pen would be more common in daily conversations, while lekhani लेखनी is reserved either for very formal Sanskritized writing or poetry).

    One consequence of this is is that at least in Hindi, there are two very distinct "formal" registers, a heavily Sanskritized one, and another heavily Persianized one. Auhtors such as Premchand are known to have used this to great effect: see here for an English account of this in one of his more famous stories.

  17. cameron said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 12:52 pm

    "Qalam" for pen is both Persian and Arabic, and apparently widespread in the Indian subcontinent as "Kalam", but it's originally from Greek. It was also borrowed into Latin, and known in English in the phrase lapsus calami.

    I don't know if it was borrowed from Arabic into Persian or vice versa. There are a number of pre-Islamic Persian-to-Arabic borrowings, and qalam could well be one of them.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 1:34 pm

    I certainly did read Mark's "Alien encounters" post carefully all the way through, and watched Dan Everett's monolingual demonstration at Michigan all the way through. That's why I wrote such a long comment to Mark's post — I was reacting to it. I would never have written such a long comment about communicating with aliens if I had not read Mark's post — it's not something that I normally even think about. As I mentioned earlier, I made this short video after several commenters requested it (on and offline).

  19. AntC said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 4:00 pm

    Thank you Victor. I found it a strange pedagogical situation: a white guy sitting behind a desk; difficult to see much of the body language. Is that how your Peace Corps instructors tackled it? (You said some of them didn't speak English, so presumably they 'looked' Nepali.) I'm in no position to criticise your pronounciation, but also you 'sounded' like a white English-speaking guy — I just couldn't quite catch the words.

    In language teaching (and even the Dan Everett demonstration — brilliant! thank you Mark) there's a huge amount of over-acting and signalling of turn-taking — including switching from question to answer — such that the learner doesn't really need language at all to get the meaning. (I thought it very revealing Dan said he's never encountered Quine's gavagai problem.)

    I figured that your repeated phrase might have been a "what is this?" or a "look at this" or a "this is called". But your body language didn't really change when you went on to (what I figured was) "this is (an) …".

    I take myl's point that aliens wouldn't have body language, or anything recognisable as a quizzing expression/stance or significant pause, etc. And even in Nepali, perhaps question vs declarative intonation isn't the same as English.

    Per some of the comments above, I figured that because this was a starting from zero immersion class, you wouldn't pick words that were homophones; you wouldn't be talking about the angle or movement of the objects. But contrast Dan Everett with the stick: he held it loosely, proffered it towards the informant; wobbled it around a bit; looked at the stick then to the informant. The whole focus must have been the stick, not any particular aspect of the stick or any action he was taking with it. (When he got to breaking the stick, the body language got a whole lot more purposeful.)

    In short: I didn't get a strong sense from the non-verbal context for the meaning of what I was hearing.

  20. bokai said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 4:17 pm

    Not knowing any Nepali and not looking at the previous comments, I feel like I can still draw from a lot of tangential experience to know what's going on.

    A very rough translation
    Yo kei ho > This what is?
    Yo Kalem ho > This pen is.
    Kaga > paper

    and ho probably becomes cho when the previous word ends in an A or something.

    I've ended up in enough language classes, with enough different languages, that I'm familiar with how the very first instruction in a language is almost always taught (What is this? This is X), and I've been exposed to Tibetan an Japanese, which are SOV langauges. My brain is already primed to look for those patterns.

  21. Rubrick said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 4:19 pm

    Dammit, I can't tell whether the real alien is Victor or Mark!! They're both pretty convincing as humans….

  22. AntC said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 4:35 pm

    If a teacher/learner is trying to get across/catch an 'ear' for the sound pattern of a language, I wonder about the choice of objects to demo with.

    Comments above suggest the words for pen/paper/book might be imports? Also in the Everett video: is the word for banana an import? (To me, in English "banana" sounds foreign.)

    If the language is tonal, or has syllable stress vs word stress, etc, should that be conveyed right from the beginning? (French speakers — even very accomplished learners of English — always sound French because they can't get/are never taught the word stress. I can hear the reverse is true, and I can just about manage syllable stress in French if I rehearse short phrases, but not with extemporary speech. Would it have been different if I had been taught better from the beginning? There's a similar problem with Māori in NZ: even those who identify strongly as Māori only learn the language after English these days. I can hear the sound pattern isn't the same as recordings of older/native speakers.) Victor was using contrastive stress for the 'new' word in each demo. It sounded a lot like an English sound pattern. (Of course Nepali might have the same sound pattern.) Would that have sounded natural to a native speaker?

    In a teaching situation might you start with a bit of banter between native speakers with the learners merely overhearing, purely to get their 'ears in'?

  23. WoD said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 4:55 pm

    I looked at the video with the sound off, and immediately when I saw Victor holding the pen, I was reminded of the very first sentence in beginner's English textbooks used in Japan — "This is a pen." So even without sound, I guessed that Victor was saying "This is a pen," "This is paper" and "This is a book." Of course, I didn't realize he was prefacing each statement with the question "What is this?" until I read the comments.

    My question now is, is the pedagogy of English textbooks used in Japan related to the pedagogy of these immersion language courses somehow? Or was it just coincidence that they use the same common everyday object for demonstrating the language?

  24. Peter Erwin said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 4:58 pm

    I like how people are transliterating that word as "kay", it might as well be "que".

    Well, in a sense, it is — I'm pretty sure they're cognates.

    I'll admit I feel like I cheated slightly; I recognized "kitab" as "book" in Arabic (not that I know Arabic, just a few words). And then I remembered bits of my extremely minimal Hindi, such as "apki nam kya hai?" = "what is your name?" (and knowing that a word-for-word translation of that would be "your name what is?"), and so I figured out that "ho" was the copula and "kay" must be the equivalent of Hindi "kya"; and then finally I deduced that "yo" was probably "this". (The logic of the situation then suggesting that "kalam" was "pen", etc.)

    And, yeah, I had no idea the first few times through that "yo kay ho" was a question.

    I found it a strange pedagogical situation: a white guy sitting behind a desk; difficult to see much of the body language.

    I'm curious — what does his being white have to do with it being a strange pedagogical situation?

  25. AntC said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 7:28 pm

    @Peter Erwin what does [Victor] being white have to do with it being a strange pedagogical situation?

    Fair question. I was lead to believe from Victor's comments on the previous "Alien encounters" post that it would be a jarring and invigorating experience. ("Thrill", he said.) Perhaps Victor was going to re-enact that experience with actual Nepali instructors?

    But no: so far from being alien, it didn't even seem foreign; "thrill" wasn't it. Victor's being conspicuously non-Nepali was of a piece with the cloistered surroundings, and the sounding almost-English. It's surprisingly difficult to find online Nepalis speaking Nepali in something like an everyday context. I didn't look before I watched Victor's video. Victor just hasn't caught the sing-song or the head-rocking or the colour of it. There's something going on with vowel-lengthening at end of sentences. I think I heard a retroflex /t/(?)

    So a couple of my language-learning experiences, which have left me very suspicious of inauthentic instruction:
    My school French teacher (in a supposedly immersion/situational style) was English. I ended up with an execrable English accent, and a vocabulary probably helpful in reading Racine and Moliere, but utterly useless for actually speaking actual French in actual France. I had to spend a long time undoing all the damage from my schooling before I could function as a tourist. (And the French are very unforgiving.)

    My Hebrew I picked up by total immersion on a kibbutz. No formal teaching, and the kids in the beth yeladim I worked in were even less forgiving. They ridiculed me endlessly until I got my pronunciation right. They laid pronunciation traps. (The word for 'cup', spoken with an English accent sounds closer to the baby word for 'crap'.) That's what I'd call a "thrill"; that made me pay very close attention; and that's what I was expecting from Victor's previous comments.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 8:29 pm

    The experience was thrilling to me because I learned Nepali almost magically through this direct method.

    One does not have to be a native speaker to be an excellent language teacher. In Chinese language teaching circles, we have people like Jamie Pusey, Perry Link, Tom Bartlett, Jonathan Smith, etc. who are widely recognized as being among the very best in the business.

  27. Marc said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 10:26 pm

    All the sentences sounded like declarative statements to me. There was no difference in intonation that would indicate, to me at least, that some sentences were questions and others not. Maybe that doesn't happen in Nepali?

  28. Will M said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 1:10 am

    These kinds of monolingual elicitation/instruction techniques have been invaluable in revitalizing endangered languages. Hopeful learners meet with elders (who are fluent but not trained teachers) and try to piece together the language without speaking English–even if the elders are fluent in English too. They then turn around and teach new learners, again monolingually. As Prof. Mair remembering his introductory lesson decades later shows, learning this way is fantastic for recall.

    "Where Are Your Keys?" (WAYK) is one organization that uses this pedagogical technique in language revitalization, although I'd be surprised if it hasn't been discovered independently in multiple places. And the traditional first lesson in WAYK is exactly the one in Prof. Mair's video! Here's the founder of the organization eliciting Mandarin from an intermediate speaker: https://vimeo.com/47208107 Note that the first thing he asks (after a brief and not very successful aside on kāishǐ ba 開始吧! "let's start!") is zhè shì shénme 這是什麼? "what is this?"

  29. Adrian said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 5:16 am

    How lovely to see Victor in action, as it were. Since I'm not of the Youtube generation it had never occurred to me to seek out videos of our esteemed LL tutors, but now I have done so – and started watching some talks by Victor, Mark and Geoffrey. Excellent. LL is namechecked right at the beginning of this talk by Victor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0VxyQg_fvGc

    Revenons à nos moutons, like most other people I didn't pick up on the fact that the questions were questions until logic dictated that they must be so. I'm waiting to hear from Victor whether that's because of his own intonation, or the way his tutor spoke, or a feature of Nepali.

    WoD asks whether the pedagogy of their textbooks is related to the pedagogy of the Nepali instructor, and the answer is that we need more information. Starting a language course by asking "What is this?" "It's a pen" tells us very little about whether the course will be immersive or grammar-translation. It does bespeak a certain nerdview, perhaps, since this conversation is somewhat unrealistic outside the classroom. Supposedly better textbooks will begin with "What's your name?", "How old are you?", "Where are you from?" and suchlike.

  30. Peter Erwin said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 7:35 am

    @ Adrian,

    It does bespeak a certain nerdview, perhaps, since this conversation is somewhat unrealistic outside the classroom.

    I'm not sure that's nerdview so much as traditional-language-teaching-view, since the implausibility or impracticality of many traditional language-teaching examples is a fairly old trope, as in this Eddie Izzard routine about learning French ("The monkey is on the branch!")

  31. Victor Mair said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 9:49 am

    I want to thank NSBK for mentioning "Farsi shekar ast" (4/10/15) (فارسی شکر است ["Persian is sugar"]). With the help of Richard Foltz, Brian Spooner, Jamal Elias, Roger Allen, Leopold Eisenlohr, Hiroshi Kumamoto, and many learned colleagues in the comments, that post covers all the philological ground that I mentioned wanting to address at the conclusion of the o.p. above. Not only does the "Farsi shekar ast" post go into great detail concerning the linguistic and cultural interconnections among the Nepali words for "pen", "paper", and "book", as well as their origins and adoption in other languages, it also stands as a demonstration of how to go about reading a completely unknown written language, just as this post exemplifies how to go about aurally comprehending a completely unknown spoken language.

    All that I need to add here are a few notes about the history of the introduction of these three words — kalam कलम ("pen"), kāgaj कागज ("paper"), and kitāb किताब ("book") — into Nepali.

    First of all, I should mention that in Nepali there is another, Sanskritic word for "book", and that is pustak पुस्तक. I remember from my Nepal days that bookstores were called pustakālaya पुस्तकालय, even if they might be filled with lots of kitāb किताब.

    After writing the previous paragraph, I came upon this excellent Wiktionary article on pustak पुस्तक ("book; manuscript; volume"), which includes this etymological note:


    Borrowed from some Middle Iranian language. Compare Sogdian pwst'k ‎(“book, document, sutra”), Manichaean Parthian pwstg ‎(pōstag, “book, pergament”) and Persian پوست ‎(pust, “skin, hide”) (from *pōst, from Old Persian ‎(pavastā); cognate to पवस्त ‎(pavásta)).


    So we see that even Sanskrit pustak पुस्तक ("book; manuscript; volume") comes from an Iranian source. Consequently, since there was a long tradition of palm leaf (patra पत्र) manuscripts bound together with thread (that's basically the meaning of sūtra सूत्र) in South Asia, there must have been a completely different set of terms in Indic and Dravidian languages for writing, manuscripts, books, etc. before the arrival of the two successive waves of Iranian terminology.

    All things considered, I suspect that the three "k" words for "pen", "book", and "paper" discussed in this post entered Nepali around the same time they came into Hindi and Urdu, and that would most likely have been during the Mughal period (1526-1857). If anyone has at hand R. L. Turner's A comparative and etymological dictionary of the Nepali language, perhaps they could find more precise information about when and how this happened.

    The following notes are from colleagues.

    Pushkar Sohoni:

    Pustak is the Sanskrit word for book, found in most Indian languages. But a lexicon for writing technologies came with the advent of paper and Persianate chancellery culture from the north-west, along with Islam and Persian. There were other areas, e.g. court and military administration, where Sanskritic languages despite their rich vocabulary were replaced or supplemented by Persian loan-words almost completely in a period from the thirteenth century onwards.

    Brian Spooner:

    qalam is Persian (from Arabic) meaning pen.

    Various forms from the Arabic root klm in Persian mean word and things relating to speech.

    kaghadh (pronounced kaghaz) is Persian for paper. It has an interesting etymological history, which I don't remember. Doesn't it go back to Chinese somehow? [VHM: see the etymologies here, again going back to Sogdian]

    kitab is Persian for book (from Arabic)

    They presumably got into Nepali, when Persian swept down into Bengal in the mediaeval period. Persian began to spread through India under the Sultanates, starting around 1200, and was later reinforced by the Mughals.

    I've never come across pustak actually in use. But I assume (since pust=skin) it's left over from the pre-paper papyrus/parchment/vellum period.

    I understand that paper arrived in Bukhara by around 800CE, and the boost it gave to the use of Persian as a language or writing was one of the factors that launched the Persianate Millennium (9th-19th centuries) when the whole of the Islamic world east of what is now southern Iraq became essentially a neo-Sasanian empire with Islamic law.

    I imagine you know Richard Eaton's work. I was just looking at his "The Rise of Islam in the Bengal Frontier 1204-1760" again (U.Ca Press, 1993). It's the best source I know of about the influence of Persian in Bengal. But so far as I can see he does not include anything about Nepal.

  32. Will M said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 1:24 pm

    @Adrian, Peter Irwin: that conversation template is incredibly useful for learning language on the fly. One can use it to pick up the word for any concrete noun, familiar or exotic: if you know you're looking at a bamboo flute, ask a Nepali speaker "yo ke ho?", and get the answer "yo bansuri ho", then you've just learned that bansuri means "bamboo flute".

    A similar question is "what am I doing?" It's reasonable to think that no one would ever need to ask this question (other than rhetorically), or they wouldn't be doing whatever they're doing in the first place…but if you can convince a fluent speaker of another language to answer that inane question for a range of activities, you can pick up a nice list of useful verbs.

  33. Weltanschauung said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 2:16 pm

    Adrian and Marc: in my speech, "What is this?" has the same intonation as "Ice is cold" or "Sam likes fish." A Nepali listening to me do the sequence above as an English lesson would notice that "this" changes position between question and answer, but would not be able to hear the "?"

  34. AntC said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 4:38 pm

    @Weltanschauung in my speech, "What is this?" has the same intonation as "Ice is cold" ,,,

    Really? My questions have rising intonation. Noting your monicker, are you perhaps not a native speaker?

    Even so, in a language learning situation, surely you'd exaggerate? (Over-act, as I said.)

    We're still awaiting an answer as to whether/how Nepali marks questions. The speech I found online certainly uses plenty of rise/fall prosody.

  35. Rodger C said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 5:14 pm

    Well, I'm certainly a native speaker, and I also say "What is this?" with the same intonation as "ice is cold." AntC, are you saying that in your speech, "Ice is cold" doesn't have a rising intonation?

  36. Deinalopex said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 6:20 pm

    My transcription of the utterances:


    My first thought here was that sentences in Nepali all had to start and end with "yo- -ho", but dismissed that as likely. My next guess was that "yo-kei-ho" meant something like "pay attention to me", but that dissolved under the assumption that they were actual morphemes. My guess, then, is:

    -between "yo" and "ho", one means "this" and the other means "is", and of the two I think "yo" is more likely to be "this", or maybe "it" – some pronoun.
    -kalam = pen/a pen
    -kagach = paper/sheet of paper
    -kitab = book/a book
    -kei = "ma" in lojban. A pronoun denoting a question, and the utterance's correct response is one that repeats the question, except that "kei" is replaced with the piece of information of appropriate type desired.

  37. Weltanschauuung said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 6:34 pm

    English has open and closed interrogatives. Closed interrogatives like "Are you a native speaker?" do have a distinctive intonation, and we can all hear the difference between interrogative "Does he ever snore?" and exclamative "Does he ever snore!"

    If open interrogatives (who, what, when, where, etc.) had a distinctive intonation corresponding to the written question mark, then Abbott and Costello would not have enjoyed the success they had with their comedy routine "Who's on first?"

  38. AntC said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 8:59 pm

    @Rodger C, @ Weltanschauuung in your speech, "Ice is cold" doesn't have a rising intonation?

    I guess I should be wary of myl's warnings about how I think I speak vs how I actually speak but …

    No, "Ice is cold" as a declarative for me has level/falling intonation. Sure I can put rising intonation on to it, to make it a question. And sure I can say "what is this?" deadpan or even falling intonation to complain (in context): it's quite obvious what this is, why is it still here when I clearly told you to put it away!

    But (for crying out loud!) this is a language learning context. We're trying to make it easy for the learner to understand the central usage, before getting all clever with language games.

    You wouldn't use Abbott & Costello (or Groucho Marx) as a beginner's teaching resource. And actually if you listen very closely to A&C, the straight man Abbott is using declarative intonation. He is not asking "Who's on first?"; he's stating "'Who's on first." He gets the sentence in first to set up the gag. Costello in reply then teeters on rising intonation.

  39. AntC said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 9:10 pm

    @Peter Erwin ("The monkey is on the branch!")

    Eddie Izzard must have used the same textbook as me. A family with a pet monkey. Weirder than smelling of garlic https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=zV1zK8zRCPo

    I suppose I've never forgotten the word for monkey, despite never having used it in anger. Perhaps the purpose was to learn to pronounce that particular nasal? (singe/branche) And I guess they couldn't use 'vin blanc' in a school.

  40. Victor Mair said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 9:14 pm

    When I ask questions in English like "What is this?" and "What's your name?", I do not have a rising intonation at the end. The same is true for other American English speakers I know. Quite the contrary, the questioning derives from the interrogative pronoun.

    Ditto for Mandarin:

    Nǐ jiào shénme míngzì 你叫什麼名字 ("What's your name?")

    The same holds for Indic languages with which I am familiar.

    In the following sets, the three sentences mean respectively:

    "what is this?"

    "what is your name?"

    "what color is this?"


    yah kya hai
    aapaka naam kya hai
    yah kaun sa rang hai

    यह क्या है
    आपका नाम क्या है
    यह कौन सा रंग है


    Yeh kya hai?
    Tumhara nam kya hai?
    Yeh rang kya hai?

    یہ کیا ہے
    تمہارا نام کیا ہے
    یہ کیا رنگ ہے


    yō kē hō
    timrō nāma kē hō
    yō raṅga kē cha

    यो के हो
    तिम्रो नाम के हो
    यो रंग के छ


    ēṭā ki
    āpanāra nāma ki
    ē'iṭā ki raṁ

    এটা কি
    আপনার নাম কি
    এইটা কি রং


    ā śuṁ chē
    tamāruṁ nāma śuṁ chē
    ā raṅga śuṁ chē

    આ શું છે
    તમારું નામ શું છે
    આ રંગ શું છે


    In chieh [chih ast]?
    Ism-i shuma chist [chih ast]?
    Chih rang in ast?

    این چیه
    اسم شما چیست
    چه رنگ این است

    It would sound very strange (quite wrong) to add rising intonation to the end of these sentences (unless the last word is an interrogative). If I had done that when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal, people would have thought that I hadn't learned their language well. You'll note that when I spoke this sentence, yō kē hō, in Nepali, I emphasized the interrogative word, and that is exactly what native speakers do. I did not add rising intonation to the end of the sentence.

    From Jamal Elias:


    I can read the Urdu and Persian. The first two Hindi sentences are the same as the Urdu.

    There is no clear rise to intonation, but strong stress on the interrogative particle, which is the second last syllable in the first two sentences (kyaa in Urdu, chi in Persian). This lends them a bit of a rise, but they drop for the 'is' at the end (ay).

    In the final sentence, the interrogative comes early, is emphasized, and the sentence is flat after that.


    From Deven Patel:


    As far as I can tell, the rising tone is with the interrogative words. Thus, for all of these languages, at least, the rise is indicated:

    यह क्या [RT] है

    आपका नाम क्या [RT] है
    यह कौन सा [RT] रंग है


    यो के [RT] हो
    तिम्रो नाम के [RT] हो
    यो रंग के [RT] छ


    এটা কি [RT]
    আপনার নাম কি [RT]
    এইটা কি [RT] রং


    આ શું [RT] છે
    તમારું નામ શું [RT] છે
    આ રંગ શું [RT] છે


    From George Cardona:


    If a question word is used, there is no rising question intonation.


    From Pushkar Sohoni:


    There is no intonation in Hindi, Urdu and Persian for the interrogative, and neither in Marathi, which is not in this list. Therefore I suspect that the other languages here that I do not speak, Bengali and Gujarati, also do not have any intonation or stress for questions. Of course, stresses can be added for other reasons and effects on any of the words in the sentence. In formal Persian, the particle aya might be added to the beginning of the interrogative sentence, but I do not remember any stress associated with that either.


  41. AntC said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 12:49 am

    Thank you Victor for explaining the intonation pattern in Nepali. I wasn't expecting it would necessarily be the same as English. And it isn't:

    I emphasised the interrogative word, and that is exactly what native speakers do.

    The interrogative word is in a different position to English's wh- sentence initial. I can hear that now when I replay your video.

    I must say your facial expression, eye focus and body language didn't vary much between speaking the question vs answer. (Not that there could be much body language from behind a desk.) Do Nepali's not do quizzing expressions? "Yo ke ho" could equally have meant "look at this". (Or rather "this look at"/"this is called" — I picked up "this" = yo.) How did your instructors tackle it?

    Thank you @Rodger C, @Weltanschauuung for your prodding. It seems after 20 years in NZ [BrE originally] I've picked up rising intonation for all questions despite retaining falling for declaratives. (My mother could hear the difference.)

    The experience was thrilling to me because I learned Nepali almost magically … I apologise Victor, I wasn't trying to take away from your thrill. You mean (I think) an intellectual thrill from mastering a skill(?) And perhaps that thrill crept over you after several lessons, rather than being in the initial few minutes? I was rather expecting (from your comments on 'Alien encounters') that it would be a more theatrical/visceral/exotic/alien shock of the unfamiliar; not pen and paper and books in a cloistered study.

  42. Bathrobe said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 9:26 pm

    It's reasonable to think that no one would ever need to ask this question

    This reminds me of an example that the late Professor Teramura Hideo liked to cite.

    If a police detective asked a criminal suspect about a speck on his clothes by saying これ何?kore nani? 'What's this?', the suspect could not expect a very civil response if he answered (like a good language student would), 血です chi desu 'It's blood'.

  43. Geoff said,

    September 24, 2016 @ 6:49 am

    My guess before reading other comments:
    This is object-one. This is pen-one … This is piece-of-paper-one … This is book-one.

  44. Geoff said,

    September 24, 2016 @ 7:05 am

    When I compare 'What's this?' with statement of similar length (say, 'that's hot!' when touching a pan), I feel that they both begin and end at about the same intonation level, but 'this' has a slight rising-falling intonation while 'hot' has a more level intonation.

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