Tag Archives: Language Usage

Ke Cha?

For work today I organized an African culture program– there was food, live music, African vendors and artisans and information tables set up by students who have studied abroad. I do it each year during Black History Month and call it the “African Caribbean Marketplace.”

So there was a funny story from the Marketplace today. I was talking to one of the Cameroonian vendors– their “market stall” was manned by a husband/wife team. The wife was American and had lived in Cameroon for 16 years, and she met her husband there. He used to work in the Cameroonian tourist industry, but came back to the US with his wife two years ago, and now helps some of this artisan friends sell handmade African products in the US.

When he found out that I understood French he started switching over to the language he felt most comfortable in, but when his wife would overhear she would say, “No no French… try practicing your English. You are always cheating” The husband’s English was pretty good, having not spoken a word of English before he arrived in the US, he had come a long way. Occasionally he threw in a French word here or there but he was definitely understandable.

However he kept apologizing for his “poor English” and said, “My wife, she is American, but still my English is not so good.”

I said to him, “Don’t worry– my partner, he is from another country too. Do you know the tallest mountain in the world? Mt. Everest? He is from that country.”– the guy looked at me blankly, he had no idea where I was talking about.

“Anyway, I live with him and see him everyday, but I can barely speak any of his language. Don’t worry, your English is so much better than what I can speak of his language.”

Then he asked, “What language does your husband speak?”

I answered, “Nepali.”

“Ohhh, Nepal. I have a friend from Nepal. We work together at the Whole Foods in Boston.” He said.

“Do you want to surprise him?” I asked. There are a lot of Nepalis in Boston, so I wasn’t surprised he knew someone. “Next time you see him, ask him ke cha. It basically means ‘how are you?’ in Nepali.”

His eyes widened. “What? How do you say?”

Ke cha.

He repeated it a few times and when I told him he had it right he smiled. “You know, this word… it also has meaning in my mother tongue.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked, “What does it mean?”

“Well,” he said, “When a women has, hmmm, how you say? A big, a nice… butt. A nice back-end. This, this is what ke cha means. Not just ‘big’ but ‘big and nice’ like nice shape. Like ‘that woman has a ke cha.

Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting. So we both had a hardy laugh.

“I guess it goes the other way too… you know the capital of Senegal?” (another French speaking West African country).

“Yes, Dakar.” He answered.

“Well in my partner’s language, ‘dakar’ means ‘burp.'”

He looked at me funny and said, “What this means?” He turned to his wife and she said in French, “After you eat a lot of food you make a sound with your mouth, like ‘errp’ this is what it is called in English.”

“People do this much here?” He asked.

“Well, not really, it is not considered polite.” she said.

“Back home its very good to ‘burp‘ after eating. Everyone does this. It means the food was good.”

And we laughed a little more on the quirkiness of language and culture.

So anyway– now when ever I say “ke cha” I’m going to think about a woman’s– how you say, “big, nice butt”– this expression has changed now for me forever ;)

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“Why the Brain Doubts a Foreign Accent”

When I got to work this morning my boss, who has a relatively thick Danish accent (even though he has been in the states for nearly 30 years), handed me a Scientific American article. His American wife, who is a high school Spanish teacher, had found it and wanted to pass it along…

The article is called “Why the Brain Doubts a Foreign Accent,” and is a brief discussion of a few short experiments created to try and reason out why native speakers of a language have little patience with, or tend not to listen well, to a foreign accent.

I thought the readership of this blog might find it interesting, so in turn I wanted to pass it on to you! Happy Friday.

Endangered Tongues

After my rant on learning Nepali language perhaps it might seem ironic I wanted to post on preserving Nepali languages. Yet even with my own linguistic frustrations, I am a staunch supporter of preserving languages, particularly less spoken ones.

My undergraduate honors thesis was titled: “Imperial Versus Indigenous: Language Usage and Cultural Identity” which looked at the use of English and Swahili in Kenya and French and Wolof in Senegal. I found the topic wildly interesting, particularly the language usage in literature debate between famous Nigerian author Chinua Achebe (who I’ve mentioned before) and Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Achebe in his book of selected essays “Hopes and Impediments” tackles the question of using the colonial language (English) in his novels. His argument is that the history of colonialism gave him the knowledge that enables him to connect to a wider readership, and he would rather use English as a medium to get his message out, rather than a local language that might be read in parts of Nigeria (also important and valuable), but might not bring Nigerian history, culture and issues to a world stage. His books are heavily culture laden, and in some of his later works he incorporates the use of Nigerian pidgin English in character conversations, but he firmly supports the use of English.

Ngugi on the other hand, first became famous with his novels in English, but later swore off the language, and in his final book in English, “Decolonizing the African Mind,” vowed never again to write in any language other than Kiswahili or Kikuyu (his mother tongue). His argument was that authors, particularly successful authors, should support local languages to encourage their continued use and growth in the written word. That authors with important messages valid to the outside world shouldn’t feel shackled by colonial languages because the age old use of translation can help bring their ideas to a wider audience, not to mention create jobs for local people who can translate these works (if it works for Russian or Japanese why not Kikuyu?).

In several essays the two seemed to be talking to each other, always agreeing to disagree with the other’s point of view. I value them both as important African voices, and I can definitely sympathize with each.

As a reader, if a book is not in English, then it is cut off from me. My friend N’s brother in law wrote a bestseller in Nepali, and although the book sits on the bookshelf in my house, I’m currently helpless to appreciate it. (And I’ve been told even if I could read it in English, it would obviously be richer in Nepali). Although not all the literature is accessible by me,  I value the fact that there is a literary culture in Nepal in (an) indigenous language(s).

However the fact that Nepali is, worldwide, a less spoken language and it is hard enough to learn the  official language outside of the country, consider the multitude of other languages spoken in the country that have far less support and infrastructure. Language is a part of culture, the very words of the language help to create the world it exists in, and languages that become extinct snuff out a whole encyclopedia of indigenous knowledge.

So I wanted to point out that The Asia Mag had an interesting article on endangered Nepali languages and what is being done to preserve them. In a country with nearly 29 million people there are 40 languages spoken within its borders, many of which are growing smaller day by day.

While on the topic of language… a few weeks ago there was news of a  new language recently discovered in northern India (NPR feature), and a new book out about seeking out and preserving some of the world’s most endangered languages, “The Last Speakers.”

And lastly, N’s mother, who is also a Nepali author, will be coming to stay with us for the next few weeks. As a budding writer (or writer wanna be) and avid reader, I’m interested to meet her and see what kind of advice and insight she may have.

Where Are You From Originally?

The US is full of accents and I live cradled between two of the more famous accent regions… Boston and New York—or should I say “Bahstahn” and “Noo Yawk.”

Many of my aunts live in New Jersey (Noo Joisey), so I grew up hearing things like dawg, cawfee, and gawd (dog, coffee and god), but now in New England I hear a lot of dropped “r’s” such as the stereotypical Bostonian accented phrase, “I pahked the cah in Hahvahd Yahd” (I parked the car in Harvard Yard). And I can’t forget the usage of “wicked” as in “really” such as… “Wow! It’s been a wicked haht summah!” (hot summer).

Growing up (in central New York… far from all the cawfee shops and heavy accents) I never thought I had an accent, I guess most of us don’t until we meet other people, but I always thought I sounded kind of like the people I watched on tv. I didn’t find anything particularly distinguishable about the way I spoke, and I suppose my sisters and parents spoke in a similar fashion.

But then, about ten years ago, I started traveling extensively abroad and increasingly interacting with people from countries other than my own. Today I probably spend 80-90% of my day with foreigners and over time I guess it started to affect my accent. It wasn’t intentional, it just happened, and it isn’t something I’m conscious of unless someone points it out to me.

Which happened recently. Last week my mother and sister came for a visit and they were discussing my apparent change of accent. My mother said I was “putting on airs” while my sister just said I was trying to “sound British.” I don’t think either is true.

Some of my international students have noticed as well. I’ve had several ask me, “Where are you originally from? You don’t sound like you are from the US.” When I ask them where I sound like I am from they can’t usually place it. After responding that I am, in fact, from the US they say, “Maybe you sound different because you speak slower and more deliberately. You clearly pronounce all your words.”

And I think that is a big part of it… not airs, but when someone is used to speaking with people whose first language is not English you choose your words more carefully, you pronounce them fully (instead of dropping T’s like a lot of Americans tend to do), and you speak a bit slower, perhaps this makes you sound like you are from somewhere else.

I’ve noticed this with a few other people I’ve met who have spent significant time abroad, or spend a lot of time with foreigners. I’ve also noticed that this type of “accent” is more pronounced in these same people when I see them talking to others whose English is not as strong, rather than with foreigners whose English is completely fluent.

Plus it’s easy to reflect surrounding language as well. For example, in the part of central New York where I grew up we pronounced the word “aunt” like “ant” with a hard “A,” but in New England most people say “aunt” like “ah-unt” and since this is similar to the South Asian way of saying “ah-unty” I have found it easier to adjust to “ah-unt.” So now if I am talking to my sisters about my “ah-unt” I must sound to them more “British” since they will talk about the same aunt as “ant.”

Lastly, I won’t deny that I have picked up a few Nepali-English phrases as well that kind of pop out every now and then. I can’t really think of any off the top of my head, but if I say them in the company of my sister she calls me out on it.

Fun with accents– I found this website that lets you listen to a list of words spoken by people in different regions. If you use the word “father” and try the different areas in the US– Chicago, Boston, New York, North Carolina and Alabama, you can really hear the difference!

Talking about accents has made me feel “wicked smaaht.”

Beef… It’s What’s For Dinner…

Beef was a big part of my childhood. As I’ve mentioned before, we were a real “meat and potatoes” kind of family. Both of my parents worked, cooking in general wasn’t a big thing in our house (aside from my dad’s meat dishes, especially summer barbeques), and we ate stuff that was quick and easy. That included lots of beef dishes—meatloaf, hamburger (and Hamburger Helper), steak, roasts, tacos, meatballs, crockpot stew, and of course, corned beef. Hamburgers in particular were very common.


“Beef—It’s what’s for dinner” advertisement from 1992.

I was never a big fan (aside from corn beef. That was the one meat I did really like, I guess it was the inner Irish calling out), and I used to argue relentlessly about eating meat every night (or silently feed chunks to the dog under the table).

Life is really different now, and although I’m happily meat-free, our freezer is occasionally stocked with P’s meaty pleasures—chicken, pork, goat, fish, unusual game meat from my dad–but no beef. His mother is very religious (a combo of Buddhist and Hindu), and would never dream of bringing beef into her house. I’m sure she had nightmares that an American daughter-in-law would not only eat beef herself, but also corrupt her son and grandchildren into eating it. My veggie-ness helped win over her heart. She sees me as an ally in keeping P’s meat consumption down, and can rest assured there will be no unholy beef eating in her son’s home.

That doesn’t mean that every friend of ours who grew up in a Nepali Hindu household has a strict “no beef” philosophy. Our friend AD jokes, “Only Nepali cows are sacred, so an American cow is fine. I have no problems eating burgers in the US” while others seem less worried about breaking taboos and eating beef in general (if you aren’t particularly religious, then the taboo probably doesn’t mean that much anyway).

But sometimes you eat things you don’t intend to, without even realizing it, which reminds me of a funny story from last Thursday. I was driving south (to the Gori meetup) and of course dropped in for dinner at R and S’s house (plus they were babysitting my dog, who wasn’t feeling great. Thanks guys, you’re the best!). They made homemade pizza for a quick dinner so I could get back on the road, one veggie and one meat with pepperoni. There was a debate over whether pepperoni was beef or pork, and whether pepperonis in general are made from beef, pork or some combination of both.

During the discussion R stated, “I prefer not to eat beef, I really try not to…but sometimes it happens… For instance, I knew that cheeseburgers were beef… but I always thought that hamburgers were made from pork.”

“Why would you think that? The only difference is a piece of cheese.” I said.

“No… don’t you see… cheeseburger meant beef, but hamburger meant pork.”

“I still don’t get it, it’s just a  slice of cheese.”

“Cheeseburger and hamburger” she said, adding an extra emphasizes to the ham part, “People know that ‘burger’ means beef, so cheeseburger means made with beef, but why would you call a plain beef burger hamburger unless it was made with pork? Don’t they have chicken burgers made of chicken?” She rationalized.

“Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” I reflected.

“So I always assumed hamburger was pork, and one day I was sitting with my cousins talking about how I don’t eat beef, while eating a hamburger. They said, ‘R—you are eating beef right now!’ and I said, ‘But it isn’t a cheeseburger!’ and they had to explain! It took a while for me to believe them!”

Isn’t English fickle?

Oh… I had to add this… From a British comedy sketch on “what it means to be Hindu”–

“My son… you are indeed right… [Hinduism] is a very complex and intricate religion. There are many gods, there are many texts, but they all point to one universal principle… no beef” (ha ha ha).

Language Quirks

When I first met P he had already been in the US for a few years, but he still had a lot of little language quirks. Sometimes he would pronounce things with the emPHAsis on the wrong syllABle or he would either forget to add (when needed) or add (when not needed) the articles “a” or “the” in sentences. Every now and then he might use an awkward word when explaining something or I would use expressions he had never heard of before and he would ask me what they meant. Now he uses these expressions himself–he told me the other day, “yeah, I guess you need to take her with a grain of salt” when talking about a friend of a friend.

I used to find these little language quirks very endearing, even though I’d often explain or correct. However now, after more than 6 years, I realize that many of these old quirks have faded as P’s time in the US has grown. Every now and then he will come up with something odd out of the blue… or pronounce something a bit different, but not anywhere near as often as he used to.

Sampson and P taking a nap

Yet there is one language quirk he still has that I don’t think will ever fade…

When he has fallen asleep and wakes up suddenly he asks questions in Nepali and doesn’t seem to realize it. It’s usually kati baje? Or kati bajyo? – what time is it?—among other things. I’ve grown accustom to them, and understand enough that I can answer his questions before he closes his eyes and falls back asleep, but I do find this little quirk cute. If P were one to talk in his sleep (which he isn’t) I’m sure his conversation would also be in Nepali.

I was reminded of it yesterday afternoon. We were both having a lazy Sunday… I was watching a movie on my laptop and P had dosed off while reading some articles for school. He had to meet up with some people for an intramural football game at a specific time, so he kept waking up suddenly, his eyes all red and glazed over, and he would mumble “kati bajyo? before falling back asleep, satisfied that he had enough time to keep snoozing.

I remember back when we first met P said something about how “maybe someday I could forget English, but I’ll never ever forget Nepali.” The mother tongue is a beautiful and powerful thing and it effects how your brain is hardwired, and that’s why if (and when) we have children some day we are determined to raise them speaking both of our mother tongues.

Kati bajyo? oh geez, I better get back to work.

To Be or Not to Be “Desi” That is the Question…

I’m trying to think back to the first time I heard the word “desi” (aside from I Love Lucy, with her husband Desi Arnaz… okay, not related to the topic at all, moving on…) I’m not sure if I heard the word much in college. Many of my friends were Nepali, although there were other South Asians around… a Sri Lankan girl, a Pakistani guy, a few Indians, and later on a Bangladeshi. I can’t distinctly remember them referring to themselves as “desi” although it is entirely possible that I might have never noticed.

I’m sure I must have heard it while studying in India, although mention of the word doesn’t really stick out in my mind until I met another fellow American student with a different perspective.

During a long weekend I decided to travel by train from Jaipur to the old desert outpost of Jaisalmer. While on the train I bumped into a few students from another study abroad program also stationed in Jaipur, and we decided to connect and travel together.

Traveling with the students was a girl whose parents were originally from Chennai in South India. During the long train ride she talked about being an “ABCD” in India, and how everyone wanted to talk to her in Hindi and expected her to translate because she looked Indian. “I wanted to come to north India to get a different experience from visiting family in Chennai, but my family speaks Tamil so people have an unrealistic expectation of my abilities just because of how I look. It can be really frustrating!” she lamented.

“ABCD? What is that?” I asked.

“American Born Confused Desi” she explained.

“Desi?”

“You know, desi… ‘Indian.’”

According to Wikionary, “Essentially ‘Desi’ comes from the word – Des or Desh, which means Country in Hindi or Sanskrit. Thus, a ‘desi’ is ‘a person from or originally belonging to’ ‘Des’. Since almost all the South Asian nations (along with their thousands of dialects) can somehow relate to the word ‘Des’, I call all South Asians as ‘Desis’ – Venkat Manda.”

Then Wikipedia says… hey, wait. Wikipedia… you changed your entry on me! It didn’t say this before! I swear… (I guess that’s why it is a “wiki”-pedia… meaning “a website that allows the easy creation and editing of any number of interlinked Web pages”).

Anyway the newly updated Wikipedia entry says, “When referring to culture or ethnic background, the term includes any person of South Asian heritage with ancestry from India, Pakistan, Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. While this term is popular in all these countries, Nepal being in South Asia does not familiarize itself with it. In other words Nepalese think this word is specially for the people of greater India at the time of British rule as Nepal was never ruled by Britain.”

What it used to say was something like, “ desi refers to the peoples, cultures and products of South Asia including India, Pakistan, Maldives, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.”

Woah… now this takes me in a whole different direction… and also kinda answers my question a bit…

The point of the matter is, I didn’t learn “desi” from my Nepali friends. It wasn’t until I started reading a lot of intercultural blogs on western/South Asian relationships about a year and a half ago that I noticed a lot of the writers would throw around the term “desi” usually (in my opinion) as a blanket term for South Asian (or at least to mean Indian/Pakistani). As I noted before, I never ran into this term with the Nepalis I knew, and only rarely heard it in general, and now I felt like I hear it all the time. (It’s the same with the term “gori” — I hadn’t heard that term before until I started reading blogs! I guess my identity has always been “American” or “Amreekan” in South Asia… Although I just checked with  a friend, and I guess “gore” might be used, but Amreekan is more common for “foreigner” in Nepal anyway).

So I started asking around. Did my Nepali friends consider themselves “desis”?

Sign from a "Desi" grocery store

One Nepali friend after another said that no, they wouldn’t refer to themselves as “desi” and they wouldn’t really have thought to do it before. There was nothing hostile about it, it was more like, “doesn’t that mean ‘Indian’?”

Likewise, I don’t remember them ever saying anything like, “I feel like eating desi food tonight” or “let’s go to the desi grocery store” or “I’m in the mood for some desi music” or “you have to dress in desi clothes for the party.” But no one really explained why Nepalis didn’t use the term desi.

Now Wikipedia tells me it has something to do with Nepali impressions from British colonialism. Does anyone out there agree? Can anyone shed some light on this for me? Other Nepali readers?

Meanwhile how can I write about “desi” and not link to the song “Desi Girl” from the Bollywood movie Dostana? The song is really catchy and fun to dance too… but I don’t know how I feel about all the blonde white people in the background dancing around during the movie clip of the song… it seems to be a bit… awkward?