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The Verbs of Boro

by Mark Abley

What we hear in the last breaths of dying languages.

anzray:  to keep apart from an enemy or wicked company

mokhrob:  to express anger by a sidelong glance

zum:  to wear or put on clothing for the upper part of the body

I was feeling low. I had spent the day wading through academic books about language and my head hurt. It appeared more and more unlikely that I would ever grasp the phonetic meaning of a "lengthened, front unrounded, half-open, lax voiced vocoid" or a "voiceless, laminal post-alveolar stop with slight aspiration and a high off-glide." Linguistics has a scholarly code that excludes the uninitiated, and it had begun to seem to me that the more you love languages, the harder this code is to learn.

Returning to the crowded stacks of the university library, I began, almost at random, to pull books off the shelves. I didn't know exactly what I wanted — instinctively, perhaps, I was searching for some proof of humanity among those dust-dry grammars and theoretical speculations. I was looking, I suppose, for a book that would lift a language off the page. The first candidate I found was A Practical Introduction to Tonga, published in London in 1953. Forget the South Pacific:  Tonga, in this case, refers to a language spoken in what is now Zambia and was then called Northern Rhodesia. The author, C. R. Hopgood, aimed his book not at scholars or students, and still less at the Tonga-speaking people themselves, but at junior officers of the British Empire. He was determined to school them in grief.

Hopgood's first lesson begins with the words Ba-ntu ba-fwa — "The people have died" — and proceeds to the Tonga phrases for "The thing is dead," The small object is dead," and "The ferocious animals are dead." Lesson two starts off with "Get up, you little beast" and lurches ahead to "The animals bite." By lesson four, the syntax has become more complex ("The baboon is eating up all of the people's food") and the mood is growing ever darker:  Bu-ntu bwa-ngu bwa-mana, "My humanity is finished." Lesson seven bears a modest resemblance to the Book of Job. "My goat has aborted"; "His sheep were attached by wild dogs"; "My sheep's hut has fallen into disrepair":  all these mishaps lead up to the dignified distress of "Wild boars have sadly depleted our crops." Were upper lips ever quite as stiff as that? The empire finds it hard to restore order. In the end, Hopgood can offer nothing more sanguine than a Tonga version of "It is bad not to hoe. Such neglect of agriculture brings troubles. It results in poor stamina."

I abandoned the stresses of farming life in the Zambezi Valley and returned to the stacks. Eventually I found myself glancing through a volume published at Gauhati University, in the Indian state of Assam, in 1977:  A Descriptive Analysis of the Boro Language. Which language was that again? I didn't know and at first I hardly cared. What caught my attention was that Pramod Chandra Bhattacharya had dedicated the book to the memory of his son Amiya Kumar, dead at the age of 12. A boy "who is no more in this world." Dr. Bhattacharya had researched and written the volume, he said, "against a number of personal and national calamities which occurred during 1952-64," some years before the calamity of his son's death. Humble to a fault, he offered his apologies "for my poor expressions not only in Boro, but in English."

I took the book back to my table and sat down with it.

egthu:  to create a pinching sensation in the armpit

khale:  to feel partly bitter

khonsay:  to pick an object up with care as it is rare or scarce

Boro, I learned, is a language of northeastern India that spills over into neighboring countries:  Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh. Most of its speakers live on the north bank of the Brahmaputra River. The language goes by other names too:  Mech, Kachari, and (now the most common) Bodo. Whatever name you choose, it's one of well over 200 languages in the fertile subfamily of Tibeto-Burman. Nearly all these languages, being indigenous to a small area, have never had great numbers on their side — Boro is one of the very few that may be spoken by as many as a million people. Its speakers are usually fluent in Bengali or in Dr. Bhattacharya's mother tongue, Assamese. Bilingualism is doubtless an asset on an individual level, but for a language with as little clout as Boro it can also be a preclude to permanent silence. No nation, state, or province uses Boro as an official language; bigger languages are muscling into its territory; many of its speakers suffer wretched poverty; most of its linguistic relatives are even smaller and more obscure.

Yet Boro has its partisans. The desire to sustain it stands at the root of a political movement that strives to create a new Indian state of Bodoland — or, in the movement's most extreme form, a sovereign, fully independent nation. "Despite being the sons of the soil," one Boro leader protested in the Indian parliament, "we people have been neglected, discriminated, oppressed, suppressed, and misruled ever since Independence." A few days after my chance discover in the library, I surfed the internet and came across an interview with U. G. Brahma, president of the All Bodo Students Union, who complained that "under the pressure of aggressive Sanskritization, several Bodo subgroups have forsaken the Bodo language and culture. This poses serious threat to the survival of our Bodo culture as a separate entity."

As I knew from living in Quebec — and as I had witnessed on a tiny scale on the Isle of Man — nationalist movements often draw their most potent energy from fears of language loss and cultural erasure. To make a quasi-mathematical formula out of the idea, you could say that any advance of the global is likely to produce a defense of the local. Advocates of Boro who found the students and politicians too mild-mannered have formed a guerrilla army, the Bodo Liberation Tigers. In the past few years, the most violent or desperate among the separatists have begun to massacre Hindi- and Bengali-speaking migrants settling in their homeland.

Unlike many endangered languages, Boro does exist in written form. Indeed it exists in two written forms:  the Roman alphabet of the west and the Devanagari script of India. Feuds between their partisans seem to have consumed more time and anger than the common struggle against outside enemies. This too is a tale with precedents.

gobram:  to shout in one's sleep

gulun:  to bend after overthrowing or uprooting

ur:  to dig soil (as the swine do), to move curry (while cooking)

Looking at these verbs, rolling them around in my mouth, I was reminded of the first time it ever dawned on me that languages could not be translated on an exact, word-for-work basis. As a boy I took private French lessons from a chain-smoking spinster cousin of Albert Schweitzer who had somehow fetched up in a basement apartment in Lethbridge, Alberta. One day I tried to say, "I'm hungry." French, however, demands not an adjective but an abstract noun:  J'ai faim, I have hunger. Likewise I have thirst, I have fear, I have nine years. You can't just reproduce the English parts of speech; you have to recreate the idea. You have to search, often gropingly, for the best possible equivalent. For a unilingual child like me, this was a radical, scary notion. When you venture outside the confines of a mother tongue, you must embrace uncertainty. And yet English and French are related languages with a long overlapping history and a mountain of shared vocabulary. How much harder is the search — how much rare is a precise equivalent — when two languages have little in common? The verbs of Boro challenge me, not with déjà vu but with jamais vu.

It's not only a language of verbs, of course. Under the discreet fluorescent lights of the library ceiling, a few nouns also stood out on Dr. Bhattacharya's crinkled, yellowing pages:  bokhali, a woman who carries a child on her back; gansuthi, the first-grown feather of a bird's wing; zogno, the sound produced by a mixing of mud and water if you thrust your hand into a crab's hole. How could anyone resist a language whose expression for "slightly humpbacked" is gobdobdob? Boro has a whole range of terms for calling out to animals:  ducks, pigeons, poultry, cows, buffalo, pigs, cats, puppies, and grown-up dogs all demand words of their own. In contrast to English, which asks its speakers to say "Ah!" "Oh!" and "Hey!" in a variety of moods, Boro is blessed with 20 "interjectional exclamative particles" to express everything from insult to affection, repentance to irritation, terror to sympathy. It also has a folk song in which the singer comforts a young bride with the reassuring information "Ants prepare their food store with the help of their saliva."

Unless I have severely misread Dr. Bhattacharya, through, the glory of the language lies elsewhere.

onguboy:  to love from the heart

onsay:  to pretend to love

onsra:  to love for the last time

Verbs like these go beyond all borders:  the ideas or sentiments they express transcend the culture that articulates them. I can't imagine I will ever need to express the noise that mud and water would make if I refused to let a sleeping crab lie; as far as I'm concerned, zogno is a word that can happily stay in Boro. While I love the surprising verb dasa — it means "not to place a fishing instrument" — I accept, with some reluctance, that my own language might have little use for it. But onsay and onsra are a different story. Having met those words in Dr. Bhattacharya's book, how can I do without them? I covet them, just as I covet the verbs for expressing anger by a sidelong glance or for feeling partly bitter. They are more than just fresh sounds on the tongue; they are fresh thoughts in the mind.

Poring for the second time over Dr. Bhattacharya's painstaking text, I recalled a passage by the lawyer Rupert Ross, whose book Returning to the Teachings explores some of the vexed encounters between Cree and Ojibwa people in northwestern Ontario and the forces of the Canadian legal system. Ross says those encounters are made trickier, and justice harder to achieve, by the distinct worldviews that underlie the speakers' languages:  "My Aboriginal friends talk a great deal about what it's like to have to use English all day, and they generally describe it as a strain. If we truly recognized that we occupy a universe of constantly transforming things, people, and relationships, then we would have no choice but to discard our heavy reliance on nouns to capture and describe it." Yet that reliance is woven deep into the fabric of English. Nothing could be more difficult to discard.

Is Boro a language, like Cree and Ojibwa, in which the world appears to be constantly transforming? Dr. Bhattacharya reports that if onsra is said in a different tone, it has a different meaning:  "to arouse the female oracle for the last time."

gagrom:  to search for a thing below water by trampling

goblo:  to be fat (as a child or infant)

gobray:  to fall in a well unknowingly

It's possible, I admit, that some of these words have simple English equivalents that Dr. Bhattacharya failed to find. I'm somewhat dubious about his explanation of kholab:  "to feel tedious for an odd smell." And while I accept his faith that a Boro proverb effectively means "an honest person is troubled," I'm still puzzling over his literal translation of it:  "The cat clears its bowels on mild soil." Amid the movable curries of the Brahmaputra, bowels seem to be a preoccupation. Where English offers a tedious-feeling sentence like "A great man behaves honorably," Boro conjures up a smell:  "A big man farts straight behind."

Still, you might retort — especially if you happen to be an admirer of Noam Chomsky — the two phrases mean the same thing. In Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Chomsky wrote:  "It is possible to convey any conceptual concept in any language." An extraterrestrial, he once suggested, would see all human beings as speaking a single language. We earthlings may be forgiven for choosing a variant perspective. As the critic George Steiner once noted, Chomsky's ideas "could account, with beautiful economy and depth, for a world in which men would all be speaking one language, diversified at most by a moderate range of dialects." In fact, however, the luxuriant profusion of tongues on the planet challenges any simple notion of evolutionary benefit to our species. The incredible diversity of human languages is surely just as remarkable as the hidden similarities of their grammar.

Besides, there's more to any language than just its ability to express conceptual content. "Languages," said Ken Hale, a colleague of Chomsky at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "embody the intellectual wealth of the people that speak them. Losing any one of them is like dropping a bomb on the Louvre."

asusu:  to feel unknown and uneasy in a new place

gabkhron:  to be afraid of witnessing an adventure

serrom:  to examine by slight pressing

A quarter century after Dr. Bhattacharya's descriptive analysis was published, linguists are again at work on Boro. Unlike the imperial Hopgood among the Tonga, they are carrying out their labors on behalf of the local people. But their motives are zealous. They think they have God on their side.

On an American website I found news of the language's speakers under one of their other names:  "As in most animistic cultures, the Mech live in fear of the spirits of nature. Only through appeasement can they have peace or success in life, but no one is sure when or if the spirits are appeased. The Mech need liberation from such oppressive beliefs." They are, as a result, now featured in a series of "Unreached Peoples Prayer Profiles." After a quick sketch of traditional Boro culture, the website requests a few prayers:  "Ask God to grant wisdom and favor to the mission agencies that are targeting the Mech." (The verb "targeting merits some thought.) "Ask God to anoint the Gospel as it goes forth via radio in their area … ask God to speed the completion of the Jesus film and other Christian materials into the Bodo language."

My first instinct is to urge the Boro to use the missionaries' asusu and to anzray them, keeping onsay in reserve for emergencies; otherwise, the Boro may soon pass beyond mokhrob to a destructive khale. (Pardon my nouns.) Yet it's not that simple. The missionaries change the culture, but the culture is changing anyway. Even rural Assam is subject to the forces of globalization, and the tribal peoples of northeastern India face a host of pressures — environmental and economic ones among them. As well as calling for prayer to save the oppressed souls, the missionary website warns that "a large percentage of Mech have encumbered unmanageable debt."

By continuing to speak their language, the Boro won't get rid of their debts, save their forests, or halt the influx of outside settlers. But they may be a good deal more likely to withstand the corrosive despair that accompanies these pressures, avoiding the self-hatred that comes when a culture implodes and disintegrates. J. R. R. Tolkein, a linguist long before he was a novelist, once noted "the part played by the cultivated Icelandic language, in spite of poverty, lack of power, and insignificant numbers, in keeping the Icelanders in being in desperate times." Pride in their own tongue could give the Boro, too, a better chance of sheer survival. Who knows — the anointed Gospel might even play a role in a drama of language preservation.

Otherwise, chaos beckons. "A hare dies due to its shit" — Boro sayings are not for the squeamish — " deer dies due to its footstep; a man dies due to his mouth."

bunhan bunahan:  to be about to speak, and about not to speak

khar:  to smell like urine or raw fish

khen:  to hit one's heart

Excerpt from SPOKEN HERE:  Travels Among Threatened Languages, by Mark Abley. Copyright © 2003 by Mark Abley. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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Articles in this Issue

A Daughter's Search for Her Phantom Father, by Sharon Estill Taylor, Ph.D.
Finding East, by J.D. Jahangir
A House of Cards, by Sandy Balfour
Biddy's Ruin, by Terry Glavin
The Verbs of Boro, by Mark Abley
Lexicography, by Grant Barrett
Tourism, by Benjamin Hart
Art History, by Peter Joseph
Oral Hygiene, by Megan Milks
Advertising, by Ian Phillips


Mark Abley, the author or editor of ten books of poetry and prose, lives in Montreal, Canada. He is now working on a book about the future of languages.

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