Apr 14, 2011

Familiar foreign words in Kite Runner

Reading Khaled Hosseini’s popular novel Kite Runner was interesting in more than one ways. One of them was the words that struck me as familiar. I did not know which language these words were from, so I looked up the languages of Afghanistan. Apparently, Pashto and Persian Dari are the two languages spoken in Afghanistan, and Hosseini mentions a third one: Urdu. So I will just assume that these words come from one of these languages spoken in Afghanistan.

First of all there are the words that sound obviously foreign. Bakhshis, meaning reward, and shahabas (transformed as syabbas in Nepali) meaning “well done!” are two such words. These obviously foreign words did not surprise me. But I was surprised to find that the Afghan words for mother, father and uncle were Madar, Padar and Agha. The words in both English and Afghan are very similar to their Nepali equivalents: Mata, Pita and Kaka. We assume that these words are of Sanskrit origin, but in fact, they come from an ancient Indo Aryan language. It is hypothesized that a single group of Indo Aryan people migrated to different parts of Eurasia and carried their language along, and that accounts for the widespread similarity of the family relation names. Hosseini also calls children bachem – very similar to our own bachcha.

Clothes too are known to travel like words. Salwar kameez is supposed to be of Persian origin. It traveled east and became known as kurta suruwal in Nepal. But when this word traveled westwards, kameez became chemise. A chemise used to mean a simple unisex top in earlier eras, and in Nepal kameez still means a men’s top, but today chemise in English is a type of women’s lingerie.

woman in chemise - hard to equate with kameez, isnt it?

Gestures also travel and the foreign gesture of salaam is pretty well known in Nepal. Foods are perhaps the most notorious for traveling. Foreign foods mentioned in kite runner like naan and tandoori have entered our palates as well as our language. With the foreign name of sabzi, our vegetables have acquired a foreign flavor. Koftas and kolchhas are slightly less known, but still found in Nepali restaurants. Being a vegetarian, I have never had a kofta, which is a meatball. But I remember going to “Ingredients” at Pulchowk and bravely ordering a kolcha. My friends and I loved this fluffy and well buttered version of naan. Samosa is another widely travelled food. We assume that Samosas are Indian, but in fact, samosas were not made in India until the Muslims carried it into India at the dawn of this millennium. Before that, Samosas were made all over the Middle East and known as sambosa or sanbusaj. From there it traveled so widely that today it is known as a traditional food in areas as different as Africa, China, Philippines and of course, Nepal. Fillings may vary from normal potatoes, onions and cauliflowers to exotic meats, nuts and sweets. Pakoda, though, is a different story. The word and the food both originated in South Asia and travelled the other way around. Pakoda is supposed to come from the Sanskrit pak, root word for cooking.

In Kite runner, pakoda is actually spelled pakora. The replacement of r with d seems to be a common trend of crossover words. Hosseini spells jhaadoo(broom) and sadak(road) as jaroo and sarak. In fact, I wouldn’t even have known what jaroo meant if Hosseini hadn’t explained that it means a broom. “You are ignorant, so what?” Hosseini might say. ”Such little things don’t matter. Toophans might come and go, and still the Afghan people will only say “Zendagi Migzara”: life moves on”. Zendagi and Zindabad might sound foreign, but in fact, all these words originate from the Sanskrit Jeeva, meaning life. In a roundabout transformation, jeeva spawned several words like jeewan and juni in South Asia, travelled westwards, reincarnated as zendagi and zendabad, and came back as jindagi and jindabad. Kind of like how Nepali herbs leave Nepal as raw material, go abroad and come back transformed as sophisticated pills and drinks. But anyway, to get back to the topic, the replacement of z with j, as in Zendagi to Jindagi is another crossover words trend. For example, nazar, ghazal and bazaar are known as najar, gajal and bajaar in Nepal.

These three words are also notable for another reason: each of them has spawned several Nepali songs. Other foreign words that appear in Nepali songs are saughat, mard (or marda in Nepali), dil and taar. Remember Rajesh Hamal prancing in bijuli ko taar taar taar taar? Maybe I should dance to it in the new year party, or sawl –e – nau as Hosseini would call it. This phrase in fact is strikingly similar to the Nepali phrase naya saal. In this sawl-e-nau we should also revive the forgotten custom of firing top (spelled tope by Hosseini), or cannons in celebration. But in a hurry to celebrate, students like me shouldn’t forget to read, which brings me to the most arresting observation of all. The novel’s character Soraya teaches her maid to read the alef beh, which sounds very much like alphabet. A little bit of research informed me that both alef beh and alphabet are derived from a combination of alpha and beta, first two words of the Greek alphabet. All this scholarly talk is making me drowsy, and besides, it is time for my sleep fairy (pari to Hosseini) to come and visit me. Dostet darum my dear readers! No, I am not inviting you to a dostibhari sip of daru! To find the meaning, read Kite Runner!



mannu said...

nice sewa. i had read kite runner long time back. after this article i think i should read it again.

sewa said...

thanks mannu, did u notice that i borrowed your blog theme, hehe

suryama said...

i like ur every article, dear... Hadn't thought so much whn i read the book.

Anonymous said...

Really good one :)
When I read the blog, I am recalling the whole Novel. I saw the movie but the movie had very little of what is in the book. Talking about how they are pronounced.. everyone seems to be adamant about whatever they learned during their childhood. The Indians would beat everyone in pronunciation except when they pronounce "Visit" as "Wizid" and "Virus" as "Wiruss", "Vodafone" as "Wodafone" and .

"Wery good" :) Very good!!

Rapa said...

Really a good one
I like the analysis. I used to have similar ideas and wished to write .. now I think you did a really good job :)

Putting pictures in article is a nice idea to lure readers :)

Once they're near you make a web of words and decorate the picture with your thoughts and the reader understands the idea :)

I wish I had kite runner "here" to go through Khalid's kites once again :)

sewa said...

thanks guys
anonymous,u made me laugh out loud with the wisit and wodafone, hahahah
rapa u shud read it again :)

Anonymous said...


I saw that Kite Runner 3 yrs before, the story was awesome. one of the best film ever watched. You have brought some peculiar issues like the differences in spelling, pronunciation. The way you bring things really fascinates me and this time the picture was a kind of desert, in ur regular food (story).

Find out who is this?

sewa said...

Hello anonymous reader,
I am unable to find your identity. Thanks very much for reading and liking, it is much appreciated. But what do you mean by desert in food story

Begum said...

This is an interesting blog, however, you seem to be muddled with some of your language related facts or musings. All variations of Afghanistani speech are derivitave of Arabic or Urdu, and therefore by default Persian. Persian, along with Arabic both predate the grecian language- therefore alef, beh/bah cannot be derivitave of it. Also, Sanscript is predated by Tamil by a good 4000 years, so I would assume this is the ancient Indo-aryan source you speak of :D. There is little wonder that there are similarities in language as Nepal has mongolian and Indian neighbours- which despite it's vast Hindu population, puts some Islamic influence into the language (from Urdu, Mongolian and by default Perisan.)

Anyway, that was an interesting read :D

sewa said...

thanks a lot for the feedback begum, my knowledga of afghan languages was based solely on the kite runner, and I just listed down whatever languages were mentioned there. I did not know that Arabic predated Grecian, so probably ti is Grecian alpha - beta that is derived from alef beh :) About the ancient Indo-Aryyan language, Tamil is a different language family from Sanskrit, and I am not talking of Tamil. Instead, I am talking of the language that Sanskrit presumably has its roots in, which are still evident in commonalities found in South Asian languages like Sanskrit and European languages like German.

There is little wonder in anything, unless you think about it :)

sewa said...

also, Tamil doesn't predate Sanskrit by 4,000 years. If anything, Sanskrit predates Tamil by a millenia or so.

sewa said...


This is the language family that I am talking about

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