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Chinese influence in Manipuri language

James Oinam *



In this article we'll look into two Manipuri words to conjecture about probable Chinese influence in Manipuri language. The words in question are 'nung' (you) and 'mai' (face). The Chinese counterparts with which they may be compared are 'nín' (for you) and 'miàn duì' (for face). (Burmese word for face is written as 'myetnhar' on Google.)

But to give weight to the argument we need to go beyond similarity in pronunciation to rule out mere coincidence. (I'm not suggesting that just by finding that the similarities go pronunciation and meaning, the link is definitive, but it becomes highly probable nonetheless.)

The word 'face' is used in abstract sense also, as in the English expression 'to lose face' (to lose one's reputation/respect). But if we look at the Chinese language, this usage is played out to a large extent: 'to grant face', 'without a face', etc.
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Face_(sociological_concept)#Chinese_.E8.87.89.EF.BC.8E.E9.9D.A2_and_.E9.9D.A2.E5.AD.90).

Generally speaking, one's dignity and respect (in the public) is implied in the usage. I would like to point out here that Manipuri expressions like 'mai-thiba' (literally face-ugly, used to mean failure), 'mai-pakpa' (face-widen for to be successful), 'mai-pandaba' (without a face, used for to be shameless) and 'mai-kanba' (literally strong face, meaning to be stubborn) show that in Manipuri language also this word is widely used in the abstract sense.

As some scholars believe the Meitei script is related to the Devanagari, it may be pertinent to put down a few lines regarding the common Hindi word for 'face', chehra. The word is hardly used for respect or dignity (in public). However, nak (nose) and pagri (turban) are widely used for the same.

This is evident in the expression like 'nak cutna' (to get your nose cut, possibly related to the Ramayana story) and 'pagri ki laz rakhna' (to maintain the dignity of turban, popular expression in Hindi TV series and movies). This makes it unlikely that word is derived from Hindi.

Now we come to our next word. The pronoun 'you' is an anathema in many parts of the world. Other than the well-known variants of this pronoun in Hindi and French, German, Russian, Spanish and Chinese also have variants for this pronoun. Then there are some Asian countries where use of this pronoun is 'avoided'.

The French 'tu' is somewhat similar in pronunciation and usage to the Hindi word 'tum' (often abbreviated to 'tu' in informal spoken language). The words are used to refer to your juniors, in position or age. However, the French 'vous' used for seniors (and in polite form) can be singular or plural.

However, Hindi counterpart 'aap' is singular. The Chinese words for you are: nǐ and nín (the later word formed by combining 'heart' to the former, and thus is loaded with 'respect'). The pronunciation of the later version nin is a bit similar to Manipuri 'nung'.

We know that there is a pretentious-looking 'adom' ( polite you) in Manipuri language. However, if we look at the usage of this pronoun in general, we find the tendency is to avoid its usage in general. (If I'm right, pronoun avoidance is practiced in Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indonesian, and Vietnamese.)

Instead of saying 'Nung, chak charabaro?' (You have had your food?), we simply prefer to say, 'Chak charabaro?' (Had food?), dropping the pronoun altogether. I feel this seems to save us from being interpreted as disrespectful, on one hand, by using 'nung', and sounding pretentious, on the other hand, by using 'adom'.

Located somewhere in the middle of this linguistic geographic zones, we don't use 'adom' as much as native Hindi speaker would use 'aap' or the French would use 'vous', neither we have dropped the use of pronouns to extent some Southeast Asian countries have.

In hotels, the waiter would be called 'garçon' (meaning boy, tourists learning the language are advised not to use this term as it is considered belittling) in French and 'chhotu' in the Hindi belt, but in a typical Meitei hotel not long time ago, if not nowadays, many hesitate using a similar Manipuri epithet. Perhaps, we share a similar anathema as the modern-day Chinese—to say it or not to say it.


* James Oinam wrote this article for e-pao.net
The writer can be contacted at jamesoinam(AT)gmail(DOT0com
This article was posted on June 08, 2017.


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