New wine in an old bottle: updating Konow’s note on Chouraśya

Full text. By Jean Robert Opgenort, 2007. Appeared in Vāmbule Rāī Jāti: Bhāṣā ra Saṃskṛti.

Wambule is the language of the Wambule Rai, one of the Kiranti tribes of eastern Nepal. Some other names by which this language is known from the literature are ‘Chouras’ya’ (Hodgson 1857), ‘Chouraśya’ (Grierson 1909) and ‘Umbule’ (Hanßon 1991).

The first data ever written on the Wambule language were provided by the English Orientalist Brian Houghton Hodgson, who studied the people of Nepal, producing a number of papers on their languages, literature and religion. Hodgson incorporated a word list of the ‘Chouras’ya’ dialect in his ‘Comparative Vocabulary of the Kiránti Language’ (1857: 333-349).

On the basis of Hodgson’s material, the Norwegian Indologist Sten Konow compiled a comparative vocabulary of ‘minor Khambu dialects’ and grammatical notes on the various ‘dialects’. The first grammatical description on the ‘Chouraśya’ dialect by Konow was published in Grierson (1909: 369-370).

I assumed the task of documenting the Wambule language in 1996, when I joined the Himalayan Languages Project at Leiden University. The aim of my research was to give an exhaustive description of the grammar and the phonology of the Wambule language, analysed and annotated texts and a Wambule-English-Nepali glossary.

In this paper, I will provide a revision of Konow’s first grammatical description of Wambule on the basis of my own recent investigations (Opgenort 2002, 2004), which have come to shed much light on the grammar and the lexicon of this hitherto little known language.


by Sten Konow (1909)

The Chouraśya Khambus live in what Hodgson calls Pallo, or Further Kirānt, i.e. the hills from the Arun to the Mechi and the Singilela Range.


by Jean Robert Opgenort (2006)

The Wambule Rai live in area situated around the confluence of the Sunkosī and Dūdhkosī rivers in eastern Nepal, which comprises the southernmost part of Okhalḍhuṅgā district, the westernmost part of Khoṭāṅ district, the northernmost part of Udaypur district, and the northeastern most part of Sindhulī district.

Authority —

Hodgson, B.H.,—Comparative Vocabulary of the several Languages (Dialects) of the celebrated people called Kirântis, now occupying the Easternmost province of the kingdom of Népál, or the basin of the river Árun, which province is named after them Kirânt. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol. xxvi, 1857, pp. 333 and ff. Reprinted in Miscellaneous Essays relating to Indian Subjects. Vol. i, London, 1880, pp. 176 and ff.

Authority —

Opgenort, J.R.,— A Grammar of Wambule: Grammar Lexicon. Texts and Cultural Survey of a Rai Kiranti Tribe of Eastern Nepal. Brill’s Tibetan Studies Library, Languages of the Greater Himalayan Region, 5/2. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill. 2004, p. 4.

Our information about the Chouraśya dialect is even more unsatisfactory than is the case with other forms of Khambu. It seems to occupy a somewhat independent position, and often differs from connected forms of speech in grammar and vocabulary. Dūmi and Khāling are apparently most closely connected.

The Wambule language has been catapulted from the state of being one of the least known languages of the Himalayas to the tongue that now vies for the title of being perhaps the best documented language of the Himalayas. It occupies a somewhat independent position, and often differs from connected forms of speech in grammar and vocabulary. Jero, Bahing and Sunwar are most closely connected.

B and m, d and n, respectively, are apparently interchangeable ; thus sālāme, young woman ; tābe, daughter ; bisi, Dūmi miksi, eye ; dōbū, Kūlung nōbo, nose ; di, Kūlung ning, name ; dwām, Dūmi nām, sun, etc. It will be seen that d in the last instance corresponds to n in connected forms of speech.

From a phonological viewpoint, the typical Wambule implosive stops ɓ and ɗ often correspond to the nasals m and n in related Rai languages ; thus ɓisi, Dumi miksi, eye ; ɗwabu, Kulung nobo, ear ; ɗi, Kulung niŋ, name ; ɗwam, Dumi na:m, sun, etc.

Nouns.—Gender is distinguished in the usual way, by means of different words or of qualifying additions. Thus, ā-po, father ; ā-mo, mother ; ngē-wā, old man ; ngē-bē, old woman : tā-wa, son ; tā-be, daughter : ōcho and wōcho, man, husband ; bīcho, wife : ūcho-bēbā, boy ; bīcho-bēbā, girl : sālācho, young man ; sālā-me, young woman : āpo chāli and chāli ngāpo, dog ; chāli nīma and ābomo chāli, bitch : āpo bīya, bull ; āmo bīya, cow.

Nouns.—Gender is distinguished in the usual way, by means of different words or gender markers, such as the masculine markers pa, po and wa, and the feminine markers ma, mo, be and me. Thus, papa, po, father ; mama, ɓwamo, mother : ŋewa, old man ; ŋebe, old woman : ta:wa, son ; ta:be, daughter : waco, man, husband ; ɓi:co, wife : u:co-beba, boy ; ɓi:co-beba, girl : salco, young man ; salme, young woman.

There are no instances of a dual or a plural in the materials available.

The Wambule dual and plural number markers nimpha, nim and tico, tiɖ are unbound forms of which of the basic meaning relates to the pluriformity of referents. An additional part of the meaning expressed by the number markers involves the concept of manifoldness, indicating various types or varieties of the referent denoted. Thus, ɓo, chicken, chickens ; ɓo nimpha, a pair of chickens ; ɓo tico, chickens, chickens and the like.

The genitive is apparently formed by simply putting the governed before the governing word without any suffix ; thus, bā bāng’gya, bird’s egg ; bīya nūnu, cow’s young, calf.

The genitive is formed by suffixation of the singular and plural case markers =ŋaŋ and =nan to the nominal head. Constructions with genitives can be contrasted with noun plus noun compounds. The difference between the two can be resumed in terms of the meaning ‘specific thing or group of things’, which is expressed by the genitive, and the meaning ‘type of thing’, which is expressed by the compound ; thus ɓo=ŋaŋ khli, the shit of the chicken ; ɓokhli, chicken shit : pa=ŋaŋ so, the meat of the pig ; paso, pork.

Other relations are indicated by means of postpositions, such as bi-lo, with ; kho, by ; lo, in ; lo-ngo, from ; sokho, without, and so on.

Other grammatical roles are indicated by means of suffixes and postpositions such as bi=lo, with (sociative and locative markers) ; =kho, by (source marker) ; =lo, in (locative maker); =lwa=ngo, from (locative and ablative markers); swaŋkho, without, and so on.

The first four numerals are given in the table on p. 343. There are apparently more closely related to the numerals in Thūlung than to those in other Khambu dialects.

With the general exception of the native word kwalo, one, the Wambule numerals used in everyday speech are loans from Nepali. The numeral for ‘one’ does not only service to indicate exactly one entity of the certain species, but is also used as the equivalent of the English indefinite article a.

Pronouns.—The following are the personal pronouns:—

  • ūnggū. I.
  • ā, my.
  • ā-leme, mine.
  • ūnggū-ticha, we.
  • iki-leme, our.
  • ngo-me, ūnu, thou.
  • i-leme, thine.
  • ngo-me-ticha, you.
  • mūyem-leme, your.
  • time, yo-me, ya-me, he, she, it.
  • nge-me-leme, his, hers, its.
  • tome-ticha, they.
  • ngo-no-ma-ticha-leme, their.

The above table probably contains some mistakes. Corresponding forms are Dūmi and Khāling ūng, I ; Khāling ā, my ; ī, thy ; Dūmi iki, our ; ānu, thou ; tem and tami, this, etc.

Pronouns.— The Wambule personal pronouns are only distinguished for person, but not for number nor inclusivity/exclusivity.

  • uŋgu, , I, we.
  • unu, un, you.
  • aŋgu, , he, she, they.

Possessive pronouns make a formal distinction between three numbers, three persons and forms including and excluding the person addressed.

  • a, my.
  • i, your.
  • , his.
  • ancuk, our (dual exclusive)
  • inci, our (dual inclusive)
  • inci, your (dual)
  • anci, their (dual)
  • ak, our (plural exclusive)
  • ik, our (plural inclusive)
  • in, you (plural)
  • an, their (plural)

Possessive pronouns are syntactically fixed to the following constituent in a construction. If no overt nominal head is present, however, the adjective blyame, blyam, own, is used as an expletive word.

Interrogative pronouns are āchū, who ? which ? thāmē, which ? āmā, what ? In-definite pronouns are formed by adding , also, to interrogatives ; thus, āchū-yē, anybody ; āmā-yē, anything.

Interrogative pronouns are acu, who ? thame, tham, which ? ama, am, what ? The inclusive morpheme =ya, =i, also, is used in a negative context, in which the interrogative pronouns correspond to English nobody, nothing.

Verbs.—We have no information about the use of pronominal suffixes to denote the person and number of the subject and object, or of the formation of tenses.

There is apparently a verb substantive ti ; thus tīme, it is, yes. The final me of this form is probably a copula, which is used as an assertive particle, and is probably connected with the final me in many pronouns.

Verbs.— Simplex verbs contain either a single person and number agreement suffix or a fixed string of suffixes with a maximum of three elements. Finite verbs in positive statements and positive polar questions generally require the suffix me, m, of the affirmative, e.g. time, it is. Suffixation of -meya, -mei, to a simplex verb form yields a factual verbal adjective with imperfective capacities, e.g. timei, (the fact that) it is. The suffix -me, -m in affirmative verbs verbs is analysed, at least, historically, as a grammaticalised instance of the reifying phrasal suffix =me, =m, which turns nouns, adjectives and adverbs into nominal, e.g. alo=m (here=RES), the one from here.

Forms ending in ā, , stā, kātā, etc., are given as imperatives; thus lihā, be silent ; gakā, give ; hāltā, walk ; phittā, bring ; bākstā, speak ; levāstā, go ; jā-kātā, eat ; pi-kātā, come, etc. The base alone is used as an imperative in , take.

Second person singular imperative forms take the morphemes -ka, -ta and -s ; thus ga:ka, give to me ; halsta, walk ; phitta, bring it (across a horizontal plane); basta, sit ; lwasta, go ; jakata, eat it ; pikata, come (across a horizontal plane), etc.

The negative particle is a prefixed ā ; thus ātti, it is not, no ; ādūchō, not-good, bad. Before imperatives can be used instead.

Negative verbs is are formed by prefixation of the marker a- ; thus ati, it is not, no ; aɗuco, not good, bad.

Grierson, George A
1909. Linguistic survey of India. Vol. III. Tibeto-Burman family. Part I. General introduction, specimens of the Tibetan dialects, the Himalayan dialects, and the North Assam Group. Calcutta: Government of India [Reprinted: Delhi, Varanasi, Patna. Motilal Banarsidass 1967. xxiii. 641 pp].

Hanßon, Gerd
1991. The Rai of eastern Nepal: ethnic and linguistic grouping. Findings of the Linguistic Survey of Nepal. Kirtipur/Kathmandu: Linguistic Survey of Nepal and Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies, Tribhuvan University [Edited and provided with an introduction by Werner Winter].

Hodgson, Brian Houghton
1857. ‘Comparative vocabulary of the languages of the broken tribes of Népál’, pp. 333-371 in Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal xxvi.

Opgenort, Jean Robert
2002. The Wāmbule language. Grammar, lexicon, texts and cultural survey of a Kiranti tribe of eastern Nepal. Amsterdam: Jean Robert Opgenort. Doctoral dissertation, Leiden University, 6 June 2002.

Opgenort, Jean Robert
2004. A Grammar of Wambule. Grammar, lexicon, texts and cultural survey of a Kiranti tribe of eastern Nepal. Brill’s Tibetan Studies Library. Languages of the Greater Himalayan Region, 2. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill.