November 02, 2004

An Escape from Election News into Brahui

Lately I've been finding creative ways to take my mind off the political news, and one of them involved checking Dravidian references for a student. This took me to one of the books I inherited from my father, the atheist son of a Methodist missionary to British India -- specifically Baluchistan, which is now in Pakistan -- early in the 20th century. The book is Notes on the Study of the Brahui Language (Revised and Second Edition, Quetta, 1917), by Rai Bahadur Diwan Jamiat Rai, C.I.E., Extra Assistant Commissioner in Baluchistan. Almost half the book is devoted to lists of single sentences, in categories like `Colloquial Sentences' (e.g. `You shall suffer rigorous imprisonment for 8 months, pay a fine of Rs. 50 and in default suffer further imprisonment for 2 months') and `Riddles and proverbs' (e.g. `Do not trust a wife, a sword, a horse and a serpent' and `He will give it to you when wild sheep are shorn' [i.e. never]).

To someone interested in language contact, like me, the most interesting sentences are in a section called `Miscellaneous Sentences'. Here are some examples, with numbers as given in Rai's book:

272 There are slight differences in the language of each clan of the Brahuis.

274 The Brahui we Shahwanis speak is good one.

411 Do you know Brahui?

412 Certainly, I can understand both Brahui and Balochi.

413 Do you know Jagdali?

414 No, I do not know Jagdali at all.

415 That man talks good Brahui.

416 He talks corrupt Brahui.

482 That man talks Jagdali, I cannot understand him.

Baluchi is an Iranian language, and Jagdali is an Indic (a.k.a. Indo-Aryan) language. According to the 1992 edition of the Ethnologue, the three varieties of Baluchi are spoken by a total of 5,230,000 people in seven different countries (but mostly in Pakistan); as of 1987, Jagdali had `a few thousand' speakers, all in Baluchistan. Brahui, the northernmost Dravidian language, has 1,710,000 speakers in three countries, but mostly in Pakistan. Assuming that the relative sizes of the speech communities were roughly similar in 1917, Rai's slight emphasis on Jagdali seems a bit surprising: two of his other sentences concern a sick nephew who declines to accept his uncle's advice to go to the hospital because he (the nephew) doesn't speak Jagdali and therefore wouldn't expect to get adequate treatment there. Maybe Jagdali speakers were rich and powerful in 1917 and/or especially inclined to populate major medical establishments? I could check up on this. Maybe I will, if the results of today's election make me want to escape to a different century

Posted by Sally Thomason at November 2, 2004 08:04 PM