The emergence of a homophone

In Nepali and Newari, the same term मोबाईल (mobāīl)means three different things: (1) a mobile telephone (2) engine oil and (3) a utility pickup for hire. It’s not too difficult to work out where these words come from. All three are borrowings of the same word in English: mobile. The use and history of these homophones is a nice example of salience and domains as constraints on creating loan-words.

(1) Rather than adopting the British cellular telephone -> ‘cell phone’ Nepali took over the American ‘mobile phone’ -> ‘mobile’. That reflects a change in prestige dialects of English. Similarly, the word for a man’s Western style lower garment is ‘pant’, not ‘trouser’ although my tailor, from an old Muslim family in Iraqi Galli, always says ‘trouser pants’ and Indian English prefers ‘trouser’. There’s a lively conversation happening elsewhere on the net just now (late 2011 onwards) about verb phrases for calling someone else’s a mobile but intentionally disconnecting before the call is answered—in Nepali and Newari, the key phrase is borrowed from Nepali English, ‘missed call’, and one ‘gives a missed call’ (मिस्ट काल बीयेगु , मिस्ट काल दिने).

(2) Because the generic term for oil (तेल <- Skt. तैलः) is used for flammable fuels such as kerosene (मत तेल), petroleum and so on, it wasn’t available to use as a term for slippery lubricants in automobiles. The term तेल is generally used for viscous oils of vegetable origin, which must be its original meaning: cooking oil, lamp oil and massage oil. However, the practical domain of fluids one pours into engines is too small to permit unambiguous use of homophones: one doesn’t want to mix up ‘petrol’ and ‘engine oil’ (Brit.) or ‘gas’ and ‘oil’ (Amer.). Another term was needed. The most visible brand of engine lubricant must somehow have been Mobil, though to be honest, I’ve hardly ever seen a sign for Mobil here in the Kathmandu Valley and I wonder whether this is either something from the 1970s or something that came up from the Terai. Perhaps one reason for adopting the term for viscous oils for petroleum is that the the national fuel company is called नेपाल अायल निगाम, ‘Nepal Oil Company’. It’s almost the only context in which the term ‘oil’ is transcribed into Nepali. As an English term it shows up on packaging for cooking oil. The NOC doesn’t, so far as I know, market an engine oil; in Kuleśwor, the district between Balkhu and Kalimati with all the automobile garages and parts shops, it’s possible to buy several different brands of engine oil and it’s a little strange, coming from English, to hear drivers debating the relative performance of ‘Pennzoil mobāīl’.

Newari has exactly the same vocabulary; the term चिखं refers to cooking oil, medicinal and massage oil, lamp oil, and petrol, while मोबाईल now means mobile telephones and engine oil. A contrasting case is what in British English would be called ‘white spirits’ or in American ‘paint thinner’. This is very similar, in its chemical composition and sensual properties, to kerosene, but in both Nepali and Newari it’s called थिनर (pronounced ‘tihnur’, with an aspirated ‘t‘— sorry, I don’t have an IPA font t hand)— a transcription of the American ‘thinner’.

(3) Finally, मोबाईल as a utility pickup-bed vehicle comes from the ubiquitous Tata Mobile utility pickup. While it’s still the case that, down by Kuleśwor or Teku, where there are long ranks of these pickups waiting for day work, at least 60% are still Tata Mobiles by brand, these days one does see a few other makes and styles, including what British English would call a ‘van’ (with a closed or closable canopy). The term is usually encountered when it’s necessary to hire one for shifting large cargo, in the same way British English would talk about ‘hiring a van’ even if the actual vehicle wasn’t a closed-sided van at all. So also when discussing body types for cars, the term मोबाईल is used where American English would say ‘pickup’; they’re not so common in the UK. Too rainy, I suppose.

Two of these three borrowings come from commercial brand names. Given that the work of marketing is to increase salience, there is probably a causal link between the marketing industry and the emergence of loan words in peripheral market languages. So far as I can tell, the loans emerged at about the same time in Newari and Nepali; the business of driving is not one of those linguistic domains in which Nepāl Bhāṣā ethnic distinctiveness drives the creation or adoption of neologisms.

I do wonder, though, what a good Newari neologism for a mobile phone might be. We do have a productive suffix in – for ‘materials used for a verb’, as in ज्यासा (a workshop) or नाय्सा (food). Perhaps गाफ्सा, the materials for chatting?

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