Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Lizards, Walls, Dragons: on an apparently undocumented Nepali lexeme (भित्ति)

I have not posted in some time due to dissertating, searching for (and thankfully finding) a job, and subsequently moving. Here's a short posting on a Nepali word which I heard from my wife which I can't find in any Nepali dictionary.

When we moved into our new house, we discovered that there were a number of house-lizards already resident (and, less amusingly, quite a few German roaches), which our cat has really enjoyed hunting down. I remembered having such lizards in our house in India, and immediately I saw them remarked to my wife "देखो! छिपकली है!" (Look! There's a lizard!"), using the Hindi word for "lizard", छिपकली [chipkalī]. My wife replied, "in Nepali we call them 'bhitti' (भित्ति)."

I'd never heard this word before, and was curious. I checked Turner's A comparative and etymological dictionary of the Nepali language as well as his mammoth four-volume A comparative Dictionary of the Indo-Aryan languages. Neither mentions bhitti or anything like it. I also checked a number of Hindi dictionaries, none of which turned up anything. Except for Platts' A dictionary of Urdu, classical Hindi, and English, which has an entry for भित्तिका bhittikā:
S بهتکا भित्तिका bhittikā, s.f. Wall (=bhīt, q.v.); small house lizard.
This isn't quite bhitti, but it's close. I had already supposed (and my wife had already suggested) that bhitti was connected with the word for "wall" (in Nepali, भित्तो bhitto or भित्ता bhittā), given that they're often found on walls. So bhitti is something like "wall-(related) creature". [Turner does have an entry for bhitti, but he gives the meaning "wall".] 

Platts' entry indicates a Sanskrit origin, and indeed  bhittikā looks awfully Sanskritic, with the "diminutive" -(i)ka suffix, which is not really always diminutive, but rather can also attach to words with no change in meaning. But here perhaps a diminutive based on "wall" makes sense. 

Interesting, the Sanskrit word for "wall, panel, partition", bhittí, comes from a root √bhid- "to split", which is very dear to my heart (part of the Proto-Indo-European dragon mythology). 

So there's a "new" Nepali word:  bhitti "house-lizard", which doesn't seem to have been recorded before. It may be dialectal (i.e. I'm not sure that Kathmandu Nepali speakers would use it), and that's perhaps why it wasn't previously recorded. In any case, I think it's a cool word, given that it does sort of connect lizards and dragons, indirectly.

[Incidentally, Platts suggests that Hindi छिपकली [chipkalī] derives from the root chip- "to hide", which is what I always assumed (going back to an early Indo-Aryan *chapp- "press, cover, hide". Turner, on the other hand, derives it from Sanskrit शेप्या śepyā which means "tail" (and "penis", but I think "tail" is what is relevant here). The (potential) Nepali cognate of Hindi छिपकली [chipkalī] is छेपारो chepāro, though the latter might be more plausibly derived from  Sanskrit शेप्या śepyā "tail", especially as छेपारो chepāro seems to refer to outdoor lizards (while माङ्सुलि māṅsuli is used for house lizards).]