I don’t speak Apatani, nor do I belong to the Apatani community. But I have recently become interested in the NE language issue as a social anthropologist. Being a stranger to ‘Tanii agun’, I am in a perfect position to apprehend the difficulties of this language as soon as I try learn a couple of sentences… Incidentally I have found that the word structure itself (what is called ‘morphology’ by linguists) can help beginers in the learning process. I hope this post will be useful to others too.
In Tanii, most nouns have 2 syllables : a-ki (dog), ya-ru (ear), etc. The second syllable is considered as the root of the word, and the first syllable as a prefix. In Tanii each root is necessarily preceded by a prefix.
A most interesting feature of Tanii prefixes is that they tend to function as classifiers. It means that a same prefix will apply to words which belong to the same ‘family’
The most common prefix for four-legged animals (quadrupeds) is SII-.
siimyo, siiso, siiyin
3 wild cat species
It does not mean that ALL names of quadrupeds use the prefix SII-. There are in fact many ‘exceptions’ such as ami (cat), patii (tiger), hoggya (clouded leopard) etc. But as a rule a majority of them will do so.
Similarly, the most common prefix for birds is PA-
jungle fowl (diff. species)
The ‘exceptions’ are : puha (crow), miichie (kite), pesu (hornbill), etc.
The most common prefix for fishes is NGI- or NGII- (from ngiiyi/ngihi : fish), with very few exceptions
weed fish (Dorikona)
A most common prefix for small terrestrial animals such as insects, molluscs, worms, etc. is TA-
Exceptions : poper (butterfly), gonchi (dragonfly), kowa/kuha (grasshopper), nyanyi (honey bee), rimi (spider), dorgi (earthworm)...
A common prefix for trees, parts of trees, or pruducts obtained from trees is SAN- or SEN- (from sanii = tree), which becomes SAM-/SEM- before m, b, or p letters
Indian wild pear (Pyrus pashia)
Rhododendron arboreum, a rhododendron species
a wild tree species whose fruit is used as spice
a tree species of ritual importance during Myoko
a tree species whose leaves are used as natural dye
a tree species
branch of a tree
The prefix for words which depict parts of the arm or hand is LA- (from ala = hand)
Similarly, the prefix for words depicting parts of the leg or foot is LII- (from ali = leg)
back of the knee
Note that there is a correspondence between terms of upper and lower members. Thus :
langa (wrist) corresponds to liinga (ankle)
lachi (finger) <=> liichi (toe)
lanii (thumb) <=> liinii (big toe)
lahin/layin (finger nail) <=> liihin/liiyin (toe nail)
lapyo (palm) <=> liipyo (sole)
It means that by knowing the words related to the hand and arms, corresponding terms for leg and foot can be easily deduced.
Most prefixes are of this type, i.e. they give us some clue to understand the meaning of the word to which they are attached. The only prefix which gives no information, hence called ‘neutral prefix’, is A-. It is however a widespread one. It applies in particular to kinship terms (aba, ama, ate, ata, abang, anu, aku, ato, ayo, etc..) or words related to body parts (anying, alyo, ami, amu, aha, etc.), but not only. That is the reason why, in a Tanii dictionary, words whose first letter is A are the most numerous.
I have found that this peculiar feature of Tanii language helps to memorize a great deal of words. We can first get familiarized with the various families, then learn the exceptions. Knowing the most common prefixes also help to grasp the meaning of an unknown word when heard for the first time. But in order to avoid confusion it implies that, once identified, prefixes must be written in various words always using the same spelling.
P. Bouchery, University of Poitiers, France