Wednesday, November 21, 2007

How many words for ‘rice’ in Tanii ?

English language basically has two words :

- paddy, which refers to the unhulled raw rice, especially when it is still in the field (called paddy-field when flooded)
- rice, which refers either to the cooked state, or to the species in the general sense (hence ‘rice-field’ is also appropriate).

But for a culture with such a deep relationship with rice as the Taniis, it is not surprising to find various words for expressing rice in its various stages of growth and preparation, depending on whether it is husked or unhusked, cooked or uncooked…
Beginning from the generic word for seed, PYALYI (PYALI). When it is first sprouted in nurseries (miding) it is known as ENI. Becoming a rice plant, the names changes from ENI to ENDI. After months of maturing it is harvested, the ear (elyang) is separated from its stalk, then the grain from the ear. This unhulled raw rice (still called paddy in English) is referred to as EMO. When the hull or chaff (empi, piinan) is removed, you finally get EMBIN, the basic word for husked but uncooked rice. Another possible word is PANYI. This unpolished brown rice is the simplest form of ready-to-cook rice. At this stage, the rice may be steamed or boiled. Once it is cooked, it is no longer called EMBIN, but becomes APIN. There is apparently another word, DO, which applies to the rice set apart for pounding. AMU refers to the quantity of grain, or to the paddy crop as quantity, either in the field (aji amu), or stored in baskets or in granaries.

Note that most of the words used for ‘rice’ or for describing parts of the paddy plant use the same prefix, EN- (or EM- , esp. before m, b and p letters). Thus :

embin : husked raw rice
emo : paddy (as crop)
empii : husk
endi : paddy (as rice plant)
eni : paddy sprout
enkho : paddy stem
entii : harvest (of paddy)

For that reason, in order to maintain the unity of this ‘word family’, spellings such as ‘ambing’ and ‘ankho’ which are sometimes seen in publications, should be discarded. The same prefix is also present in 3 words refering to 3 months of the Tanii calendar viz., Enda (May-June), Empii (June-July), and Emo (November-December).

There may be some more words that I missed, so please add your comments.
P. Bouchery

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Learning Apatani language : an easy way to memorize nouns

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’

Example :

The most common prefix for four-legged animals (quadrupeds) is SII-.








stag, antelope


small deer











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-




swan, goose


pigeon, dove






jungle fowl


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


Schizothorax sp.


weed fish (Dorikona)


unidentified species


unidentified species

A most common prefix for small terrestrial animals such as insects, molluscs, worms, etc. is TA-




tick, flea


head lice



















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


Prunus nepalensis


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

sanko bacho

a tree species


branch of a tree







The prefix for words which depict parts of the arm or hand is LA- (from ala = hand)


upper arm














finger nail


hand palm



Similarly, the prefix for words depicting parts of the leg or foot is LII- (from ali = leg)




back of the knee














big toe


toe nail

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

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Babo in Tanii (Apatani) culture

Babo’, or tall T-shaped wooden poles with thatch flags on the top towering above the roofs of houses, are a unique feature of Tanii villages. They play a prominent role every year during the time of Myoko festival when they are set up in front of the lapan and become the seat of various rituals. A few decades ago at this occasion men used to perform daring aerial acrobatics using the long cane rope (boha) tied to the tops of the masts. Young men in particular tried to demonstrate their skills by doing saumersaults over the rope. This activity was not without danger however, and for that reason the tradition has gradually fallen into decay. It seems that it has not been played on Ziro plateau since the 70’s or early 80’s. But the rituals associated with them continue to be performed every year during Myoko.

Two types of babo are erected :

  • a smaller one, santin babo, is set up by households for every male child and attached to the house front porch (byago), the number of poles varying from house to house according to the number of sons. The household head and male members of the family go to the forest and get straight tree trunks which are later decorated. Lacking the required solidity, these are not made for acrobatic activities.

A Tanii village lane along which santing babo can be
seen adjoining almost every house front verandah (byago)

  • a bigger type, akha babo, is erected on a clan basis and set up in front of almost every lapan. This mast is a solid wooden structure that may reach up to 15-20 meters high. The tree trunks are cut and dragged from the forests by a collective effort of male members of the clan. They are ceremonially pitched on the eve of the festival after having been decorated

The babo structure, i.e. the tree trunk holding the decorations which are attached to it, incorporates a fixed number of elements that are not only essential to its functioning but are also of symbolic or ritual importance :

· babo taper : 4 elongated planks of 5-6 meters long arranged so as to form a narrow twin-armed platform. They are first shaved with a dao and tied together in pairs with cane strips, then the two wooden arms are inserted horizontally into what will become the top of the mast. A space is left between the upper (ayo taper) and the lower structure (akan taper) for wrapping the cane rope on which acrobatics are performed.

· lako : a wooden stick inserted into each tip of the ayo taper and akan taper and joining them.

· lata : a long stick measuring approximately 2 meters tied horizontally at some distance from the top of babo.

· cholo : a wooden plank made in the shape of a machete (ilyo) on which designs are added by the use of charcoal, tied on the upper end of babo to what is seen as its ‘back side’. A decoration consisting of a bunch of bamboo sheaves or tassels hangs from the broader end.

· babo rinyo : basically a cane framework or rug-sized screen-like banners made of loops of cane (today sometimes replaced by some tissue or synthetic net) which is tied to and hangs from each tip of akan taper, in a manner that it sways rythmically in strong wind or when acrobatic performers apply a tensile load to the mast.

· rinyo pata : the lower part of of babo rinyo, a wooden plank of about 60 cm long attached to the loops of cane This element is usually decorated with geometrical motifs painted with black soots or charcoal.

· rinyo jompu (or rinyo some as called at Hari) : fine bamboo sheaves tied uniformly between the two pata, with one tip hanging down from the lower one. Altogether it makes up a kind of decorated panel.

· abyun-nanii : large wooden boards cut from the biggest trees of the forest which are manhandled to the village. Once packed tightly and stuck at the base of babo by means of wooden hammers, they serve as chocks to maintain the babo firmly into the ground. The wooden boards are fastened together with ropes (tiipii).

· boa (or boha): a cane rope wrapped around the mast between ayo and akan taper, first used to hoist the mast and then left hanging loosely from its top, on which acrobatics are performed. This rope is made out of a special type of cane called taser yaso (Calamus acanthospathus), in the same way mithun ropes are plaited. The lower end which is attached to a pole (botu) secures tightly to the ground at such a distance that the rope forms an angle of approximately 45-60° with the babo pole.

Erecting a babo

Due to its size and weight, the erection of an akha babo is a collective work involving the participation of 20 to 30 male members of the clan. It is interesting to note that the procedure has remained almost exactly the same since Prof. C. von F├╝rer-Haimendorf first shot it at Hong in 1944. The original video can be seen from this link.

The structure comprising the pole, taper and lata is erected first, then the other elements are added by someone escalating the mast. A dozen of long ropes are first tied to the taper structure and pole. Clan members act in three separate groups of about 10 people each : one group gets the mast hauled into position by pulling the ropes while a second one, holding bamboo poles, tries to lift the top of the structure. As the mast is being erected a third group sustains the base of the main pole and guides it into a hole that has been dig purposely. By means of wooden mallets the boards are hammered into position around the base of the mast to get it firmly tied into the ground.

Erecting a babo, Hong, March 2007 (Courtesy Ph. Ramirez, CNRS)

A man then scales the mast. Climbing is facilitated by the use of a rope which has been previously wrapped around it (see photo below). Having reached the lata stick and standing on it he can release most of the ropes from taper, leaving only the rope centrally attached to the mast (which will be used to performed acrobatics) plus one or two others at close distance from the mast. Then he climbs down the uppermost part of the mast and swings down the rest of the way on one of the remaining ropes

Securing boa around the mast, Hong, March 2007 (Courtesy Ph. Ramirez, CNRS)

In a very same manner the two banners (rinyo) are carried aloft and hanged at each tip of the taper structure. In Haimendorf's video a man then climbs up the uppermost part of the mast carrying cholo on his back and fix it to the end of the pole. In the 2007 scene, cholo is attached to the mast prior to its erection.


It is still unclear whether the proper name for this activity is boa be (boa = rope; be = to jump), boa behii (behii = to dive or saumersault) or boa beniin (beniin = jumping). Traditionally the strength and elasticity of the long rope were first tested by a few people who hanged from it and sprang onto it. The acrobatics performed were actually a kind of bobbling act using the tensile strength of boa, and the action basically consisted in pulling the rope down and letting it spring up. For the public performance two or three persons usually pulled on and handled the rope, impulsing an up and down movement, after what the rope was released and the jumper got himself propelled high up into the air. While swinging in the air he did somersaults on the elastic rope before an appreciative audience observing from below or from the various byago, as on the picture below. In those days where boa behii/benii was still popular during Myoko festival kids of both sexes often tried to participate to the game as they could by tiying small swing towards the lower end of the rope.

Apatani man performing boha behii/benii at Hari, 1954 (photograph by Verrier Elwin)

A scene showing the bobbling action from Haimendorf's silent film collection :