The Angry Corrie 54: Jul-Aug 2002


J'accuse: Himahlya

TWO THINGS are happening to the poor old Himalayas. One is a pronunciation shift from four to three syllables, with a weird drawling emphasis on the middle vowel; the other is a mysterious singularisation. The two affectations tend to occur together, but there are sporadic reports of half-hearted folk indulging themselves in just one or the other - "Himalaya" and "Himahlyas" have occasionally been heard.

Well, fair play, I used to think - people have the right to talk however they want, no matter how daft it makes them sound. In fact, that long, low, back vowel (so alien to the Scottish tongue) was a useful marker, helping to distinguish all the unreflective fashion-victims from the normal folk. When the singular usage began to make the occasional furtive appearance in TAC, I did become concerned. But surely this was the result of a momentary inattention on the part of TAC's stalwarts? (For few are more reflective, or less victimised, than they are.) So I held my tongue. In the last few years, though, Himahlya has moved to the offensive, in both senses of the word. On several occasions recently, I've been publicly and dismissively "corrected" for using straightforward English.

Enough is enough. So, for those TACers who care to reclaim "Himalayas" for the cause of common sense, I rehearse the usual arguments below. (Appropriately enough, in what follows, the Himahlya-sayer speaks in bold.)

It's the correct pronunciation.

No, it's a pronunciation. Many languages are spoken in and around the Himalayas, including English. What you're affecting is the Nepali pronunciation of a word first used by the Sanskrit-speakers of the Indus valley. You'll find that the Tibetans say Hi-ma-la-ya - they borrowed the word from Nepali but modified the pronunciation. The original Sanskrit had a middle "a", too - Himalaya - and that classical form influenced the usual English pronunciation, which has been with us for 150 years.

Yes, OK, but don't you think it's important to say things the way the locals do?

Ah, what a tempting notion that is. Who among us has not come back from some foreign trip intent on saying "yama" for llama, or "Nee-kar-agggh-wa" for Nicaragua, or "Mong-rrrhay-al" for Montreal? (I confess to a dangerous flirtation with "Budapesht" myself.) And who among us was not then kindly mocked by our friends, who pointed out jeeringly (but caringly) that such words were pronounced differently in English, and, since English was the language we had chosen to speak, could we not just speak it properly? Or were we planning on spending the rest of our lives saying "Paree" for Paris?

So to answer your question - no, I think it's sad and silly to say things the way the locals do if there's an accepted English pronunciation.

Fine, but ...

If I may finish. I'm intrigued, also, by the fact that you've chosen to express your linguistic solidarity not with the unfortunate Tibetans, still labouring under the Han yoke, but with the nice Nepali folk who denuded half a hillside to keep you in firewood during your last trekking holiday.

Fine. But. Even if you don't like the pronunciation, you can't just go making it into a plural. It comes from hima, "snow" and alaya, "abode". So it's "abode of the snow" - a singular word for the whole mountain range.

No it's not. It's a singular word for whatever the person who coined it was looking at when they coined it. And I doubt if the original Sanskrit speakers were referring to anything other than: "those white jaggy bits you can see in the distance on a clear day." And I imagine the old mountain pilgrims meant: "the big white jaggy things we've just been climbing." And the Nepali settlers meant: "the big white jaggy things all around our village." No one, until the British came along, meant the whole vast sweep of the damn things from India to Tibet and Kashmir to Bhutan. Which is why there are quite a lot of Himalayas. Geographers describe them in bands from north to south - the Tibetan, Great, Lesser and Outer Himalayas. And from west to east there are any number of localised sub-groupings like the Khumbu, Ganesh, Jugal and Gurkha Himalayas. The whole bunch of them taken together just can't be anything else but plural Himalayas.

Hang on, though, smartarse. If you want a plural, you've got to use the Nepali plural - you can't just go tacking an "s" on the end.

Oh, for goodness sake. Watch. My. Lips. It's an English word. It has been assimilated into the language, so it takes the usual English plural ending. Or are you going to tell me that because "octopus" is Greek you've been insisting on the correct plural "octopodes" all these years? (Oh dear. You haven't been thinking it was Latin and saying "octopi", have you? Gosh, how embarrassing.)

Shut up. Just shut up. Doug Scott says "Himahlya", and that's good enough for me.

Of course it is, because Doug Scott is a mountain god. He has also crawled off the Ogre with two broken legs. Maybe you'll want to try that, too, but I doubt if anyone'll mistake you for a mountain god even then.

Are you asking for a rap in the mouth?

Not at all. But I could take you and your soft friends, easy. Do you really think you're hard? Do you? Come on, then. Come on.

(With the logical structure thus sketched out, the interested reader should be able to conclude the conversation without further help from me.)

Grant Hutchison


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