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Bones, Stones, Moans, and Groans


When Josh texted me a picture of a slide from med school with this title, I was somewhat concerned that an expensive education was being supplanted by humor and incredibly relieved that there is humor in his life. The title reminded me of the many ways in which our almost 99-year old baby describes her ailments. They come in pairs of words that are fictitious. You ask Mother how she is doing and she will let loose a torrent of Bengali phrases like dob dob, ton ton, mayj mayj, chin chin, and dhor por to describe pain, tiredness, or restlessness.

These are not real words in Bengali, her native tongue, or in English, her adopted tongue. For unknown reasons, Bengalis are likely to burst into these phrases when feeling ill. Repeating nonsensical audio representations of a discomfort brings instant relief to us. Ton ton is really bad pain whereas chin chin is a minor one. When the world didn't offer a scale, Bongs invented one. We are clever that way.

It seems we aren't the only ones that repeat words. It is common practice in many languages.

But Bengalis take this to a whole different level...

On the way to the doctor, I quiz Mother on her ailments. She swiftly resorts to repeating words for every body part. The knee is doing ton ton; the head is doing dob dob; the chest is doing dhor por; and her body is feeling mayj mayj. I shake my head and tell her, "I simply cannot say this to the doctor who doesn't speak Bengali!" And she replies, "Just tell him, he will understand, he is a doctor." So, I say nothing. I wait for her to tell the doctor and instead she smiles at him sweetly and says, "I am fine, how are YOU?"

It's like taking a squeaky car to the mechanic and having it purr smoothly. While she happily marches to 100, she contributes to our existential crisis on a daily basis.

The Bengali language, known as Bangla, is the official language of Bangladesh and the main language of the Indian state of West Bengal. After Hindi, it is the most widely spoken language in India. You know of many famous Bengalis, like Ravi Shankar (musician), Amartyo Sen (Nobel - Economics), Rabindranath Tagore (Nobel - Literature), and Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (famous computer scientist and Kwik-E-Mart proprietor from The Simpsons). I grew up speaking Bengali at home and was taught how to read and write the language by my beloved grandmother. Strange Bengali words come right after ACTG in my DNA which is why "Argle Bargle" warms my soul.

But why is Bengali replete with repeating words??

After several attempts of searching on Google, I finally found a scholarly article titled: Identification of Reduplication in Bengali Corpus and their Semantic Analysis: A Rule-Based Approach by Tanmoy Chakraborty and Sivaji Bandyopadhyay of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering in Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

Note it took two computer scientists, a page of references on linguistic research, and an algorithm to explain our eccentricity.

I learned from this article that we indulge in two types of reduplication: expression level and sense level. Expression level reduplication is to emphasize or break the monotony of the narration. Sense level reduplication reinforces repetition, plurality, completion, and hesitation. These two researchers created an algorithm to predict how Bongs tokenize words.

A sense of relief washed over me after reading this article. Fellow Bongs, we are not clueless! We follow rules, we know what we are doing, even though we sound like a robot at times. While we lyrically moan and groan about our bones and stones, the important point is we spend all our time speaking our language, which keeps us out of bigger troubles. Phew!


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