A few weeks ago a 78 year-old lady, a mother of eight and a widow for the past ten years came to see me for a consultation. Very hesitant at first she gradually relaxed to explain the nature of her ‘problem’. She had begun a new relationship with a man four years younger than her and was finding sexual intercourse uncomfortable. She was anxious to have the situation rectified if at all possible. ‘After all Doctor,’ she said plainly. ‘Given our ages this is probably our last chance for love.’
Thankfully the ‘problem’ is easily rectified and she left the consultation in high spirits. I found the whole episode both incredibly heart-warming but also because of what she had said, very poignant.
The lady in question was in my thoughts last week, wondering how she was getting on, as I read an article by Lucille Redmond in the Irish Times on the loss of marginal languages and her noting of the calculation by linguist Mark Abley that a language dies out somewhere in the world every 14 days, never to be heard again. Abley, a Canadian, fell in love early in his linguistic studies with the expressive verbalisation of the Bodo language of North-Eastern India and although acknowledging Noel Chomsky’s argument that because of a very similar grammatical structure of all of the world’s languages that an arriving extra-terrestrial (analysing conceptual context) would understand the peoples of our world as speaking the same language, he pleads for the aggressive preservation of local dialects.
Bodo (pronounced BO-ros) is a language of the Tibeto-Burmese family of languages spoken by about a million people in the Assam State of north-eastern India. The Bodo people, an ethnic sub-group of the Kachari, are thought to be the aboriginal inhabitants of the Brahmaputra Valley where the names of all the tributary rivers in the valley are in the Bodo language.
The language itself is highly expressive and whole concepts, physical and metaphysical can be summarised in sometimes one word. One of the most expressive verbs is Ónsra: meaning ‘to love for the last time’.
Interestingly another sub-group of the Bodo people are the Mech, living mainly in the Kamrup district, and are called that not by themselves but by their Hindu neighbours. Mech derives from the Sanskrit word Mlechcha meaning ‘stranger’, and having originally changed their pagan beliefs to Hinduism to fit in with their neighbours, the Mech are now because they have remained strangers and somewhat marginalised, subject to intense proselytising by American missionaries.
The missionaries need to be somewhat careful though! For instance a Bodo hunter’s proverb explains how a hunted animal is tracked and killed by saying,
“A hare dies due to its shit; a deer dies due to its footstep; a man dies due to his mouth.”
Carol King wrote a theme song in 1985 for the movie Murphy’s Romance called Love for the Last Time. The third verse goes:
Just think of it,
If we had missed the moment,
we might have spent the years ahead believing love had passed
I found a love to last a lifetime
I'm in love for the last time,
and time will make it last.
Ón, the verb for to love in the Bodo language is distinguished by a high vowel intonation on the Ó (denoted in written form by the ´ ) from the noun On meaning rice-powder.
And I thought of my 78 year-old Connemara patient, in love for perhaps the last time and not restricted in either imagination, perception or intonation to a last bowl of rice pudding instead.
Ónsra and beyond for her! And I hope for the rest of us.