lemony, lemony, lemony nuns
January 29, 2011 12:00 AM   Subscribe

In the film Black Narcissus, the nuns are referred to directly with a formal address that sounds like "lemony." What is it? You can hear Joseph say it here three times very clearly, at 5:15 and forward. It is used for all the nuns.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This poster suggests it may be "Lemini," which reportedly means "sister" in Hindustani.
posted by Dimpy at 12:13 AM on January 29, 2011

Which "Hindustani" ? Afaik, bahen or bahena means sister in Hindi. If its a polite address to women in authority or older, then the word is "Didi" which fits far better as it means "Elder sister". Could it be that this word is being misheard?
posted by infini at 5:46 AM on January 29, 2011

Nothing in the video sounds remotely like Hindustani nor do the women look Indian (in dress), the British tend not to make errors if its set in India. The description says Himalayas, near Darjeeling and the dancing girl's name is given as Kanchi - means "girl" in Nepali or Pahari, and used in Bollywood before. Could be a dialect being used here? Or Nepali - the women do look more Nepali than anything else.
posted by infini at 5:55 AM on January 29, 2011

"Lemini" is what is used in the book, and the first quote on that page suggests it is used to mean "Sister" as one would call a nun.
posted by unknowncommand at 7:04 AM on January 29, 2011

Googling brings up this page, which has "lēmini" in the third line of the second stanza (kalimi jūcu vāru lēmini), with the parallel translation including "brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, elder sisters, elder brothers, younger brothers." It's the lyrics for a piece of Carnatic music, which is from southern India, but the lyrics could be in any of a number of languages (Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, or Sanskrit), and I'm afraid I don't know enough to specify. Maybe this will help narrow it down for someone else, though.
posted by languagehat at 7:37 AM on January 29, 2011

Response by poster: In my pre-ask googling, I checked Tamil and Nepali for "sister." I'll look at the other languages you suggest, lhat.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:19 AM on January 29, 2011

Yes, it says "Lemini" in the book, so it's Rumer Godden's choice, not Powell's or Pressburger's.

Rumer Godden spent her childhood in Narayanganj, now-Bangladesh. So even though the setting of the book is the Darjeeling area, and presumably the nuns would have been speaking Bengali or Hindi or Nepali, she may have used an honorific familiar to her from one of the other languages of now-Bangladesh.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:07 PM on January 29, 2011

Best answer: I posted the question on LH, and this answer seems convincing:
I think the word might be [Telugu] లేమిని lēmini, ‘poor woman’, from లేమి lēmi, ‘poverty’?
So there you go.
posted by languagehat at 6:57 AM on January 31, 2011

Sigh. Convincing as that seemed, appparently it's wrong. New comment:
Telugu for the win

I am not convinced by this. Telugu is not, I think, a commonly spoken language in either the area where the book is set or where Rumer Godden grew up. (Wikipedia suggests less than a quarter of a percent speak it in current West Bengal, for example). It's also not Sanskritic in origin so it is not close to Bengali, Nepali etc.

The introduction of the term in the book also makes no reference to poverty. It seems more like a term of respect:
"Yes, lady." Ayah gave him a tap behind. "She isn't a lady, she's a Sister. Say 'Yes, Lemini'."
It seems to me more likely to be drawn from a local language. My suggestion is that it is probably related to lamini, a term which seems to be sometimes used in the East Himalayan area either for a female Buddhist teacher or wife or daughter of a lama. There are examples of its use with the first meaning here and here and with the second meaning here.
My response: "You're absolutely right, that's much more plausible."
posted by languagehat at 6:39 AM on February 1, 2011

Posting a link to the Languagehat thread, just so it doesn't slide into the archives unsung.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:53 AM on February 1, 2011

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