Jonathan: Hindi Language

April 11, 2011

Keeping in mind that the interest of people back in the United States to my every move may not necessarily inspire constant interest in this blog, and given the fact that I use it basically all day, a brief introduction in the Hindi language is long overdue.

To begin, Hindi is a Dravidian language, meaning that it evolved along with many of the Romance languages and therein has common roots with many words.  Take, for instance, Pita in Hindi, Pata in Greek, and Father in English.  Modern Hindi, which developed through a geographical process which saw it swoop down central Asia and onto the subcontinent, therein is vaguely familiar to the western ear.  Note the term vague.

It should be noted, before continuing, that Hindi is by no means the universal language of India.  While widely spoken across northern India, it is secondary in many rural areas to the local tongue which has various similarities and differences.  Some may appear to be dialects while others are entirely different languages.  The area I am currently living in speaks Mawari whose script looks as if Dravidian Hindi script was merged with Arabic letters (could it have come from the Mughal Empire who has such firm roots in Rajasthan?).  The north, however, is largely bilingual, and often times trilingual, in the local language, Hindi, and some with English.  In the south and west, however, local languages reign and many speak only fractured Hindi, or none at all. With Tamil, Maharathi, Malayan, Bengali, and many others, the country therein maintains a diversity of languages, each with their unique insights into culture and identity.  This does not even touch on Urdu, a variation of Hindi which is spoken by Muslim communities and the whole of Pakistan.  With many similarities, and some borrowed words, it is not an official language of India even though it is widely spoken and understood.   Its story provides an interesting window into Hindo-Islamic relations.  This aside, however, if one presupposes that a cultures language(s) are an indication of its social values and priorities, Hindi gives excellent insight.

The most striking of these is in terms of familial relations.  Hindi maintains a tremendous number of descriptions to explain in-laws, cousins, aunts, uncles, older siblings, younger siblings, and onwards. Paternal uncles are “Cha-Cha” while maternal ones are “Foo-Fa.” Sister is “Bhen” while elder sister (including any woman who is older than you but too young to be your mother) is ‘Didi.’  Paternal grandparents are “Dada” and “Didi” while maternal are “Nana” and “Nani.”  There are different words to describe older sisters-in-law, younger sisters-in-law married to older brothers-in-law, cousins of ever iteration of genealogical gymnastics, and so on.  The sheer enormity of the number of familial relationships speaks both to the centrality of the family unit in Indian society, as well to the rigidity of male dominance and honor. Strict lines are drawn along paternal and maternal sides, and there is to be no doubt as to which family any given relative comes from.  No Indian would ever openly use this to place value unto a relative, but it is certainly present within a society where wives leave their villages far behind when, and I am being entirely literal here, ownership of them is transfered from their birth family to their husbands family.  In English, the terms mother, father, sister, brother-in-law are all quite curious in that they are clearly demarcated as being “in-law.”  A legally formed relationship — not blood.  In contrast, when a woman marries into a family, she looses not only much of her identity (the family and family friends will only call her by the Hindi word for ‘brothers wife,’ not her name), but she also will begin to refer to her new family by the requisite terms.  When she translates these to English, however, she describes her mother-in-law simply as her mother; her brother-in-law as her brother; etc.  To find out about her blood family, the family of her birth, it may take a few tries with broken Hindi, but one can usually break down the barrier.  The answer, however, seems distance and irrelevant to the woman.  She has married into the new family.  Till death do they part.

America, as we all know, is a politically correct society, and any international traveler is reminded of this constantly.  In India, this is manifested through the use of “thank you,” “sorry/excuse me,” and “please.”  To put it simply, they are not used often.  But to add complexity, when they are use it is a fascinating commentary of globalization.  Each word has a Hindi equivalent (“danyevad: for “thank you,” for example) which is widely known but not necessarily widely spoken.  Using these words is only done when one really means it.  All the students on my program have stories of being chastised for thanking their host mothers for chai or dinner.  Shopkeepers are bewildered when we dropped a quick “please” when requesting something.  In comparison to America, where children are groomed to over-use these terms, here it is seen as an insult.  To thank a good friend for a gift is to insinuate that you are not true friends (after all, don’t good friends give each other presents?).  To say “sorry” to a person on a bus whom you bump into would indicate that you did it on purpose.  ”Please” is only used in a begging situations, such as “please give me your notes for our engineering exam because I have not studied” (yes, that was a real example given to us by an Indian desperately trying to make it clear; it is a cultural commentary in its own right).  With all that said, these terms are beginning to gain use, but in a curious way.  It is not their Hindi equivalent but rather the english words that are used.  And thus westernism and globalization are intimately linked with the establishment of an over-polite culture.  That has been perhaps one of the most unexpected iterations of globalization I have encountered here.

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