September 30, 2012

Taming Hindi

One of the positive impacts Bollywood has had on me are the free rides it provided me in my quest of learning Hindi. Mithun Chakraborty, Poonam Dhillon and Kimi Katkar along with Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil and Girish Karnad spoke to me in Hindi through movies on the Doordarshan and through numerous video cassettes hired from the local video store. My ceaseless (and annoying - as I now realize) questions of “Ima, kei haino?” (“Mother, what is he/she saying?”) posed to my mother have acted as the earliest way of understanding Hindi for me, long before I ever opened a Hindi dictionary. As I progressed, I started asking meanings of specific words rather than all-encompassing “What is he saying?” questions. 

Amusingly, songs hardly contributed to my vocabulary, even though I was subjected to numerous Hindi songs – my mother used to hum Lata songs all the time, our audio cassette collection consisted of an eclectic mix of albums ranging from Dance Dance, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak to Silsila, Akhir Kyon. I hummed the songs along without understanding the lyrics which were, unsurprisingly, often wrong.

Hindi grammar lessons came from my grandfather. A schoolteacher by profession, he had attended a training programme in Hindi once (I never asked him when, but I am putting it around the 50’s- “after the war”, as he mentioned). Through him, I learned subtler grammatical details of Hindi, most notably the lack of the neuter gender. Pushtak is male, kitaab is female, he taught. And each of the following: aeroplane, bus, ship, car – is either masculine or feminine. In addition, verbs too reflected masculinity/femininity (karta hai vs karti hai). This was a most confusing aspect of Hindi to me and remains so till this day.

My grandfather had a peculiar pronunciation which I deduced was the result of having learnt Manipuri, then English, then Bengali and finally some Hindi, usually through people who knew them as second languages. For instance, “main” (I) was pronounced “mei” with a much more prominent ‘n’ sound; “baarah” (twelve) was pronounced more as “baaraha”.

It was a revelation when one of my Hindi teachers explained that the ‘d’ sound in ‘darr’ (fear) and in ‘do’ (two) are two different phonemes. This was as late as my 7th class and she was our first Hindi-speaking Hindi teacher. Our teacher made us learn how to pronounce the murdhanya sounds – , ठ, ड, ढ , ण, ष. In Manipuri, the murdhanya sound is completely absent. There is only one d sound and only a single s sound (as opposed to the talavya, murdhanya and dantya s sounds in Hindi). Even s and sh don’t make a difference in Manipuri (you will find many pronouncing sheep as ‘seep’).  Similarly, v and f do not exist in Manipuri and in many cases (especially older speakers), it will be pronounced as b (as in Bineet) , bh (bheri for very),  ph (phair for fair) etc.

Learning a new phoneme may be considerably harder as age advances. For example, the Manipuri language uses words beginning with ‘ng’ as in ‘ngaa’ (fish).  The ‘ng’ sound is as found in words like ‘thing’, ‘sing’ but only in the beginning of the word. It is near impossible for someone to learn how to pronounce a word like ‘ngaa’ once one crosses, say, twenty years of age if he did not learn it earlier. Also, for someone not used to tonal languages, it will be difficult to imagine how tones differentiate meaning of words in Manipuri. For example, ‘kaaba’ can mean different things (climb or burnt) depending on the tone of the first syllable. Similar are the cases when Manipuris have difficulty learning sounds like the murdhanya d, get confused between different sa’s and even pronouncing v, f etc. Needless to say, for someone who learns first a vernacular language with a very different subset of phonemes, it is a paradigm shift when he later learns English and/or Hindi.

To confuse things further, Manipuri as written in the Bengali script makes some irrational uses of letters primarily to make use of the extra ones in the alphabet. Shan (cow) uses murdanya sa and murdanya na (mudeino as pronounced in Manipuri). When I asked teachers about this particular spelling, the answer was tradition. Words derived from Hindi retain their original spelling, e.g. thelagari. The Bengali script was useful for reading Sanskrit or Bengali but it was unsuitable for Manipuri. This has been cleared to some extent with the recent popularisation of the original Manipuri script.

My Hindi was subjected to much closer scrutiny as late as after my secondary school when I started mingling with predominantly Hindi speaking people. Features of Hindi which were exotic to me like the difference between r and d were now elements of humour to my friends, sometimes even tease, say, when I mispronounced r for d or vice versa. The confusion between masculinity and feminity of verbs too was brought to the fore. While I managed to speak right for most of the time, slips of tongue occurred. I would say slips of tongue because there were very few cases where I was really unaware – when I didn't know what I was supposed to say.

I have crossed many bridges and many passes but haven’t conquered Hindi yet. It has been an intriguing journey; I may rest but I shall not retire from my quest. Mainly because, to me, Hindi is a phunny language!


onkar said...

Beautiful post Bobo!!

Priyanshu said...

It's a very interesting read.
And I must confess, I never knew about the nomenclature of Hindi sounds (talavya, murdhanya and dantya). :)

Anonymous said...

My tryst with languages left me silent.

May be, languages should be learned with a phonetic script. Something along the lines of

There is only one true way to learn a language. Get a girl friend who only speaks that language.

bala said...

Always wanted to ask - is Manipuri close to any indo-Aryan language or did it evolve independently? Is is similar to other Asian languages - Chinese, burmese etc?

hitchhiker said...

@Anon Chinta, is that you?

@Bala It is similar to other Asian languages (regarded as a Sino-Tibetan language) There were influences of Bengali/Sanskrit, but pretty late (only a few centuries).