Category Archives: Language

Hindi hain hum!

My 20-month-old still just babbles, doesn’t speak much except a little bit of Mamma, Dada, Bua, Tata (for Papa), Didi, flawa (which is for flower) and lizza, for his favourite thing in the world — lizards! He also says, aao (come in Hindi), when he wants to call any of us. But I’m not here to bore you with my boy’s developmental stories (though as a mother, I think they’re far from boring!). I’m here to discuss one of those mothering dilemmas that come with our times. Should I tell my boy that the tree in the garden is a mango tree or an aam ka ped? Should I ask him if he’d like some cucumber or kheera? Would he like some milkie or doodhoo?

I’m essentially a bilingual now. Not by birth, but by education. My mother tongue is Hindi, so is my husband’s. And Hindi is still the language spoken at home. I take pride in the fact that I know my Devnagri as well as the English alphabet, though like everyone else from this part of the world, my Hindi is liberally peppered with Urdu. I also feel there’s nothing bright about not knowing your native tongue, given the right context. It’s quite another matter that years of English education has conditioned me to think in a language that wasn’t the first I spoke.

So where was I? Yes, about whether I should teach my son to say grass or ghaas, corn or bhutta… I have friends and cousins living in metros who converse with their children entirely in English, because that’s the language they also use to communicate with each other, and since there’s no one else at home, they feel no need to resort to Hindi, except while speaking to the helpers in the house. I’ve met those kids, and honestly, I’m mighty impressed at how they speak such good English at 3, 4, or 5 years! It’s the language of the educated in our country, and like any ordinary Indian still reeling under the belated effects of the Raj, my first reaction is to hope my son’s not going to look like an idiot for babbling in Hindi. But thankfully, I also know better than to let first reactions decide what’s right and not for us.  And here’s what I have decided: I’m not going to keep him away from knowing his mother tongue before he learns cat-bat-mat. I understand that I come from a culture that’s perishing in neglect, because we’ve not done enough to preserve it. But culture isn’t just about heritage buildings and folk songs. It’s so much about language. I have had the chance to meet a fair number of really successful people from UP, who’ve made it big in the entertainment world by the sheer dint of their language skills — the enunciation, the vocabulary, the diction, which still retains a certain degree of purity. It’s the kind of Hindi/Urdu that Mumbaikars can never speak. Why is that a skill I must not pass on to my son? I’m not saying he’d go on to be a wordsmith of  Hindi, or a singer, but it’s something he will take with him from the place he was born in.

I come from a completely Hindi speaking family, and I think my English speaking and writing skills are more than adequate. Yes, perhaps I wasn’t speaking fluent English when I was 4, 0r 5, or even 8. But it’s not a survival skill my life depended on. So, there’s no reason why my boy will not pick up another language, along with Hindi. And I understand children this young can pick up more than one language pretty well. But I don’t want him to be grappling for the right tenses in Hindi, and the correct syntax, and the proper word for an object, while he rattles off English without any problems. I just want him to take a little bit of his culture with him in the way he speaks. I like that idea.

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>Hum aur Tum…

>…is the way I say me and you. You can say main here but tu would be considered rude.

I’m a Lucknow girl and if there’s anything you need to know about Lucknow, then it’s the language. The city has given birth to many poets and they owe in large measures their success to this city where the confluence of Hindi and Urdu lends a lyrical lilt to the language. So it’s only natural that as a Lucknow person and a literature student, I’m quite intrigued by the use and function of language.

In India, a person can be identified by the language he speaks and the way he speaks it. As you travel across UP, the dialect of Hindi changes through the cities and towns – refined in one place, rustic in another. A samosa from Kanpur would become a samausa in Meerut, if you know the difference!

I remember travelling to Haryana for my cousin’s wedding a few years ago with my family and being immediately identified as a Lucknowite there because of our aap and hum! Some say this language of thou and thine is too formal, that there’s a camaraderie that grows when you let this stiff upper lip-ness (I just made that up. So?) pass and come down to more comfortable tu and tera. Ask Mumbaikars, they’ll answer the how and why of it better.

A few months ago, The Guy was in Chandigarh to attend a business meeting. He came back extremely flustered because he didn’t understand why the man on the other end of the table was being so offensive. That man did not understand why The Guy minded what he said. Turned out, it was a simple case of lingual misunderstanding. The Punjabi fellow spoke a corrupted Punjabi that didn’t go down well with The Guy from the town of Nawabs!

Not that our language hasn’t corrupted and we can’t say anymore that if you find two people quarrelling in Lucknow, they will not be resorting to tu or tera (oh yes, they used to say that about the language here) but it’s still different from what you’re likely to hear in, say, Delhi.

And no, I’m not insinuating that the language we speak is the best but because I’m familiar with its nuances, I can appreciate it better. There are some languages though that you cannot understand but which still come across as incredibly sweet. Like Bengali. It has a tone that’s melodious even if you don’t know what the words mean.

When you transfer the tone of one language to another, it sounds unsettlingly fake. Like how they speak Hindi on Discovery (or some such) channel. Even though the pronunciations are right, the tone is still of English, lending the Hindi commentary a strange quality. When people speak a language that is not their mother tongue, they often bring the inflection of their mother tongue to that language. The result may be amusing or offensive!

But it’s the prowess to manipulate a language to make it say what you want it to, that impresses me. How you can say “kaminey” and get away with it.

Gulzar does it so well. Hear this and decide for yourself.