Hindi 101

I’m taking Hindi 101 this semester. The Devangari script feels mildly ornate in my hand compared to the angularity of alphabets descended from the Phoenician script (including the English alphabet), but it is quite lovely and not as challenging as I had imagined. It is still an alphabet, after all, with a much closer sound-grapheme correspondence than one finds in English, where each letter—particularly vowels—can correspond to multiple phonemes. (English grammar is absurdly simple compared to all other major languages, but our spelling system must be a nightmare for foreign learners. There’s something to be said for language academies that control the drift between pronunciation and spelling.) Devanagari does, however, omit some vowel sounds and uses secondary or “dependent” vowel forms in most contexts, so it has something of the syllabary about it. In fact, the biggest mistake I make in class is to confuse two dependent vowels,  ी and  ो. The former is long “ee”, the latter is “o”, but in certain fonts (including my own handwriting), they look nearly identical.

The script’s biconsonantal conjuncts are mostly intuitive, though a few bizarre ones need to be memorized as separate graphemes. We have conjuncts in English, but I believe they are a relatively new innovation with limited usage. One example is the city logo of Huntington Beach, California. Hindi has a lot of these, and they are quite common.

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An English biconsonantal conjunct.

Apart from learning a new script, the most enjoyable part of Hindi class has been coming across Romance or Germanic cognates. At an intellectual level, I know and have long known that Hindi and English, both Indo-European languages, share a genetic ancestry, which means that at some point in the distant past all Indo-European speakers spoke the same language. It’s easy to get a handle on the concept when talking about Romance languages: Spanish, Italian, and French all used to be Latin. There, we have a well documented history, stretching back through the Renaissance and middle ages to the familiar  world of Rome. However, when it comes to Proto Indo-European, we are faced with a deeper and wider canyon of time and an ancient world that is mostly unknown to us. The PIE speakers were probably living in the Pontic-Caspian steppe lands, but some evidence suggests that they may have been living in the greater Anatolian region; perhaps the most direct descendants of Proto Indo-Europeans are today’s Armenians, Turks, and Persians. They apparently kicked ass and took names because Indo European now stretches from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans.

But whoever they were, the PIE speakers are remote in a way that the Romans or Germanic tribes are not. Yet while doing my Hindi homework, every now and again I come across a word that clearly indicates the ancient linguistic (and genetic) connectedness between the Romans, the Germans, and the Hindi speakers. Kamiz for shirt; mez for table; kamra for room; mata for mother; pita for father; nam for name; darvaza for door . . . In Hindi class, when I say a word out loud that is clearly related to a European word, I am intoning sounds close to the ones that came from the lips of those ancient Indo-Europeans before they split eastward and westward to conquer Eurasia. To language nerds like me, it’s a chilling sensation.

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