Why anyone should do Hindi comparative linguistics

My trusty Balaji Hindi textbook.
My trusty Balaji Hindi textbook.

One of the main areas of preparation for my research trip is, understandably, preparing to live in predominantly Hindi-speaking locales for a few months, and interacting in formal and informal ways with often monolingual Hindi speakers. I’m not certain that language barriers will be a significant challenge to my research and these interactions—after all, I grew up speaking Bengali—a closely related language—and, like very many people of South Asian heritage in the United States, Hindi-language media is something I’ve had considerable exposure to. Besides this, like many places in the world, Bihar is very linguistically diverse, and Hindi (as it is taught online and in language-learning books) will not always be the best way to communicate. Nonetheless, I’m sure that my efforts to master the language as much as I can will reflect considerably in my research internship.

Despite my familiarity with Bollywood films, Chetan Bhagat novels, and Indian restaurant menus, Hindi is very much an unknown language to me, and one that works in a very different way from Bengali. Lexically, Hindi has some pretty predictable sound shifts from Bengali in Sanskrit/Indo-Aryan roots that aren’t too hard for me to get straight, and many of the Semitic borrowings into Hindi were borrowed into Bengali as well.

Although nouns seem to be the most basic aspect of language for most people, the toughest things in Hindi for me to master have been just that: specifically, their cases, genders, and pluralization paradigms. Both Hindi and Bengali have a case system (or as some would argue, a postclitic system that certainly has nothing to do with case). In Bengali, I used the system instinctively, and hadn’t even intellectually realised I was using it until I started studying Hindi. Unfortunately, not all of Bengali’s cases have direct translations in Hindi, and not all cases are used for the same purposes in each language. Hindi nouns also differ from Bengali nouns in that they have grammatical gender—which, frustratingly, is not morphemically marked like in Romance and Semitic languages. While the semantics of words sometimes lends a clue—rivers and mountains, for instance, are feminine—there are 6 different schemes for gender marking and pluralization, most of which simply must be memorized, with exceptions galore.

Regardless of the complexities posed by Hindi, Hindi is truly only the tip of the iceberg in terms of language in Bihar—the poorest state in India is certainly linguistically rich. If Bihar were a US state, it would rank 39th in area, between Indiana and Maine (and it would represent 26% of its people). Yet scores of languages are spoken within its borders: in order of size, the 2001 census showed the top languages of Bihar to be Hindi, Maithili, Urdu, Bhojpuri, Magahi, Bengali, and Santali. The group of languages linguists call ‘Bihari’, a class of the Eastern Branch of Indo-Aryan languages, comprises Maithili, Bhojpuri, and Magahi (as well as the less-spoken languages Angika and Bajjika, which are closely related to Maithili). Together, these languages are spoken by 77% of Bihar’s population. Another interesting fact: for centuries, Bihari languages were considered simply dialects of Hindi or Bengali, but in fact, they were found to be descendants of languages spoken in the Magadha Empire, which existed for six centuries before the Common Era.

Yesterday, I arrived in Bethesda, Maryland, my home away from Haverford, and in less than a week, I will already be in India! I’m incredibly excited, and I can’t wait to arrive and be immersed in Hindi.

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One thought on “Why anyone should do Hindi comparative linguistics

  1. Pingback: A reaction to We Speak | Robin Banerji

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