As a prelude to (perhaps finally) writing about my pair of not-so-recent experiences in India, I want to share a relatively new development in my life.
I’ve started learning Hindi.
In July, after years of anticipation, Duolingo launched their Hindi Beta, and being the ravenous amateur linguist that I am, I blew through the initial beta tree in a couple weeks. Granted, I was only skimming through to understand the extent of the course’s coverage, but since then I’ve slowly, dutifully restarted, practicing my fundamentals until solid.
Hindi isn’t exactly a new endeavor for me though. My relationship to the language goes back several years; in a way, it’s been longer if you consider the five words of Bengali I learned in college, but they’re long gone and that’s a story better fallen into myth. At my previous company, my North Indian coworkers would often speak Hindi, which actually isn’t all that unusual in the Bay Area. What actually piqued my interest in the first place was seeing its script.
Devanagari is gorgeous. It’s curvy, yet angular. It’s bound together through its characteristic horizontal line, presenting a picture of order and unity. Of course, when I first took a closer look at the script, I was utterly befuddled. It’s on its face more alien than any foreign character sets I’d come across and studied, be them alphabets barely different than English such as the Greek or Cyrillic alphabets, or the dueling syllabaries of Japan, Hiragana and Katakana.
However, Devanagari and its constructs, as I’d come to learn, are far more straightforward and logical than they appear to an uneducated observer. But more on that later.
At the time, I had no reference for associating sounds with graphs, and the effort required to pick up yet another alphabet (in addition to the extra four mentioned above jammed in my brain) didn’t feel like it would be of much benefit. Most Indians, especially those in the States, speak English, so it didn’t affect our communication at all.
This all changed when I met a girl. She opened the world to me. Her fluent trilinguality inspired me. Already fairly advanced in German, as well as having dabbled in Russian, I was finally open to the idea of learning another new language, especially one so exotic. Of course, things didn’t quite go the way I’d dreamed — over a few years, I’d picked up only a few phrases and words. I still couldn’t even begin to read; I wrote Hindi through Google Translate. Sometimes I’d stumble recalling my phrases, and say something entirely different by accident. As much as I’d ask her to speak Hindi with me, her indulgence never really lasted — my practicing never took off.
I went to India twice. As I mentioned, many people speak English, so that was my default method of communication. If the situation called for a local tongue, I had a guide to help. Also, the majority of my Indian travels ended up being in the south, where they not only prefer not to speak Hindi, but each state seems to actively resist its use in favor of their native tongues. (Kannada in Karnataka and Tamil in Tamil Nadu were the other major languages that I personally encountered with some ubiquity. Various other languages such as Telugu and Urdu were also seen written in certain places just about everywhere I went.)
Flash forward to this year: I guess to impress my North Indian girlfriend, I actually decided to learn Devanagari script, mostly so I could text with it. Now here’s where the awesomeness of Hindi finally broke through to me: it, like Japanese, is actually just another syllabary… sort of. It’s an abugida, which is basically a syllabic alphabet where vowel sounds are modifiers appended to a root consonant. Let me show off my expansive knowledge for a second:
In Japanese Hiragana, you would write ひらがな (hiragana), which broken into characters goes simply like this:
- ひ (hi)
- ら (ra)
- が (ga)
- な (na)
Similarly, Japanese Katakana (カタカナ, katakana) is the same way.
- カ (ka)
- タ (ta)
- カ (ka)
- ナ (na)
Very straightforward. It’s just a matter of remembering each of the individual shapes. I crammed these on my flight when I visited Japan a couple years ago — after only a couple hours, I’d gotten 92 characters into memory.
Hindi is just bit more complicated. In Hindi, the basic word हिंदी (hindī) is formed like this:
- ह (ha) + ि (i) + ं (n) = हिं (hin)
- द (da) + ी (ī) = दी (dī)
Devanagari has roughly 33 base consonants and 14 standalone vowel characters. As noted above, the vowel sounds also have diacritic forms that are appended to the root consonant. (i.e., I used ि and ी above with the consonants, but those two sounds have their own standalone letters too: इ and ई, respectively)
Often Hindi uses a special trick to combine two consonants into one, called a conjunct. For example, an alternate spelling of “Hindi” is हिन्दी, which constructs the second syllable like this:
- न (na) + द (da) + ी (ī) = न्दी (ndī)
There is a conjunct for every combination of consonants for a total of 1296 additional characters. Most of them are simply formed by (generally and simplistically speaking) adding half of the leading consonant’s glyph in front of the full glyph of the second, like above. However, there are a bunch that are irregular, and some of those get pretty weird. I think it’s so cool.
Now, there are certainly troubles we English speakers will encounter in Hindi. Learning the written language is certainly a stumbling block, as few if any of the characters have a clear visual analog in English, and the intricacy and density of the written word requires extensive practice to understand at a glance. My memorization of these has been far more difficult than it was for Japanese. Several diacritics look very similar to others, so often I will use the wrong vowel sound. Some accent marks appear as single dots or slightly extended line curls, so you really need to look closely if you want to get it right.
There are also a handful of sounds that simply don’t exist in English, including some of the thirteen plus vowel sounds. Additionally, aspirated and retroflex consonants pose a particular problem for an untrained mouth and tongue. Put a few of them in sequence and you can go ahead and give up any possibility of a correct pronunciation.
But it’s still fun.
At this point in my real learning, which has been nearly every day since the launch of the Duolingo Hindi beta in July, I can recognize and translate a handful of words without truly knowing how to pronounce them. My reading is extremely slow. Grammatically, it’s not super complicated (yet), but I still trip over the few rules I’ve been taught. However, I am actually able to produce perfectly grammatical sentences and phrases, to the delight of many Hindi-speaker in my midst. They’re always so basic and/or childish, it’s kind of funny. One day I’ll hit some level of competency, but for now, I’ll keep repeating phrases like चूहे छोटे होते हैं and हाथी नहीं उड़ते. 🙂
I should also mention that I absolutely have not stopped learning German. On Duolingo, I have gilded my complete German tree with a maximum (at the moment) of 608 fancy Crowns. My streak exceeds 1850 days and I have no intention of stopping any time soon.