Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Language Foibles

Isn't it interesting that many of the English terms used to refer to or address relatives are also prevalent in India but have totally different interpretations?

Like the words Mama, Dada, Papa and Nana would all be perfectly acceptable in Hindustani but would not mean Mom, Dad, Granddad or Grandma respectively as they do in English.


Mama - Maternal Uncle
Dada - Elder brother
Papa - Father
Nana - Maternal Grandfather

A couple interesting observations here -

1. All these terms are used to refer to male relatives.
2. The two words that were used to refer to female relatives in English (Mama and Nana) are used to refer to maternal male relatives in Hindustani.

I don't know if any more such double meaning terms exist. Anyone know any?

One of the reasons I don't like the Hindi language (and a lot of other Indian ones) is their penchant for unnecessarily complicating matters. Perhaps the best manifestation of this is in their terms for relatives. 'Uncle', for example, would have two different terms in Hindi all depending on whether he was your Dad's or Mom's brother. (Funnily enough, even a stranger met on the road is often referred to as 'uncle' if he is older than you!) Similarly, what you call your brother depends on whether he is older than you or younger! Things get even more complicated when you come to terms like 'sister-in-law'! For now you would have to see whether she is your spouse's sister or your brother's wife, and then after that whether she is older or younger than you!

Another irritating feature is the plethora of terms for 'you'! All depending on whether it's singular, plural, a form of respect and who knows what else! This feature is present in many other commonly spoken languages worldwide.

Then there is the incomprehensible need to supply every noun with a gender, whether it refers to an animate or inanimate object! Hindi, like French, has everything as either masculine or feminine. Marathi on the other hand resembles German - masculine, feminine and neuter. What I don't get is that when you are going to have a neutral gender, why not use it for inanimate nouns? Why?

And as if that isn't enough the German words for girl (mädchen) and woman (fräulein) both have their gender as neuter!

English is, interestingly enough, the only major language worldwide in which inanimate nouns are not genderised. I guess that's because English hardly makes much use of noun gender in grammar and word-endings in a sentence.

eg. The adjective 'black' is 'black' whether the noun it is describing is masculine, feminine, singular, plural etc. In German, on the other hand, the word Schwarz (black) would change its ending depending on various factors including those just mentioned above. It would also depend on the case the noun was being used in. (eg. Nominative, Accusative, Genitive etc)

Ok, so maybe English does have a rather irregular pronunciation, but at least most of the rest of it is pretty simple. I guess that is what has made it an international language.


Nilesh said...

Hi Arnold,

This is Nilesh here.
Had an observation here. I think the Indian languages have a lot of words for relations coz Indian culture has a lot of weightage on family relations and the close-knit family atmosphere with the single large family(now-almost-non-existent) prevelant not more than 25 years ago!!

Nilesh said...

hey,forgot to mention,i like ur blog.i follow it regularly.keep blogging!!:-)

arnold said...

i guess. cuz unlike the other things i mentioned (gender issues and words for "you"), this feature seems distinctly indian... sure some other cultures have it too.. but not too many.

Nilesh said...

also, i believe english has become an international language coz the brits ruled the world!!though no denying that it's simpler..but then again maybe its coz we are (almost) brought up with it!!

Nef said...

papa also means dad in french.

Did you ever try latin, they used to declinate words in 6 way not simple nominative , accusative, etc, plus they had the three gender, and an 7th case named locatives, and hundred of tenses... well a hell of a language. no wonder they disappeared.

Hindi does not sound that difficult though?? you are just being lazy to learn the words.

varun said...

latin is bad alright but interestingly, so is the other ancient language 'Sanskrit'. Its jas the same basic rules as latin. So is there a connection in these 2 almost extinct languages? Is the fact, that both these are so tough, the reason why both gave rise to so many 'much simpler' modern languages?

Anyways read ur blog pretty regularly. nice one keep it up. have put u in my blogroll...

arnold said...

nef & varun - yeah, i guess the absurdly high complexity of the ancient languages is wht as indeed lead to their phase out... like the old rhyme goes..

Latin's a dead language,
As dead as dead can be,
It's killed off all the Romans,
And now it's killing me!

But in many ways, languages like latin are simpler to learn because they have a very rigid structure.... there's only one definite method of forming a sentence...

Kunal said...

Btw Dada doesn't mean elder brother in Hindi, it means paternal grandfather. It means elder brother in Marathi.

And of course these languages are related, ever heard of the Indo-Eurpopean language family?

English is quite hard for non-native speakers to learn, there are few real rules, many arbit conventions.

Salil said...

IMHO, what one calls his/her relatives (esp mother, father) completely depends upon the vocabulary prevailing in the family. Of course the terms you've mentioned are the more popular ones but I've seen them in various permutations. So there is actually no rigidity regarding their usage, so no generalization can be made.
eg. Dada can be used to address brother, father or grandfather (yes, all in the same Indian language).

arnold said...

ok... sorry about the "dada" thing... am not too familiar with the two languages.. n i dun think english is really all that tough for non native speakers...

Nilesh said...

hey arnold,as u are doing BE(comps),there's one interesting thing here..the extremely tough language to learn- Sanskrit, has been found to be the most suitable language to be applied in the field of computers,according to studies!!

arnold said...

nilesh - how exactly do you mean?? as in becoz it's so structure an well defined? almost like some of the rigid grammars we have for computer languages?

maybe they should add sanskrit to the syllabus!! as if it isnt tough enough already!!

Nilesh said...

yes,exactly,as its so rigidly and strictly structured...frankly, i am not aware of the exact implications and the applications of that..but,well,maybe this well help u a bit-

(ignore the religious part there!!:-))

oh come on,the syllabus isnt tough!!u dont mean that, do u? i mean for drawing knowledge out of it,its not.For writing tomes in the exams,ya, it sure is tough..:-)

Nilesh said...

one must read essay on the topic -

it mentions that sanskrit is the elder sister of latin and greek.

arnold said...

yeah, i dont mean the syllabus is tough from a strictly content point of view.. it's just tht the system sucks.. too much focus on the unimportant stuff.. too much writing of nonsense in the exam... to much focus os memorization instead of comprehension... and basically too little time!! ;)