September 24, 2010 | Hindi

I Don’t Know How to Be Polite

When you study languages on your own, strange omissions occur.

Today I was skimming through large swathes of Mohini Rao’s Teach Yourself Hindi, which I refer to as “the orange book” for obvious reasons.

My Orange Hindi Book

My Orange Hindi Book

One thing I suddenly realized, as I was reading through some rather technical sections on verbs—present continuous, present perfect, present perfect continuous, past indefinite, future, etc.—was that, after nearly two months, I did not know how to say “thank you” in Hindi.

How could that be? This was very strange. I looked for but couldn’t find the phrase in the listing of useful vocabulary at the back of the book, not even in the section where “please” and “sorry” appear.

I find this kind of thing embarrassing. When people learn you are studying another language, they say stuff like, “Oh, how interesting! How do you say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in [fill in language here]?”

If you can’t answer primitive questions, the fact that you can come up with the first-person singular feminine past-tense form of “to buy” will not impress them. They will remember instead that you do not even know how to thank someone and will conclude that you are a mere poser, lame and incompetent.

Critical Vocabulary for Busybodies

Critical Vocabulary for Busybodies

On another topic: interestingly, as my orange book points out, Hindi interrogative words all begin with a ka sound. In English we have a lot of wh interrogatives. Apparently the k and sounds share the same Proto-Indo-European origin, however different the two may sound to one’s ear today. I can sort of see/hear how a w sound could evolve from the k. (By the way, I pronounce wh and w identically, which is not true for all English speakers and could be the subject of another entry in the future.)

If I knew more about linguistics, I would venture to explain more about the k-to-wh shift here, but I believe it is in any case accepted as a phenomenon in Germanic languages, of which English is an example. As I think through the Romance languages I have studied—those are also part of the Indo-European language family—I am guessing the k sound was preserved in interrogatives. For example: ¿Qué pasa?

This is all rather fascinating to me. Must look into this kind of thing more! 

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