September 1, 2010 | Hindi

On Families and Noses

Two interesting features of Hindi: (1) a robust vocabulary to describe family members and (2) nasalized vowels.

More Pimsleur, more writing practice today. I learned a number of new things from the book Beginner’s Hindi Script, to which I am becoming increasingly attached.

My Gratitude to the Very Clear Author of This Book Keeps Growing

My Gratitude to the Very Clear Author of This Book Keeps Growing

There is a special note on page 44 of the book that says, “Relationship terms are much more specific in Hindi than they are in English.” The author, Rupert Snell, points out that in Hindi there are one-word equivalents for “mother’s sister,” “husband of mother’s sister,” mother’s mother,” “father’s mother,” “father’s younger brother,” and more.

I have seen this in other languages as well. Remembering exactly which ones would require more checking than I am prepared to do right now, but I am thinking Arabic and Korean might have some pretty specific relative-related terms.

Anyway, I find this difference between English and other languages interesting. I can’t help wondering whether it is a consequence of a greater centrality of family and family structure in other cultures—though we are presumably talking about longstanding differences, so perhaps the origins of these differences lay elsewhere centuries ago.

This afternoon I got some studying done while getting a pedicure at a nail salon, the new one I went to recently where many of the employees speak Spanish. My pedicurist from last time saw me and called out, “¿Cómo van sus estudios?” (How are your studies going?) I answered her in Spanish.

After that my current pedicurist began addressing me in Spanish as well, which would have been unremarkable except that it took me some minutes to realize we were not speaking English. How delightful that was. If only it could be like that in Spanish more often, and in other languages, too: slipping unconsciously from one tongue to another is one of the coolest things ever.

Back to Hindi: I am struggling with what are known as nasalized vowels. Rupert Snell, the above-mentioned author, informed me today that with the exception of one Sanskrit sound, “Any Hindi vowel…can be nasalized—the vowel is pronounced with a nasal quality, as if you had a cold in the nose.”

Yes in Hindi, with Candrabindu. Pronounced Ha! (But Nasally)

Yes in Hindi, with Candrabindu. Pronounced Ha! (But Nasally)

To indicate in writing that a vowel should be nasalized, you stick something called a candrabindu, consisting of a dot resting in the lower portion of a circle, above the middle of the nasalized character.

I remain perplexed by this nasality concept. I know that when I have a cold, m’s and n’s are hard to pronounce. “Meat loaf” sounds like “beet loaf”—that kind of thing.

I was unaware, however, that colds caused my vowels to have a nasal quality. I find this a little disconcerting. Since I am unaware of my precise nasal-vowel qualities in English, I am unclear on what to do to produce nasalized vowels in Hindi.

When I do have a cold, I often try to sound as though I don’t have one, so I am pretty sure my instincts run pretty powerfully in the denasalizing direction.

Comments (4)

Katherine • Posted on Tue, September 07, 2010 - 5:18 pm EST

Yes, you are right! Arabic does have more names to describe relationships. Not sure about Korean. There are two different words for aunt- one for mothers sister and one for fathers sister.  I often wish we had these in English when I am trying to describe my large family tree.  Instead of saying for example, my aunt who is the wife of my mothers brother, i could just say uncles wife, and it would be understood!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, September 08, 2010 - 4:27 pm EST

The drawback: more vocabulary to learn.

Donna • Posted on Sat, September 18, 2010 - 4:01 pm EST

But you can say your uncle’s wife in English so what is the big deal??

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, October 04, 2010 - 11:11 pm EST

Yeah, I personally am okay with that kind of thing, Donna. I am also comfortable saying things like “my cousin’s ex-wife’s brother’s friend’s chiropractor” when necessary. Works for me!

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