Sunday, 24 July 2011

How to flirt (with women) in Hindi

I've studied a few languages in my time and have encountered some fascinating and frustrating linguistic oddities (the harmless-looking Dutch word "er" stands out for its deceptive fiendishness). But I think this one from Hindi, which came up in my most recent lesson, has taken the cake. This, apparently, is language where a misplaced vowel could see you being accused of sexual harassment.

Let me explain. Hindi, like many other languages, is gendered, and as usual in such languages adjectives have to agree with the gender of the object they are describing (verbs do too, in complicated ways that I haven't quite got my head round yet). The linguistic gender of people, unsurprisingly, follows their biological gender.

However, whereas in Spanish one would naturally refer to a man as "alto" and a woman as "alta", for instance, in Hindi you can't do that if you happen to be a man. If you are talking to a woman - or even about a woman - and you use the feminine ending, this apparently implies that you are showing a sexual interest in her. Just by drawing attention to the fact that she is a woman, you're basically seen to be leering at her. Instead, you have to use the masculine plural ending.

For the (male) foreign student of Hindi this opens up a minefield of social perils. In the UK, you just have to make sure you respect personal space and watch how long you hold eye contact for, and you're unlikely to be seen to be crossing any lines. Here, say "i" instead of "e" and you're making unwanted advances (which in my case would be ironic as well as annoying).

I have to admit I find this rather hard to fathom. As one of my classmates put it, why go to all the bother of having gender in the language if you're then going to deny the fact when it comes to talking about people?

But of course languages aren't designed, they just evolve to reflect the society in which they are used - and Hindi is spoken in a culture where the sexuality of women is an enormous taboo. The fact that merely acknowledging a woman's femininity is seen as inappropriate behaviour is astonishing to me on one level, but entirely unsurprising on another - it comes from the same place as the rules that say men on the metro must give up their seats for women. There is an old-fashioned idea of chivalry here that is hard-wired into the mindset and even the language itself.

If that was all it was, it might be dismissed as interesting and harmless - a way to make sure that behaviour between the sexes remains appropriate. But actually, there is a much, much darker side to all this that I will write about another time - the "Slut Walk" is coming to Delhi next Sunday and that seems to be the day to talk about gender issues.

For now, I'll just concentrate on remembering that I have to talk about women as though they were a group of blokes - or risk acquiring an unlikely reputation as a ladies' man.


Christine said...

So interesting Chris! I am really enjoying your blog. Keep up the great work.

Christine Probst

Amy said...

Fellow expat in India here- (American in Hyderabad)-- love your blog! I'm glad you pointed this out about endings... I am about 4 classes into Hindi class and had yet to learn this interesting tidbit about gender and adjectives. Makes for quite interesting "flirting"!

Chris said...

Glad you both find it as interesting as I do!

Fortuately for you Amy I don't think you need to worry about it - women apparently just always use the correct gender in speech. Of course, if an Indian man starts using the feminine ending with you when talking to you, I guess you need to be aware of the possible implications!

Helen Gray said...

The inticacies of language are fascinating aren't they? I always thought that English had some pretty simple rules about expressing politness compared to Japanese but my students just thought we were all very rude. They had trouble recognizing a lot of the non verbal cues you mentioned.

Gudiya said...

Hi Chris,

I speak Hindi fairly well ( am Indian ) - but really couldn't understand why you were advised not to use the feminine words when speaking with women.
If anything, to be truly polite one must use correct word with the correct gender.
or...maybe I misunderstood..? :)

Chris said...

Hi Gudiya

That's what I was told by my teacher! Clearly I need to ask a few other people here to get to the bottom of the matter.... ;-)

Open Spaces said...


Compare "tum jaogi?" with "aap jayenge?" The former, using a feminine gendered verb, would imply uncalled for intimacy if directed at a stranger. The latter, which could be used with both genders, is formal and acceptable in all situations.

Chris, your observations of an 'alien' culture are very interesting and insightful... It's akin to an experience of watching myself in a 'different' mirror! I loved reading your blog...