Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Reading Indian signs

As an English professor, I spend a lot of time thinking about how language works as a system of signification. When I knew that I was going to visit India, I decided to try to learn some Hindi. I bought several items in the Teach Yourself series, but made woefully little progress with spoken Hindi. (I believe that I could confidently ask someone whether he or she speaks English, but that's about it.) However, I did manage to benefit from an excellent book by Rupert Snell called Read and Write Hindi Script. Through its good offices I have been riding along in the north of India a little more aware of my surroundings than I otherwise would be.

I should warn that the post below takes a while to get me to India itself.

Snell says that Hindi script is "very easy to learn" because it is so precise and systematic, "with a character for every sound and a sound for every character." There is none of the confusion a new reader of English confronts with, say, the different pronunciations of "gh" in "enough" and "through." On the other hand, Hindi speakers use refinements in consonant articulation that are confusing to English speakers. There is a difference in Hindi, for instance, between a "d" made by touching the tongue to the back of the teeth ("dental") and one made by touching it to the front of the roof of the mouth ("retroflex"). So there are many characters to learn if you want to get a grip on the basic sounds.

There are other fascinating differences from English script. In English, a vowel can sound different in different situations, but it will always look the same no matter where it appears in a word. Each of the Hindi vowels will always sound the same wherever it appears, but it will be written differently depending on whether it appears at the beginning of a word (an independent vowel) or associates with a consonant (a dependent vowel). (Sometimes independent vowels can occur in the middle of a word, too.) And one vowel, the short "i," really throws an Anglophone speaker for a loop--it appears before the consonant with which it's associated. Where no vowel is written in Hindi, one can generally assume a short "a," which is the "inherent vowel" of Indian consonants.

I am providing a rough introduction to this topic as I've learned it.  I hope that it's reasonably accurate.  These remarks by no means exhaust the subject.  Chapter 6 of Snell's book covers "conjunct consonants" (think "st" or "gr"), which are represented by special forms.  Here the proud reader who has memorized eleven vowels and forty dotted and undotted consonants will encounter a deflating table modestly entitled "the 100 most commonly occurring conjuncts."

I warned above that it would take a while to get to India, but now you are better equipped to imagine me peering out the window of our orange bus at the forest of signs that pass fleetingly before me.  To sound out the words takes time--usually more than I have before we pass.  So I'll get fragments like "koom" or "laal," or I'll be baffled by a conjunct (perhaps one not even represented in the top 100).  It's a humbling experience to be so marginally literate.

But there are moments of joyful understanding, too: seeing the word "maharajah" on a building plaque, recognizing "Jaipur" and "Taj Mahal."  Loan words such as "cash" or "ticket" or "bus" (so welcome to the English speaker), also provide insight into exchange between cultures.  All these flashes of enlightenment are exciting.

I wish that I had had the time and discipline to learn Hindi more fully before coming to India.  My experience would surely have been richer if I could have done more than read signs imperfectly.  But often on this trip, as we work with our guides or arrange for the proper payment of a driver, I feel that I am reading signs imperfectly.  Deeper understanding takes time, but even a few halting steps make a significant beginning.

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