Oh, the different sounds we make

In the first few weeks of being in Mumbai, we walked around saying Dhanyavad and Shukriya all the time. We'd get responses anywhere from a flurry of giggles to blank stares. Gracious people (or those used to Brits and other westerners) would respond with "Yaur Velcam." We also used, in greeting, the only other Hindi word we knew: Namaste. To which people would generally respond with "Halo" and "Bai" depending.

It wasn't until we started taking Hindi classes that it finally dawned on us that it wasn't our terrible pronunciation, but that our uses were completely inappropriate. In English, our Hindi teacher has not once said "Please," "Thank you" or any other such pleasantries. During our classes, he says "that's completely wrong," and "that's exactly right," respectively. When he wants something, like a pencil or a glass of water across the table, he says "Give me that." At first, this all came across as completely crude and potentially a code of strict-teacher mannerisms. But he's a very friendly, engaged person, so it left us confused.

So we asked Mohana. It turns out, he's not the only one. Most Indians give thanks when someone goes out of their way, not when someone hands you change in a sweets shop. Which, seems, well, completely direct and honest. It's refreshing, really. But it also means we have nothing to say to anyone! Which is a good reason to learn Hindi and actually connect with people. Looking up the respone for Dhanyavad and Shukriya in Hindi in our books, we found phrases that meant anything from "Don't mention it" to "Don't embarrass me" to "It's my obligation." Heh. But as westerners, we're so accustomed to learning "Hello," "Please," "Thank You," and "Where is the bathroom?" in any language, we sometimes fail to first observe customs. 

Yet Hindus have many different ritual blessings that would be unspeakable in Western countries. For instance, if someone touches your foot under the table by accident, they then touch the ground and then their eyes (if you're older) or heart (if you're younger). We've also seen a couple times when a younger family member has visited the house, they'll touch the ground and then their elder's foot in blessing.

In addition to learning about customs, we've been fascinated by how much you can learn about language just by speaking English with native Hindi speakers. Take our teacher, for instance. We've noticed the consistency of both the length and sound of his vowels when speaking English words.

Which makes sense. In Hindi - we've learned - instead of using the same vowel to produce different length sounds conditionally (the 'a' in past is longer than in pat), there are two vowels for each sound, one short and one long (uh, ah; i, ee; u, oo; e, ai; o, ow). Also, while English makes liberal use of diphthongs - the sound of a single vowel sound can change as you speak it (say Michael slowly, and you'll notice it's more like Ma-i-chael) - in Hindi, vowel sounds remain consistent and unaltered by proceeding consonants.

We had a comical lesson today after having written down a number of English words in Devanagari script. I'd written down words you'd pronounce like uhnyon for onion. To which Sanjay would respond, "No! The essence is there, but what you wrote is pure nonsense. It's ohneeon." (Our Hindi teacher even jokes in English.) While it was frustrating to figure it out, it made more sense and really helped us to learn how Hindi speakers use vowels. Or, as Sanjay says, "wowels." The consonant sounds in Hindi are something different altogether! We've noticed how Sanjay sometimes uses "V", and sometimes "W" (resulting in words like "wery" and "wowels"). While Japanese and Chinese can't form the sound for "L" and so use "R," in Hindi it's because there is actually a letter that's somewhere in between V and W. It looks like this: ?. Some of these distinctions are barely audible to us now, as we've only just begun training our ears.

There are two syllables for each sound (that begins in a consonant) in Hindi, one that is aspirated (using a puff of air, like "p" in "put") and one unaspirated (using comparatively no air, like in "spit"). So there is "pa" and "pha." For other sounds, like "ta", there are four syllables, retroflexive (tongue curls back) "ta" and "tha" and dental (behind the teeth) "ta" and "tha." So we've been working on our mimicry skills. And Mohana or Sanjay will say, "not tum, tum! No, no, no, tum!" Of course, Indians are good natured enough and get a lot of pleasure of out watching us furrow our brows and puff out great bursts of air trying to emulate them.

As we've been traveling, we've observed similar distinctions with Brazilian, Spanish and Japanese speakers. We've noted overall that English as a second language is very complicated grammatically and inconsistent in spelling (and hard with all those homophones, to which this writer can attest). Also, if you consider the sound of English, it's pretty boring. It doesn't sing, it doesn't use a lot of different sounds we humans have cultivated with our mouths, lips, nose and vocal cords. Of course, using English to express yourself verbally is powerful.

We are really enjoying learning a language whose sound and grammar are quite different from our native tongue. And we've equally enjoyed having the opportunity to pay close attention to gestures and utterances in English. How a culture communicates with another speaks volumes.

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