India has an astonishing 19,569 languages, according to the 2011 census! If you’re planning a trip to India, you don’t need to worry about carrying several thousand dictionaries in your luggage, as almost 97% of the people you’ll meet speak one of the 22 so-called scheduled languages. Even more reassuring is the fact that lots of people speak English pretty well.
The 22 scheduled languages include Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Tamil and Urdu. Hindi has around 420 million speakers, while Bengali has 82 million. All of the schools in India, however, teach standard Hindi, which is based on a colloquial version of the language spoken widely in and around Delhi.
Then there’s the different states…
Several of the Indian states, while speaking standard Hindi and English, also have their own official state languages. Bengali, for example, is spoken in Bengal, while Telugu is spoken in Andhra Pradesh and Marathi in Maharashtra.
…and the regional dialects
While Hindi, which is an Indo-Iranian language is widespread in northern and central India, lots of different dialects exist, branching off from the central “spine” of standard Hindi. You could see Hindi as being shaped and changed in pretty much the same ways as Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese have been adapted in Europe. These languages are all derived from Latin, and even today they have lots of words in common, but quite a bit of distance has developed and it’s hard to describe these languages as dialects – they have become distinct from one another.
If you’re heading to southern India…
The southern regions of India have much more diversity in their languages and so if you’re planning to rely on Hindi, you might find fewer people to talk to. Even when it comes to the bigger industrial cities like Hyderabad, Madras and Bangalore, there are significant differences between languages and dialects.
The upside to this, though, is that English is widely-spoken and popular. You will have to get used to some of the Indian-English – or Hinglish – idioms and peculiarities. For example, if an Indian friend is explaining something to you and asks you if you “…have any doubts?”, they’re asking if you have any questions, not whether you believe them or not. Your “good name” is your first name and if someone’s “taking a class”, they’re teaching, not learning. Realistically, you could spend the rest of your life learning all the particulars, so find a good phrase book, absorb a few and then just wing it!
In southern India, the main languages are Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. These are Dravidian languagesso they have some similarities in structure. They also have a few borrowed words from Hindi, albeit with a few pronunciation and meaning tweaks.
Most of the widely-spoken languages use the Devanagari alphabet, which was first developed to write down Sanskrit. This system of writing goes from left to right and you’ll see a horizontal line above each letter; each letter also represents a single consonant or vowel sound.
You can learn to read Devanagari without learning the letters by using the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST). In this system, each Devanagari letter is represented by a Roman alphabet character which is most similar to the Devanagari version.
Is it Hindi or Urdu?
Some people in the northern areas of India will say they’re Urdu speakers and you might think it’s a totally different language. It’s not – they’re the same but they use a different alphabet. Hindi uses the Devanagari system while Urdu uses a Persio-Arabic script. The grammar and vocabulary are the same and if there’s no word for a particular object or concept, speakers will “borrow” a word from either Sanskrit or Persian to fill the gap. Urdu and Hindi speakers don’t have any difficulties communicating with one another; if an unfamiliar word crops up, the speakers will have enough language in common to explain it fully to the other.
Get to grips with Hinglish
Hinglish is the mash-up of Hindi and English (as if you needed telling by now…). It’s primarily English with a dash of Hindi. Most of the English is British English, some of which dates back to the days of the Raj, and then some American English thanks to media, TV and films.
The most pronounced difference that English-speakers find with Hinglish is the pronunciation. It doesn’t take much getting used to and you’ll soon get the swing. For example, you’d say “in-VIN-ci-ble” but your new Indian chums will say “in-vin-CI-ble”. They tend to place the stress on the penultimate syllable. Then there’s the “v” and “w” pronunciation, which is the same whether it’s a “v” or a “w” – a mixture of the two sounds that you, as an adult, will never be able to replicate properly.
It’s only a word
One thing that you’ll need to get the hang of pretty pronto is the use of “only”. It’s not just used to show or express limits or limitation, it’s also used to emphasise something. If you needed to find a mechanic, for example, a friend might recommend one to you with “He can fix your bike because he’s a bike mechanic only,”. This means that while he’s an all-round great mechanic, he’s especially good with bikes.
When you’re eating out, your server might ask you if your meal was “…enough, or less?” and this means he or she is asking if you need more to eat or if you’re full and satiated.
Very few people find Indian manners and courtesies discomfiting as they’re very well-mannered people. There’s one idiom that has raised eyebrows among the unready, though, and that’s the use of “you” plural. There’s no plural personal pronoun in Hindi, so Hindi speakers will say “you people” (“tum log”) when they’re referring to you and your friends or family. They’ll also use it when they’re talking about cultural differences, like “You people love macaroni cheese and ice hockey,”. To Western ears, this can sound slighting or prejudiced, but it’s just the same as “You guys,”, “You Canadians,” or simply “you” when you know it’s addressed to more than one person. There’s zero offence or prejudice involved.
Just use your smarts
Lots of Indian idioms are self-explanatory. When someone is talking about their family members, they may talk about “grandmother-dad”, which means their paternal grandmother. Swedish has a similar construction – “mormor” for maternal grandmother, “farmor” is the paternal grandmother, for example. It makes much more sense than Granny Biscuits and Granny Montreal, in fact, because non-relatives know who’s who!
Plurals are another group of words that are tweaked a bit. Indian people will often say something like “sheeps”, “cattles” or a “fleets” of ships. They’re pluralising words that are already plurals, but when it comes down to it, English can be downright awkward at times!
Good manners and getting what you want
Everyone is very polite and courteous in India, but you might find that you sometimes need to follow up a request or an order. Back home, you’d feel a bit of a pest and use a preamble to a waitress like “Sorry to bug you,” before asking about your starters. In India, you don’t need to be so shy. You can approach your server and just say “samosa samosa,”; repeating the word emphasises that you’ve already ordered and that you’re following up. It’s not rude at all, although the first time you do it, you’ll cringe…
So, to sum up
You should endeavour to learn some Hindi, Bengali or whichever is the prevailing language in the state you’re heading to, but remember that English and Hinglish will get you quite a long way. While locals will love the fact that you’re making the effort, they’ll also be keen to try out their English skills on you. If you’re not too confident with other languages, India, despite its multitude of dialects and tongues, is actually a very welcoming and easy place for you to get about. Just one of the many contradictions of this amazing country.