Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pitha Versus Papa

This is a Yahoo! Answers page which asks a fairly innocuous question: How should one address family members in Hindi or Bengali? Fairly simple question, you'd say, and I'd agree. However, there is a twist in the tale:

So 'Sa' thinks that nani is Hindi for maternal grandmother but she also opines that papa and mummy are the Hindi translation for father and mother, respectively!

Weird, isn't it? Well actually, it's not. You might think that Sa's a bit soft in the head (and she might be for all you know) but this answer is, in an Indian urban context at least, spot on.

There is a particularly Indian mindset that we have, or maybe we're just misinformed, that language is something that's ossified in time and place. Which is absurd. The vocabulary of any language is an entity which, like the culture of a people, is in a constant state of flux. It changes; and one of the principle ways it does that is by borrowing from other languages.

For example, today the word 'jungle' is a pukka English one. Of course, the word has its roots firmly in India where it's still used. But that doesn't make 'jungle' any less of an English word. At some point in time, enough people calling themselves English speakers, started using the word 'jungle' as a synonym for 'forest' and voila! you have a new word. Why follow different standards for the reverse?

Anyone studying Hindi in school would, I'm sure, have noticed the rather vast difference between what's written and what we speak. It's like the recomended writers (Premchand is the only exception I can recall) are writing in this make believe language—one of the things that made me hate studying Hindi in school. Back in primary school (which we used to call junior school) a Hindi teacher of ours had expressly forbidden us from using the word paani for water. Paani, she said, was an Urdu word and we were studying Hindi (ironically, there's a fairly popular band by the name 'Jal' in a country that does claim Urdu as its National Langauge).

Now, without getting into the Hindi/Urdu thing, this is plain stupid. Most Hindi speakers would, almost exclusively, use the word paani for water. Just picture yourself saying, 'Ek glass jal dena'. Uh huh! Not happening. If just on the basis of origins (paani is of course, a Persian word) words were to to be kicked out of languages then English, for example, would lose more than 60% of its vocabulary (OED stats here).

Sometime in in the past, enough Hindi speakers decided to use the word paani and therefore today it is a Hindi word no matter what ma'am might say. And if today enough Hindi speakers use the word 'papa' to mean father (and I think they do, even going so far as to suffix a ji, as in papaji) then it becomes a Hindi word. This is how languages (and the mind of the great Sa for that matter), work. It's as democratic as you can get.


Anonymous said...

There was once this exam of the highest order in the prathama madhyama series to become a hindi pundit in our school for which our hindi teacher was an invigilator(This is his version of the story). One of the girls finished up with the exam late and was very disappointed with her performance. So while she handed in her paper, my teacher asked her what she thought, was her problem area and the response was " Kaiku ki mereku nai maloom sir, theek se nai likhi"

Unknown said...

having missed the joys of "junior school" at lmb...who was the offending teacher?
one of my fav articles on ever changin languages acquiring new forms is this one

surprisingly serious stuff for the blog, no? Not quite bullshit. i'm curious to know what u were googling when u chanced upon this yahoo answer

Remus Lupin said...


Fly, You Fools Comics said...

Ah yes. The shuddh Hindi promoter. My pet peeve is with translators. If I'm an Enlish to Hindi translator I'll put the exact archaic form of translation down.

Doesnt matter if anyone can "understand" it. Otherwise I'm not a translator. Check out some of the translated webpages.

Pannay Khojiyay, for Search Webpages. Now this is absurd. Webpages are NOT pannay. Does not compute. What's wrong with calling a webpage, a webpage in Hindi. What's Hindi for a ticket? Does anyone care?

Found this photo in Bangalore airport Baggage Claim is WHAT?

The task of translators should be (translate+make sure it's understood)

Shoaib Daniyal said...


Yes, quite serious. The Times of Bullshit endeavours to provide a holistic reading experience for its readers.

And I actually scan through Yahoo!Answers from time to time. I also like to watch those infomercials on TV.

And I've forgotten the name of that teacher. But I remember she taught us in Class three (not Ma'am Mul). I should ask some other chap who was in 'alpha'.

Of course, its not her fault alone—I'm sure even dear ol' Mr. Dubey wouldn't have taken too kindly to us putting down 'aasmaN' as a paryayvachi for 'gagan'.

Remus- La Martiniere for Boys—my school back in Calcutta.


There's this FRIENDS episode where Joey uses the MS Word thesaurus to sign his name as 'baby kangaroo'—I suspect the that's exactly the way the Gov't works.

Saran said...

Very interestingly written...Nice blog

Amit said...

I have thought about the same thing and agree with everything you have to say, althouth you put it in a much better way than I could. Language fascissm is passe, Mummy and papa are very much Hindi words now.

Anonymous said...

You know honestly, I first tried to figure out, what's the big deal in this circle! Even I didn't fathom that Papa and Mummy aren't actually hindi words. He he, I know, how Dumb!

And thus, since even I didn't get it, very valid point - mixing cultures and the world getting smaller have expanded almost all vocabs...

And agree with Alex - not exactly bullshit :)

Indian Homemaker said...

The only thing wrong I thought was Mummy should have had double M :)

I wrote this same stuff in a comment once- and I agree, languages are living things and if we try to stop them from changing (and living) then we will have Hinglish or Urdu or English prospering and a pure Hindi stagnating in bored classrooms and shabdkosh:)

Brilliant post. Well explained! May be Mulayam Singh should read this.

Dr. Ally Critter said...

Ditto for culture too. Love your post.

Anonymous said...

Superb post

Tazeen said...

is it Pitha? I always thought it was pita.

anyways, I hate language nazis as a rule, language is the most fluid thing and is constantly evolving and no one can stop that evolution

What's In A Name ? said...

Etymology leads to more such interesting observations. Many Indian languages (Hindi, Bengali, Urdu alike) have contributed towards the burgeoning English lexicon. Every year Webster's includes 200 odd new words which are accepted into "main stream" English from other languages and given official English status.

Also, as it is election season and I can't help associating everything with our politicians, I think it is fascinating to watch the sudhh Hindi that the likes of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani speaks in the Parliament. The former always emphasized on the "bhasha ki shailee" that should be used in the parliament and the latter always says "mujhe abhi bhi smaran ata hain..." before he breaks into a anecdote and never uses "yaad" as it is Urdu.

People just don't have that grip over the national language these days. Rueful but true.

Shoaib Daniyal said...


Ha ha...I didn't notice the single 'm'.


Well, the Roman script can't express as many sounds as the Nagari one can so I guess it could be written both ways, both incorrect.

Anyways, the 'th' is the same as in 'Tarakki' and not 'tamatar'.

Shoaib Daniyal said...

@WIAN: ABV, I think, is a purvanchali (East UP--culturally Bihari for all practical purposes)--foreign influence for his native tongue would be considerably less. Of course, he's a a poet and all too.

Anonymous said...

Dude! simple Q - how do u know SA is a 'she'?

Shoaib Daniyal said...

I don't. I assigned a random sex. That 'he/she', 's/he' thing kinda sucks ass.

Vidooshak said...

Brilliant post. Love the blog.

(Came here thru IHM and BlogAdda)

Shoaib Daniyal said...

Thanks, Vidooshak.

Vineet said...

Excellent post :)

I was searching about the origins of the now ubiquitous papa/mummy of Hindi. Would you happen to know the origins of these terms?
One would say they are from English, but to be honest the English or the Americans use dad/mom much more than 'papa'/'mummy'.

I do however see many French/Italians use these terms. That these non-England terms could get so pervasive in India is a bit of a mystery.

Shoaib Daniyal said...

Thanks, Vineet.

I'm not too sure about the exact origins of mummy and papa but a lot of Indian English terms are somewhat archaic, taken from 19th century English as used by the EIC (tiffin and 'out of station' are two that come to mind). Maybe mummy and papa were common terms then (which is when they were loaned to Hindi) to be replaced by mom-dad later on. Just a theory though.

Unknown said...

Where the heck you got the stupid idea that Paani is a Farsi word? As far as I know it is aab in Urdu and ob in farsi. Pani is from khariboli, related to Tamil Thanni.