Since I arrived in India in August, my phone has been bombarded with hundreds of advertising texts: data protection and privacy laws do not seem to exist here. Most are fairly boring. One, however, stood out: “Increase karen apni sexual power ko”, it read: “Aur khush karen apne life partner ko”.
Translated into English, the advert for “ayurvedic capsules” promised that they could “increase your sexual power and make your life partner happy”. Such spam adverts are not uncommon in different forms around the world. But this one revealed an interesting limitation to the use of Hindi, the language it was written in. Aren’t there indigenous words for sexual power and life partner?
I often hear foreigners say that India is an English-speaking country. This is barely true. Only 230,000 Indians speak English as a first language according to the last census.
Many more understand it, but the number who speak it comfortably is probably in the low tens of millions, out of a population of almost 1.4bn. Outside Mumbai, Delhi and touristy areas, it can be tough to get by in English. India is an English-speaking country only in the sense that Britain is a French-speaking one (lots of people learn it, few speak it). In order to cover the country properly as a journalist, I need to be able to speak something that most people understand. So I’ve taken up Hindi.
Yet India is not really a Hindi-speaking country either: the language is used by around 40% of the population, almost all of them in the north. Seventy-two years after the end of the Raj, English remains the major official language because southern Indians refused to adopt Hindi. That, together with globalisation, gives English a special place even in the Hindi language. My text message alone showed that its vocabulary has been borrowed extensively for two centuries (nor has the trade been one way: you will not find “juggernaut”, “bungalow” or “loot” in Shakespeare as all were incorporated into English during colonial times). If India is not really an English-speaking country, it is increasingly a Hinglish-speaking one: Hindi grammar, with English vocabulary.
In Mumbai where I live, Hinglish is probably the most common spoken language. People text in it, in Latin characters rather than Hindi’s Devanagari script. Indeed, many people don’t even realise they are speaking it. Among the “Hindi” words I have learned is “purse” (for my wallet), “washeen masheen” (for well, you can guess), and best of all, for toothpaste, “Colgate”. In advertising, Hinglish is universal: “Yeh hi hai right choice, baby” was an innovative Pepsi slogan in the 1990s.
My “adhyapika”, or Hindi teacher, sees this all as a sign of sad decline. She teaches proper Hindi – or at least, something rather different to the street version spoken in Mumbai. She laments that modern children aren’t taught Hindi methodically at school anymore.
She is sad about the slow loss of many Arabic sounds associated with poetic Urdu from modern Hindi (historically, Hindi and Urdu were essentially the same language – which the Victorians called Hindustani). She implores me to watch old Bollywood movies, made before globalisation, urbanisation and the internet replaced those old sounds with Americanisms.
But I find the new Hindi delightful. Learning a language that almost nobody speaks properly means I don’t need to worry about looking silly. If I don’t know a word, I can simply use the English and nobody will think anything of it, because they probably do the same thing themselves. So I boldly jump into conversations in a way I would never get away with if I were learning, say, Japanese. Each day my Hindi gets a little better. Or as I could equally say, har din meri Hindi better hoti ja rahi hai.