How to sex a Hindi noun

At the risk of courting controversy, it’s time for a disquisition on gendering Hindi nouns. Go on, indulge me.

I haven’t been able to afford to go to Hindi class for the last two terms, but maybe next term I’ll have scraped together the fee.

Anyway the last time, I went we had a long discourse on how anyone is supposed to know whether nouns are masculine or feminine. And our teacher, Kamlesh, came up with a formula. “You have to think yourselves into the mind of the men who invented the language, 400 years ago,” she said.

So, Kamlesh’s general rule for guessing whether a noun is masculine or feminine in Hindi is: if it’s something that’s essential, it’s masculine. If not it’s feminine. Sexist as a pair of Sky Sports commentators in a nunnery, but there it is. Generally, it works. This is how Kamlesh thinks men thought 400 years ago.

Incidentally, Samuel Johnson thought almost the opposite, giving ‘Womankind’ as one of his straightforward definitions for sex. By way of example, he put, ‘Shame is hard to be overcome; but if the sex get the better of it, it gives them afterwards no more trouble.’ Right.

Back at Hindi, borrowed words from English are always masculine, as are lots of other words. We’re talking about the more tricky ones here like love and cup, horse and spoon, biscuit and trousers. You can’t just turn them up and sex them like a pet guinea pig, you know.

Let’s start with love. At the risk of sounding soppy, love, I would say is essential. And according to Kamlesh’s 400-year-old grandaddys of gendering it is. The Hindi word for love is pyarr. And it’s a boy.

Cups aren’t essential are they? There are alternatives to cups; mugs, glasses, beakers, bottles, slurping from the carton, and lapping from puddles. Well someone’s wrong somewhere because old men thought them essential. Or the formula’s faulty. The Hindi word for cup is pyaalaa and it’s masculine again. It sounds a bit like the word for love too.

What was next? Horse. I reckon 400 year old men think horses are essential. And I’m right. The word is ghōṛā and it’s masculine as mashed potato.

Spoon. Tactical guess here. I don’t know what the Hindi word is, and I don’t know whether it’s essential or not, but based on the cup experience, I’m guessing it’s essential. Spoon = manly. And indeed so. I’ve learned a new word: camacā and it’s masculine too. Is there a word in this language that isn’t?

Don’t know the word for biscuit, but let’s guess that it’s non-essential. Unless of course it’s a borrowed English word. We’ve been over this. Huzzah: right on both counts ṭikiyā‘s feminine and biskuṭa‘s masculine.

Last up trousers. (And if I had a pound for every time I’ve heard that…) I frankly I don’t want to live in a world where trousers aren’t essential, but I reckon they’re not. I give them feminine. Patalūna‘s the word, and come on dictionary, don’t let me down… And it didn’t.

So 5/6, the system works. I’m not sure what I’ve proved other than, you get better at languages when you think like a seventeenth-century chauvinist. Useful to know though…

~ by David Thorley on February 2, 2011.

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