Hindi and Urdu - the languages in which most of my fieldwork will take place - are at once playful and beautiful, and on top of that rather sophisticated carriers of cultural meaning. After all, which other language invents meaningless words only to sound funnier, which other script omits crucial signs only to improve its aesthetic appearance? And who else invented a dedicated grammatical form to express that a verb's action is ongoing, with increasing intensity, and for the agent's own benefit (as opposed to: "ongoing, with steady intensity, for the agent's own benefit", or "ongoing, with increasing intensity, but for someone else's benefit")? Only Hindi and Urdu do this, to the best of my (limited) knowledge. And since I just finished a three-week intensive language course to prep up my conversational skills, I figured: what better time to blog about language and fieldwork?

Back in the days when I called myself a political scientist, my colleagues were regularly astonished why I made an effort to speak and read Hindi/Urdu at all. Don't people speak English in India? Well, "people" do, but of course not all. And neither are Hindi-English-Mixers equally comfortable with English for all topics: they might well work in English, but prefer to talk about rather intimate topics (such as those central to my PhD project) in their mother tongue. Now that I am officially an anthropologist, speaking the language is of course part of that big rite de passage called fieldwork, but I always found it odd if political scientist deemed language skills unnecessary...

But anyway: there is another reason than avoiding elite biases to learn Hindi and Urdu: they are just so beautiful! Verbs in particular got me hooked. Take for instance, "I look at you". In plain english, this is a very straightforward sentence. In Hindi/Urdu, however, I could also (by just altering the verb form!)

a) look-take from you (देख लेना), implying a look for my own benefit (something of a stare)

b) look-give to you (देख देना), implying a look for your benefit (maybe admiration?)

c) look-cook you (देख पकाना), implying nothing very fixed, depends on the speaker's idiosyncratic intentions (but I'd assume a rather aggressive stare)

d) look-vook you (देख वेखना), having no additional semantic implication whatsoever (apart from maybe a slight vagueness) - it just sounds funnier to say look-vook rather than a plain look (seriously, people do this!)

e) cause that someone looks at you (दिखाना)

f) cause that someone causes that you are looked at (दिखवाना)

g) or finally, to take up my earlier example, look at you with increasing intensity over a continous stretch of time for my own benefit (something like मैं तुमको देख लेता जाता हूं, I suppose).

And these are just some of the possibilities. I am sure, by the way, that I got many of the subtle connotations mentioned above wrong - and hope none of my teachers reads this. Especially not Profs. Tiwari and Shah, both pictured in today's post's picture, bending over an old Pali inscription in Diggi, Rajasthan, and debating a potential typo with the proprietor of the building...