~ Posted by Leo Mirani, March 13th 2012
There is, for a foreigner, no immediate usefulness in learning Hindi. As Robert Lane Greene rightly says, when opening the debate on which is the best language to learn, "Hindi does not even unite India". I've spoken Hindi all my life and I can tell you that it doesn't help in Kolkata, where they insist on speaking Bengali. In Bangalore, home to Kannada, it is all but pointless. And it can be downright dangerous to try Hindi on Chennai’s Tamilians, who see it as an imposition from the north. Nor is it much use when currying favour with Indian businessmen—they are likely to be insulted you think they don’t speak English. Even restaurant menus tend to be written in English, while taxi meters use roman numerals.
My argument for learning Hindi is aimed at language geeks. From the western coast of America through Europe and down into the heartlands of South Asia, nearly 3 billion people speak tongues belonging to the Indo-European family of languages. Hindi is the dominant one at the Indian end of the continuum. According to the 2001 census (which includes dialects) it is the native tongue of 422m Indians.
It can be fascinating to trace, say, the journey of “room” from the Hindi "kamra" to "kamer" in Dutch, "chambre" in French, "chamber" in English and back to "camera" in Italian. Or to find that Danish shares the word for “and”, "og" (pronounced auh), with the Hindi "aur". Or even to see similar words for numbers in languages as far apart as Czech and Farsi. To find these connections is not only to uncover a story of ancient migrations but also of latter-day movements. Did “khallas” (finished) find its way into Hindi through the proximity of Arabic to Farsi or did it come from seafaring traders? That the word was uncommon in Delhi until Bollywood spread it around the country suggests the latter.
Hindi has other advantages for lovers of language. It comes with half a dozen languages at half-price. Knowing Hindi makes it easier to pick up Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali or Punjabi. And Urdu is indistinguishable from Hindi in the marketplace. (It is only in the higher registers—the courtroom, poetry—that the two diverge.) With Hindi, then, you buy one and you get one free.
Leo Mirani is a frequent contributor to The Economist's Johnson blog