Loanwords: Good or Bad?

In many languages, words from other languages are frequently borrowed to supply words for meanings that either don’t already exist or the words that do exist are not sufficient. Other times, they borrow them for convenience or no real reason at all. In this post, I’m going to talk about the place of loanwords in languages.

English speakers, you may not realize it, but English has tons of words borrowed from other languages. The majority of our technical and specialized vocabulary is borrowed from Latin and Greek. Take the word “logic”, from the Greek logos (reason). Or “regal”, related to the Latin regis (king). There are other words that we are less aware of, due to their normalized pronunciations or common use. A common mistake is that loanwords are typically used only in specialized or very proper versions of a language. In English, the word for the meat of a cow, “beef” is from Norman French, bœuf, which was adopted to distinguish it from the animal in Old English, cu (cow). Less obvious borrowings include jungle” from Hindi जंगली (jangli), meaning “forest”, or “algebra”, from the Arabic الجبر (al-jabr), meaning “the reunion of broken parts”.

These words have become very normal for English speakers to say, and we hardly think about it anymore, since the origin of a word almost never has any consequence on social dynamics in English. However, in other languages, loanwords have a very consciously felt function and can be sensitive depending on how they are used.

An easy example that I’ve brought up before is Hindi-Urdu. The two main dialects of this language, Hindi and Urdu, are distinguished primarily by how much people use Perso-Arabic loanwords. Urdu in India is regarded as a poetic form of Hindi, and is heavily associated with Muslims, which can range from being good to bad, depending on the politics and sensibilities of a particular person. Urdu uses a lot of words borrowed from Farsi and Arabic. In Hindi, there are comparatively fewer, and borrows primarily from Sanskrit and English. For example, both Hindi and Urdu speakers will say gāḍi for “car”. (I’m using IAST since the scripts are different for Hindi and Urdu.) However, when saying “welcome”, Hindi speakers will say svāgat, whereas Urdu speakers will say ḥuś āmdīd. The use of Urdu versus Hindi has generated great controversy as to whether they’re different languages and questions over the social dynamic with respect to what kind of Hindi-Urdu they use.

Another dichotomy of loanwords that exists in nearly all subcontinental languages is the use of English loanwords. This usually happens in expat communities, among the children of expats who may not speak the language as well as their parents. As a Kannada speaker who lives in America, I don’t use the proper Kannada words for some thing because I either don’t know them or they’re really long and clunky to use. For example, I’m more likely to say “statistics” in English with an Indian accent (yes very stereotypical I know), but the proper word is ಸಂಖ್ಯಾಸಂಗ್ರಹಣ (sankhyāsangrahaṇa). My grandparents often advocate the use of pure Kannada because they think it’s more important to preserve the language in its original form than “corrupt” it with foreign words. But even Kannada borrows from Farsi and Arabic, so it’s questionable as to why those words are more acceptable than English. In many Indian expat communities, the use of English loanwords can be seen as a mark of not knowing the mother tongue as well (which very well may be true). To be honest, this is usually the opinion of the older generation, especially in India.

It’s unclear whether using loanwords is good or bad, especially when we don’t have words for things. I think that ideally, we should use the pure version of a language, but as is often the case, we don’t know the language that well. It would be better to teach the pure version, but as for practice of the language, we should let it take its course.

I hope you found this article informative and interesting! Please feel free to comment or share this article.

Did You Know? – Perso-Arabic Loans in Kannada

In my research on more advanced words in Kannada, I discovered there is a significant inventory of Perso-Arabic words. These words are primarily used by Muslim Kannada speakers, who are primarily centered in Northern Karnataka, in cities such as in Mysore and Dharwad.

I was kind of surprised to learn that there was effectively a Kannada-based equivalent of Urdu, which is a variety of the Hindi-Urdu continuum of languages that borrows heavily from Arabic and Farsi. Kannada’s “Urdu” has no formal name, as the minority of Muslims who speak Kannada are unlikely to use their particular variety of Kannada in public spaces. Most Muslims in Dharwar and Mysore speak Urdu as their first language, picking up Kannada as a second language. Despite this, Kannada has developed a strategy to write Perso-Arabic words in the Kannada script. Only two such letters are currently accepted in standard orthography: ಕ಼ (qa) and ಫ಼ (fa).

When I write in Kannada, I use the two dots to mark Perso-Arabic sounds that are not a part of the standard system. This means ಜ with two dots underneath would be pronounced “za” and ಖ with two dots would be “ḥa”. Interestingly, there is actually a protocol of how specific Nastaliq letters are converted into Kannada, and then pronounced in Muslim Kannada and Common (or Standard) Kannada:

Nastaliq [IPA] -> Muslim Kannada [IPA] (two dots) -> Common Kannada [IPA] (no dots)

ف [f] -> ಫ಼ [f] -> ಪ/ಫ [p/pʰ]

ص [ṣ] -> ಷ [ṣ] -> ಷ [ʂ]

ق [q] -> ಕ಼ [q] -> ಕ [k]

ز [z] -> ಜ [z] -> ಜ [j]

ث [θ] -> ಥ [θ] -> ಥ [tʰ]

و [w] -> ವ [w] -> ವ [v]

خ [χ] -> ಖ [χ] -> ಖ [kʰ]

غ [ɣ] -> ಘ [ɣ] -> ಘ [gʰ]

ذ [ð] -> ಧ [ð] -> ಧ [dʰ]

آ [ɒ] -> ಔ [ɒ] -> ಔ [au]

ه [h] -> ಃ [h] -> ಃ [ø]

To give an example, let’s take the following sentence: “I write the information with a pen.”

Muslim Kannada: ನಾನು ಈ ಇಜಾಫ಼ೆಯನ್ನ ಕ಼ಲಮುವಿನ್ದ ಬರೆಯುತ್ತೇನೆ. – Nānu ī ijāfeyanna qalamuvinda bareyuttēne.

Common Kannada: ನಾನು ಈ ಮಾಹಿತಿಯನ್ನ ಲೇಖನಿಯಿಂದ ಬರೆಯುತ್ತೇನೆ. – Nānu ī māhitiyanna lēkhaniyinda bareyuttēne.

Common Kannada (pronouncing Muslim Kannada): ನಾನು ಈ ಇಜಾಫೆಯನ್ನ ಕಲಮುವಿಂದ ಬರೆಯುತ್ತೇನೆ. – Nānu ī ijāpheyanna kalamuvinda bareyuttēne.

As you might be able to tell, the words for “information” and “pen” are very different, and come from different sources. It is also very clear that a Common Kannada reading of the Muslim Kannada sentence will sound stilted (though it assumes that the speaker is operating strictly within the sound inventory of Common Kannada). Not to mention that Spoken Kannada would sound completely different, no matter who’s talking.

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What Bollywood Films Say About Hindi for Learners

As the child of Indian immigrants, a good number of the movies I grew up seeing were Bollywood films. The main attraction for most Indian people, in my experience, is not the story, so much as the music. While many American people remember Disney films and the music in them, the story seems to stay with them much more than the music. This could be because Bollywood film stories are really not that great, but music occupies a different space in Indian society, particularly in the use of the Hindi language. (Note: I say Hindi here, because I cannot speak for Urdu, as I am not Pakistani or familiar with Urdu cinema.)

In Western music, the diction of song lyrics (at least in modern times) is not terribly different from that which is used by people in their daily lives. Song lyrics in Western music often manipulate daily language into something more meaningful to create different effects. However, this is not the case with Hindi. The particular lexicon used by most Indian music (not just in Hindi; other Indian languages due this) have poetic and/or religious undertones. Most poetry in India is accompanied by music, and not recited independently. The vocabulary of Hindi music is very different from colloquial language, and cannot be used in such a context.

With the advent of cinema, the role of music in India has also changed Hindi as a language considerably. It has further distinguished conversational Hindi and its poetic counterpart, by showing them in very different circumstances. Musical and dance sequences include by songs that use poetic Hindi and/or Urdu. Urdu, in India, is regarded as a poetic version of Hindi that you would almost never use in daily conversation. In contrast, conversational Hindi is shown in the regular dialogue. As a result of this, many Indians deeply appreciate Urdu poetry and music as an art form, because it is not common in their daily lives otherwise. Urdu forms an important part of the Indian culture as the biggest part of its poetic history.

These facts present a few basic truths that learners of Hindi should recognize. First is that Bollywood movies contain a great deal of knowledge of both conversational and poetic Hindi. Much of the Hindi that you need to know exists in two or three Bollywood films. However, this brings us to the second fact: it is hard to appreciate Hindi without learning about the music. Part of learning a language is learning about the traditions and culture that it is a part of, which undoubtedly includes music. You should be familiar with some Urdu so that you can appreciate Bollywood cinema (at least some of them; I would advise against certain films), as a central part of the Hindi language.

The last important thing you need to know as a Hindi learner is that different genres of Indian movies in general do not use the same Hindi. It is a common trope in Indian cinema to portray ethnic neighborhoods, particular dialects, or other languages altogether. Historical fiction, such as Jodhaa Akbar, which portrays the relationship between a Muslim prince and Hindu princess during the era of the Mughals, uses a purer or regional/rustic form of Hindi that is not especially common anymore. That particular film is good for highlighting the differences between Urdu and Hindi, as they draw much of their vocabulary from different sources, Arabic/Farsi and Sanskrit, respectively. Religious films that portray Hindu mythology use an extremely Sanskrit-ized form of Hindi, which uses almost no Arabic or Farsi loanwords. On the other hand, films that center around Muslim neighborhoods will feature extensive use of Urdu as the form of conversation.

Films that I recommend for learning and pleasure include MardaaniJodhaa Akbar, Main Hoon Na, Lagaan, and Two States.

I hope you found this piece interesting, and feel free to leave any comments that you have! Don’t forget to share this on Facebook, Tumblr, or any other social network!

My Language Learning Calendar!

This is a picture of my language learning calendar, to mark the order in which I learn languages. It may not end up being in this exact order, but I aim to do so! Wish me luck, as this may take several years!

My language calendar!

Languages That Should Be Taught in High Schools But Aren’t

So, I’ve recently been thinking about how much people treat foreign language study as a chore. Universities and high schools often require at least two consecutive years of the study of the same language for admission and graduation respectively. I believe that this treatment of such a field can be remedied by freeing up the choices that students have in this respect. This means, you can’t just offer Spanish, French, and Mandarin Chinese and expect them to be happy with it. People like to have a lot of choices and  might want to learn some other language. Most importantly, why are we only teaching three languages? French is not very useful outside of France, Canada, Switzerland, and a few African countries (sorry, French speakers, but it’s true). Spanish is in a similar position, although it has the advantage of being more  intelligible with respect to Portuguese and Italian, and having more applications within the United States, specifically. Mandarin Chinese is indeed useful in China, a major economic and political entity, and its introduction into American education systems is admirable. But this is only the first step.

However, first of all, I want to make something clear: Spanish and French don’t need to be removed from the curriculum. They are still useful, in their own ways, but in the context of the whole world, they lack in usability. People should still learn them, whatever their reasons are. However, we should introduce more useful languages (or at least make these more widely taught), which I’m going to  list and explain. Remember, in the context of the United States as whole, I regard these as true, because the languages below have a greater number of uses overall than Spanish or French. Part of my definition of usefulness includes how much you can use the language in the world.

1) Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew

OK, while it certainly doesn’t need to be each of these in the same school, but there’s no denying that these would be extremely useful. Arabic is important, because of negotiations and diplomacy in the Arab League nations, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria. Farsi is also important, because with the right tactics, America could actually enter into peaceful relations with Iran. We don’t even have an embassy or formal diplomatic relations with them, for God’s sake! We have an embargo on trade with them, which was set up in 1995. Lastly, Hebrew is useful for similar reasons, as if we could have more diplomats in Israel to help resolve tensions between Israelites and Palestinians and also between Israel and surrounding Muslim countries. The Middle Eastern languages in general, I feel, are powerful diplomatic tools.

2) Japanese and Korean

These two languages are native to two very important nations that directly concern the United States. Not only that, Japan and South Korea are formidable world powers in their own rights. In both nations, there are a number of growing business opportunities. Not only that, they can be easier alternatives to learning Mandarin Chinese, especially Korean.

3) German and Russian

German might come as a surprise, because many people in Germany can probably speak English pretty well. However, it is my firm belief that communication is always done better in the language of the country you’re visiting. It’s kind of a matter of politeness. Russian can be useful, because not only are there economic opportunities in Russia, it’s also possible to work with Russian in the diplomatic field, because Slavic languages, particularly the ones of the former Soviet Republics, are mutually intelligible with Russian.

It is certainly important to consider the regional uses of these languages. Korean will be more useful than Russian to a physician on the West Coast, due to a larger Korean population. But that’s for another post. The key idea is that the listed languages are useful, because their global contexts are much greater. In high school, most people have not decided what they want to do, and having a language that is useful in relatively high number of contexts is invaluable.

If you have any thoughts on this yourself, or if you think there are any other languages you think should be included in schools, do say so in the comments!

Language Barriers

I’ve often been asked about why I think foreign language education is important. While I could certainly come up with quite a few reasons, I think one of the more prominent ones is when you encounter language barriers. This can be in person, over the internet, or in signs and other written situations. Human experience is defined by what we take in and what we understand, and so we should aim to understand as much as we can. Besides, you are bound to end up in a situation where you need to use foreign language, because the other person can’t understand you or you need some vital information that’s on a sign written in an another language. Whether it’s business negotiations, diplomacy, or simply communicating as a tourist, learning a foreign language is a huge asset. Overcoming the language barrier is the first step. In this post, I’m going to talk about the places where language barriers the least and most prevalent. I won’t be discussing the rural areas of certain countries, because that’s simply a given.

1) China, Japan and Korea: Greatest Language Barrier

Surprisingly, even though these countries have rapidly progressed in their political structures and economies, the practice of using English, or for that matter any other language, is not very widespread. The education system does require English-language instruction in these nations, but many people prefer to speak their native language due to not feeling confident in their ability to speak English and as a simple matter of preference. English instruction in these nations, from what I’ve heard, is very traditional. In other words, people in China, Japan, and Korea are as inclined to use English as much as people in the United States are inclined to use French.

2) The Nations of Scandinavia and Germany/Austria/The Netherlands: The Weakest Language Barrier

When it comes to going abroad in Europe, Scandinavia is the best when it comes using English with foreigners. With top-notch education systems (which is not to say Japan and Korea don’t have good ones), students in Scandinavian countries, generally speaking, come out of schooling speaking decent if not perfect English. The same goes for Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. This can probably be accounted for by the fact that German and the Scandinavian languages have a common history with English.  Surprisingly, France, Spain, and Italy are not as well-versed in English, shown in statistics. This is probably because Iberian/Arabic influences (Spanish), Gallic influence (French), and Italic influences (Italian) have caused the parent language (Latin, specifically Vulgar Latin) to diverge more significantly, and therefore farther from English, which borrows more from Germanic, Greek, and classical Latin roots.

3) India: The Weakest Language Barrier in Asia

Unlike the East Asian countries, such as China, Korea, Japan, or Vietnam, India has come to use English extensively. Signs are  written in English, sometimes not even as a translation of the state language. The education system mandates the learning of English from first grade all the way to twelfth grade. In addition, people must take yet another foreign language to graduate from college. Most people in India speak English and are perfectly willing to communicate in English, although they will use their own language at other times. Gotta keep your secrets, you know?

4) Latin America: The Biggest Language Barrier in the Americas

Ironically, even though Spain is pretty good about its people knowing English (although certainly not as much as other European countries), getting around without knowing Spanish (or Portuguese in Brazil) is hard in Latin America. Many Latin American countries are in the Low Proficiency bracket on the EF English Proficiency Index. So I highly suggest hitting the books on Spanish if you go to Latin America without knowing any first.

5) The Middle East: The Biggest Language Barrier

For some, this may not come as a surprise. The EF English Proficiency Index shows that several Middle Eastern countries, including Qatar, Kuwait, Iran, and Egypt are in the Low or Very Low Proficiency brackets. Saudi Arabia and Iraq are at the very bottom of the list in the Very Low Proficiency bracket. This is why it is all the more imperative that people learn to speak Arabic and/or Farsi.

So, that’s my say on this topic. I’ll probably have something again this week, so I hope you look forward to it.

What’s the best language to learn?

As a foreign language nut, for those who know me, I’ve been asked on multiple occasions what I think is the best language to learn. Language, being a universal thing by nature, is also universally applicable. It has so many uses, and different languages are suited to different things. Purposes include utility and beauty. While many perspectives on the two exist, here is my piece:

When it comes to the most useful language to learn, most people consider Mandarin Chinese to be the most useful, followed by Japanese. China has become a considerable economic entity in recent years, as has Japan. Both have fairly wide areas of economic hegemony, and doing business in those countries is very likely to be useful. However, in the realm of politics, I believe that Hebrew, Farsi, and Arabic are among the more useful languages. They are largely overlooked, due to the stigma associated with the Middle East, and difficulty in learning. As issues grow in Iraq, Iran, and Israel, the US is also pressed further into involvement with those conflicts. By knowing those languages, and using them to negotiate with the people of those countries, a more peaceful outcome might be possible, due to a medium of mutual understanding.

As for the most beautiful language, Hindi-Urdu, Italian, and Hebrew rank in my top three. Hindi has a rich musical legacy, ranging from Vedic chants to Bollywood music (although some of it is rubbish these days). The most beautiful songs in Hindi-Urdu that come to mind are Teri Justajoo (Saaware) from Shor in the City, Sajda from My Name Is Khan, and Titli, from Chennai Express. All are decent movies, except for the last one, which is almost wholly a slapstick comedy, with this one jewel of a song, although part of the song is in Tamil. Hindi-Urdu is one of the most beautiful lyrical languages, with expressive vocabulary that conveys a wide variety of emotions, aspects, and actions, deeper than most other languages.

Italian is the second most beautiful, in my opinion, shown in its ubiquity in classical vocal music, and also the rhythmic, lyrical flow of the language. It’s also quite entertaining to speak, especially with other people. It is often said to be the most romantic of all the Romance languages.

Hebrew has been called an odd choice as a favorite language by my friends, who regard it as somewhat harsh and clunky. However, I have heard fluent speakers, who speak the language with grace and beauty. The language, in vocal music, has the potential to rival Hindi-Urdu, with its rich, meaningful vocabulary. Good Hebrew singers have a solid foundation yet fluid range in their voice quality, commanding the language as if it were an orchestra conducted by a masterful maestro.

Well, that’s my bit for today. Leave your opinions in the comments! I’d love to hear other peoples’ views on this topic.