Shabd – Culture Specific Words

Shabd – Culture Specific Words

January 9, 2015 | Author: Jyoti Bachani, Associate Professor at Saint Mary’s College of California

First in a series of short posts on Hindi words and the lack of their English equivalents. The premise is that language embodies culture. If we don’t have words for it in a language, then it is not an important concept.

Eskimos have several different words for snow, since they need to deal with many different types and kinds of snow on a daily basis. I am fascinated by how words reveal what matters in a culture. For example, in Hindi, we have words like Chacha, Tau, or Mama to represent the relationship that in English would simply be uncle. Chacha is father’s younger brother, and Tau is father’s older brother, and Mama is mother’s brother. While all of them are uncles, knowing the exact relationship of paternal or maternal uncle and whether they are older or younger reflects the hierarchies that are culturally crucial to really appreciate the role a particular unlce in the grand scheme of family life. Similarly, knowing whether you are relating to Nana or Daada is important because while both are grand-fathers, whether it is maternal or paternal grandfather can make a big difference to the nature of your relationship with them and the relevance of stories about them that you tell others.

So, here is a Hindi word with no equivalent in English, Sanskaar. The dictionary translations offer the English words: rite, ceremony, ritual and observance for sanskaar. However, any native Hindi speaker will tell you that these English words fail to capture the essence of what sanskaar really implies.

Sanskaar refers to values that are passed from one generation to the next, within a group, most often your family. Sanskaar may be transmitted by other groups, such as your tribe, religion, caste or language group. Sanskaar is a tacit group level concept such as shared values or assumptions, which is expressed uniquely at the individual level in the code of conduct that individuals abide by in order to uphold the shared group values. The individual has freedom of expression as there is no exact replication of expected behavior, yet there is a norm and expectation that the behavior is consistent with upholding the group honor, and failure to comply is bringing shame to the community. Do you have any examples of how you express your Sanskaar? Maybe you have a better English word to capture the essence of this concept. Let me know.

In English, as an old popular song goes, “every generation, blames the one before”, while in Hindi, every generation passes the torch of Sanskaar on.

Jyoti Bachani is a poetry loving business professor who enjoys words.