Although I’ve lived in three continents of the world during my short lifetime, my home country of India holds the biggest (and truest) part of me. I was born in the capital of New Delhi, where I grew up speaking Hindi and English in my household – both of which are India’s official languages.
I was lucky to have learned Hindi. As a main language, Hindi written in a Devanagari script dominates in India, especially in the northern region (and is not to be confused with Urdu, which is written using Persian script). Yet, despite it being widely understood in most states, Hindi isn’t the primary language in every Indian household.
In fact, recent outcries reveal that people are fighting to obtain official status for the 22 other regional and classical languages in India as well. Hindi or English usually accompany a third regional language specific to each state, such as Punjabi, Bengali, Telugu, Tamil, etc.
I know what you’re thinking. So many languages in one country? That’s overwhelming! But I find it beautiful. This diversity defines India’ core identity. Though I can’t provide a crash course on all of India’s wonderful regional languages, I can try my hand at Hindi: the language that represents centuries of India’s evolving socio-cultural contexts. Here are five fun words that embody its intimate and abundant qualities:
1. Namaste (नमस्ते)
In America, people love to say “namaste“ to me when they realize I’m Indian. It is so often used by western yoga instructors that the word’s tie to yoga (and thus India) now connotes some kind of exotic and spiritual mindfulness tactic. (In fact, when I tried to find GIFs online to accompany this word all I found were GIFs of white people doing downward-dog).
In reality, namaste is not as spiritual a word back home as it is a common salutation. Usually, you say namaste when saying “hello” or “goodbye” to an elder or relative as a form of respect.
Literally, namaste means, “I bow to you,” and is traditionally spoken with a slight bow and hands pressed together in front of one’s chest. This gesture implies deep respect and acknowledgment of the addressee’s supposed wisdom. Kids all over India are taught (and often forced) to say it to their elders as a sign of good manners.
As someone who mostly obtained a metropolitan upbringing (and didn’t get scolded much), I’m used to simply saying, “Hello, Uncle” or “Hi ma’am” when addressing elders instead of “namaste.” Last time I visited India, my neighbor (who is an elderly man) waved to me across our hallway as he picked up his morning paper. I involuntarily said, “Oh, namaste Uncle Ji.” My mother was shocked. I silently patted myself on the back.
2. Ji (जी)
Speaking of “ji,” this is another word that holds the purpose of implying respect, but in two different ways. It means “yes” in Hindi. Informally, one would say “haan” (literally “yes” by itself), but if you were answering to an elder or relative with a “yes,” then you would reply with a “ji.”
Ji is also a prefix/suffix used at the end of titles or sentences as a sign of respect. You also attach it to titles of kinship when referring to adults, such as “Mummy Ji” (mother), “Chaachi/Maami Ji” (aunt), “Chaacha/Mama Ji” (uncle), etc.
In Hindi class, I was never allowed to answer a question (even if the answer was “yes” or “no”) without attaching a “ji” at the end. I would say “haan ji” (हान जी) — a respectful yes — or “ji nahi” (जी नहीं) — a respectful “no.”
I find this funny, because if we consider the first translation of “ji” to yes, “haan ji” could directly translate to “yes yes” and “ji nahi” could be “yes no”!
3. Variations of the word “you” – aap, tum, tu – (आप, तुम, तू)
In Hindi, we say the word “you” differently based on who we are addressing. It defines social setting in a way you can’t intimately do in America.
When speaking to friends, classmates, or acquaintances in informal settings, we call them “tum” or “tu.” However, when addressing elders or family members we say “aap” as a sign of respect. Calling them “tu” or “tum” would be impolite, and you would probably get scolded.
In that sense, the dynamic I find most interesting is the one between wife and husband. Although most duos (such as my own parents) refer to each other as “aap” out of mutual respect or “tum” out of intimacy, I sometimes find an imbalance.
Often, wives might call husbands “aap” because traditionally, husbands are much older than their wives and are meant to be the decision-makers of the household. Yet, husbands may still address their wives as “tum” in response. While this isn’t always the norm, it demonstrates that the way we address someone in India can determine hierarchy in even the most intimate of relationships.
4. Deewana (दीवाना)
Try typing this word into Google, and you’ll get a list of YouTube videos featuring Bollywood songs.
“Deewana” is the signature Bollywood term for a guy that is crazy in love. So crazy that he is essentially a madman, he’s gaga, he’s loopy, he’s lost his bearings.
I associate this word with “MTV India” and my childhood. I adore the filmy (“filmy,” by the way, is another very Indian word associated with melodramatic Indian cinema) word belted out in songs when a girl refers to her lover as they dance around (in fields, usually), while totally, madly in love. Of course, this is a slightly unrealistic characteristic in my opinion, but Bollywood would be incomplete without it. It’s a special type of over-the top and cheesy signature of love that you just can’t find in English.
5. Jugaad (जुगाड़)
“Jugaad” does not directly translate to English, yet it’s a good one to end on because it’s the one word that best defines India at the moment. It means to find an innovative solution to a problem. It can be a hack, or a work-around, and essentially implies an intelligent fix. It also defines a person who is able to provide this fix.
In India, one hears, “iska kuch jugaad kar do” (make use of this or fix this somehow) or “yeh bada jugaad aadmi hai” (he’s a very innovate man/he’ll find a solution to anything).
Jugaad also refers to low-cost vehicles in the northern region of India that are not government-approved due to the improvisation of mechanics that goes into building them. This further explains the interesting use of the word to us.
The word historically holds certain connotations of working to fix something as inspired by a sense of laziness, especially through the use of cheap or unconventional methods. However, it is now seeing a turnaround and is associated with being resourceful and thinking outside the box. A sense of creative invention surrounds the word in a way that is making it an acceptable technique for international economic and business models.
In that sense, I believe that jugaad is more than just a word — it’s an attitude. It’s India’s attitude!
Correction: “नमस्ते” was misspelled in an earlier version of this article. It has been corrected.