Can Hindi Be LGBTQ-Friendly? Here’s How Language Can Free You

Hindi language defaults to the masculine in mixed-gender situations. This is problematic for LGBTQ+ folk.

Published01 Jun 2020, 03:23 PM IST
Opinion
6 min read

Every Hindi noun has a gender — masculine or feminine. A noun’s gender determines its inflection. Adjectives must agree in gender as well, and verbs change to match the gender of the subject. So the verb in the sentence “I am going”changes according to my gender: “mai jaati hoon”, or “mai jaata hoon”. On the first day of Hindi 101, my university students learn to ask after each other‘s wellbeing: “How are you?”— “kaisi ho”, if asking a female student; “kaise ho, if asking a male student.

Native Hindi speakers navigate all this automatically, perhaps without thinking much about gender. This is not the case for my students, who are studying Hindi as a foreign language here in Australia. They often find Hindi to be gender obsessed. This can be problematic for students who are gender fluid, non-binary, or who do not otherwise identify as exclusively male or female. Is there a way for them to navigate a gendered language? Or must they misgender themselves from the first day of class onwards?

How Students Can Articulate Their Identities Using More Inclusive Language

Until recently, most queer discourse in India had taken place in English. This could give the mistaken impression that there is no way to be gender-queer in Hindi. Although Hindi grammar is steeped in gender binary, there are fortunately several gender-neutral strategies available. As Hindi develops to reflect gender diversity, we can expect some of these strategies to become grammatical norms. Where possible, these strategies should be noted in Hindi textbooks and taught in foreign language classrooms.

This would help students speak more accurately about themselves and would also encourage every student to speak respectfully to and about others.

Gestures of respect are already built into Hindi. We address our elders with different grammatical forms than we do our peers. When we follow similar considerations with regard to gender, we affirm the diversity of our student populations, and also reflect and celebrate gender diversity within India’s Hindi-speaking communities.

Hindi Does Not Have an Obvious ‘Pronoun Problem’

When speaking English, some genderqueer people prefer the pronouns they, them, and theirs (instead of she, her, hers; or he, him, his). Alternatively, they may use other pronouns that have been recently introduced, or switch pronouns depending on the situation. It’s wise and respectful to use correct pronouns for everyone one speaks about.

There is no obvious pronoun problem in Hindi. The third-person pronoun “woh” refers to individuals of any gender. The problem with Hindi is deeper, because, unlike English, Hindi has grammatical gender. In English, one must take care not to misgender others. But in Hindi, it is also possible to misgender oneself.

If I want to praise one of my students, I could say they are an “accha student or an “acchi” student.

Modern Hindi grammar requires me to assign them a masculine or feminine gender identity.

When my students learn the past tense, they can ask each other, “Where were you yesterday?” The student’s gender is reflected in the verb, the final word in the sentence:

kal aap kahan thhi” (feminine)

kal aap kahan thhe” (masculine)

To respond, “I was at home,” the textbook gives two options:

main ghar par thhi” (feminine)

main ghar par thha” (masculine)

Likewise, if a student wants to say they are studying Hindi, they have two options. Both require the student to select a binary gender designation:

main hindi pardh rahi hoon” (feminine)

main hindi pardh raha hoon” (masculine)

How Can Gender Non-Binary Students Express Themselves in Hindi?

What options are available for non-binary students? Some strategies can be found in the wider Indian linguistic world. Outside of Hindi, I am most familiar with the languages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Bhojpuri, Maithili, and Angika avoid gender distinctions in the first person. So the sentence “I was at home” would be the same regardless of gender. In these languages, gendered conjugation forms often exist for verbs in the second and third person.

But in colloquial usage, plural masculine forms are used to refer to individuals of any gender identity.

Perhaps influenced by these languages, Hindi speakers in rural Bihar and Uttar Pradesh often use similar speech patterns. Women, especially, tend to refer to themselves with masculine plural forms. This sounds quite natural to most Hindi speakers throughout India:

“hum ghar pe thhe” — “I was at home.”

“hum hindi pardh rahe hain” — “I am studying Hindi.”

But a beginner Hindi student, looking at their verb conjugation charts, would understand these sentences to mean “We (masculine) were at home,” and “We (masculine) are studying Hindi.” To remedy this, textbooks and lessons could be updated to acknowledge that plural masculine forms are an option for non-binary individuals. Students should be made aware of this feature of Hindi, so they can grow into it and make their own choices about what feels right. The teacher’s role is to give guidance on what options exist, and to explain how they will sound to a native speaker.

Hindi Defaults to the Masculine in Mixed-Gender Situations

Like other gendered languages, Hindi defaults to masculine in mixed-gender situations, or situations where gender is unknown. Some non-binary individuals may not feel comfortable using this “default plural masculine” for themselves. If, for example, a student is uncomfortable saying “hum jayenge”, for “I will go”, there are still options. One would be to dig deeper into Hindi’s sister languages. The Bhojpuri sentence “hum jaiba” is gender neutral, and could perhaps be modified for Hindi. Some creative thinking with pronouns and verb conjugations may also be needed. One possibility would be mixing singular pronouns with plural verb forms:

“main ghar par thhe” — “I was at home”

“main hindi pardh rahe thhe” — “I am studying Hindi”

The meaning of these two sentences is clear, but they will sound grammatically incorrect to most Hindi speakers.

I include them to suggest the kind of manipulations that may be needed to accommodate a diversity of gender identities. Similar changes have already taken place elsewhere in colloquial Hindi to little objection. Grammar rules dictate that the pronoun “aap” be paired with the verb “hain”, for example. But few Hindi speakers object when “aap” is paired with the verb “ho”, as in “aap kahan ho?” or “aap kaise ho?” This usage is now common, especially among younger people.

How Teachers Can Make the Classroom Gender-Inclusive

It is not possible here to list gender-inclusive strategies for every grammatical situation. Instead I will outline five principles for Hindi classrooms.

  • One — affirmation. Teachers should acknowledge that Hindi is a gendered language, and that it does present complications for non-binary and gender-fluid individuals. But languages are products of human culture. Any language can describe any situation, and Hindi is capable of describing any identity. Every student should be taught that they can be themselves in Hindi.
  • Two — flexibility and process. University students generally have clear ideas of their own gender identities — male, female, non-binary, fluid, among many other expressions. But when learning how to express these identities in Hindi, all students start at square one. They rely on their teacher and textbook to learn how to express their own genders in Hindi. The teacher should allow for change. As students learn how to be themselves in a new language, what fits one day might not fit a semester later.
  • Three — allowing new forms. When no standard grammatical forms fit a student’s circumstances, teachers should be ready to suggest alternatives, drawing from India’s diverse linguistic landscape where possible. As Hindi becomes more accommodating of diverse identities, I hope that language specialists in India might pool their knowledge and work with genderqueer Hindi speakers to create gender-inclusive strategies. No grammatical rule is worth compromising a student’s identity for.
  • Four— code-switching. Especially where gender expression is concerned, people use multiple linguistic devices to navigate their lives. Just as students are taught when to use formal and informal language, non-binary students should be encouraged to think about what language choices feel right in varied circumstances.
  • Five — acknowledge the haters. In English, the singular “they” pronoun has been common for centuries, but it still faces resistance from a vocal minority who understand neither grammar nor gender. Hindi teachers should acknowledge that some sticklers will reject any modifications of Hindi grammar, especially when it results in language that does not meet their expectations regarding gender. This should not prevent a non-binary student from developing a system that works for them, and should not prevent language teachers from teaching a diversity of gender expressions in Hindi.

(Dr Ian Woolford teaches Hindi Language and Literature at La Trobe University, Australia. He tweets @iawoolford. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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