While people sometimes talk about one language as being more expressive, or more beautiful, or more suited to certain kinds of expression than another, the truth is that linguistic beauty is of course a matter of cultural bias and personal taste, and all languages are fully suited to expression the broad range of human emotions and ideas. Still, there is a lot to learn from the vast diversity of human language. The variety of mechanisms by which ideas are expressed across languages is fascinating.
As I have been studying Hindi, I have occasionally shared here some of the features of the language that struck me. Today I'd like to introduce you to the Hindi concept of compound verbs. Compound verbs are among the most subtly expressive features of Hindi, and while I am sure there are other languages with similar constructs, I have not yet encountered one.
In Hindi, as in English, the basic verb has an infinitive form that can be conjugated (often with the aid of an auxiliary verb) to express tense, mood, person, and number, in a straightfoward expression of a simple idea. Using compound verbs instead of simple verbs, though, adds nuance to the meaning of the sentence. Mechanically, compound forms are constructed by reducing the main verb to its stem, and adding a conjugated helping verb. Here are a few examples.
jaanaa, when used as a main verb, means simply "to go." When used as an auxiliary verb in a compound verb form, though, it conveys a sense of finality, completeness, or change of state:
- mai.nne chaay pii - I drank the tea
- main chaay pii gayii - I drank up the tea. ("gayii" is a past tense form of "jaanaa.")
I've put the verb forms in bold so that you can try to compare them without having to go learn Hindi. Another example with jaanaa:
- baiThiye - please sit.
- baiTh jaaiye - please sit down.
lenaa and denaa mean "to take" and "to give," respectively, when used as main verbs. As auxilliaries in a compound verb, they convey a sense that benefit of the action flows toward (lenaa) or away from (denaa) the actor:
- gaanaa gaaiye - please sing a song.
- gaanaa gaa diijiye - please sing (out) a song. ("diijiye" is a form of "denaa")
- usne kitaab pa.Dhii - s/he read a book.
- usne kitaab pa.Dh lii - s/he read a book (to him/herself). ("lii" is a form of "lenaa").
baiThanaa means "to sit" (see the second example above), but used in a compound verb it conveys a sense of an action done foolishly or stubbornly:
- ab tumne kyaa kiyaa hai? - what have you done now?
- ab tum kyaa kar baiThe ho? - what have you gone and done now?
uThanaa, which means "to rise," when used in a compound conveys a sense of inception of action or upward movement:
- raam ha.Nsaa - Ram laughed.
- raam ha.Ns uThaa - Ram burst out laughing.
There are several other verbs that are commonly used to form compounds in Hindi, but this should give you a flavor for them.
An interesting feature of Hindi compound verbs is that the primary meaning of the verb is often completely lost in its idiomatic usage as an auxiliary in a compound. Consider "jaanaa." Its primary meaning is "to go," but its sense in a compound verb of finality or change of state is both extremely common and also, sometimes, apparently contradictory to that primary meaning:
- ruk jaa! - Stop! (compound of "ruk", the stem of "to stop," and jaanaa)
- aa jaa - come to me; get over here (compound of "aa", the stem of "to come," and jaanaa)
But the aspect I find most interesting about compound verbs is the wide variety of ways the nuances of meaning they express can be conveyed in English. It's not that English is less expressive than Hindi. Rather, where Hindi speakers can rely upon a concise, regular form, English speakers call upon prepositions (sit down!), conjoined verb phrases (what have you gone and done?), metaphors (burst out laughing), and a variety of other devices to make themselves understood.
I read in one Hindi grammar that native Hindi speakers prefer compound verbs in free-standing clauses, and feel that a sentence using a simple verb where a compound is grammatically possible is incomplete; they will be waiting, apparently, for an "and" or "but" clause to finish out the thought. This might be an oversimplification, but it probably rings true; it is one of the subtleties of native speech that is extremely difficult for a learner to master. Indeed, I think English works the same way. "Please sit" has an abruptness that is softened by a construction like "Please sit down;" the latter sounds more natural and native, though there is nothing at all ungrammatical about the former, and trying to explain the difference to a non-native learner of English would be quite a challenge.