You’re probably wondering what does “nouns are the naan of Hindi mean?” I’m so glad you asked! When it comes to Indian cuisine naan is ubiquitous. Everyone knows what it is. Most people love it and meals revolve around it.
Naan is the main attraction and the aloo gobi, daal, chawal, malai kofta, palak paneer, and raita complement it. Who’s getting hungry?
What will go well with garlic naan? How do make sure the naan doesn’t get cold and waxy at the wedding buffet dinner? These are the questions one hears and plans for.
Fun Facts/Sort-of-Tangent. In fact did you know that at most Indian weddings (outside of India) the caterer prepares pretty much everything in advance at their own restaurant except the naan? The naan is prepared on-site at the wedding venue.
Venues such as Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt didn’t originally allow what is now known as outside catering (where the Indian caterer makes the food vs. provided by the venue) thus these major hotel brands couldn’t book Indian weddings. Indian food – err good Indian food – was a dealbreaker. The community would opt for Indian restaurant banquet halls vs. nicer hotels that didn’t allow outside catering. Realizing that Indian weddings are bank, the hotel brands started opening their minds and found solutions to make it work.
Here in southern California, in the 90s, it started with a handful of more forward-thinking venues and now it’s difficult to find a venue that doesn’t allow outside catering.
So what does naan have to do with nouns? Well, just as naan is the superstar of Indian cuisine, nouns are the superstars of Hindi.
The Noun(s) Determine The Form Of Other Words In The Sentence
The noun determines the correct form of the other words in the sentence. Here’s a simple example and then I’ll explain.
If you wanted to say, “My car is red” in Hindi, which word do you use for “my”?
Common Misconception About Hindi
This is where you’re probably like, ummm, we should call Obvious Ooloo….because duh, if the speaker is female she’d say “meri” and if the speaker is male then he’d say “mera”.
Nope. That’s wrong.
Regardless of the gender of the speaker, the correct sentence is, “Meri gaadi laal hain.” Wait what? So no matter whether the speaker is a dude or a lady, the sentence is the same? Yes. But how can that be? Because…nouns are the naan of Hindi.
The noun determines the inflection of all of the other words in the sentence.
Inflection is a fancy word that means a change in the form of a word. We already saw an example of this. There are 3 ways to say “my” in Hindi:
All 3 are very similar but the ending inflects, which gives each a different meaning. And which one to use is determined by the naan of the sentence…the noun NOT whether the speaker is make or female.
Hindi is a highly inflectional language.
Inflection occurs based on tense (present, past future etc.), based on gender, based on age as well as quantity.
For native English speakers this can be a tough concept to grasp because English does not have a lot of inflection. We see it when going from singular to plural and a few other cases.
How Nouns Work in Hindi
You probably already know that a noun is a person, place, thing, animal or idea. That means that nouns are all around us. The glasses you’re wearing – noun. Your Nintendo Switch (thing) – noun. The Taj Mahal (place) – noun. Your pet peacock (animal) – noun. Your Nani or Dadi (person) – noun. But this is where the similarities between nouns in English and nouns in Hindi end.
In Hindi, every noun has been assigned a category. There are two categories:
Pul refers to male gender and stri refers to female category. This is easier to understand when referring to people. For example, Mom, Nani, Dadi, Masi, your sister, and Bua would be in the stri category. Your Dad, Dadu, Chachu, Mamu, Masu, and brother would be in the pul category.
But what about inanimate objects? What category would your teddy bear go in? Or the microwave in your kitchen, or a spoon? There’s no such thing as a male or female microwave or a male or female spoon.
Well guess what, in Hindi these items and everything else are defined as pul or stri. This does NOT mean that there is such a thing as a male spoon or a female spoon but it means that the Hindi word for the item has been assigned into either the pul or stri category. So it is helpful to ask is microwave Mr. or Mrs.? Is spoon Mr. or Mrs.?
I know this may seem silly and odd but this is what makes the world wonderful. Every language is unique and languages teach us about different countries and cultures. Speaking of languages and cultures there are lots of languages that have inflection.
Spanish: el niño and la niña (the boy | the girl) = gender inflection
German: meine Schwester and meine Schwestern (my sister | my sisters) = quantity inflection
These are just a couple of examples of languages that feature inflection.
Why Is This Important?
For anyone learning Hindi, it’s important to understand how nouns work because without that one cannot speak proper Hindi. Have you ever wondered why sometimes one object is bada (big) and another object is badee (big)?
Bada and badee, both mean big so how do you know which one to use? Is it bada spoon or badee spoon? The noun category determines which adjective to use.
Spoon is chamach. Chamach is a pul word. Therefore, bada chamach.
Noun(s) Have A Direct Relationship With Adjectives and Pronouns
So far we have gone through 2 examples: “My car is red” and “big spoon”.
In the example of “My car is red” we said that the possessive pronoun “my” takes the form “meri” because car = gaadi = stri noun.
In the example of “big spoon” the adjective bada (big) stays in that form because chamach is a singular pul noun. In other words bada didn’t inflect to badi or bade. If it was “big spoons” then it would become “bade chamach” because there are more than 1 and chamach is still a pul noun.
Now, inflection only applies to adjectives and possessive pronouns that end with an “a” sound. For example the word heavy in Hindi = bhari. It ends with an “ee” sound. If I was describing a heavy spoon, I wouldn’t inflect bhaari to bhaara. It would still be “bhaari chamach”.
Which is correct? Bada, badee or baday? Peacock = mohr = pul noun, therefore, “mogr bada hai”.
How To Identify A Noun’s Category
Now that your mind is blown realizing that this is a thing in Hindi, let’s suss out how you can suss out whether a noun is pul (male) or stri (female). There are a couple of rules of thumb. They’re not perfect but they will help.
Hindi Noun Rule 1
If the Hindi word for the noun ends with an “a” sound, then the noun is pul.
Hindi Noun Rule 2
If the Hindi word for the noun ends with an “ee” sound, then the noun is stri.
Hindi Noun Rule 3
What if the noun doesn’t end in “a” or “ee”? Then, you’re on your own. jkjkjk…kind of. Seriously though, this is where it gets tricky. And honestly, I have learned by:
trial and error
active listening during Hindi shows, movies, others are speaking
Exceptions To The Rules
Of course, there are exceptions to these noun rules. For example:
Paani (water) is a pul word.
Haathi (elephant) is a pul word.
Aadmi (man) is a pul word.
Bhasha (language) is a stri word.
Groups of Nouns That Are Pul
There are some groups of nouns that are defined as either pul or stri, regardless of the ending sound of the word. I have found that like anything, memorizing them comes with practice. The noun categories below are pul.
Names of Planets
Names of Metals
Days of the Week
Names of Oceans, Seas, Ponds
Names of Gems, Stones, Crystals
Groups of Nouns That Are Stri
Likewise there are groups of nouns that are defined as stri. Those groups are below.
Names of Languages
Names of Rivers and Lakes
Let’s talk about animals because this can be confusing and warrants special attention. Why? Because there are male and female animals. Naturally students will want to put female cat in the stri category and a male cat in the pul category. But that’s not the way it works.
What matters is the Hindi word for that animal and which category that word is in. For example cat = billi. It ends with an “ee” sound therefore it is a stri word. So if I wanted to say the sentence “the cat is big”. It would be, “billi badee hai”. That’s regardless of whether the cat referred to in the sentence is male or female. Why? Because billi is a stri word.
Similarly dog = kootha = pul noun. The dog is big = kootha bada hai.
In songs, poems or when someone wants to make a specific point you’ll see words such as billa vs. billi or a sher (male lion) vs. sherni (female lion) but, billa and sherni, are not how they are referred to in everyday conversational Hindi.
And if you think about it, the category based on the word vs. the actual animal makes sense. When you’re walking in your neighborhood and see people walking their dog can you tell which ones are male or female? No. When you go to the zoo or aquarium can you tell whether a monkey, elephant or shark is male or female? No.
The Hindi word for the animal and which noun category it is in are the determinants, NOT whether the animal itself is male or female.
Summary and Take Aways
We talked about the importance of nouns and how they are like the naan of Hindi because the inflection of the other words on the sentence is determined by the noun’s category – pul or stri.
We defined what the two noun categories are: pul (male) and stri (female). And every noun has ben pre-placed into one of these two categories and it’s up to us to know which. We discussed a couple rules to help with that.
We also addressed what inflection is – when the form of a word changes such as bada and badi or ladka and ladki. Hindi is a highly inflectional language.
Understanding and grasping all of this, understandably, takes time as this grammar structure doesn’t in English.
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About Samta Aunty
I try to be like the quintessential cool Masi, to all of my students. Smiling, loving, and ALWAYS trying to make them laugh.
Welcome and thank you for joining me today! I set out to create an educational platform for desi children to learn conversational Hindi (no reading, no wriring) and their culture in a fun, no stress, and convenient way. Students across the globe take our classes right from the convenience of their living room!
I learned Hindi at home while growing up in southern California. My parents were amongst the first Indian and South Asian immigrants to this country and I appreciated their efforts and those of the Uncles and Aunty’s that worked hard to foster cultural and religious awareness for us first generation American-born desi kids. Especially when they themselves were establishing their lives in a new country.
And now I’m in a position to continue their work. Language connects people. And for the children I teach I’m helping them connect to their grandparents and other loved ones.