India Table of Contents

The development of Hindi and Urdu gives a glimpse of the processes at work in language evolution in South Asia.

Hindi and Urdu are essentially one language with two scripts, Devanagari and Persian-Arabic, respectively. In their most formal literary forms, the two languages have two vocabularies (Hindi taking words by preference from Sanskrit, Urdu from Persian and Arabic) and tend to be culturally connected with Hindu and Islamic culture, respectively. Hindi-Urdu developed from the Khari Boli dialect of Delhi, the capital city of the Delhi Sultanate, and it was the speech of the classes and neighborhoods most closely connected with the Mughal court (1556-1858). In time, the language spread even into South India because it served as a common medium of communication for trade, administration, and military purposes. Classical Urdu appropriated a large number of words from Persian, the official language of the Mughal Empire, and through Persian from Arabic.

By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Urdu had developed into a highly stylized form written in a Persian-Arabic script. After the British took over from the Mughals, whose language of administration was Persian, Urdu began to serve as the language of administration in lower courts in the north. British administrators and missionaries, however, felt that the high literary form of Urdu was too remote from everyday life and was suffused by a Persian vocabulary unintelligible to the masses. Therefore, they instigated the development of modern standard Hindi in Devanagari script. Hindi now predominates in a number of states, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh, and in the National Capital Territory of Delhi. Urdu is the majority language in no large region but is more commonly spoken in North India and is the official administrative language of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. In South India, people in urban Muslim communities in former administrative capitals, such as Hyderabad or Bangalore, may regularly use Urdu at home or in their workplace.

Hindi has spread throughout North India as a contemporary lingua franca. Its speakers range from illiterate workers in large cities to highly educated civil servants. Many city dwellers learn Hindi as a second or third language even if they speak another regional language, such as Marathi, Bengali, or Gujarati. As professionals have become increasingly mobile, they rely more heavily on Hindi as a means of communication; those aspiring to career advancement need to learn standard Hindi. Speakers of other Indo-Aryan languages tend to chose Hindi for their third language in school because of similarities in grammar, vocabulary, or script with their own mother tongue and because it has a wider use than another regional language.

Hindi, especially in the less highly Sanskritized form used in everyday speech, is barely distinct from everyday Urdu, which before independence was called Hindustani. However, Hindi has long had pan-Indian uses extending beyond the regions where it is the majority language. Hindi is the lingua franca at pilgrimage sites in all regions and is used to deal with devotees from all parts of the country. It is also the common means of communication of wandering Hindu holy men in their discussions with each other and is used frequently in preaching. Many publishers issue Sanskrit classics on religion, astrology, medicine, and other subjects with Hindi translations, cribs, or commentaries to help purchasers who may not be confident of their Sanskrit ability. Purchasers appear to find those aids useful, even though Hindi may not be their primary spoken or written language. Although there are major cinema industries in several other languages, the Hindi cinema (centered in Bombay, also known as Mumbai in the Marathi language) dominates the Indian motion picture market, and Hindi films (the songs tend to be in Urdu) are shown around the country without subtitles or dubbing (see The Media, ch. 8).

A number of former literary languages with established and major bodies of literature, such as Braj, Avadhi, and Maithili, have been essentially subsumed under the rubric of Hindi. Maithili, spoken in northern Bihar, has a body of literature and its own grammar. Proponents of its use insist that it is a language in its own right and that it is related more closely to eastern Indo-Aryan tongues than to Hindi. Nonetheless, efforts to revive Maithili have had minimal success beyond its use in elementary education. Other regional tongues that lack literary forms, such as Marwari (in Rajasthan) and Magadhi (in southern Bihar), are considered variants of Hindi. Some of them differ from Hindi considerably more than does Urdu. In general, religious affiliation is the distinguishing characteristic of Hindi and Urdu speakers; Muslims speak Urdu, and Hindus speak Hindi, although what they actually say in informal situations is likely to be about the same. The use of two radically different scripts is a statement of cultural identity. However, there are still Hindu religious periodicals published in Urdu, and Urdu writers who are Hindu by religion.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress