This is a redux of an older piece I wrote. Thought of reposting it after a recent bit of twitter conversation with Omar on the topic. This is my attempt to disambiguate some of the terms used in the discussion around the old Urdu-Hindi controversy, on which debates tend to generate more heat than light as a rule. I have enumerateed my thoughts point-wise, to give some structure to the debate and let people comment on specific points raised. Since this subject is quite prone to digression to related (and sometimes politically charged) topics, I reserve the carte blanche to delete comments that go off on tangents etc. I apologize for this ex ante.
Informal use of labels “Urdu” and “Hindi”
Urdu, Hindi, Hindostani, khaRi boli etc are labels, which are use both by laypersons in non-specialist, mundane ways and by specialists (linguists) in very specific and well-defined manner. E.g. one of my wife’s close friends is a British-Pakistani brought up in London, whose (mohajer) family hails from Hyderabad in India and her husband is an Indian of Bihari (Muslim) origin. The language that the husband’s parents speak is referred to informally as Hindi by my wife (London-bred), and as Urdu by the Pakistani friend, when it is neither Hindi nor Urdu but Awadhi.
Therefore, the usage of the label “Hindi” or “Urdu” differs depending on whom one asks, and that is perfectly natural. One must be careful about what sort of usage is implied when using such (simplified) labels in a discussion.
The label “Urdu” itself is, in language evolution time-scales, quite a freshly minted one. There is no evidence for its use by any native- or non-native speaker to refer to the speech of the Gangetic belt before the 18th century CE. However, the speech to which the label refers is the language of Western Gangetic plains (roughly Delhi-Agra-Lucknow belt) and that is indeed much older.
On the other hand, the label “Hindi” is far older in provenance. The word Hindi (or its isomorphs “Hindvi”, “Hindawi” etc) itself is a derivative in Modern Persian (and also in Standard Arabic, via reverse-engineered Semitic tri-root h-n-d) of “Hind”, from Old Persian “Hi(n)duš”, in turn a borrowing from Sanskrit “sindhuH” (via the usual /s/ > /h/ transformation in Old Iranic) attested liberally in the Rg Veda and therefore the oldest known usage. However, merely because “Urdu” is a newer label one cannot argue that what Urdu currently refers to is somehow less genuine than what Hindi currently refers to. In fact, the reality is more like the opposite case.
Urduness of Hindi
I think it is sensible to argue that while both Urdu and Hindi are both crude approximations to a vast cluster of dialects spoken natively across North India (and in some pockets of Pakistan), what Urdu refers to is more conservative, i.e. involves less modern innovation, than what Hindi usually refers to. On the other hand, the more innovative Hindi is used a lot more than the more conservative Urdu and this represents a genuine linguistic shift taking place as I write this. India has roughly ~260m people who self-identify as Hindi speakers, as opposed to ~16m native Urdu speakers in Pakistan and ~80m in India.
Hindi-language movement was a result of the politics of North India during colonial rule, whereby the majority population (mainly Hindus) were gradually accultured to reject the use of a standard register of speech derived from Moghal courtly usage. Farsi (which played the same role in C and S Asia for a while that French played in Europe) was the language of the Moghal court for a good 2-3 centuries. Its influence on vernacular Indian speech of Western Gangetic belt gave rise to an élite register, marked by:
- generous use of Persian syntactical devices like the efazat (borrowed wholesale without innovation),
- use of Perso-Arabic lexicon (nouns & adjectives, not verbs) sometimes quite odd/innovative by actual Persian standards, e.g. “murdabad” being unheard of in Farsi,
- minor extensions of phonetic inventory, e.g. correct use of gutturals like /qaf/, /ghayn/, but re-mapping of /zhe/, /ayn/, /dhal/, /dhwa/ to usual Indic approximations etc)
- usage of Nasta’liq script, again with innovations for Indic retroflexes and aspirates that do not exist in Farsi/Arabic
However, this top-down effect was not just limited to high-society registers, but common speech – most explicitly in terms of borrowed lexicon. E.g. this common “Hindi” sentence has first four words from Farsi:
yaar, zara darvaza band kar de!
Its more Sanskritic form will have most Hindi-speakers in splits, precisely because that sounds so unnecessarily formal (and hard to understand):
mitra, kripya dvarAvarodhan karo!
In other words, use of Farsi-derived lexicon (up to a point) tends to aid comprehension of the language by most speakers, as opposed to using tatsama (directly borrowed) Sanskrit vocabulary. And if more Farsi vocabulary is the yardstick for Urdu-ness, then common Indo-Gangetic speech is better described by the term Urdu than Hindi. Some people refer to this common register (with enough, but not too many Perso-Arabic loanwords) as Hindostani, whereas Urdu is reserved for a more literary (ketabi) standard.
More than Sanskrit for dummies
That said, the speech of North India has undergone major changes, both during the British colonial period and even more so after Independence. The most obvious has been the rise of a parallel literary high-culture standard of the language, but one that looks to Sanskrit for inspiration – in vocabulary of course, but also in syntax (cf. samāsa), in phonetics (cf. saṃdhi rules) and script (Devanagari, arguably a better mapping of Indic phonetics, though by no means exhaustive).
Hindi has a comparatively modern, but in terms of cultural import and the breadth of writing, a huge and important impact on North Indian speech. Furthermore, Hindi writers never shied away from borrowing Sanskrit verbs too (obviously without Sanskrit inflections) and Hindizing them. E.g. these immortal lines by Dinkar that most (if not all) Hindi speakers will find especially moving use the Sanskrit verb morpheme “shobh” (to suit) directly as a Hindi verb.
kshama shobhati uss bhujang ko, jiske paas garal ho;
usko kya jo dant-heen, vishrahit, vineet, saral ho!
The patronage given to standardized Hindi in schools throughout North India and also in other parts of India (including some surprising places like Arunachal Pradesh where people tend to speak Hindi rather than each others’ Tibeto-Burman tribal dialects) means that standard Hindi’s reach and depth have grown enormously and dwarf standard Urdu usage within India (and Pakistan, as the latter has a mere fraction of India’s population). Surprisingly, the influence of Hindi on Bangla within India has been orders of magnitude more successful than of Urdu on Bangla in pre-1971 Pakistan.
Ascendant and absorptive
Hindi’s success at gaining converts (willing or otherwise) has also being due to the tendency of Hindi-wallahs to subsume all dialects near-and-far into the Hindi umbrella. The fact that Hindi movement still exists in the ancestral heartland (whereas many Urduwallahs had to emigrate to regions that had zero history of Urdu high-culture) also helps. So, now Marwari accepts Doordarshan Hindi standard and so does Awadhi, ChattisgaRhi, Haryanvi and Braj. And if Sikhs (by far the most fanatical about Punjabi language) would’ve allowed it, even Punjabi would be absorbed into the Hindi fold.
This Hindi movement has clearly political overtones, but its reach is limited by entrenched (but defensive) language movements in India.
Bollywood now plays a major role in proselytization of standard Hindi. The standard clearly used to be Urdu (unless the subject of the movie was clearly religious or pre-Islamic) and to an extent still is, but diminishing. This is because the old generation of dialogue and script writers has been replaced by new entrants from N India, who had almost no exposure to the conservative Urdu standard in school. E.g. a famous recent Bollywood number goes:
sabun ki shakal mein,
beta tu to nikla keval jhaag
The use of Sanskrit “keval” instead of the usual “sirf”, would be unthinkable a decade ago. Examples of this type, of creeping Sanskrit vocab in Bollywood abound.
Besides, there has been democratization and localization in stories, i.e. a concious effort to tailor language based on the linguistic origins of the characters. Gone are the days of ethnically inspecific characters breaking into beautiful melodies in chaste Urdu. Now a couple in a Delhi wedding will sing in Hindi code-mixed with Punjabi, a Bombay mafiosi will issue threats in Mumbaiya Hindi, or characters in Haryana/Bihar will speak in the appropriate local registers.
Urdu and Hindi are organically joined at the hip and have not speciated away yet, and there will be many decades (if not centuries) of future cross-talk between the two standards. That said the bimodality introduced by the Partition and the wholesale adoption of Urdu in the regions that now constitute (West) Pakistan will have measurable effects on the nature of the language (innovative variations in phonology, substrate effects of local IA or Iranic dialects on Urdu grammar etc). Furthermore, the impact of English on both standards, certainly on Hindi, is non-trivial and a serious topic in itself.