Language remains a bone of contention within Indian discourse, and much of it surrounds the North Indian insistence on Hindi (more specifically Khariboli, the high prestige dialect of Hindi spoken traditionally in the region around Delhi) versus the Southern insistence on lingual diversity and the immense pride in regional lingual traditions (be it Tamil, Kannada or Telugu)
But the fundamental divide is this –
Lingual diversity in North India is significantly lower than in the Deccan, which creates fundamental differences in the attitudes towards lingua franca like Khariboli
Roughly 450 million people from Bikaner to Jamshedpur speak similar tongues Yet the 60 million people in Karnataka can barely follow the 70 million people in TN
The reason Khariboli in my view established itself as the primary lingua franca of the North Indian plain is because the differences across the various languages spoken from Panipat to Gaya were not as massive to start with. Clearly smaller than the differences between say Telugu and Tamil.
But why is that? One obvious proximate reason –
South had regional polities unlike North where Empires spanned the whole Indo-Gangetic plain, driving greater homogeneity in the spoken Prakrits.
But what are the underlying reasons for the greater political unity of North India?
- The Northern terrain is more uniform, unlike South which is a plateau. Also the nature of the terrain varies a lot down south. E.g. Tamil Nadu is clearly a plain, while neighboring Kerala is hill country and Karnataka is an elevated plateau. This perhaps limited social intercourse of people in ancient times.
- In the North we have the great Ganges river. The Ganga-Jamuna river system unites the land, linking the whole expanse of land through maritime commerce. South has no such single river system but separate provincial rivers like Krishna, Godavari in AP, Kaveri in Karnataka and TN.
- North India was setted earlier by the Indo-Aryans. Its proto-historical period can be conservatively dated to 1500-1000 BCE. In contrast, Southern India emerges out of pre-history much later towards the beginning of the Common era. The earlier settlement meant that the Gangetic plain is significantly denser and also uniformly dense. E.g. UP’s density is over 800 per sq. km, while Bihar is at 1100. Whereas in the South, there is greater variation in population density. Tamil Nadu is at 550 per sq.km, Kerala is 800+, while Karnataka and Andhra are significantly less dense (around 300).. The higher and more uniform density up north perhaps contributed to a more homogeneous lingual culture.
But the last hypothesis is unsatisfactory. It leaves us with the question – Why didn’t the less dense and more isolated parts of North India (Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh evolve distinct regional cultures? Having said that, it must be noted that the relatively denser parts of these two states – Malwa and Mewar are culturally closer to the Gangetic mainstream culture than other parts of these provinces where we do see greater variation in dialect (E.g. Marwar)
I feel the vastly different levels of lingual diversity between the Northern plains and Deccan impact how the discourse is conducted today on the issue of Hindi and Khariboli.
The “typical” North Indian argument underrates the diversity down south. And hence goes like this –
Hey. We are Braj, Avadhi, Bhojpuri speakers. We don’t mind our differences, and have chosen to embrace Khariboli as the “standard” tongue. Why can’t you southerners do so as well?
The “typical” South Indian argument overstates the lingual diversity up north.
Hey..why are you guys adopting Khariboli without resistance. Why have you guys given up on Braj, Avadhi, Bhojpuri? Get a spine!
Both sides in my view get it wrong. Northerners understate lingual diversity down south. Southerners overstate lingual diversity up north. This is at the root of most culture wars around language
The author tweets @shrikanth_krish