The Hindi language developed in a region subject to centuries of Central Asian invasions, endowing the language with an intriguing history colored by a variety of influences. The contemporary meaning of the term “Hindi” generally refers to a number of very similar closely-related dialects of the Hindustani language found primarily in northern India and Pakistan.
Hindustani and Early Development of the Hindi Language
Hindustani, also known as Hindi-Urdu, is believed to have developed from Middle Indic languages of northern India from the 7th to 13th centuries. Due to centuries of invasions in the region, the Hindustani language was subject to many influences during its development, and loan-words from the Arabic, Persian, and Turkish languages were integrated into the language.
It was around the 17th century that the language of Hindustani asserted its superiority in northern India, as an increasing number of the Delhi nobility took up the language. The Hindustani dialect spoken in Delhi in the 17th century, known as Khari Boli, became the basis for the predominant form of the Standard Hindi language.
Urdu and Hindi Languages: A Shared History
The Hindustani vernacular spoken in the Delhi region around the 17th century was referred to as “Urdu” in the Persian language, and was adapted to include an increasing number of Persian words. This language was also adopted and used in Muslim courts.
During British occupation of India, the terms Hindi and Hindustani were used interchangeably, both being used as blanket terms to encompass the languages we now refer to separately as Hindi and Urdu. With the partition of British India and the formation of Pakistan, however, Urdu was named the official language of Pakistan, while Standard Hindi remained the official language of India.
The close historical ties shared by Hindi and Urdu are obvious today. The languages share a basic common vocabulary, and display similar grammatical traits. Most linguists simply consider Hindi and Urdu to be standardized registers of Hindustani, meaning they are simply varieties of the Hindustani language used in particular settings.
Hindi and Sanskrit
Spoken Urdu and Hindi are very similar but differ greatly in the written form. While literary Urdu utilizes calligraphy-style Perso-Arabic script, the Hindi language is based on the Devanagari alphabet, the same alphabet used in the Sanskrit language.
The Sanskrit alphabet dates back to the 7th century AD and served as the sacred and literary language of Hindus in India. Devanagari is easily recognizable because of the horizontal line which appears on top of each letter and extends across groups of letters.
The Hindi language offers a simplified structure and syntax compared to Sanskrit. Also, some additional letters have been created to represent sounds heard in the Hindi language but not in Sanskrit. For example, an original Devanagari script letter may have a dot added beneath it to create a new glyph that signifies a different sound.
Classification and Dialects of the Hindi Language
Hindi is classified as belonging to the Indic group within the Indo-Iranian subgroup of the Indo-European family of languages. Two primary Hindi dialects can be identified within India: Western and Eastern Hindi. Additional multiple dialects exist within these two major groups.
The many dialects associated with the Hindi and Urdu languages are commonly referred to as Hindustani as a whole. Many linguists think that the Hindustani language, when counting both Hindi and Urdu in this term, is the third most widely spoken language in the world, after the Chinese and Arabic languages.
Hindi as the Official Language of IndiaIndia’s constitution recognizes an impressive array of more than 15 different languages, however Hindi is recognized as the official national language of the country, along with English, which is usually used for bureaucratic purposes. The official Hindi is sometimes referred to as Standard Hindi to distinguish it from the many variations and dialects found in the Hindi language.
The geographical distribution of Hindi language speakers varies across the country. India’s central government allows each of the country’s 28 states to choose its own official language. Native Hindi language speakers are mostly found in northern and central India in the states of Bihar, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh.
Hindi Language in Contemporary Times
In India alone, an estimated 41 percent of the population, or 425 million people, claim some form of Hindi as their mother tongue. In addition to this, at least another 120 million people in the country speak Hindi as a second language.
Sizable Hindi-speaking communities also can be found around the world, including in Mauritius, South Africa, parts of the Middle East, and Fiji, where Hindustani is one of the official national languages.
Anti-Hindi Actions in Post-Colonial India
The Indian government’s choice to adopt Hindi as the country’s official language was met with opposition in parts of the country, notably in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, formerly known as Madras State.
Due to opposition, the government delayed the implementation of Hindi’s establishment as the official language for 15 years. When independent India’s constitution was drafted in January 1950, it called for English and Hindi to serve as the two national official languages but expected Hindi to become the prominent official language by 1965.
The increasing intensity of protests as 1965 neared led India’s government to declare that both Hindi and English would continue to be used throughout the country, and that every Indian state would be permitted to choose a business language of its choice. It was decided that English would serve as the language of communication between states, allowing both Hindi language states and non-Hindi language speaking states to continue to maintain personal influence in the country’s government.
Hindustani in Bollywood
Bollywood films, which are popular in both India and Pakistan, tend to use a Hindi vernacular that will be familiar to both Hindi and Urdu speakers. By avoiding distinct regional dialects, Bollywood films are able to appeal to a broad audience of both Urdu-speaking Pakistanis and Hindi language speakers in India.
Hindi Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Khari Boli, Khadi Boli
Language Family: Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, Indo-Aryan, Central zone, Western Hindi, Hindustani.
Official Language of: India
Spoken by Approximately 550,000,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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