Do you know your Hindi from Hindustani? If not, we’ve got a primer for you. Some of our readers have taken issue with Mira Nair’s statement that her family speaks “Hindustani” (rather than “Hindi”) at home. So Nirali asked the experts to get to the heart of the matter.
Turns out, the meaning of the term “Hindustani” has changed over the decades. Dr. Ulrike Stark, Assistant Professor of Hindi Language and Literature at the University of Chicago, notes that originally, Hindustani was used to refer to Urdu and was the official language chosen by the British for the northwestern provinces in the 19th century. At that time, says Stark, “Urdu was still very much a lingua franca spoken by the educated, whether Hindus or Muslims.” And the decision by the Brits to choose Urdu—with its Persian alphabet and Nastaliq script—meant that anyone who knew that language would have an advantage when applying for positions within the civil service and administration.
But that decision backfired. Those Hindus in the civil service who knew Hindi—that is, the Sanskritized script—wanted in on those jobs. They won a victory in 1900, when Hindi, alongside Urdu, also became an official language of the northern provinces.
Fast forward to the Indian independence movement—and the changing of the meaning of the term “Hindustani.” The Hindu nationalist movement grew, and its members decided to frame sanskritized Hindi as the “mother tongue.” Stark explains: “They stylized Urdu into the foreign language … even though it was the language spoken very much by the elite.” As a result, “Urdu was increasingly identified with Muslim culture and Hindi with Hindu culture,” even though Hindustani/Urdu had been the language of the elite and educated—Hindu and Muslim alike—in the 19th century.
Further complicating matters? During the fight for independence, Gandhi decided to promote his own concept of Hindustani: a sort of “middle-ground spoken language that is neither too Persianized nor too Sanskritized.” Unfortunately, Gandhi decided to leave out the issue of script (the written language) altogether, essentially resolving nothing, since as Stark notes, you have to choose a script. Not to mention that this put him at odds with the Congress Party, which was pushing a Sanskritized Hindi—now known as “High Hindi.”
Now you’ve got the backstory—but what does Hindustani mean today? As Dr. Valerie Ritter, also Assistant Professor of Hindi Language and Literature at University of Chicago, explains, “Hindustani is a more inclusive term, which applies to the commonly spoken lingua franca of India which might be written in either the Devanagari or Urdu script and would use vocabulary from Persian/Arabic freely.”
In fact, it seems, Nair was right: Hindustani is just what people speak to one another, as Ritter emphasizes, “Now this unselfconsciously hybrid language survives prominently in Bollywood cinema and of course in people’s everyday speech.” In the West, it’s usually called “Hindi-Urdu.” In contrast, Hindi is witten in the Devanagari script—but with less Persian and more Sanskrit.
So … Hindi or Hindustani? It seems that when it comes to the spoken word, Nair hit the nail on the head.