Look Who’s Talking … Hindustani?

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 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.

Mira Nair knows her Hindustani
Mira Nair has been quoted as saying she speaks “Hindustani.”

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.

March 29, 2007
Comments are closed.
  1. March 29, 2007, 3:52 pm Sanjaya Kumar

    As a pre-schooler I attended “Saraswati Shishu Mandir” which was run by the RSS. I recall that they eschewed Urdu words such as “aankh” and “subah”, preferring the Hindi versions — “netra” and “pratah-kaal” instead. But is there really such a distinction, or is it all Hindustani?

  2. March 29, 2007, 9:23 pm acsenray

    There is one more factor that is kind of important about Hindustani/Hindi-Urdu. The use of the terms and linguistic history has become a tussling ground for those who want to emphasize national and religious differences. Thus, there are a lot of Muslims and Pakistanis who seek to establish a history of Urdu separate from that of Hindi and emphasize differences rather than the many more similarities. The same happens in the case of Hindus and Indians who seek to pull “their” language, Hindi, from the history and characteristics of Urdu. Frequently, uses of the terms “Hindustani” and “Hindi-Urdu,” which tend to emphasize the similarities and common histories of the languages upset those who want to separate their identities from those of the “other.”

  3. April 1, 2007, 5:17 am dgray

    I live in Bombay… Here it’s usually Hindi, unless you ask a Muslim (like my parents-in-law), for whom it’s Urdu (mom) or Hindustani (dad). Most people know the Hindi and Urdu equivalents for the relatively words which differ between the two languages. The term “Hindustani” generally refers to anything attributable to (modern-day, post-partition) India. Some feels it has a bias towards things North Indian, although they probably don’t understand the etymology of the term. “Hindustan” has nothing to do with Hinduism or Hindi (spoken in North India), but rather has its roots in geography, variably “beyond the Indus” or “beneath the Himalaya”, depending on which source one ascribes to. Today, vis-a-vis language “hindustani” can either be a ‘PC’ (intended to minimize divisions between religious groups) a ‘civic’ (attempting to ascribe the status of a national language to one which is in many ways regional, and also — in the guise of Urdu, or Hindi-Urdu — is even more convincingly the national language of Pakistan. Certainly, no one in Pakistan would ever dream of referring to their official language as “Hindustani.” If I had to guess, I’d say Mira was being ‘PC.’ It is worth pointing out that her husband is also a (very strong-willed) Muslim, who might object to the suggestion his son is forbidden to speak English at home in favor of “Hindi.”

  4. August 3, 2007, 12:40 pm Farrah

    The Language “Hindustani” is a essentially a mix of Hindi-Urdu because I speak it myself and I consider it a dialect. Denying that Hindustani is not an actual “language” is being ignorant of our historical past which is richly influenced by Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit and the various Muslim or Hindu rulers who ruled over India. The “Hindi” spoken on the streets of India is actually “Hindustani” i.e. a mix of Hindi-Urdu and not pure Hindi. Some people simply choose to talk in “Hindustani” and prefer writing in either Urdu or Hindi. There is no need to get worked up about this, to each his/her own.

  5. September 9, 2007, 3:11 pm Dev Nagari

    “aankh” is actually not Urdu, insofar as one defines what is exclusively Urdu as deriving from Arabic and Persian. “aankh” is a Prakritic word, or indirectly descended from Sanskrit.

  6. September 18, 2007, 1:29 am Naveen

    I don’t care what the purists say; I’m a Hindu but I enjoy speaking Urdu more. It may be due to Bollywood impact but face it, it’s always easier to pronounce “annkh” than “netra”. I’m not denying Hindi has importance but in school functions, national festivals and those kind.

    As for “Hindustani” that’s an archaic term – nobody identifies with that anymore.

  7. November 5, 2007, 8:10 am Elias Khodabaks

    What Are Hindi, Urdu and Hindostani

    The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to Afroz Taj’s book: Urdu Through Hindi: Nastaliq With the Help of Devanagari (New Delhi: Rangmahal Press, 1997)

    South Asia is an area of enormous linguistic diversity. As one travels from town to town, or from region to region, accents change, dialects change, and languages change. The dividing lines between languages are often not clear, being blurred by a proliferation of overlapping and interlacing dialects. Even on the same street one can find very different “languages”: the engineering student will speak differently from the poet, the servant will speak differently from the priest.
    What then defines a language? What makes a language unique? Its writing system? Its vocabulary? Or its grammatical structure?
    We should not make the mistake of confusing a language with its writing system. Often, unrelated languages share a common writing system, while any language can be transcribed into a new writing system without affecting its basic sounds and structure. Indeed most of the world’s languages borrowed their writing systems from somebody else. For example, English, French, and Spanish borrowed their writing systems from Latin. The Latin alphabet was in turn derived from the Greek alphabet. Japanese adopted the Chinese word-characters. Both Indonesian and Turkish switched from the Arabic to the Roman writing system early in the Twentieth Century without being otherwise changed significantly. English can be written in Morse Code, Braille, binary computer code, or even in the Hindi writing system and it still remains English.
    Vocabulary is likewise not characteristic of a language. Words are readily borrowed between languages like dry leaves blown about in the wind. No language can claim a pure, fixed and unchanging vocabulary. Indeed, it is often impossible to express oneself in English without using words borrowed from French, Latin, or even Hindi.
    Thus it is only grammatical structure that can be said to characterize a language. No matter which writing system is used, no matter which vocabulary words are used, a language’s grammar will follow regular and characteristic rules. These rules, which govern verb conjugation, noun declension, plural formation, syntax, etc., are largely consistent within a language but differ between languages. Thus a comparative study of these rules allows us to distinguish one language from another.
    Therefore Hindi and Urdu, which share a common, identical grammatical structure, must be considered a single language: Hindi-Urdu.
    How did Hindi-Urdu develop, and why does it have two names? Let’s look at the linguistic condition of India about one thousand years ago. The Indo-Aryan language family, brought to South Asia by the Aryans in prehistoric times, had become firmly established in a belt running from the Persian Caucasus in the West to the Bay of Bengal in the East. The descendent languages of Sanskrit, including several dialects of early Hindi, Medieval Panjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, and Bengali, as well as their cousin tongue Persian were emerging in their respective regions. The Indian languages had adopted the ancient Sanskrit writing system, Devanágari, in various forms, while Persian had borrowed the Arabic writing system from its neighbors to the West. Hindi, in various dialects including Khariboli, Braj Bhasha, Bhojpuri and Awadhi, was spoken throughout North Central India.
    Then, about seven centuries ago, the dialects of Hindi spoken in the region of Delhi began to undergo a linguistic change. In the villages, these dialects continued to be spoken much as they had been for centuries. But around Delhi and other urban areas, under the influence of the Persian-speaking Sultans and their military administration, a new dialect began to emerge which would be called Urdu. While Urdu retained the fundamental grammar and basic vocabulary of its Hindi parent dialects, it adopted the Persian writing system, “Nastaliq” and many additional Persian vocabulary words. Indeed, the great poet Amir Khusro (1253-1325) contributed to the early development of Urdu by writing poems with alternating lines of Persian and Hindi dialect written in Persian script.
    What began humbly as a hodge-podge language spoken by the Indian recruits in the camps of the Sultan’s army, by the Eighteenth Century had developed into a sophisticated, poetic language.
    It is important to note that over the centuries, Urdu continued to develop side by side with the original Hindi dialects, and many poets have written comfortably in both. Thus the distinction between Hindi and Urdu was chiefly a question of style. A poet could draw upon Urdu’s lexical richness to create an aura of elegant sophistication, or could use the simple rustic vocabulary of dialect Hindi to evoke the folk life of the village. Somewhere in the middle lay the day to day language spoken by the great majority of people. This day to day language was often referred to by the all-encompassing term “Hindostani.”
    Because day to day Hindostani was essentially a widespread Indian lingua franca not associated with any particular region or class, it was chosen as the basis for modern Hindi, the national language of India. Modern Hindi is essentially Hindostani with a lexicon of Sanskrit-derived vocabulary in preference to the Persian borrowings of literary Urdu. Likewise, Hindostani in its Urdu form was adopted by Pakistan as a national language because Urdu is not tied to any of the regions comprising modern Pakistan. Thus a language which is really nobody’s mother tongue is today the second most spoken language in the world, understood throughout most of the populous Indian subcontinent and in many unexpected corners of the globe.
    If we were to draw a picture of the relationship between all of these various versions of Hindi-Urdu, it might look something like this:

    [Persian] Literary Urdu ——— Modern Hindi [Sanskrit]
    Hindi-Urdu (Hindostani)
    Hindi Dialects (Khariboli, Braj, Bhojpuri, etc.)

  8. March 18, 2008, 10:21 pm Alka

    Fascinating, especially the last post about Afroz Taj’s book. Thank you so much for the clarification. It once again shows that people should pause and ask themselves if they know the whole story on something before suggesting that Mira Nair doesn’t know what she’s talking about!