[lg policy] Hindi, Hinglish: Head to Head

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jun 15 15:08:29 UTC 2012

Hindi, Hinglish: Head to Head

>>From the Summer 2012 Games People Play issue

By Ananya Vajpeyi

NEW DELHI—India has 1.2 billion people speaking the 15 official
languages printed on every currency note. There’s just no room on the
Indian rupee for the hundreds of other languages and dialects spoken
across the country. For a traveler, India can feel like Babel itself.
Yet, most Indians manage to communicate with one another. The country
won its independence from British rule in August 1947, and until the
mid-1960s, it seemed as though the centrifugal force of linguistic
difference, which also flagged cultural difference, would balkanize
the new republic. But since the partition of Pakistan over six decades
ago, India has hung together. If sometimes it seems precariously close
to disintegration—thanks to internal religious or political
conflict—then it is no longer because Indians expect their separate
languages to count as the bases for distinct nationalities, as they
did in the early phase of decolonization.

The linguistic détente in India is partly the result of a federal
government directive that schools across the country embrace a
“three-language formula.” This means Indian students must study some
mixture of their local language, standard modern Hindi, and English.
The relative proportions of these three vary, of course, as a function
of class, literacy, education, and culture. Increasingly though, this
three-language policy that exposed millions to both Hindi and English
has led to a new language hybrid. Much of the communication in India
is being done in a Hindi that combines this local tongue—with its
roots in Hindustani, Awadhi, Braj, and other dialects of northern
India—with modern English. The value of this new hybrid language is at
the heart of a controversial debate among intellectuals, businessmen,
and media titans. What remains beyond dispute, however, is that the
evolution of Hindi will play a critical role in determining India’s
place in a world still embracing English as the core language of
commerce and culture. The ability of India to survive and prosper may
indeed hinge on this question of how Indians communicate with each
other and the world. The decision of whether or not to continue along
the “three-language” path is the central linguistic choice that India
must make in the coming years.

Hindi is just one of India’s many modern languages, but in many ways,
it has the most complex and important story. More Indians speak,
understand, or read Hindi than any other Indian language, and it is
the only language besides English that has ever been considered as a
possible “national” language for the entire country. The central
government (as distinct from state governments) uses it as its
“official” language, together with English. Historically, Hindi has
been loaded down with three distinct kinds of baggage: its internal
fragmentation (it is a synthesis of a large number of tributary
vernaculars and dialects); its contrived relationships with the two
classical languages closest to it (either the artificial addition of
Sanskrit or the artificial subtraction of Persian); and its “intimate
enmity” with Urdu, a language that is at once an older sister, a
fraternal twin, and a bitter rival. But now, Hindi is mingling in
unexpected ways with Indian English, morphing into yet another
language. The new language has a name, albeit only a half-serious one:

The 2001 Census of India registered 50 different types of Hindi. In
all, the language boasts 420 million speakers in India. Besides these
Hindi languages, the census counts another 50 million speakers of
Urdu—for all practical purposes indistinguishable from Hindi, except
in the highly literary form of either language. These figures suggest
that nearly 500 million Indians speak some form of Hindi or Urdu, or
both—nearly half the population of India. Hindi and Urdu are just two
out of 22 languages that appear in the eighth revision of the Indian
Constitution. Indeed, the Census records 100 additional languages, but
for the national consciousness, it boils down to Hindi and English.


Modern standard Hindi has a relatively short yet fraught history. The
language was effectively manufactured between the late 19th and the
mid-20th centuries. As the British Raj and a number of Indian princely
states gave way to the new nations of India and Pakistan in 1947, a
variety of struggles, conflicts, and agendas drove the formation of
the new language.

To a degree, Hindi rests on medieval languages like Awadhi, Bhojpuri,
and Brajbhasha, but its immediate ancestor is Hindustani, named for an
old geographic designation for North India. Modern Hindi and modern
Urdu both emerged out of Hindustani, and distinguish themselves from
each other by the script (Nagari versus Nastaliq), vocabulary
(Sanskrit versus Perso-Arabic), and the religious identity of users
(Hindu versus Muslim). Violent efforts at purification, which involved
purging the languages of “foreign” words and the communal
identification by Hindu and Muslim chauvinists, forced Hindi and Urdu
apart. It broke down their common base, Hindustani, almost to

In practice, most South Asians are bilingual or multilingual, and
north Indians who travel in Pakistan and Pakistanis who visit northern
India have very little trouble understanding one another. Many are
descended from common ancestry, displaced from what used to be shared
villages and towns later affected by the partition of the British
Empire in South Asia into two nations. By sheer quantity, Hindi-Urdu,
Punjabi, and Bengali—the languages most broadly spoken in Pakistan,
north India, and Bangladesh—are among the largest language groups in
the world, ranking alongside English, Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish,
French, and Russian.

The creation of modern Hindi involved several simultaneous
operations—the standardization of a number of ancestral languages and
their demotion, in turn, into dialects and variants; the removal of
the Perso-Arabic vocabulary and pronunciation that were considered the
hallmarks of Urdu; the infusion of a Sanskrit vocabulary to
distinguish Hindi from both Hindustani and Urdu; and the invention of
new words, often with a Sanskrit base, to denote modern phenomena,
particularly those of an economic and technical nature. Of course,
these maneuvers are never revealed to Indian school children who study
Hindi early on in their education along with English and their local
language. Most Indians never even discover these facts as adults.
Meanwhile, Pakistanis are taught that Urdu springs directly from
Arabic, an assertion that erases centuries of history when a
confluence of Indian and Persian languages and cultures produced the
tongues and texts of the entire expanse of South Asia from Afghanistan
in the northwest to Bengal in the east.

The popular fabrication taught to Indian school children today is that
Hindi is a modern language descended from its ancient predecessor
Sanskrit. Indeed, most Indian languages that belong to northern India
are genetically related to Sanskrit. Even Indian languages of the
Dravidian group—the languages of south India—borrow to varying extents
from Sanskrit, so it is not difficult to pass off the fiction of
Hindi’s evolution out of Sanskrit to lay users of the language. Since
the very inception of linguistics as a discipline in Europe in the
late 18th century, Sanskrit has been posited as the mother of all
languages of the Indo-European family, not just in India but in Europe
as well. Moreover, most Indians cannot tell that the grammar and
syntax of Sanskrit and Hindi are significantly different from one
another, while what they share in terms of script and vocabulary are
generally accepted as sufficient evidence of a parent-child
relationship between the two.

In terms of proceeding on the basis of a fabricated history of
origins, purity, evolution, and uniformity, Hindi is no different from
most other modern “national” languages. Nor is it necessarily possible
to turn back the clock and recover either the popular base or the
literary productivity of other languages that are now treated as
ancestors, tributaries, or dialects of Hindi. But a truly progressive
Indian state would restore in the public imagination a truer picture
of the shared heritage of Hindi and Urdu. This would enrich both
languages, rather than ceding Urdu to the Pakistani state. Both
languages have suffered on account of their artificial estrangement
from one another in the postcolonial era.


In many ways, modern standard Hindi is comparable to modern Hebrew.
Both share key attributes—the need for a language that has the
prestige of history, the suppleness to accommodate countless new words
or expressions, and which can potentially cobble together a nation out
of diverse and heterogeneous communities.

Unfortunately, another common attribute of both Hindi and Hebrew as
the official languages of India and Israel is their implicit refusal
to recognize the languages of the Islamic communities in their
midst—the Urdu of Indian and Pakistani Muslims in the one case, the
Arabic of the Palestinian people in the other. Both nations
desperately need to understand that their linguistic issues are
metaphors for ethnic or religious divides, and could, if left
unaddressed pose insuperable hurdles to peaceful development and

In a 2007 interview with the Paris Review, the Israeli writer David
Grossman, a sharp critic of his nation’s treatment of Palestinians,
pointed out a host of paradoxes embedded in a language that might have
Biblical authority but has never been used to express certain
thoroughly modern concepts. “Hebrew is a flexible language,” he
observes, “and it surrenders enthusiastically to all kinds of
wordplay. You can talk in slang about the Bible, and you can speak
biblically about everyday life. You can invent words that people can
easily understand, because almost every word has a root, and people
know the derivation or can usually figure it out. It is a very sexy
language. It is gigantic, heroic, and glorious, but at the same time,
it has large gaps that yearn to be filled by writers.”

A great deal of the tone of lamentation cast over the creation of
modern Hindi and its effort to distance itself from its medieval
forbearers—languages like Awadhi and Braj, as well as close relatives
like Hindustani and Urdu—has come from India’s poets and novelists.
Many deeply feel that violence done to language is ultimately violence
done to literature too. With the disappearance of Hindustani, the
forcible separation of Hindu and Urdu became a reality. Each language
now has its own unique alphabet, with Urdu script being a close
derivative of Persian. The result was the demise of a progressive
literature typical of colonial northern India from the 1920s to the
1940s, popular for both Hindu and Muslim writers. This gave way to the
more stridently nationalist and monolingual postcolonial Hindi and
Urdu literatures of India and Pakistan. The segregation of languages
fed into the segregation of literary as well as
popular cultures. Politically, the language cleavage has hardened
boundaries hardened and intensified confrontation between the two
neighbors with such similar linguistic and ethnic roots. For these two
nations to work together effectively, they must learn at least to
recognize their shared cultural heritage, if not maintain a common


Today, as India enters its third decade of globalization, Hindi is no
longer as tortured about its broken relationship with its Pakistani
counterpart, Urdu. Indeed, Hindi’s creolization with English is
marking the true break between the two languages. The encroachment of
English into Hindi has produced all kinds of changes in everyday,
spoken Hindi. In India, the outright importation of a great deal of
English vocabulary is accelerating along with the proliferation of
expressions peculiar to English in India, the growing tendency to
write Hindi in Roman letters, and the coining of hybrid words that are
native neither to Hindi nor to English. The cumulative result of all
these developments is Hinglish—a word that many find as distasteful as
the phenomenon it captures.

Turn the TV to any Hindi-language channel, watch any current Bollywood
film, open the pages of any leading English-language newspaper, and
you are accosted by this hybrid language. Opinion is divided as to
what the rise of Hinglish says about liberalizing India. Some see it
as a sure sign Hindi is at last becoming a real lingua franca,
available to every social class, accessible for use by all in a
rapidly changing India.

The penetration of English has also led to the ability to express
Hindi concepts that were awkward, if not impossible, to convey in a
purer, less hybridized idiom. If the market for Indian newspapers,
magazines, channels, and books is growing—at the very moment media and
publishing are facing hard times elsewhere—it is because Hindi is
doing whatever it takes to survive in a world increasingly saturated
with information conveyed through the written or spoken word. In this
view, a brighter future is all but guaranteed as long as Hindi is
prepared to leave behind its baggage of excessive vernacular
diversity, inter-sectarian tensions, an overly complex history, as
well as competing claims of national, religious community, regional,
and political interests. Above all, this view suggests that Hindi’s
bright future is assured as long as its adherents are willing to
absorb, even embrace, elements of the very language that was once the
embodiment of India’s subjugation.

The opposite view is that Hinglish spells the death of both literary
and popular Hindi, signaling the end of India’s resistance to
colonialism. To succumb to Hinglish is to capitulate before the
imperial language that kept India colonized for two centuries. The
proliferation of Hinglish means that instead of educated, bilingual
Indians of years past, there is a now new generation unable to use
either Hindi or English correctly. The spread of Hindi in Roman
letters means that literate Indians are forgetting—or not bothering to
learn—how to read Nagari script. Indeed, two generations ago, they had
already forgotten how to read Hindustani in Urdu’s Persian-style
script. The most infamous example cited is of Bollywood movie stars,
who now read scripts for Hindi films entirely in Roman script, where
once the Hindi movie industry employed the services of some of the
most accomplished writers and refined speakers of both Urdu and Hindi
as script-writers, lyricists, singers, directors, producers, and
actors. The transformation of Hindi into Hinglish, according to this
narrative, is a sign of the degeneration and defeat of the language at
the hands of its colonial enemy, English.

More interesting than these polarized views—a buoyant optimism
neglectful of history on the one hand and a doomsday attitude equally
despairing of the future on the other—is a third position, just
beginning to emerge among a handful of bilingual intellectuals in
India, which says what Hindi needs to do is stop worrying about
natural processes of hybridization. Instead, Hindi must consciously
develop a repertoire of capabilities that it lacks—the capacity to
generate a proper vocabulary of social science, critical idioms to
address issues and debates within Indian public life, and a certain
self-consciousness that can give it the confidence to stand up to
other “world languages” like English, Chinese, or Arabic. If the
government is to insert itself into the mechanism of linguistic
evolution, as it did during the creation of states within the Indian
Union in the early years after independence,  it might prove most
valuable. Many Western languages have academies that guarantee a
degree of linguistic robustness—the Académie Française in France, and
comparable institutions in other language centers such as Italy and
Spain. Perhaps it is time for the Indian state to give its Hindi
language policy agenda some institutional teeth.

Hindi needs to become a language that everything else gets translated
into; that allows users to access literature, scholarship, and science
in Hindi translation; and that compels non-Indians to learn it rather
than forcing Hindi-speakers to learn English or any other hegemonic
language. Once it has built and equipped itself with this sort of
arsenal, the argument goes, all of the angst about past and future
currently attached to Hindi will fall away, allowing it to emerge as
its strongest self—the language, in some variant or other, of more
than one tenth of all human beings.


It might seem genuinely futile to argue for or against Hinglish. It’s
not as though anyone’s personal preference can definitively affect the
direction of linguistic change, though quite possibly, the government
might prove to be up to the task. Purists just don’t like the messy
jumble of two such distant languages as Hindi and English. Zealous
grammarians worry that the mixing is not a real fusion, since Hindi
and English are merely borrowing words from one another and cutting
and pasting them into an otherwise undisturbed syntax—a fundamentally
lazy and uncreative operation that assumes users of Hinglish are
already bilingual. Enthusiasts predict that if Hindi hitches itself to
the bandwagon of English, it will flourish—indeed, they suspect that
this might be Hindi’s only hope of survival. Hindi—as well as Hinglish
now—is made to do a lot of work in the creation and representation of
social identities and political solidarities. Hinglish carries the
burden of being too elite for some tastes, too mixed-up for others,
and for yet others, it represents a certain popular energy that keeps
India’s democracy vibrant. But the truth is that no side in this
argument can, simply by the weight of its opinion, carry the day, as
Hinglish is continuously evolving and dissolving.

Hinglish is in fact one of many half-Indian, half-English argots to
have mushroomed in the past five or 10 years. Tanglish (Tamil plus
English) and Banglish (Bengali plus English) are other notable
examples of the same process at work. What is important about these
phenomena is not their transience or permanence—indeed, over time they
may prove to be more passing fashionable idioms than enduring bridge
languages. Rather, Hinglish is a symptom of the problems that Hindi
needs to resolve within its own history and in its relationships with
other languages, including English, Urdu, and Sanskrit. Given the
sheer number of its speakers in India and elsewhere, Hindi has the
capacity to be as widespread a medium of communication as English,
Arabic, or Chinese. But unless language mavens and government
authorities treat the emergence and popularity of Hinglish as a
wake-up call for India to seize the moment in developing a vital and
lasting linguistic policy, the nation risks losing its global
advantage in coming years.



Ananya Vajpeyi studied as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford
and has a doctorate in South Asian studies from the University of
Chicago. Her first book, Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations
of Modern India, will be published by Harvard University Press in
October. She is currently a Visting Fellow at the Center for the Study
of Developing Societies, New Delhi.

[Photo: Bo Jayatilaka]

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