[lg policy] India: The language of many tongues

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Sep 4 15:31:26 UTC 2015

The language of many tongues


[image: The statue of Mirza Ghalib at Jamia Millia Islamia]
Sandeep_Saxena;THE HINDU
The statue of Mirza Ghalib at Jamia Millia Islamia

language <http://www.thehindu.com/tag/language/546/> Hindi
<http://www.thehindu.com/tag/hindi/552/> Urdu
In many ways Urdu and Hindi are like the proverbial twins.

Urdu language in India is suspended in a web of contradictions. One of the
most loved languages, its script remains inaccessible to most admirers. In
“A Letter from Bara Banki”, C.M. Naim cites a verse by a young poet to
indicate the destiny of Urdu in India: “They all love me, but none is mine
/ I exist in this country like Urdu.”

Urdu passed through a fascinatingly syncretic process in its formation and
historically it shared its space equally amongst different communities, the
Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. The artificial cultural exclusivity imposed on it
sometimes is inherently against its own identity. While also drawing on
languages such as Turkish, Persian and Arabic, the Urdu language in fact
evolved from several languages and dialects spoken in India.

Incidentally, the word “Urdu” means “the royal camp” in which many
languages mingled. It came to be known as “Rekhta” meaning “mixed”. By
1857, Urdu had acquired a variety of styles that include predominantly, the
Dilli and the Lukhnavi styles along with the Deccani variety widespread
South of the Vindhyas. Deccani language demonstrates an active interaction
between Urdu and many other languages local to that region, such as Telugu,
Kannada, Marathi and others.

Urdu related with Hindi much more intimately and even problematically. As
professed by many scholars, Urdu and Hindi could really be seen as twin
languages. They were both referred to as Hindavi or Hindui around the time
of Amir Khusrau in the 13th and 14th centuries. Interestingly, Ghalib in
the 19th Century referred to his language as “Hindi”. Though the term
“Urdu” was first used in 1780, the nomenclature was not popularly used. The
eminent scholar Shams-ur-Rehman Faruqi enumerates the earlier names for the
language now called Urdu, as Hindavi, Hindi, Dilhavi, Gujari, Dakkani and
Rekhtah. He goes on to say, “Even in early 20th Century, the name Hindi was
used to mean Urdu”. Till nearly as late as the early 20th Century, Hindi
and Urdu could take each other’s place.

It was in 1803 that the differences between the two were in a way
formulated through the British language policy. Two styles of Khariboli,
‘Urdu’ and ‘Hindi’ got established at Fort William College, pinning each
one down to a specific script. Herein were sown the seeds of linguistic
strife between the two, seeds that developed into a political battle for
power later.

The following narrative of David Matthews is pertinent if only to
demonstrate the interchangeability of the spoken Hindi and Urdu by the
common man of India: “In a hotel in Madras, I called the waiter and ordered
my tea in Urdu and asked him his name. The waiter looked very uncomfortable
and declared that he disliked Hindi and that in Madras they spoke only
Tamil. I told him at once: ‘But I am not speaking Hindi, I am actually
talking to you in Urdu.’ He at once relaxed and said: ‘What a sweet
language! Urdu is a beautiful language with such beautiful ghazals and

The rich repository of knowledge and literature in Urdu is vibrantly alive
even today. When we talk of the cherished heritage of Urdu, we must also
include its rich oral traditions of daastangoi and kissagoi, long intricate
tales told with a strong sense of drama and imagination. This matches with
a very powerful tradition of fiction writing in Urdu.

In everyday conversation, as also in serious academic presentations, Urdu
verses, of such poets as Ghalib, Mir, Faiz or Iqbal are lovingly and
spontaneously recited even though most people are not able to read the Urdu
script. The so-called ‘Hindi’ films too have kept Urdu alive. Why then
should Urdu and its script not be taught in more schools along with Hindi?
The oft-quoted argument has been, “Why confine Urdu only to the Persian
script when it can be made accessible in Devnagari, which is taught all
over the country?” But then, some linguists argue, isn’t the script
inherent to the identity of a language? The script, they say, symbolizes
the culture which it carries.

As Susham Bedi of Columbia University suggests, should we perhaps use a
hyphenated term Hindi-Urdu and acknowledge their twin identity: let them
survive and thrive in both the scripts so that the Ganga-Jamuni culture
doesn’t get erased. The eminent scholar Abul Haq had rightly pointed out
how Urdu was born from a cultural synthesis. Its conversation with Hindi
must continue.

Ironically, the region referred to as the Hindi belt is the very region
where there is a large concentration of people who read, write and speak


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