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hindi and urdu

12th January 2008 permanent link

Here’s a great way, through being interested in a language, “to learn about culture, history, and a world of people that speak that language”. I stumbled across a series of blog postings by Mark Liberman at Language Log on the politically-driven history and development of Hindi and Urdu as separate languages. One. Two. Three. Short version: “Hindustani” was/is a family of dialects spoken across much of North India, originally descended from Sanskrit. “Urdu” was the heavily Persianised(*) formal literary dialect spoken by the Mughal aristocracy and subsequently pushed by Pakistani nationalists as “the” standard language of South Asian Muslims (even though it’s a minority language even in Pakistan). “Hindi” is a back-to-Sanskrit version propagated by Hindu Indian nationalists during and after the Independence movement. The formal official/literary versions are pretty much mutually incomprehensible but here are plenty of dialects in between, e.g. Bollywoodese, that aren’t. See also this interesting and well informed follow-up comment thread by native speakers of a variety of Indian languages at Sepia Mutiny.

I wondered when I was in India about what language(s) to learn. English works among younger educated people in big cities; out in the country it will usually just about get you food and a bed for the night, but forget reliably finding anybody you can actually have a conversation with.

I did some Sanskrit classes in order to be able to (one day) read the yoga scriptures. Try traveling around Europe with a few phrases of rudimentary Latin and see how far they get you. Learning Sanskrit at least means you can read the Devanagari alphabet that’s used for Hindi and several other north Indian languages. Kannada – the main local language in Karnataka where I mostly was – is written in an entirely different script of which after four months I could just about make out enough to work out where buses were going. Which was useful, but I was surprised what a huge relief it was when I travelled to the north of the state where people speak Konkani, the Goan language that is also written in Devanagari, and hey presto I could suddenly read road signs fairly easily.

The script thing is a major hassle for south Indians too. The main languages of south India are from the Dravidian language family and closely related, but all use different scripts. I had a Tamil acquaintance in Kannada-speaking Mysore who said he could pretty much make out a lot of what people were talking about, but couldn’t read anything.

Anyway: I pretty much reached the conclusion that, had I been planning to spend years in Mysore as some western yoga students do, then learning Kannada would have been a worthwhile time investment. Otherwise, learning a language that‘s only useful in one state didn’t seem like such a great idea and a standard, generic dialect of Hindi seemed to be the thing to go for. Except there doesn’t appear to be such a thing.

(*) Persian itself is an Indo-European language originally very closely related to Sanskrit, but subsequently heavily loaded with Arabic and Turkic(**) loan-words due to religious and political connections; not surprisingly it was largely the Arabic religious terms that tended to make it into Urdu.

(**) “Urdu” originally meant something like “the language of the army camp”, from the same Turkic root as English “horde”. [Also “yurt”??]

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