Was Hindi Really Created by India's British Colonial Rulers?

The idea behind the British linguistic claims, namely that Hindus used a Sanskritised language, was incorrect.

As a person who studies early modern vernaculars, I often hear the opinion that Hindi was created a little more than 200 years ago by the British. This view is nowadays shared by both Hindi and non-Hindi speakers. Those who resent the political role of Hindi in 20th century nationalism claim, as the title of an article by a Bengali author does, that “Hindi was devised by a Scottish linguist of the East India Company – it can never be India’s National Language”.

Similarly, one of the leading Hindi publishing houses, Vani Prakashan, states in its home page that Hindi, in its present form, is the language that is born in modern times”. In contrast, most 20th century scholars working under the ideas of the Indian freedom struggle underlined the continuity of modern Hindi with earlier literary idioms, such as Avadhi and Brajbhasha (though rarely with Hindustani).

A young Grierson. Photo: Goodreads

However, the clearest formulation of the idea of the birth of a new language is the one found in Sir George A. Grierson’s The Modern Vernacular Literature of Hindustan (1889, page 108, emphasis mine):

[The early nineteenth century witnessed] the birth of that wonderful hybrid language known to Europeans as Hindi and invented by them. In 1803, under Gilchrist’s tuition, Lallū Jī Lāl wrote the Prem Sāgar… with this peculiarity, that he used only nouns and particles of Indian, instead of those of Arabic or Persian origin. The result was practically a newly invented speech.

[I]ts prose in one uniform artificial dialect, the mother tongue of no native born Indian, [was] forced into acceptance by the prestige of its inventors, by the fact that the first books written in it were of a highly popular character, and because it found a sphere in which it was eminently useful.

We can see that both the idea of colonial agency as well as the imagery of birth goes back at least to this early statement.

Interestingly, the linguist Grierson’s ideas about what Hindi is are unclear. In these two paragraphs, he calls it a language, a speech and then a dialect. Furthermore, the contents of his study contradicts his statement since The Modern Vernacular Literature of Hindustan, just as its chief source, the Hindi Śhivsingh saroj (1877), presents a history in which modern Hindi is the culmination of a tradition that includes Avadhi, Brajbhasha and other literary idioms. Yet, it is clear that he does not want to leave any doubt that Hindi is the gift of colonial administration to India and qualifies the three words used synonymously for language as hybrid, newly invented and artificial. One can hear these qualifications for Hindi even today.

Although Grierson was a great early linguist and one of the best connoisseurs of Indian vernaculars, his concept of this new idiom lacks clarity. Is his Hindi language, a speech and then a dialect? In general usage, dialect normally means a local, lower form of language dependent on a higher, standard version. In Grierson’s use above, the word dialect would seem unclear as there is no standard above it.

Colonial thinkers for long did not acknowledge the existence of various vernacular languages in India and simply claimed that the language of India is Sanskrit or Persian and that there are numberless dialects. Grierson tries to cut out a middle way by attributing both language and dialect status to Hindi. Most people without a background in linguistics and especially sociolinguistics would be lost in how to distinguish language from dialect. One convenient way that the colonial officers used was that languages have literatures while dialects do not. Since the British discovered Vidyāpati only later, the young Grierson’s earnest efforts to grant an independent language status to Bihari (Maithili) in the 1870s were thwarted by the colonial administration arguing that dialects in Bihar lacked literature.

Today, those who advocate that Hindi was created by colonial officers are deeply indebted to colonial thinking in this perception. Furthermore, there is also a perceptible reluctance to look back to times before the British influence on Indian culture. The fact is that there was indeed a widely used contact language in India that the British subsequently adopted for the purpose of printing and the teaching of their own officials. They referred to this language by various names. In the 18th century, they most frequently called it “Moors” while in the 17th, “Indostan”. They described it as the most important contact language within the Mughal Empire, particularly useful to deal with women.

The “Hindustani” entry of Hobson-Jobson informs us that the first Englishman known to speak “Indostan” was Thomas Coryat (c1577–1617), nowadays celebrated as the first tourist, about whom it was noted in that he spoke the language so well that he was able to quarrel in it with women. A later visitor, John Fryer (c1650-1733), a doctor of the East India Company wrote in 1673,

“The Language at Court is Persian, that commonly spoke is Indostan (for which they have no proper Character, the written Language being called Banyan), which is a mixture of Persian and Sclavonian [i.e. Indian vernacular], as are all the dialects of India.”

So much for Grierson’s newly-found hybridity.

Coryat’s Crudities and John Fryer on the frontispiece of his New Account of East India and Persia. Photos: Wikipedia

It is important to note that Fryer was not aware of “Indostan” being a written language. My study in Francesca Orsini’s Before the Divide, showed that the literary version of this language came to be called Rekhta by the 17th century. My current research examines, how, along with the literary production in Rekhta, Hindustani was present in 17-18th century India in grammar books and legal documents.

Babur. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The oldest and most numerous extant Hindustani documents are literary, that is Rekhta, works. The first authentic written specimen from north India is a couplet (muj-kā na huā kuj havas-i mānak-o motī…) in the Persian-script present in the 1529 Diwan of Mughal emperor Babur. This was followed by various experiments in composing Rekhta or including Hindustani passages into works at the Mughal court. An interesting example of the use of the vernacular for female voice can be observed in Sard-o-garm-i zamāna, a Persian narrative poem attributed to a certain ‘Ishqi Khan (d. 1582). At some point, it presents how a wealthy landowner is greeted on his arrival home by his Hindustani wife,

… haũ tirī lauṇḍī tū mirā ḵẖvandgār;
tum jo mujh kõ piyār karte ho; haũ bhī kartī hū̃ tihārā pyār.
apne koṭhe pai maĩ bichāūṁ palang; ūs ūpar leṭ jīo pāõ pasār;

I am your woman and you are my kind lord;
The way you love me, I love you in the same way.
Let me make up a bed in my room, come and lie down on it stretching your legs.

The same work also describes how a poor husband is received:

terī mā̃ golī terā bāp camār;
jhūṭh tujh thẽ bahut sunā mat bol; sac tirā haũ kahaũ mirā mat mār.
tujh thẽ mujh ko na rotī o pānī; tujh thẽ mujh kõ nahīṁ savād o siṅgār;
ab na rāhūṁ tire ḵẖudā kī saũ; nikalūngī tihāre ghar thẽ bahār.

Your mother was a cowherd, your father a leather-worker;
Don’t say a word, I have heard enough lies from you, if I tell you the truth, don’t beat me.
I don’t get bread or water from you, neither delicious food nor ornament.
I won’t stay with you, I swear, I will leave your house.

Surprisingly, starting from the early 17th century, or maybe before, we have an ever-increasing number of Rekhta poems in the Nagari script. The earliest Rekhta poems written down at some point of time in the Nagari script probably go back  to the religious reformer, Dādū Dayāl (1544-1603, alā, terā jikar phikar karte haiṁ… etc.), and maybe to the Vrindaban devotee of Radha and Krishna, Svāmī Haridās (1512-1607, bande akhtiyār bhalā).

Akbar and Tansen meeting Svami Haridas. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Bhakti poets went on producing Rekhta well until the 19th century. However, the enthusiasm for this idiom went beyond devotional circles. The poet Ālam is credited with Rekhta kavittas and we have Rekhta poems by Prānnāth Śhrotriy from Mirza Raja Ram Singh’s court (1667-1688) and later the Kishangarh crown prince Sāvant Singh ‘Nāgrīdās’ (1694-1764) composed an Iśhk-chaman – just to mention a few authors. Indian archives, however, are full of handwritten books containing unpublished Nagari Rekhta compositions. Their Rekhta is based on what is now called Khaṛī Bolī grammar and uses a large amount of Perso-Arabic words.

Apart from the Persianised “high” Rekhta, we also have compositions in a more demotic register. Such works do not call their literary idiom Rekhta but “Hindustān”. The religious reformer Prānnāth (1618-94), who proclaimed himself to be the Mahdi of the Muslims and Kalki of the Hindus talks about the dilemma of language choice in his book called Sanandh,

सब को प्यारी अपनी जो है कुल की भाष।
अब कहूँ भाषा में किनकी, यामें तो भाषा है लाख।। 13।।
बिना हिसाबे बोलियाँ मिने सकल जहान। 
सबको सुगम जानके कहूँगो हिन्दुस्तान।। 15।।

Everyone prefers the language of his own family. Now in whose language shall I speak? — There are millions of languages here. Idioms in the world are countless, but I will speak Hindustān since I consider it accessible to everyone (sabko sugam jānke kahūgo hindustān).

The argument of accessibility is shared among both Indians and foreigners. The Capuchin missionary François-Marie de Tours in his 1704 grammar (using the Nagari script) described Hindustani as follows,

The use of this Indian, or Moghulian, language, in all its details, may be a most easy and indispensable practicability, supplying a method that may lead the missionaries in their undertakings of missions, help the merchants in their practising of business and always accompany wayfarers when following the roads, traversing and wandering through [different] regions. It seems suitable to leave aside the Brahmanic [i.e. Sanskrit] and the vernacular [languages] and to keep to the Indian or the Moghulian and study and engage in discourse according to its rules and laws.

The word translated as Indian probably refer to the contemporary designation “Hindustān”, or even “Hindi”. Additionally, it is interesting to note that the form “Indostan”, without a final “-i” was also used in the accounts of 17th century British travellers. Moreover, the word “hindusthāna-vāća” already appeared in the 15th century, where Śrīvara’s Jaina Rājataranginī (2.214) describing the Kashmiri King, Sultan Haider Shah (1470-72 recorded that “The king composed poetry and songs in the Persian language (pārisībhāṣhayā) and in the speech of Hindusthāna (hindusthānavāćayā) — is there anyone who do not praise them?” However, it is unknown to which language of India this word referred to.

Furthermore, Hindustani in the Nagari script can also be found in legal documents. I would just like to refer to the multilingual “Certificate of the inhabitants of Benares addressed to the Hon. Company and Governor General Warren Hastings (1772-85) in support of ‘Ali Ibrāhīm Khān, governor of Benares (1781-92)’, now preserved in the India Office Collection of the British Library. I am quoting one of its Hindustani sections to show how the language looked in the early 1780s (with b-v distinction and punctuation added by me).

navāb amīrul mamālik gavarnar janaral bahādur ke ekbāl se vo prajā ke bhāg se navāb ibrāhimalī khā bahādur kāśhī ke hākim hai [.] īśhvar yah hākimī dāim-kāim rahai (? rakhai) [.] jo likhā hai so sab sahī [.] sab brāhmaṇ rājī hai [.] āśirvād dete hai ki kumpanī salāmat rahey jiske rāj mai etā sukh hai [.]

नवाब अमीरुल ममालिक गवरनर जनरल बहादुर के एकबाल से वो प्रजा के भाग से नवाब इबराहिमली षा हबादुर काशी के हाकिम है। ईश्वर यह हाकिमी दाइम-काइम रहै। जो लिखा है सो सब सही। सब ब्राह्मण राजी है। आशिर्वाद देते है। कि कुंपनी सलामत रहै जिसके राज मैं एता सुख है।

By the acknowledgment of the Governor General the lord of the provinces and by the good fortune of the people, Navāb Ibrāhim Alī Khān is the governor of Kashi. May God keep this governorship safe and long. What is written here is all true. All the Brahmins agree. The give their blessings for the wellbeing of the [East India] Company under whose rule there is so much bliss.

This was the language from which the British claimed to have created a new one. The intervention of the British was limited to the purging the vocabulary of Persianate elements. Thus, they created not a new language but a new style of an already existing language. The above statement of the Benares Brahmins shows that the idea behind this new style, namely that Hindus use a Sanskritised language, was incorrect. When needed, Brahmins were able to use a Persianised register and mix it with a Sanskritic, and indeed English, one (āśirvād dete hai ki kumpanī salāmat rahey).

A parallel development of the language, its standardisation, was the result of a collective effort. Hindustani was standardised into its single modern grammar by Urdu intellectuals in the 18th century and by print culture and Hindi intellectuals in the 19th century. Although Fort William College also had its share in it, claiming its entire agency is exaggeration. In many cases standardisation meant purging Hindustani of its Brajbhasha features and thus distancing it from an “effeminate”, “feudal” idiom.

Although the colonial claim that the British created a new language – a language appropriate to the modern needs – has taken deep roots in contemporary thinking, it is only partially justified. Hindustani in the Nagari script existed much before colonial times. Standardisation happened over a long period and varieties of moderately Persianised Khaṛī Bolī, such as the language used by Prānnāth, existed earlier. The British created a highly Sanskritised style of Khaṛī Bolī perceiving it to be a Hindu speech variety. However, with an emerging Hindu nationalism, Hindi intellectuals more and more enthusiastically adopted the new style and became active agents in distancing it from Urdu, its other style, and in building it up into an ausbau language: Hindi.

Imre Bangha teaches Hindi, Urdu and Brajbhasha at Oxford University, and is currently researching the links between Old Gujarati and Old Hindi.