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There is a curious debate on social media these days in the wake of the assertion by Union home minister Amit Shah that Hindi should take over the role of English in all states, and grow into our national language.
This move has raised hackles outside the Hindi belt, awakening memories of 1937 and 1965, when the South agitated in opposition to what it saw as the imposition of a language that would put it at a disadvantage. And one argument that has come up this time to counter the demand for Hindi is that it is only something ‘devised’ at Fort William College, Calcutta, by a Scottish linguist named John Gilchrist working for the East India Company, and so it could never be India’s National Language.
First, the more important issue: does English need to be replaced? I am not convinced that that could work.
For as far back as we can remember, India has functioned with the elite linguistically separate from the rest of the society. The Prakrits, which were mostly mutually intelligible, and considered less prestigious than Sanskrit, allowed the elites to stay in a single conversation across a huge spread of territory. Persian played a similar role during the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal times, and after Independence, English.
The first primary schools that taught in English medium were set up not in the time of Macaulay, but after Independence. The persistence of English is just a continuation of our elitist past. Indeed, opting for a more local language as the national language is what would have been the great hiccup. Because nothing has changed: neither our society nor our present government has suddenly grown an egalitarian heart. So the South is right to be suspicious of any sudden initiative from the government to push Hindi.
Hindi, like most modern Indian languages, actually dates back to the 12th century, which is when we begin to find evidence of modern languages like Marathi, Bangla, Awadhi and Braj in the written record. Hindi was the dialect of Delhi, and it hasn’t changed much. We only need to look at some of the work of Amir Khusro, writing in the 13th century, to see a language that is shockingly familiar:
Khusro, darya prem kā, ulṭī wā kī dhār,
Jo utrā so ḍūb gaya, jo ḍūbā so pār.
Oh Khusro, love’s river, it has a contrary flow,
Who wades in will drown, who drowns will cross below.
Khusro often wrote in what he called ‘Hindavi’, a term he used to refer to all the Indian vernaculars of the North as compared with Persian, the language of literature. Hindavi, then, was not necessarily Hindi. It could even be Braj, or Awadhi, or Bhojpuri, or Gujarati, or Punjabi, which all existed as separate vernaculars. Of these Dehlavi, which we now call Hindi (or Urdu), had all the advantages of location: any dialect that is from the capital region is destined for greater things. Even though Persian was the official language, the Dehlavi dialect was thriving, so much so that in time it came to be seen as a ‘language’, while Braj and Awadhi, which were at one time ahead and recognised as having a literature, were not incorporated into the final language, but sidelined as ‘dialects of Hindi’.
Hindi, then, is old. Its bones, and even its flesh, have stayed much the same, because it was already ‘fully grown’ by the 12th century, and adults do not change much once they are mature. What adults can do, however, is change their clothes, or style of dress, or hairstyles, but that is only superficial tinkering that does not affect their genetics. I may look different when I wear a sari, but I am still the same person I was in different clothing.
What are these clothes that Hindi has been changing from time to time? Words, or to be more precise: nouns.
From time to time Hindi has got itself a new wardrobe of nouns to go with changed surroundings. Before the Central Asians of the Delhi Sultanate arrived, all its words and word endings were tadbhavas drawn from a local Prakrit (not Sanskrit!), but I am certain it had a previous avatar where even its vocabulary was older, going back to the lost language family of the Indus Valley.
During the Delhi Sultanate, it picked up a few Persian nouns, probably more in the speech of people like Khusro who knew Persian than in the usage of ordinary folk. Like darya in the doha above. Then, over the centuries it picked up more, mainly of words that had to do with the new social environment. But it is only when ghazals started being written in the vernacular, still called Hindi zuban, in the 1700s, that the great deluge of Persian vocabulary started.
As had happened earlier in Malayalam, when Nambudiri writers began adding in Sanskrit nouns to epics they were writing, creating what they called ‘Maṇipravāḷam’ – ruby-coral, a beautiful fusion – ghazal writers in the Nizam’s Court in Hyderabad began liberally adding Persian nouns into the verse they wrote in Hindi. In both cases it was an attempt to get away from writing in Sanskrit and Persian, not a wish to alter Malayalam and Hindi. Then in 1780 for the first time the word ‘Urdu’ was used to name this language, in a couplet by Mus’hafi:
Khudā rakhe zubã hamne sunī hai Mir-o-Mirzā kī,
Kahĩ kisī mũh se ham, e Mus’hafi, Urdū hamārī hai.
May God preserve this language that I first heard somehow
From the mouth of Mir Taqi Mir and Mirza Sauda, oh Mus’hafi!
Urdu belongs to all of us.
There is no doubt that the British were determined to erase all traces of their predecessors in Hindi. There were already language enthusiasts among them, as well as classicists excited by Sanskrit, and they took it upon themselves to ‘restore’ Hindi to what they thought it must have been before the Sultanate and the Mughals came to town. But they were not such good linguists that they could see that Hindi had drawn its vocabulary as tadbhavas from Prakrit, and never directly from Sanskrit.
The only Indian language that had taken words directly from Sanskrit was Malayalam: not any of the Northern languages. So in trying to ‘purify’ Hindi, they did what any chemist would have done: they added a reagent to strip away what they did not want, and failed to notice that it had remained after the operation and tainted the thing they were seeking to purify. What they were calling ‘Shuddh Hindi’ was anything but shuddh, or pure. It now felt like a chimera, made up of two different creatures melded into one. And what was worse, it felt as if it was created in order to do efficient word-for-word translations from English.
But the operating system of Hindi had not changed. It was still only nouns which were being added, which suddenly kitted out our language in something extreme. No human had managed to play God and bring a new language to life. It was the old Hindi, but in a new and alien costume.
There is a strange perception, among philologists and the general public, that words are the most significant thing about a language. With philologists this dates back to the time when resemblances between words of different languages revealed a shared history. But this fixation on vocabulary missed other things about languages that were more permanent, things like the grammar, and the sounds. The things that are closer to its genetics.
In India this word-fixation manifests as a need to fragment a single language into ‘Hindi’, ‘Urdu’ and ‘Hindustani’, with ‘Hindi’ being taken to mean only that chimera we saw the British concoct in their Frankenstein lab in Fort William College, happily welcomed by the upper castes of North India, who saw this language as giving them an automatic boost. This is mystifying for modern linguists, who instead speak of Hindi/Urdu, which have the same grammatical system, and see what is called ‘Hindustani’ as just a shifting mix of the Hindi and Urdu registers.
But ironically those accusing Hindi of being too new to serve as a national language miss the point that it is only new languages that stand any chance of being accepted as lingua francas. In Nagaland, where each community speaks a different language, and where these languages are not mutually intelligible, it is Nagamese, a new language, that functions as the lingua franca. Nagamese started out as a trade language with Naga merchants traveling down from their hilltop villages to trade with the Assamese, and over time it has grown and even begun to have native speakers: children born in towns, or to parents from different Naga communities.
In Indonesia too, the national language, now called Bahasa Indonesia, started out as Malay, a rough and ready language spoken in the port cities, and easily accessible to all. When it became the national language, no attempt was made to infuse it with all the richness of the older languages of each island. The best thing about Malay was that it was new, and easy.
The advertising sector has taken a strong liking to ‘Hinglish’, a shifting mix of Hindi and Indian English, and has decided to use it nationally in its campaigns. Two of my students, Ritikaa Kaila and Udayvir Singhvi, have looked into these campaigns, and have found that state governments are dismayed at how popular ‘Hinglish’ is, and how easy it is to speak. Their conclusion is that ‘with the rise of ‘Hinglish’ in news media, entertainment, politics and social media, the increased usage of ‘Hinglish’ in regular conversations, and eventually, in educational institutions and workplaces is likely to occur over time.’ And not just ‘Hinglish’. Other languages like Malayalam also have their version of this mixed code, and if you watch videos in them, you will find that they are surprisingly easy to follow if you know the English words that get slotted in.
It may well be that the future is going to be a number of hybrids that we will understand easily, well, but less than perfectly, which we will get better at if our travels take us out of our home states often enough.
So in the end we have been barking up the wrong tree. If India is to get a lingua franca, or lingua francas, that do more than just serve the elites, the main considerations will be not how old and venerable the languages are, but how new, how easy they are to learn, and how they manage the transition from the world of pop culture to engage with more serious domains of work. And that is something that will happen on its own, or not at all.
Peggy Mohan is a linguist and the author of four books, the most recent being Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India Through its Languages, Gurgaon: Penguin Random House, 2021. She teaches linguistics at Ashoka University.