India is a very large country. We are the seventh largest country geographically in the world, and the second most populous. We are the biggest democracy in the world. Our history goes back millennia, and over the centuries we have welcomed invaders and visitors alike. Because we are such a large country, we have much diversity within our cultures and practices. For example, while we officially recognize 22 different languages within our borders, it is estimated that we have 122 major languages and nearly 1,600 other languages spoken in India today. But how similar are some of these languages?
For example, are Hindi and Urdu the same? Hindi and Urdu are essentially the same spoken language. Both languages came from the Indo-European and Indo-Aryan language families. Because both have the same Indic base, their grammar and phonology are similar. A Hindi speaker and an Urdu speaker could carry on a conversation in their preferred language and understand each other very well.
That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t differences between the two. Even though they share the same Indic roots, they were influenced by different cultures and practices. And the two languages, when written out, look very different. So, how is it that we consider them the same language? If there are differences, how do we understand each other? And where does Sanskrit fit in to all of this?
Same Language Origins
When we describe these two languages as coming from Indo-European and Indo-Aryan families, what do we mean? If we look in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, we can find our definitions:
- Indo-European language: a family of languages that are spoken in Europe and in parts of the world colonized by Europeans since the 1500s, including Persia, India, and parts of Asia.
- Indo-Aryan language: a branch of the Indo-European language family that includes Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, and other languages spoken primarily in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.
People get nervous when they see the word “Aryan” because of the negative connotations it received in World War II. The word actually predates Hitler by several thousand years. It is derived from the Sanskrit word arya, and it was what our ancestors, the Vedic Indic people, called themselves when they were migrating into India around 1,500 BCE. The term became misunderstood in the 1800s, and it unfortunately became used to mean racial purity. This was not its original meaning.
Today, we know that both languages were born from the khari boli dialect of northern India, around Delhi. In the early 16th to 18th centuries, that region took on many words from the nearby Persian empire, mainly through merchants looking for a common language in which to trade. These days, it is known by other names like Haryanavi, and is considered a dialect of Hindi. It is losing traction as we try to modernize it, and the number of people still speaking it have dwindled.
Hindi is one of the most spoken languages globally, with over 800 million of us speaking it either as a primary or secondary language. While it is most popular in India, those of us speaking it can be found all over the world. Because it originated in Northern India, it shares closer ties to other Indo-European languages than it does to some dialects spoken in southern India. However, when the British invaded, they decided that it would be a standardized language in India. Which is why over 40% of us speak it in India today.
Urdu is spoken by over 100 million of us today, either as a first or second language. It is the official state language of Pakistan and is officially recognized in India as a state language. It was developed in the 1100s in the northwest region of India around the time of the Muslim invasion. Because of that early Islamic influence, Urdu draws many more of its words from Arabic and Persian than Hindi does.
Both Hindi and Urdu share the same grammatical structure and vocabulary. Whether or not we are speaking Hindi or Urdu largely becomes a matter of preference and social or political influences. Urdu is often associated with Pakistan and our Muslim population, while Hindi is more associated with our large Hindu community. Unfortunately, years of tension have made our decision to speak one or the other political, despite the fact they are essentially the same language.
Hindi and Urdu are considered variants of Hindustani. Hindustani was originally developed as a workaround between the speakers of Khari Boli and others who came into that area of India due to trade or invasion (people speaking Persian, Arabic, and Turkish) in the early 1200s. Khari Boli provided the basic structure for the language, but borrowed words and prefixes from the Persian language. The language traveled along trading routes and eventually merged with other Indian languages to produce new ones.
When the British came to India, they decided the Hindustani would be the most expeditious way of communicating with us. Their attempts at standardizing Hindustani unfortunately made the riff between Indians and Muslims even greater. Hindis added more Sanskrit words to their form of Hindustani, and Muslims more Arabic words. Despite attempts to heal the rift, Hindi and Urdu had been born.
Today, Hindustani is still used as a way for our people to understand each other even when our languages are different. It is sometimes called “Bazaar Hindustani” as it is used by merchants and customers alike to get their points across.
Different Writing Systems
Even though Hindi and Urdu are virtually interchangeable when spoken, their written languages are very different. Urdu is written is a script called Nastaliq, and Hindi’s is called Devanagari. Though many of us can read both, they look very different and come from very different origins.
Nastaliq, also spelled as Nasta‘liq, is actually a Persian style of calligraphy that was developed in the 15th and 16th centuries by a man named Mir ‘Ali of Tabriz. It is known for its flowing lines and was often incorporated into the paintings of that era. In Persia, it was considered an artistic form and rarely used for everyday written works and saved for poetry and other creative endeavors. However, in India we have been using it for centuries as Urdu’s written language. It is read from right to left.
The Devanagari, also called Nagari, is the script we use in the Hindi language. It is also used in Sanskrit, Prakrit, Marathi, and Nepali languages. In total, we use it today for over 120 different languages, and it is one of the most widely adopted writing systems in India.
It is derived from the Gupti alphabet, which in turn was based on the Brahmi way of writing. Nearly all of our modern Indian writing systems are influenced by the original Brahmi alphabet. We’ve been using Devanagari since the 600s CE, but it didn’t really become formalized until the 1l00s. It is read from left to right.
Today, there are up to 88 different kinds of written languages here in India. Compare that to the five of continental Europe (Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Georgian, and Armenian). Devanagari is one of the most popular, along with other Brahmi-influenced scripts like Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Odia. Urdu is also commonly found, though its roots aren’t Brahmic.
We have a popular saying here in India, “The language spoken in India changes every few kilometers, just like the taste of the water.” With all of the languages and regional dialects, we have to have some kind of standardization so we can all communicate with each other. Even though Hindi is spoken by a large portion of our population, it is not our sole national language. Today, we use Hindi and its Devanagari written form for most official government use (along with English), but recognize over 22 different official languages. Both Hindi and Urdu are included in that list.
Where Does Sanskrit Fit In?
Most people in the west understand that Hindi is a language, but often they use the terms Hindi and Sanskrit interchangeably. The truth is, they are two separate languages, but without Sanskrit Hindi would never exist.
The word Sanskrit means adorned, cultivated, or purified. It is an ancient Indo-Aryan language and is found in our most ancients texts the Rig Vedas, which date back to 1500 BCE. It was also used in our other classical text the Vedas. It was known as the language of the gods, having been developed by Brahma himself and passed it to the heavenly sages, who passed it on to our ancestors on earth.
It has been written in many different languages over the centuries, including Devanagari and other regional scripts. It is used by Hindus (primarily used in religious rituals and texts), and those practicing Jainism and Mahayana Buddhism. It is still recognized today as a classical language and an official language of India. We can still find it used today in journals, tech media, magazines, and in television and film.
For those of you who have ever been to a yoga class, you’ve had your own experience with Sanskrit. Many of yoga’s modern postures and poses have Sanskrit names, and many yoga teachers will lead their students in chants which feature mantra said in Sanskrit.
The popular yogic salutation Namaste is a Sanskrit word meaning, simply, “I bow to you.” If you have ever wondered why your yoga teacher called Downward Dog Adho Mukha Svanasana, they were calling it by its Sanskrit name. Even the commonly known chant om shanti shanti is Sanskrit (meaning peace, peace, peace).
Today, many languages the world over have words rooted in the Sanskrit language. China, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, and the Javanese languages have all been heavily influenced by Sanskrit. Even English has picked many words, including:
- Ambrosia: amaruta in Sanskrit, meaning “food of the gods”
- Attack: akramana, meaning “to take aggressive action”
- Man: manu, male human
- Door: dwar
- Serpent: sarpa
Today, while the language is still revered in India, it is mostly just used by Hindi priests during religious rituals. Less than 1% of us speak it with any regularity. However, its influences on our languages here in India and around the world are well-documented.
With our many languages and our cultural diversity, India seems to be mystery to many people. Our traditions go back many thousands of years, and we are proud of our heritage. Just as we have absorbed many different influences over the years, we have shared our practices and languages with others. Whether we speak Hindi, Urdu, or something else, we come together in our pride of being Indian.
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