India is a country of rich cultural diversity where 22 officially recognised languages and over 1650 dialects are spoken across 29 states and 7 union territories, as in 2019. The 2011 Census of India last listed 1369 ‘mother tongues’, however, our country has been a witness to a great number of tongues over the centuries. One such distinctive and culturally rich language is Hindi.
In India, there is a popular proverb, “Where the water changes with every two miles, the tongue changes with every four.” In spite of this, there is a significant Hindi speaking population all across central and northern parts of India, and it is officially reported to be the mother tongue of an estimated 41 percent of the population. It is no news that Hindi music, literature and films have held a dear place in the hearts and minds of most Indians.
How many and where
According to the textbook, Hindi (हिन्दी) or Modern Standard Hindi is a standardised and Sanskritised register of the Hindustani language. Hindi written in the Devanagari script is one of the official languages of India alongside English, and is one of the 22 scheduled languages recognised here. Currently, there are an estimated 521 million Hindi language speakers and about 500 million Indian language speakers in India*.
As of 1 July 2018, Hindi was recorded to be the most widely spoken Indian language in the US with 8.74 lakh speakers. A lot of people have always associated this language as a ‘binding factor’ for naturally bilingual or trilingual Indians, in a country as diverse as India. While there is a significant amount of debate as to whether it can unify Indians who don’t speak the same tongues, it is certainly one of the popular “make do” languages when travelling across the country.
Scope and fun facts
Known to be a direct descendent of ancient Sanskrit and having evolved through Prakrit and Apabhramsa languages, Hindi belongs to the Indo-Iranian sub-family of the Indo-European family of languages. It has also been heavily influenced and enriched by Turkish, Persian, Arabic, Portuguese, English and the South Indian Dravidian languages.
Knowledge of Hindi is likely to help understand Sanskrit, Nepalese, Bengali, Gujarati and Urdu, as they all share a lot of similarities with Standard Hindi. We must also not forget that Hindi easily has a few dozen dialects that are spoken across different regions, even though the script used is the same.
Indian states are allowed to pick a co-official language for administrative purposes, and yet, Hindi certainly becomes a favourite go-to lingua franca as a result of having grown up with a lot of Bollywood influence (it is admittedly one of the largest and most successful film industries in the world!) and is a great last resort as regards being understood when travelling across states, especially when all else fails.
Tracing back the links
Like other Indo-Aryan languages, Hindi is a direct descendant of an early form of Vedic Sanskrit. The term Hindī originally was used to refer to the inhabitants of the region east of the Indus. It was borrowed from Classical Persian Hindī (Iranian Persian Hendi), meaning “Indian”, from the proper noun Hind “India”. In essence, Hindi got its name from the Persian word Hind, meaning ‘land of the Indus River’.
The modern Devanagari script used for Hindi came into existence only in the 11th century. Interestingly, the earliest evidence of Hindi printing is found in Grammar of the Hindoostani Language, a book by John Gilchrist, published in 1796 in Calcutta. It talks about the Hindustani language then, a common form of Hindi and Urdu, but used to be a spoken language for most part. After independence, the government of India instituted a convention for the standardisation of grammar and orthography, using the Devanagari script.
Article 343 (1) of the Indian constitution states that the official language of the Union shall be Standard Hindi in Devanagari script. There seems to be no official record or agreement of it being recognised a ‘national language’ and nor is it a language necessarily taught in every state.
Furthermore, ‘one nation, one language, one culture’ was a 19th century European idea that failed to create unity. India, like the European Union, naturally has multiplicity and diversity, and hence, leads to most linguists arguing that when a language tries to expand beyond its semantic-carrying capacity, it will therefore start breaking up. And why does India need one language anyway, when its beauty lies in its many distinct cultures?
The country is witnessing a massive influx of non-English first-time internet users in India. With barely 9.83% of India understanding and using English, players across several digital platforms have now adopted regional content strategies to reach out to the masses. Internet adoption levels across the country are clearly increasing with every passing day, with the number of Hindi internet users at 201 million, expected to easily surpass the English internet users*.
With giants like Google, Amazon, Duolingo, MakeMyTrip, BookMyShow and Instagram visibly taking a keen interest in reaching out to the Hindi-speaking audiences, it is only a matter of time that the rest of the country’s businesses do too.
*Indian Languages – Defining India’s Internet, KPMG and Google Report, 2017
Content curated & SmartRead by: Team Vernac
Author: Alifya Thingna