When India obtained its independence in 1947, it took nearly three years to the newly elected Constituent Assembly to draft and agree on a Constitution that satisfied the representants of all India's regions.

On the 26th of January 1950, the Constitution of India (or Bhāratīya Saṃvidhāna) was ratifiedWritten in both English and Hindi, each member of the Assembly had to sign two different documents, but the Constitution recognised 22 languages (besides of English) by giving them an official status under the Eighth Schedule (Articles 344(1) and 351).

However English and Hindi are the official languages of the government of India.

22 languages might seem like a lot, but according to the 2011 census, India counts no less than 122 dialects spoken by at least 10,00 people besides another 30 languages spoken by at least one million people.

With such a rich history and a territory spanning almost as wide as the European Union, it is not surprising that India has such a rich linguist heritage.

Three different empires successively ruled the Indian subcontinent, the Hindu Maratha Empire, the Muslim Mughal Empire and the British Raj, each leaving their mark on the country and the local dialects.

Although English and Persian are most certainly the two languages that influence the Indian local dialects the most.

"India's linguistic diversity surprises many Westerners, but there are nearly thirty languages in India with at least a million native speakers. There are more native speakers of Tamil on our planet than of Italian. Likewise, more people speak Punjabi than German, Marathi than French, and Bengali than Russian. There are more Telugu speakers than Czech, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Greek, Slovak, and Swedish speakers combined."

-  Bob Harris,  English music presenter former host of the BBC2 music programme The Old Grey Whistle Test, and co-founder of the magazine Time Out.

Muslim praying in India.
Religion is often the basis of the choice between speaking Urdu or speaking Hindi, though the same language. (by Michael Foley Photography)

The Origins and History of the Urdu Language

The origins of both Hindi and Urdu are the same.

Many local dialects were spoken throughout the Indian sub-continent during the Middle Age. Most of these languages were grouped into the Prakrit family of Middle Indo-Aryan languages (more than 12 of them were commonly spoken by the Indian population, depending on their region and religion). These languages co-existed with the main literary Indo-Aryan language, Sanskrit.

All those languages and dialects started to mix with Persian when it was introduced in the Indian subcontinent.

Persian came along with the Muslim Turco-Mongol Chagatai dynasty that ruled the Mughal Empire. The Empire was founded in 1526 by Babur, and the Moguls rulers only managed to access power after conquering or submitting the many princely states that composed medieval India up to the middle of the 16th century.

The Mogul court adhered to the Indo-Persian culture and while the ruling family brought a lot of elements drawn from the Persian society they also adopted many local Indian traditions and customs. Hindustani dawned under their influence.

The Persian language started to mix with several Śauraseni dialects that were spoken in central India, mainly Braj Bhasha, Awadhi and the dialect of Delhi.

The Imperial court and the different waves of immigration coming from the West boosted the introduction of Persian and Arabic words into the local Indian Khari Boli (meaning "standing dialects", elevated to literary languages).

Another source of influence was the Muslim Imperial army, camping in and around the principal cities of the Empire, including the capital Delhi. At the time, most of the soldiers were garrisoned in the Red Fort near which the Urdu Bazar (Urdu meaning army or camp, the word gave "horde" in English) developed. Soldiers speaking Persian and local shopkeepers and residents mixed, and so did their languages.

Although Persian was the official language, used at the Imperial court and within the socio-economic institutions of the time, Arabic remained as the official language of the Muslim religion in the Indian subcontinent.  The integration of local dialects words into the Persian lingua franca, mainly conducted by merchants, soldiers, preachers and the local justice courts, meant that by the 17h century an early form of Hindustani had emerged, and though it was born from the Persian and Arabic languages, its base was slowly replaced with local Indian dialects words.

The Red Fort of Agra.
The Red Fort of Agra is one of the main historical spots where local Indian languages mixed with Persian which birthed Hindustani.

The emergence of one common language

Hindustani became the universal language of Hindu and Muslim communities (even though not the official one) and showed how much both civilisations had influenced each other through more than 300 years of co-existence.

Hindustani became two separate languages when it started to be Persianised during the 18th century (a form that became Urdu) and Sanskritized around 1800 (a style that became Hindi).

However, the language remained as the common vernacular up until 1837, when Hindustani in the Persian script (i.e. Urdu) replaced Persian as the official language, a decision taken by the British rulers of the time.

This change created a divide between Hindus and Muslims especially in the North of India where the Hindu majority argued that the government and official institutions should use the written native Devanagari script.

Following years of lobbying and political games, Hindi in the Devanagari script eventually became the official language of the Indian nation in 1949 but only after British rule over the country ended.

Muslim prayer in India.
The prayer is often said in Urdu in India.

Urdu vs Hindi

The difference between Urdu and Hindi, besides their writing system, is mostly socio-politic. Hindi has long been the universal language of the Hindu community while Urdu served as vernacular for the Muslim community. In Indian cities and towns, even where a majority of the population is Hindu, Muslim who co-exist peacefully often use Urdu, spreading the language beyond the states where it holds official status.

These days, Hindi speakers are entirely comfortable with Persian-Arabic borrowed words while Urdu speakers have no problem using words drawn from Sanskrit. Even though differences remain in technical and literary texts, the barrier created between the two languages is slowly eroding.

You might be good enough to take some intermediate Hindi lessons.

The Urdu Dialects in India

Urdu counts more than 50 million native speakers India, making it the 6th most spoken language of the country.

As each state of the Union of India can legislate on the official languages recognised within their borders, Urdu was recognised as an official language of the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. However, amongst those six states, only the state of Jammu and Kashmir recognises Urdu as their only official language.

In certain regions wehre, Urdu is locally spoken, the Bengali language is also used.

Three main Urdu dialects enjoy an official status:

  • Dakhni, a language that emerged during the rule of the Deccan sultanates in the 14th century. Initially very similar to Urdu, the language took on much more Marathi, Telugu and Kannada influences. Because of this incredible mix, it is often considered the familiar form of Hindi-Urdu and is used as a street language by many in big cities such as Hyderabad or Bangalore.
  • Rekhta, an early form of Hindi and Urdu, is still used today as the most common form of Hindustani to write Urdu poetry.
  • Modern Urdu Vernacular, the informal, colloquial form of Urdu spoken by all Urdu natives and understood by most (if not all) Hindi speakers. It is different from the Modern Standardised Urdu.

Urdu outside India

Urdu became the national language of Pakistan following the partition of British India in 1947. Only 8% of the Pakistani population speaks Urdu natively, though it is the second language of most of the rest of the people and is widely understood throughout the country.

Urdu is also commonly spoken in some parts of Nepal and understood in Bangladesh and parts of the Middle East.

Worldwide Hindustani (Hindi + Urdu) is estimated to be spoken by more than 700 million people, making it the third most language on the planet.

An Urdu newspaper in Chicago.
Newspapers in Urdu can be found all the way to Chicago in the US, where many Pakistani and Indian have emigrated. ( by oceandesetoiles)

The Urdu alphabet

Urdu and Hindi are considered to be two dialects of one same language: Hindustani

Both languages are mutually intelligible meaning that Urdu speakers and Hindi speakers can understand each other. The difference resides in the alphabet that both languages used. Unlike Hindi which uses the native Devanagari script (originating from Brahmic family language), Urdu uses the  Persianised standard register that evolved from the Persian alphabet imported from the West by the Mogul rulers.

Commonly written from right to left, in the calligraphic Nastaʿlīq script, the Urdu alphabets count 58 letters and do not make a distinction between upper and lower case.

As the Urdu alphabet is an abjad, it means that it only has consonants and long vowels and that vowel sounds are left to the reader to fill out. From the 58 letters, 38 are basic signs while the additional 18 are digraphs representing an aspirated consonant.

The Urdu alphabet does not have any vowels, but the Urdu language does. It might seem strange for Latin and Germanic language speakers, but vowels in Urdu can only be written in association with a consonant.

Urdu counts ten vowels, and ten nasalised vowels, each of them can be written in four different way depending on its position (isolated, initial, middle or final).

Newspapers published in Urdu kept using calligraphers to produce prints of handwritten scripts utilised to print dailies until the end of the 1980's.

"Language scholars usually designate its (Khari Boli) two major division as Hindi and Urdu, though some argue that these should be considered two different languages on political and cultural – not linguistic – grounds. Aside from unimportant grammatical variations, vocabulary and script constitute the principal difference between the two. The most formal level of Hindi, sometimes referred to as “High Hindi”, uses a vocabulary saturated with Sanskrit, while the corresponding level of Urdu, High Urdu, draws heavily of Persian and Arabic. On this level, the two come close to mutual unintelligibility. Other less formal levels of Hindi and Urdu approach complete intelligibility."

Christopher King, extract of "One Language, Two Scripts", published in 1994


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