Ajay Goel
10 min readMar 21, 2021


1 The Genesis

Language is a means of communication, an identity, and the handmaiden of politics.

Its lexicon provides a frame of reference, structures the reality around us, and can signal a status (or lack thereof) in one’s society. That is why we don’t want to mispronounce an order of a salmon fillet, little hummus, and a side of gnocchi with quinoa.

Language’s richness provides texture and nuance. ‘Baraf’ in Hindi could be ‘snow’ or ‘ice’ in English, and the Inuit/ Eskimos have more than 20 words for the subject differentiating snowflake, frost, fine-snow, snow-on-ground, soft deep snow, fresh snow, blizzard, snowbank, and so on. Obviously, an Eskimo has a better grip on this subject.

Language gives voice to literature, culture, and the collective heritage of indigenous society. Local customs, songs for festivals, marriages, childbirth are all hoarded through its language. It imparts certain habits of thought that shape our experience in often surprising ways. “I went out for dinner last night with a friend” in English does not require me to disclose the sex of my companion, but the grammar of French or German insists upon it. English construct has a clear notion of time when that dinner happened (‘last night’); in Chinese, the same verb is used for past, present, or future actions. It is argued that language conditions our thinking; it affects experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories, and orientation to the world. The question is whether language reflects reality, or whether language creates reality. Yes, it’s worth pondering — language may shape our reality, not just reflect it.

And that brings me to Hindi — the fourth most spoken language in the world — Chinese, Spanish, and English being the other three. The genesis of Hindi traces back a few hundred years to what was known as Khadi Boli — the lingua franca of northern India. The language evolved with the arrival of the Delhi sultanate, and then the Mughals, when Delhi became the epicenter of commerce and political power. Traders and invaders of Central Asia brought linguistic influences from Arabia, Turkey, and Iran that blended with the existing native dialects. Farsi, considered purer, was the chosen language of the royal courts, while the common men on the street spoke pidgin Khadi Boli. British upon arrival termed this as ‘Hindustani’.

British linguist John Gilchrist of East India Company, in the 1840s codified the common languages when he worked at Fort Williams, Calcutta. His work provided a lexicon, grammar, and script (Devanagari) to what we now know as Hindi. Thus in the first half of the 19th century, Hindustani truncated into Urdu [for Muslims, with Persian script and much use of Central Asian vocabulary], and Hindi [for non-Muslims, that comprised of hundreds of castes, cultures, and customs, later broadly classified as ‘Hindus’]. Hindi soon grew in prominence, and in later decades played an important role in synthesizing the ‘Hindu’ identity. For almost half a century, the language tried to lean on Sanskrit, to create its distinct identity, and by shunning the central Asian (i.e. “Muslim”) lexicon, and English. The attempt bore limited results, but more of it later. Whether Gilchrist’s project was an outsider’s attempt to codify a bunch of alien language and dialects in their most important colony or had more sinister motives to divide the people on linguistic lines, remains moot.

Hindi today, in the Devanagari script, is a recent creation. The early texts of what is now called Hindi literature were written in Braj, Bundeli, Awadhi, Kannauji, Khariboli, Marwari, Magahi, Chhattishgarhi, and numerous other such dialects that, in most cases, Hindi has since subsumed. The poet Bharatendu Harishchandra, celebrated as the father of modern Hindi literature, lived in the second half of the nineteenth century; other major writers — Premchand, Verma, Prasad, were early 20th century.

2 Rise of a language from multiple dialects

It’s useful to digress a little and understand the difference between dialect and language. Dialect is the proverbial Cinderella toiling away in basement kitchens, hoping for a day when she will be anointed as language.

Language has political backing, script, literature, and elite status. Dialect is vernacular and loose. Dialects of adjoining regions synthesize, their boundaries remain porous, and words often cross over. Examples abound - Sindhi-Punjabi-Haryanavi; Mewati– Brij-Awadhi, Gujarati-Katchhy, Mewari–Marwadi, neighboring south Indian languages — most people in these adjoining regions understand each other reasonably.

Italian French and Spanish were once Latin dialects but over centuries evolved into separate languages. In recent times, Serbia-Croatia-Montenegro-Bosnia all emerged from Yugoslavia which had Serbo-Croatian as a common language. These new Balkan nations now have their own language that represents a separate national identity. In India, Hindi arose through a political/ administrative necessity and subsumed a number of local dialects.

A good example of language vs. dialect comes from Mrinal Pande in The Other Country Dispatches from the Mofussil, “As the family rises in the social scale, it tries to distance itself from its small-town roots and begins to reserve use of the vernacular to order servants around.” Language sneers at dialect.

Ah, but you may ask, what happened to Urdu, the older sister? Well, she is fine and lives just across the border. Hindi and Urdu continue to share a large common vocabulary, their maternal heritage that arrived from Central Asian countries. So much so that speakers of Urdu and Hindi can converse with ease; both languages have similar idioms and grammar but remain divided by script.

Let me list a few words. They come from Turkey; they are strong, even masculine. And you might notice, these have all been titles of Hindi movies — Tamanna, Hawa, Parda, Khaandaan, Ajnabi, Tareef, Izzat, Mohabbat, Arzoo, Alvida, Dard, Faraq, Aitraaz, Qurban, Wadi, Hasrat, Ehsaas, Waqt, Chehra, Haq, Dua, Shikayat, Farz, Adaa, Jaan, Mulaquaat, Safar, Subah, Varis, Doniya, Dastaan, Taaquat, sharafat, Quitab, Lekin, Nazar, Deewana, Parvaana, Afsana, Rishwat, Kismet, Watan, Sukoon, Dost, Iraada, Khayaal, Neeyat, Taqdeer, Kitaab.

Here are some more from Farsi that have permeated in colloquial Hindi. [Nature (Aasmaan, ektara, dariya, zameen), human relationships (Baccha, shawher, bibi, shaadi, khud, khuda, farishta, aashiq, Imandar, baeeman, maaldaar, tandrust, garib, bimar, jawaan, sust, khush, naraaz, shahri, dehati, kamzor, takatwar, mera, meri, mere, hum), common nouns (Bazu, nakhoon, dil, khoon, peshaab, bimaari, dawaai, khwaab), measures of time (Paas-door, hamesha, hardam, ek-baar, baar-baar, shayad, choonki, aasaan, kharaab, khaali) Food –(Alou, pyaaz, phool, namak, ghosht, charabi, sharaab, naan, tambakhu, aattaa, anguur, kharbooja, lobiyaa, chukandar, baigan, kaddu, sabzi, parhez, pasand, napasand, Rang, narangi, safaid), and so on].

It’s impossible to imagine Hindi without this common word-stock. Try it.

3 Project Sanskritisation

Now let’s trace the context and trajectory of the Hindi language, after its formal anointment in the mid 19th century. This was a period of rising hegemony of East India and later, the British parliament, fall of Mughal Empire and the decline of Muslim dominance, and subsequent social and political awakening of the ‘Hindu’ majority. In the latter half of the 19th century, this new language grew into a medium for Indian political legitimacy; Hindi press, literature, and newspapers started to emerge in that space.

This was also the period when the West was bedazzled from its discovery of ancient Brahmanical wisdom of Vedas, Gita, Manu-Smriti, Kam-Shastra. Likes of Swami Vivekanand were waxing lyrical and the world audience was spellbound.

To create a separate identity, distinct from Urdu, its alienated twin sister, Hindi linguists leaned on Sanskrit. They tried to create a Sanskritised version, or “Manak’’ Hindi. This version of Hindi was elitist and didn’t find currency among the masses.

Hindi developed alongside the rising political ambition and clout of the Hindu majority, in the second half of the 19th century. The historian Sumit Sarkar, in Modern India: 1885–1974, writes that literary Hindi was very much “an artificial creation closely associated with Hindu-revivalist movements.” Sarkar further notes that “Bharatendu combined pleas for use of swadeshi articles with demands for replacement of Urdu by Hindi in courts, and a ban on cow-slaughter”.

Now, Sanskrit is indeed an ancient language, contemporaneous of Latin and Greek. Two millennia back, trade routes and wars brought these languages together and similar words for Mother, father, brother, sister, etc. are traced in all three languages[1]. But that’s where the comparison should end. Whatsapp University today would have one believe that Sanskrit was the mother of all languages, just as trigonometry was created by the Brahmins of Vedic times, who used triangular hawan kunds. And then, every few months, we have NASA extolling the virtues of Sanskrit.

Moving on, the need to bring Hindi to contemporary reality found impetus post-1947 partition. Nehru appointed Dr. Raghuveer, a renowned Indian linguist and nationalist, who ‘invented’ a multitude of words transliterating scientific and parliamentary English terms and created the first English to Hindi dictionary. But the results were often funny to outright comic — “test-tube” thus became ‘parakh-nali’. Such transliterations were later spoofed in the Hindi movie Chupke Chupke where railways became ‘Loh Path Gamini’.

The problem was that Sanskrit’s last warmth of autumn had waned millennia back and multiple linguistic influences had layered upon the land since then. Sanskrit had retired into hibernation and completely missed the renaissance and industrial revolution that swept through Europe and the New World. Science, technology, democracy, parliament, railways, engine, carburetor, piston, the entire E=Mc2 ecosystem had emerged during its slumber, but Hindi nationalists, in their misplaced zeal, still insisted that sum of all wisdom existed in Vedas, that it just needed a dust-up. Their challenge was great, and their hubris greater. Imagine Vedic equivalents today for Whatsapp, Mouse-pad, and I-phone in a modern context.

The project sanskritization failed to reach the masses and now languishes in arcane government notifications or literary research projects. Explained a little further, English is creeping in its space, as the new generations try to keep pace with changing world.

Linguists responsible for Hindi’s development may look at the remarkable literary heritage of older Indian languages (Bangla, Marathi, Telugu, etc.), and borrow from their lexicon; e.g. the word ‘upanyas’ is Bengali, and ‘kadambari’ comes from Marathi. This will enrich the language’s texture, and also ensure greater adoption within the public.

4 Hinglish — Vinglish

The language needs to beg and borrow to stay current and relevant; it dies if it’s not spoken on the street. And there is little shame in enriching a vocabulary with a concept or a noun if it hasn’t existed in that language.

British, the master colonizers recognized it and had no guilt in adopting new words into English, when needed. The pukka sahib came and put the loot in our godown, occupied our bungalow, smoked our cheroot, slept in our charpoys, preferred pajamas in place of churidar. The next day he rode a palanquin into the jungle wearing khakis to hunt for cheetah, then played polo in Jodhpurs, found our bhelpuri blighty hot, and was content with just a few burra pegs at the gymkhana. Memsahib learned to bandana our cashmere shawls over chintzy calico, sashayed in the veranda in their dungarees, sneered at simple chutney-raita, Dal-Roti, but enjoyed mulligatawny. Hoping for good karma she tried yoga, and at last, found nirvana in Swami Guru Patchouli’s mantra for dharma. I made this up — Italics are words ‘taken’ from India and still held by Mr. Webster, much like our Kohinoor by the Queen.

But Hindi linguists frowned upon and resisted borrowing from English. Yet it hasn’t stopped English vocabulary seeping into Hindi language, giving rise to a hybrid — Hinglish. Today, it’s well nigh impossible to have a conversation without the use of English words. It has happened for many reasons:

1) As we have seen, Sanskrit failed to provide context. And it remained aloof from masses.

2) English was and remains the aspirational language of the middle class. Most Indians have a colonial hangover — a person speaking English is considered more intelligent and that of influence. It is the language for the aspirational, and the upwardly mobile. I thought it was funny to read ‘English language’ raised to the status of goddess, in a Dalit temple in UP[2], but the underlying yearning to break free is genuine.

3) Spread of pop culture, TV, Cinema and now Internet/social media. India is replete with unique expressions and innovative usage of the language — After ‘passing out of college’, my ‘foreign returned neighbor’, asked a ‘convent educated’ girl, ‘your good name please’? He ‘sat on her head, eating her brain’, till she said yes, so that he could introduce her to his friends as his ‘would be’. Now if you thank me for this play of words, I’d say — ‘Mention not’!

Should we view the influx of the English lexicon into Hindi as a sign of its growth and vitality or a harbinger of its decline and marginalization?

The Hindi poet Agyeya (1911–1987) defended the place of English in Hindi early on when he wrote, “Whatever the purists may say, to replace English words current in everyday speech by Hindi words can only be regarded as artificial and such Hindi words cannot carry any sentiments.” He then linked this English-laced Hindi to a new, more authentic social reality when he said, “Poetry that is rooted in reality needs the language of reality as its means of expression and not one of the dictionaries.”

The ability of Hindi to absorb, I would argue, and maintain vocabularies, whether from English, Persian, Urdu or Arabic, is its strength, and to its great benefit.

5 Politics of Hindi

The single national language is a European percept where the nation size is much smaller. India has a much larger geographic spread and older cultural nuances to be thus straitjacketed. Indian constitution (wisely) chose a more pluralistic approach to accommodate languages, unlike Pakistan that tried to impose Urdu on East Pakistan/ Bengal, with catastrophic results.

India has 22 official languages and Hindi is only one of them (though Hindi heartland politicians keep making mischievous statements that Hindi is the national language, which it is not). The main concentration of Hindi is in the populous UP-Bihar belt, giving it numerical heft. Per 2011 Census shows more than 50% of Indians speak Hindi while Bangla, Marathi, Telugu have ~ 8% share[3] each. These regional languages have an older provenance and richer literature. India has reasons to revel in its diversity.

● National anthem — Jana Gana Man — Bengali. 1911, Calcutta session of Indian National Congress.

● National song — Vande Mataram — Bankim Chandra/ Rabindranath 1870. — Bengali/ Sanskrit.

Language can be and has been used, as a political tool to arouse nationalist sentiments, wage wars, or win elections. In India, the political powers at the center keep trying to impose Hindi on Southern states, but Hindi announcements on Karnataka railway stations only create confusion, rather than communicate the right platform number of arriving trains! They use Hindi for polarization, and not for conversation.

Despite this, Hindi is organically growing followers for nonpolitical reasons. In AP/Karnataka private schools offer Hindi as the third language advantage — a lot of Bihari and UP labor works in those states, and the Telugu bosses need to supervise them in Hindi. The Interstate transfers within the private and public sector, increasing indigenous tourism, popular culture of Hindi cinema /TV serials, all add to its footprint.

The government keeps playing it as a political tool; the three language formula proposed in National Education Policy 2020, being the latest one. Meanwhile, the language itself keeps evolving, embracing and adapting influences, staying current and alive, and shaping the new realities and aspirations of one-sixth of humanity.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanskrit

[2] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/dalit-goddess-english-temple-in-ups-banka-village/articleshow/6819990.cms

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_India



Ajay Goel

This is a place where I post essays and random musings.