Yes, Hindi and Urdu are the same language

Sparsh Ahuja

"We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say." - Pico Iyer

If you sat a Hindi and an Urdu speaker next to each other in a bar and asked them to have a ten-minute conversation in their native tongues, chances are that both would understand each other without hesitation. Nonetheless, many across the subcontinent consider these two languages to be fundamentally different - and it is often a matter of honour for native speakers to assert this difference when asked what language they speak. This is not unexpected - in India and Pakistan, the language you use ties you not only into a specific culture, but frequently a religion or moral framework with which you supposedly identify. Yet, whilst this feeling of belonging has led to the patronage of a beautiful literary tradition whose influence spans well beyond the subcontinent, it can often have the ugly consequence of creating false division. With Hindutva on the rise and Kashmir suffering the flames of sectarian tension, it is pertinent now more than ever that we take another look at a bitter linguistic debate that undoubtedly shaped the largest mass migration in human history. Are Hindi and Urdu really different languages?

The answer is deceivingly simple - No. According to linguists, Hindi and Urdu, whether spoken in Chandni Chowk in New Delhi, or the old Walled City of Lahore, are standardised registers of the same language. This is not to say that contrasts do not exist between the two registers - indeed, at the most basic level, each are written differently, with Hindi adopting the Devanagari alphabet and Urdu the Perso-Arabic script. In the most formal of settings - the high echelons of literature, for example, or religious ceremony, “shudh” or “pure” Hindi tends to borrow far more heavily from Sanskrit and Prakrit whereas prestige Urdu draws a significant stock of its lexis from Persian, Arabic and Turkish influences. This is, however, as far as the differences go - the grammar and base vocabulary are practically identical, and, insofar as mutual intelligibility is concerned, all of the language in between the two poles - the vernacular Hindustani of the bazaar - is employed far more often than any highly formalised equivalent.                                

Despite these commonalities, it is not hard to find Hindi speakers who would rather display affinity to a liturgical Sanskrit than to the flowing nasta’līq that adorns road signs across India, conveniently ignoring the fact that just over a century ago, there were twice as many Urdu newspapers circulated in the British Raj than Hindi ones. It is equally as frequent to hear their Urdu counterparts argue that the register is a direct descendant of Persian and Arabic whilst classification clearly places it in the Indo-Aryan language family. Across the subcontinent, sibling communities - communities that could be rejoicing in the togetherness of their poetry and prose - are increasingly becoming polarised by a dangerous mix of nationalism and linguistic purism. Unfortunately, much like any tension in the region, one simply has to reflect on the past to figure out why this is the case.

When the Delhi Sultanate reached its zenith in the 13th century, it infused the local Khari Boli languages with a mass of loan words from Arabic, Persian and Chagatai origins. As the Sultanate was replaced by the Mughal empire, this Persianised culture grew stronger, and the “prestige” dialect that emerged from this amalgamation was known as either Hindustani (language of Hindustan) or Dehlavi (language of Delhi). Some of the most famous poets of the subcontinent, such as Amir Khusrow, flourished during this period, writing in Persian and the newly hybridised Khari Boli. The military influence continued to grow as the empire expanded, and by 1800, another name for this same language, written in the Perso-Arabic script, had emerged – Zaban-e-Urdu (language of the army) – a result of the interactions between Persian speaking soldiers and locals in Old Delhi. Each of these terms were used interchangeably.

The divisions began after the collapse of the Empire. Recognising that Persian, the official language of the Mughals, was rarely spoken by the common people, the government of the newly colonised British Raj decided to replace it with Hindustani, written only in the Perso-Arabic script. This triggered a reaction from Hindus across the subcontinent, for many who had grown up with the local Devanagari alphabet now felt pushed aside by the new policy. Politics started erecting linguistic barriers between communities who were heretofore united. This was not because of the contents of the dialects themselves, but because Muslims were simply more likely to be familiar with the Perso-Arabic script and thus benefited from the change. It wasn’t long after that the terms Hindi and Urdu started to take religious connotations – with Hindi being seen as a language for Hindus, and Urdu for Muslims.

The steady divergence of these two communities ultimately resulted in the bloody Partition of 1947, and the Hindustani language was unfortunately caught in the crossfire. Linguistic purism is not endemic to the subcontinent -  however, few would argue that the heavy Sanskritisation one sees in “shudh” Hindi today is a natural evolution of the language. Rather, politically motivated ‘standardisations’ are often recursive attempts at purging common Arabic and Persian loanwords in the hope of ‘de-Islamifiying’ the prestige dialect. Similarly, official Urdu, as spoken in Pakistan today, is being pushed to absorb more and more vocabulary from Arabic as it seeks to shed its colonial roots. It has come to the stage where even the longstanding word for goodbye, “Khuda hafiz”, a Persian borrowing literally translated as “may God protect you”, is being attacked by a Deobandi religious movement asserting that the Arabicised “Allah hafiz”, pointing to the Qu’ranic conception of the divine, is purer. Not all differences are politically motivated - an average speaker in Karachi will inevitably use more Perso-Arabic terms than one in Madhya Pradesh, even in normal conversation, but this is expected - each language exists on a continuum. The danger of intolerance arises, however, when we feel the need to isolate a particular dialect of that language from the rest of that continuum – because, let’s face it - neither Hindi, nor Urdu, would exist as they are today without the beautiful fusion of Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit that shaped their development.                                                                                              

Does knowing any of this history entail losing pride in our linguistic heritage? No, of course not. Urdu speakers can still rejoice in the words of Iqbal and Khusrow much like their Hindi speaking brothers and sisters draw strength from Kabir and Tulsidas. Nonetheless, it is up to our generation, increasingly attuned to global values, to push this line just that little bit further. Last week, I was speaking to a mufti from Gujarat, who seemed surprised that my father, a devout Hindu, enjoyed listening to the Urdu qawwalis of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a prominent Pakistani Sufi musician. Yet this never struck me as something strange – the poetry speaks to his heart as much as it does to the Lahori youth who carry Nusrat’s flag today. Embracing the monolith of South Asian culture does not necessarily mean stripping oneself of all identity.  

Perhaps, however, as a self-identifying Hindi speaker, I should think again before I brazenly assert my individuality over the dinner table when asked whether I speak Urdu or not. For in the end, it is my gratitude towards my language that matters, not whether I say “dhanyabad” or “shukria” to express it.