With International Mother Language Day just around the corner, there is an array of emotions that are evoked by one’s mother tongue. With this nostalgia, come other parallel thoughts like the binding factor in diversity in a country of 29 states and the coolness quotient around multilingualism – especially in a country as linguistically diverse as India, where the Constitution itself officially recognises 22 languages. So let’s brush up on some trivia on one of the most widely spoken and easiest “make do” languages when travelling across the country: this month, we celebrate Hindi.
How many and where
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.
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*.
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. Either way, there is little clarity on whether India has or needs one binding national language owing to its rich diversity and distinct mélange of cultures, but Hindi is certainly as official as it gets, since it is known to be the ‘language of the north’, especially that of Delhi, and thereby used in most official documentation, parliamentary proceedings, and inter-government communications.
The country is witnessing a massive influx of non-English first-time internet users in India. With 12.83% of India managing to understand 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 now 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