Hindi, Hinglish: Head to Head

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From the Summer 2012 Games People Play issue

By Ananya Vajpeyi

NEW DELHI—India has 1.2 billion people speaking the 15 official languages printed on every currency note. There’s just no room on the Indian rupee for the hundreds of other languages and dialects spoken across the country. For a traveler, India can feel like Babel itself. Yet, most Indians manage to communicate with one another. The country won its independence from British rule in August 1947, and until the mid-1960s, it seemed as though the centrifugal force of linguistic difference, which also flagged cultural difference, would balkanize the new republic. But since the partition of British India into the independent nation-states of India and Pakistan over six decades ago, India has hung together. If sometimes it seems precariously close to disintegration—thanks to internal religious or political conflict—then it is no longer because Indians expect their separate languages to count as the bases for distinct nationalities, as they did in the early phase of decolonization.

The linguistic détente in India is partly the result of a federal government directive that schools across the country embrace a “three-language formula.” This means Indian students must study some mixture of their local language, standard modern Hindi, and English. The relative proportions of these three vary, of course, as a function of class, literacy, education, and culture. Increasingly though, this three-language policy that exposed millions to both Hindi and English has led to a new language hybrid. Much of the communication in India is being done in a Hindi that combines this local tongue—with its roots in Hindustani, Awadhi, Braj, and other dialects of northern India—with modern English. The value of this new hybrid language is at the heart of a controversial debate among intellectuals, businessmen, and media titans. What remains beyond dispute, however, is that the evolution of Hindi will play a critical role in determining India’s place in a world still embracing English as the core language of commerce and culture. The ability of India to survive and prosper may indeed hinge on this question of how Indians communicate with each other and the world. The decision of whether or not to continue along the “three-language” path is the central linguistic choice that India must make in the coming years.

Hindi is just one of India’s many modern languages, but in many ways, it has the most complex and important story. More Indians speak, understand, or read Hindi than any other Indian language, and it is the only language besides English that has ever been considered as a possible “national” language for the entire country. The central government (as distinct from state governments) uses it as its “official” language, together with English. Historically, Hindi has been loaded down with three distinct kinds of baggage: its internal fragmentation (it is a synthesis of a large number of tributary vernaculars and dialects); its contrived relationships with the two classical languages closest to it (either the artificial addition of Sanskrit or the artificial subtraction of Persian); and its “intimate enmity” with Urdu, a language that is at once an older sister, a fraternal twin, and a bitter rival. But now, Hindi is mingling in unexpected ways with Indian English, morphing into yet another language. The new language has a name, albeit only a half-serious one: “Hinglish.”

The 2001 Census of India registered 50 different types of Hindi. In all, the language boasts 420 million speakers in India. Besides these Hindi languages, the census counts another 50 million speakers of Urdu—for all practical purposes indistinguishable from Hindi, except in the highly literary form of either language. These figures suggest that nearly 500 million Indians speak some form of Hindi or Urdu, or both—nearly half the population of India. Hindi and Urdu are just two out of 22 languages that appear in the eighth schedule of the Indian Constitution. Indeed, the Census records 100 additional languages, but for the national consciousness, it boils down to Hindi and English.


Modern standard Hindi has a relatively short yet fraught history. The language was effectively manufactured between the late 19th and the mid-20th centuries. As the British Raj and a number of Indian princely states gave way to the new nations of India and Pakistan in 1947, a variety of struggles, conflicts, and agendas drove the formation of the new language.

To a degree, Hindi rests on medieval languages like Awadhi, Bhojpuri, and Brajbhasha, but its immediate ancestor is Hindustani, named for an old geographic designation for North India. Modern Hindi and modern Urdu both emerged out of Hindustani, and distinguish themselves from each other by the script (Nagari versus Nastaliq), vocabulary (Sanskrit versus Perso-Arabic), and the religious identity of users (Hindu versus Muslim). Violent efforts at purification, which involved purging the languages of “foreign” words and the communal identification by Hindu and Muslim chauvinists, forced Hindi and Urdu apart. It broke down their common base, Hindustani, almost to extinction.

In practice, most South Asians are bilingual or multilingual, and north Indians who travel in Pakistan and Pakistanis who visit northern India have very little trouble understanding one another. Many are descended from common ancestry, displaced from what used to be shared villages and towns later affected by the partition of the British Empire in South Asia into two nations. By sheer quantity, Hindi-Urdu, Punjabi, and Bengali—the languages most broadly spoken in Pakistan, north India, and Bangladesh—are among the largest language groups in the world, ranking alongside English, Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish, French, and Russian.

The creation of modern Hindi involved several simultaneous operations—the standardization of a number of ancestral languages and their demotion, in turn, into dialects and variants; the removal of the Perso-Arabic vocabulary and pronunciation that were considered the hallmarks of Urdu; the infusion of a Sanskrit vocabulary to distinguish Hindi from both Hindustani and Urdu; and the invention of new words, often with a Sanskrit base, to denote modern phenomena, particularly those of an economic and technical nature. Of course, these maneuvers are never revealed to Indian school children who study Hindi early on in their education along with English and their local language. Most Indians never even discover these facts as adults. Meanwhile, Pakistanis are taught that Urdu springs directly from Arabic, an assertion that erases centuries of history when a confluence of Indian and Persian languages and cultures produced the tongues and texts of the entire expanse of South Asia from Afghanistan in the northwest to Bengal in the east.   

The popular fabrication taught to Indian school children today is that Hindi is a modern language descended from its ancient predecessor Sanskrit. Indeed, most Indian languages that belong to northern India are genetically related to Sanskrit. Even Indian languages of the Dravidian group—the languages of south India—borrow to varying extents from Sanskrit, so it is not difficult to pass off the fiction of Hindi’s evolution out of Sanskrit to lay users of the language. Since the very inception of linguistics as a discipline in Europe in the late 18th century, Sanskrit has been posited as the mother of all languages of the Indo-European family, not just in India but in Europe as well. Moreover, most Indians cannot tell that the grammar and syntax of Sanskrit and Hindi are significantly different from one another, while what they share in terms of script and vocabulary are generally accepted as sufficient evidence of a parent-child relationship between the two.

In terms of proceeding on the basis of a fabricated history of origins, purity, evolution, and uniformity, Hindi is no different from most other modern “national” languages. Nor is it necessarily possible to turn back the clock and recover either the popular base or the literary productivity of other languages that are now treated as ancestors, tributaries, or dialects of Hindi. But a truly progressive Indian state would restore in the public imagination a truer picture of the shared heritage of Hindi and Urdu. This would enrich both languages, rather than ceding Urdu to the Pakistani state. Both languages have suffered on account of their artificial estrangement from one another in the postcolonial era.


In many ways, modern standard Hindi is comparable to modern Hebrew. Both share key attributes—the need for a language that has the prestige of history, the suppleness to accommodate countless new words or expressions, and which can potentially cobble together a nation out of diverse and heterogeneous communities.

Unfortunately, another common attribute of both Hindi and Hebrew as the official languages of India and Israel is their implicit refusal to recognize the languages of the Islamic communities in their midst—the Urdu of Indian and Pakistani Muslims in the one case, the Arabic of the Palestinian people in the other. Both nations desperately need to understand that their linguistic issues are metaphors for ethnic or religious divides, and could, if left unaddressed pose insuperable hurdles to peaceful development and growth.

In a 2007 interview with the Paris Review, the Israeli writer David Grossman, a sharp critic of his nation’s treatment of Palestinians, pointed out a host of paradoxes embedded in a language that might have Biblical authority but has never been used to express certain thoroughly modern concepts. “Hebrew is a flexible language,” he observes, “and it surrenders enthusiastically to all kinds of wordplay. You can talk in slang about the Bible, and you can speak biblically about everyday life. You can invent words that people can easily understand, because almost every word has a root, and people know the derivation or can usually figure it out. It is a very sexy language. It is gigantic, heroic, and glorious, but at the same time, it has large gaps that yearn to be filled by writers.”

A great deal of the tone of lamentation cast over the creation of modern Hindi and its effort to distance itself from its medieval forbearers—languages like Awadhi and Braj, as well as close relatives like Hindustani and Urdu—has come from India’s poets and novelists. Many deeply feel that violence done to language is ultimately violence done to literature too. With the disappearance of Hindustani, the forcible separation of Hindu and Urdu became a reality. Each language now has its own unique alphabet, with Urdu script being a close derivative of Persian. The result was the demise of a progressive literature typical of colonial northern India from the 1920s to the 1940s, popular for both Hindu and Muslim writers. This gave way to the more stridently nationalist and monolingual postcolonial Hindi and Urdu literatures of India and Pakistan. The segregation of languages fed into the segregation of literary as well as
popular cultures. Politically, the language cleavage has hardened boundaries hardened and intensified confrontation between the two neighbors with such similar linguistic and ethnic roots. For these two nations to work together effectively, they must learn at least to recognize their shared cultural heritage, if not maintain a common language.      


Today, as India enters its third decade of globalization, Hindi is no longer as tortured about its broken relationship with its Pakistani counterpart, Urdu. Indeed, Hindi’s creolization with English is marking the true break between the two languages. The encroachment of English into Hindi has produced all kinds of changes in everyday, spoken Hindi. In India, the outright importation of a great deal of English vocabulary is accelerating along with the proliferation of expressions peculiar to English in India, the growing tendency to write Hindi in Roman letters, and the coining of hybrid words that are native neither to Hindi nor to English. The cumulative result of all these developments is Hinglish—a word that many find as distasteful as the phenomenon it captures.

Turn the TV to any Hindi-language channel, watch any current Bollywood film, open the pages of any leading English-language newspaper, and you are accosted by this hybrid language. Opinion is divided as to what the rise of Hinglish says about liberalizing India. Some see it as a sure sign Hindi is at last becoming a real lingua franca, available to every social class, accessible for use by all in a rapidly changing India.

The penetration of English has also led to the ability to express Hindi concepts that were awkward, if not impossible, to convey in a purer, less hybridized idiom. If the market for Indian newspapers, magazines, channels, and books is growing—at the very moment media and publishing are facing hard times elsewhere—it is because Hindi is doing whatever it takes to survive in a world increasingly saturated with information conveyed through the written or spoken word. In this view, a brighter future is all but guaranteed as long as Hindi is prepared to leave behind its baggage of excessive vernacular diversity, inter-sectarian tensions, an overly complex history, as well as competing claims of national, religious community, regional, and political interests. Above all, this view suggests that Hindi’s bright future is assured as long as its adherents are willing to absorb, even embrace, elements of the very language that was once the embodiment of India’s subjugation.

The opposite view is that Hinglish spells the death of both literary and popular Hindi, signaling the end of India’s resistance to colonialism. To succumb to Hinglish is to capitulate before the imperial language that kept India colonized for two centuries. The proliferation of Hinglish means that instead of educated, bilingual Indians of years past, there is a now new generation unable to use either Hindi or English correctly. The spread of Hindi in Roman letters means that literate Indians are forgetting—or not bothering to learn—how to read Nagari script. Indeed, two generations ago, they had already forgotten how to read Hindustani in Urdu’s Persian-style script. The most infamous example cited is of Bollywood movie stars, who now read scripts for Hindi films entirely in Roman script, where once the Hindi movie industry employed the services of some of the most accomplished writers and refined speakers of both Urdu and Hindi as script-writers, lyricists, singers, directors, producers, and actors. The transformation of Hindi into Hinglish, according to this narrative, is a sign of the degeneration and defeat of the language at the hands of its colonial enemy, English.

More interesting than these polarized views—a buoyant optimism neglectful of history on the one hand and a doomsday attitude equally despairing of the future on the other—is a third position, just beginning to emerge among a handful of bilingual intellectuals in India, which says what Hindi needs to do is stop worrying about natural processes of hybridization. Instead, Hindi must consciously develop a repertoire of capabilities that it lacks—the capacity to generate a proper vocabulary of social science, critical idioms to address issues and debates within Indian public life, and a certain self-consciousness that can give it the confidence to stand up to other “world languages” like English, Chinese, or Arabic. If the government is to insert itself into the mechanism of linguistic evolution, as it did during the creation of states within the Indian Union in the early years after independence,  it might prove most valuable. Many Western languages have academies that guarantee a degree of linguistic robustness—the Académie Française in France, and comparable institutions in other language centers such as Italy and Spain. Perhaps it is time for the Indian state to give its Hindi language policy agenda some institutional teeth.

Hindi needs to become a language that everything else gets translated into; that allows users to access literature, scholarship, and science in Hindi translation; and that compels non-Indians to learn it rather than forcing Hindi-speakers to learn English or any other hegemonic language. Once it has built and equipped itself with this sort of arsenal, the argument goes, all of the angst about past and future currently attached to Hindi will fall away, allowing it to emerge as its strongest self—the language, in some variant or other, of more than one tenth of all human beings.


It might seem genuinely futile to argue for or against Hinglish. It’s not as though anyone’s personal preference can definitively affect the direction of linguistic change, though quite possibly, the government might prove to be up to the task. Purists just don’t like the messy jumble of two such distant languages as Hindi and English. Zealous grammarians worry that the mixing is not a real fusion, since Hindi and English are merely borrowing words from one another and cutting and pasting them into an otherwise undisturbed syntax—a fundamentally lazy and uncreative operation that assumes users of Hinglish are already bilingual. Enthusiasts predict that if Hindi hitches itself to the bandwagon of English, it will flourish—indeed, they suspect that this might be Hindi’s only hope of survival. Hindi—as well as Hinglish now—is made to do a lot of work in the creation and representation of social identities and political solidarities. Hinglish carries the burden of being too elite for some tastes, too mixed-up for others, and for yet others, it represents a certain popular energy that keeps India’s democracy vibrant. But the truth is that no side in this argument can, simply by the weight of its opinion, carry the day, as Hinglish is continuously evolving and dissolving.

Hinglish is in fact one of many half-Indian, half-English argots to have mushroomed in the past five or 10 years. Tanglish (Tamil plus English) and Banglish (Bengali plus English) are other notable examples of the same process at work. What is important about these phenomena is not their transience or permanence—indeed, over time they may prove to be more passing fashionable idioms than enduring bridge languages. Rather, Hinglish is a symptom of the problems that Hindi needs to resolve within its own history and in its relationships with other languages, including English, Urdu, and Sanskrit. Given the sheer number of its speakers in India and elsewhere, Hindi has the capacity to be as widespread a medium of communication as English, Arabic, or Chinese. But unless language mavens and government authorities treat the emergence and popularity of Hinglish as a wake-up call for India to seize the moment in developing a vital and lasting linguistic policy, the nation risks losing its global advantage in coming years.  



Ananya Vajpeyi studied as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford and has a doctorate in South Asian studies from the University of Chicago. Her first book, Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India, will be published by Harvard University Press in October. She is currently a Visting Fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. 

[Photo: Bo Jayatilaka]

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