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What is Hindi-Urdu?

The languages commonly known as Hindi, Urdu, Hindi-Urdu and Hindustani, are virtually the same language in spoken form and have for centuries functioned as the lingua franca of a large swath of South Asia, from Baluchistan to Bengal and from Karnataka to Kashmir. Nowadays, however, many people reflexively consider Urdu and Hindi separate languages largely on the basis of their different writing systems, Urdu being written in a modified Perso-Arabic script called Nastaliq, and Hindi in a script called Devanagari which is used in a number of other South Asian languages including Marathi and Nepali. Meanwhile, the terms “Hindustani,” which was popular in the colonial period, and “Hindi-Urdu,” which has been favored in academic circles since the 1980s, acknowledge and affirm Hindi and Urdu’s shared history, although neither term has much popular currency in South Asia today.

It is perhaps best to consider Hindi-Urdu on a linguistic continuum, where separate registers only start to emerge in elevated official and literary discourse, and that too primarily on the basis of vocabulary. While Hindi and Urdu share virtually the same syntax and grammar, “pure” Hindi tends to favor vocabulary derived from Sanskrit, and “pure” Urdu, vocabulary derived from Persian and Arabic.  Most educated speakers are comfortable with the range and richness of this lexical spectrum even while Hindi-Urdu continues to absorb words from other languages like English.  Despite the lexical differences found in in elite, scholarly language, a mixed register of Hindi-Urdu still dominates in colloquial speech, cinema, television, and popular music in both India and Pakistan.

At UNC and many other major universities in the United States, Hindi and Urdu are taught as one language. At the elementary and intermediate levels, students learn the common grammar and shared vocabulary of colloquial Hindi-Urdu used in everyday conversation and popular media. At the higher levels students may specialize in either script (Devanagari or Nastaliq) or use both to study Hindi-Urdu at UNC. While South Asia majors are required to learn both scripts, many others choose to learn both, effectively learning “two” languages for the price of one!

Why study Hindi-Urdu?

 Hindi-Urdu is critical to global culture. South Asia is a now a major economic and geopolitical power, and home to one fifth of the world’s population. By conservative estimates, over half a billion people speak the language in South Asia, and depending on chosen parameters, it is variously ranked as the second- to fourth-most widely spoken language in the world!  To directly communicate with this vast population of Hindi-Urdu speakers and have unfettered and unfiltered access to the rich cultural history of North India and Pakistan, fluency in Hindi-Urdu is essential. There a rich literary tradition in Hindi-Urdu, and its dialectal ancestors going back about a thousand years.  There is also a thriving popular culture of South Asia, one which is very much dependent on Hindi-Urdu. Soap operas, comic books, Bollywood films, street theater, and love songs, all communicate in this language.

If you want to live, study, conduct research, and/or work in North India or Pakistan, proficiency with Hindi-Urdu provides a useful entry into the society and culture in a much more profound way than is possible with English alone. In terms of employment, research, and volunteer work, Hindi-Urdu is extremely helpful, if not vital, to a number of fields, including public health, politics, economics, and international law and business. And employment opportunities are not limited to work in multi-national corporations. Those with facility in Hindi-Urdu may also gainfully seek employment with the news media, the U.S. government, non-governmental organizations, as well as in academia. For example, imagine reporting for an international news outlet, interviewing refugees seeking political asylum for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, monitoring open-sources news media in South Asia for U.S. Intelligence Community, or doing research for Human Rights Watch. Majors in South Asian Studies and minors in Hindi-Urdu are also well positioned to pursue advanced degrees in international relations, business, or a discipline in the humanities or social sciences.

More on the history of Hindi-Urdu

Prior to the latter half of the nineteenth century, no one much bothered to make fine-grained linguistic distinctions about what was once simply called zabān or bhākā, “the language.” Urdu, a Turkic word denoting army or military camp, may give us insight into the origins of the language during Mughal rule in the sixteenth-eighteenth centuries, for it was at the interface of Mughal officialdom and literary culture conveyed in Persian and the broader public speaking and writing in a number of Indo-Aryan vernaculars such as Khariboli, Avadhi and Braj Bhasha that Hindi-Urdu was born.  Confusingly, Khariboli is also used to denote the standard form of Hindi-Urdu today, as this regional dialect, once called Dehlavi and centered around the old Mughal capital of Delhi, has had great impact on the official shape of language.

During more than two hundred years of British rule, shifting winds of patronage (from Persian to Urdu and finally, to both Hindi and Urdu) changed the linguistic landscape immensely. It was during the colonial period that the Indian public became more invested in language politics, and began to promote Hindi and Urdu as distinct languages, distinguished not only by orthography, but on a more fundamental level, as markers of cultural identity. Some even engaged in language debates and sought to “purify,” standardize, and garner institutional recognition of “their” language. With independence and Partition in 1947, Hindi (along with English) became the official language of India, and Urdu (along with English) the official language of Pakistan, though one of the ironies of this history is that  more people claim Urdu as their first language in today’s India than in Pakistan. Given the present geopolitical reality in the subcontinent, we may expect to see further consolidation of distinct national standards in the future.