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Language Close-up: Hindi in India

In our final look at the languages of India we are going to concentrate on the most widely spoken language you will hear across the country, which is, of course, Hindi.

Join us as we look at its history, writing system and dialects, and where you are most likely to hear it.

Photo via Pixabay


A history lesson

Hindi received its name from the Persian word hind, which means land of the Indus River.

Also often referred to as Modern Standard Hindi, Hindi is an official language of India and is considered as a lingua franca of the Hindi belt languages. Hindi, which is written as हिंदी, is a modern Indo-Aryan language that is a descendant of Sanskrit, and was first spoken by Aryan settlers along the north-west frontiers of India.

Whilst it is difficult to precisely place the beginnings of Hindi, there are traces of a language that is very obviously Hindi as early as 8 or 9 CE used by Siddh saints. The literary history of Hindi can be traced back to at least the 12th century, and most linguistic scholars agree that the modern evolution of Hindi dates back to the end of the 18th century.

The first Hindi newspaper, Udant Martanda, was published in Calcutta in 1826. Also around this time, important Hindi authors Raja Shivprasad, Sitare Hind and Raja Lakshman Singh put their influential stamp on Hindi literature. Hindi became a tool in the fight against British colonialism and was used by poets, revolutionaries and reformists to voice and spread their views.

Hindi has had official status as a language of India since January 26th, 1950, following the country’s independence in 1947.

The written word (and a little grammar)

Hindi is written from left to right and uses the Devanagari script. There are 11 vowels and 33 consonants, and the language is considered an abugida. An abugida is a segmental writing system whereby consonant-vowel sequences are written as a unit that is based on a consonant letter with vowel notation being secondary.

Photo via Wikimedia

Considering the etymology of Hindi, Hindi words can be divided into five principal categories. Tatsama (तत्सम – “same as that”) which are spelt the same in Hindi as they are in Sanskrit,
Ardhatatsama (अर्धतत्सम – “semi-tatsama”) which are words that have generally undergone sound changes subsequent to being borrowed from other languages, Tadbhava (तद्भव – “born of that”, which are words spelled differently than those in Sanskrit but are derivable from Sanskrit prototype by phonological rules, Deshaj (देशज), words that are not loanwords but also do not derive from attested Indo-Aryan words either (these tend to be onomatopoetic words), and lastly Videshī (विदेशी – “foreign”) words, which include all loanwords from non-indigenous languages.

Language learners can both rejoice and despair if they want to learn Hindi. Rejoice, because no articles are used in Hindi so there is one less thing for you to remember, but be aware that sentence structure is quite different than English, in that verbs and auxiliary verbs always go at the end of sentences. One other hurdle to consider is that all nouns are gendered, being either male or female, and adjectives and verbs can also change depending on the gender.

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Hindi has many dialects that can be found spread out over the region referred to as the Hindi Belt. Within the major dialects there are many subdivisions; for simplicity we will focus on the main groups.

Awadhi (अवधी) is a dialect that has many alternative names: Abadhi, Abadi, Abohi, Ambodhi, Avadhi and Baiswari. This dialect is spoken in the historical region of Awadh, the states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi, and also in the neighbouring country of Nepal.

Bagheli (बघेली or बाघेली) is a Hindi dialect spoken in the Baghelkhand region of central India, mainly in the districts Rewa, Satna, Sidhi, Shahdol, Umaria and Anuppur

Braj Bhasha (ब्रज भाषा) is spoken in the northwestern part of the state of Uttar Pradesh, the eastern part of the state of Rajasthan and the southern part of the state of Haryana. Works from this dialect have made major contributions to literature dating back as far as the medieval period. Famous Hindi poets who have written in this dialect are Surdas, Bhai Gurdas and Amir Khusro.

Bundeli (बुन्देली ) is spoken in southern parts of Uttar Pradesh and the Bundelkhand region in the state of Madhya Pradesh. It is closest perhaps to the dialect Braj Bhasha.

Chhattisgarhi (छत्तीसगढ़ी) is a dialect used as the official language in the Indian state of Chhattisgarhi. It is also spoken in Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, and Jharkhand. The region of Chhattisgarhi was called Daksin Kosal in ancient times, and therefore the classical name of this dialect was Kosali or Dakshin Kosali.

Haryanvi (हरियाणवी ) is another major Hindi dialect that has many similarities to Standard Hindi. It is widely spoken in Delhi as well as the northern state of Haryana, the region from which the dialect received its name.

Kannauji (क़न्नौजी) is a dialect of Hindi spoken in the states of Kannauj and Uttar Pradesh. Some consider Kannauji to be an entirely separate language that is merely closely related to Hindi.

Khari boli (खड़ी बोली) is an important dialect spoken in Delhi, the surrounding area in the state of Uttar Pradesh, and also in the western region of the state of Uttarakhand. Khari boli is the current predominant standard Hindi dialect, and is believed to have been developed somewhere between 900 and 1200 CE.

Photo via Flickr

Around the world…

Think Hindi is purely spoken in India and a handful of surrounding areas? Think again!

Hindi is listed as the fourth most widely spoken language around the world, with a large Indian diaspora meaning you should expect to find Hindi in the homes of communities in America, the  United Kingdom, Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Australia and South Africa, as well as many other countries. Hindi is an official language for both India and Fiji, and is also to be found in Bangladesh, Mauritius, Guyana, Nepal, Suriname, Trinidad & Tobago, Uganda and Yemen.

We hope that you have been as fascinated by the broad range of languages that are spoken across the stunning country that is India as we have. We also hope we have helped you select the perfect phrasebook to pick up for your travels! Happy traveling (and language learning!)