While most people outside of India are familiar with Bollywood as the largest producer of Hindi-language films in the world, many would be surprised to learn that the language spoken in these films is not purely Hindi, but rather draws extensively from the vocabulary and literature of another South Asian language called Urdu.
Urdu is the official language of Pakistan, but it also has fifty-one million native speakers in India and is one of the nation’s twenty-two official languages. Bollywood is not alone in using both languages. One of India’s most celebrated authors, Munshi Premchand, wrote in Urdu for much of his early career before switching to Hindi.
Madhavi Verma, lecturer in Hindi, said that it is important to know both Hindi and Urdu in order to fully understand the rich culture of the South Asian region. “People who want to work there, people who are international students, people who want to work for NGOs in that region, they will be at a disadvantage if they don’t know these languages to interact with those cultures.”
Both Hindi and Urdu originally developed from Khari Boli, a dialect of Delhi region, and the spoken languages are extremely similar to one another. They have the exact same grammatical structure, and at the beginner level they share over 70 - 80% of their vocabulary. Verma said of the similarity between the two languages, “If you heard people speaking in India, you wouldn’t know if it was Hindi or Urdu. They are that similar. People joke that as long as you understand, it is Hindi, but the moment you stop understanding, it becomes Hindi and Urdu -- two languages.”
Although spoken Urdu and Hindi are very similar, the written portions of the languages are quite different from one another, and it is their separate scripts and literary traditions that have largely contributed to their status as separate languages rather than dialects. Hindi has a Devnagri script, which is developed from Sanskrit and written left-to-right, while Urdu has a right-to-left Nastalique script that is derived from Persian and Arabic. Verma explained that unlike dialects, which are spoken in relatively small regions, both Hindi and Urdu are spoken in many regions, and also have their own systems of writing. “Hindi and Urdu have a very rich, vast literature in prose and poetry, and that is why they are languages,” she said. “A dialect would be something that is spoken in a small region, and just spoken.”
"People joke that as long as you understand, it is Hindi, but the moment you stop understanding, it becomes Hindi and Urdu -- two languages."
Urdu and Hindi were not always seen as separate languages, however. According to Verma, “There has been lot of historical, cultural, political factors that have led to the bifurcating evolution of the two sister languages.” Before the British partitioned India, the spoken language of Urdu and Hindi was often referred to collectively as “Hindustani,” and when India became independent, Mahatma Gandhi wanted to keep this Hindustani language together. In 1948, however, Urdu was declared the official language of Pakistan, and Hindi was declared the official language of India soon after, officially splitting the two languages. But not everyone was happy with this decision.
Verma attributes much of the controversy surrounding the status of the two languages to British imperialism and the two-nation theory that sought to separate the largely Muslim Pakistan from the largely Hindu India, which she believes was a mistake and had the consequence of marginalizing the Urdu language in India. “You can never say that a language belongs to a particular religion; it belongs to a region,” she said. “It was an injustice to the Urdu language. It was pushed to one side, pushed from its birthplace. Urdu was born in India, and a huge number of people all over India speak Urdu.”
Both Urdu and Hindi are being taught under the umbrella of JIMES, the Department of Jewish, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies. JIMES seeks to provide students an interdisciplinary perspective on global Islam and Judaism, and the department offers undergraduates the ability to minor in South Asian languages and cultures. According to Hillel J. Kieval, JIMES department chair and professor of history, both Hindi and Urdu are important for better understanding Islam because of the sheer number of Muslim speakers of these two languages. “In terms of our desire to look at Islamic societies and cultures throughout the world, there is certainly an important spot for South Asia,” he says. “In 2018 the Muslim population in India was only 200 million people… and that is paralleled by the Muslim population of Pakistan, which is roughly the same -- about 204 million people -- so we are talking about at least 400 million Muslims on the Indian subcontinent.”
Urdu is also an especially useful language for studying areas in the Middle East because it provides bridges to learning other languages in the region. “Urdu enables students to know more about Persian and Arabic because alphabet is the same," said Verma. "It gives them access to Persian, Arabic, Kashmiri, Panjabi, Pashto, all of these languages, because they are very closely related.” She has observed that students who already know Arabic are able to pick up Urdu rather quickly because of the similarity of the scripts. In this way, Urdu provides a bridge between the Hindi and Arabic language classes already offered through JIMES.
Verma says that because Hindi and Urdu are so similar in their vocabulary and identical in their grammatical structure, it is very easy for someone who knows either Urdu or Hindi to learn the sister language. She encourages students to take both courses, joking, “You get two languages for the price of one!” A beginning course that teaches both Hindi and Urdu scripts together could be a good addition, she said, because of the importance of these languages to our globalized world. “If you think of South Asia, it is really becoming important as a region, you will find South Asians everywhere, involved in everything, influencing trade and commerce,” she says.
Beyond the practical reasons for learning Hindi and Urdu, Verma also stressed how important these languages are for students who want to feel rooted to culture. When she taught Urdu last spring, a majority of the students in her class were from Pakistan, with a small percentage from India. “It is beyond alphabet, it is beyond grammar, it is beyond vocabulary. They just love talking about cultural stuff like little superstitions, little kitchen traditions, little wedding rituals,” she said. “My students have said that this is a place where they can find their roots, know more about their culture, and discuss topics about their culture and region.”