Hindi Becomes India’s Dominant Language

The language descended from Sanskrit and known as Hindi among Hindus and Urdu among Indian Muslims became a common language of the various tribes of the area, enabling wider communication and commerce.

Summary of Event

The language known as Hindi among Hindus and Urdu among Indian and Pakistani Muslims is descended from Sanskrit Sanskrit , the language of the Vedas and other Hindu liturgical texts. Sanskrit, a member of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family, is believed by historical linguists to have been brought into the Indian subcontinent from the Fars Plateau of what is now Iran by the Aryan invaders who displaced the existing civilizations of the Indus Valley between 1500 and 1000 b.c.e. Over subsequent centuries, the Sanskrit-speaking peoples developed diverse spoken languages, or Prakrits, for everyday discourse, and Sanskrit was carefully preserved as a liturgical language (the word Sanskrit means “purified” and indicates the reverence with which it was held in the Indian religious mind). [kw]Hindi Becomes India’s Dominant Language (c. 1000)
[kw]India’s Dominant Language, Hindi Becomes (c. 1000)
[kw]Language, Hindi Becomes India’s Dominant (c. 1000)
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India;c. 1000: Hindi Becomes India’s Dominant Language[1390]
Communications;c. 1000: Hindi Becomes India’s Dominant Language[1390]
Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1000: Hindi Becomes India’s Dominant Language[1390]
Literature;c. 1000: Hindi Becomes India’s Dominant Language[1390]

The 1000 c.e. date for the development of Hindi and Urdu is a standard reference point used by historians, but actually, the boundary between Hindi and the various Prakrits and Apabhramsas that preceded it is blurry. Many of the oldest extant texts for the development of Hindi and Urdu from their predecessor dialects are copies of copies, dating many centuries after their original composition and showing evidence of subsequent scribal alteration and editorial redaction. In India, by the time a language was considered to be worthy of scholarly attention, it was generally so far removed from the forms of everyday discourse that it no longer truly qualified as a living language. As a result, documentary evidence of language change in India is weak and questionable, being divorced from the common speech that is the primary mover of these processes.

Hindi developed from five major dialect traditions. Dingal was the language of Rajesthan’s bardic tradition and was originally largely oral. The Braj dialect grew out of the Vaishava tradition of Krishna worship (a religious tradition from which the modern Hare Krishna movement can trace its ancestry) and was the vehicle for a large volume of erotic religious poetry of a somewhat Tantric nature, celebrating love as a method of growing closer to the divine. The Avadhi dialect comes from the allegorical romances of the Sufi, a mystical Muslim sect, and as such contains a larger proportion of Arabic and Turkic borrowings, particularly for terms of religious significance. The Sadhu Bhasa dialect can be seen in the texts of the western recension of the nirgua bhakti tradition, a subset of the bhakti yoga or “path of devotion” that developed as a popular way for ordinary Indians to reach spiritual enlightenment through loving devotion to a deity (a religious practice that is also ancestral to the Hare Krishna movement). The Maithili dialect grew out of the devotional traditions of northern Bihar.

Strictly speaking, Urdu is not a distinct language from Hindi but rather is the form of the Hindustani language spoken by Indian and Pakistani Muslims. The word “Urdu” comes from a Turkish word meaning “camp” (cognate to the English word “horde,” borrowed from the same common Turkic root via a different branch of the Turkic migrations of the period) and originally had the sense of the binding language spoken by everyone in a military camp, as opposed to the various dialects that individuals might have spoken in their native villages. Urdu is a continuation of the Hindi spoken near Delhi, but includes large numbers of Persian, Arabic, and Turkish words, particularly terms of Muslim religious significance for which there were no theologically appropriate native terms. For example, although Sanskrit karma and Arabic kismet both have a sense of “appointed fate,” they rest on very different theological underpinnings. The concept of karma is based on the idea of consequences for past actions carrying across multiple reincarnations, while kismet is a function of the divine will.

The earliest forms of Urdu are generally traced to a Hindustani dialect called Dakani, which flourished in the Deccan, a rugged region of ancient volcanic mountains. The most common literary forms in which this early form of Urdu has been preserved are the treatises and popular tracts of various Sufi sects. In contrast to later developments in Urdu, the Dakani Sufis used relatively few Persian and Arabic loanwords, even in their discussions of theological matters. Instead, they preferred to draw their terminology primarily from Sanskrit roots and from other local languages. However, later Dakani poetry and prose borrowed increasing amounts of vocabulary from Persian and Arabic, even as writers adopted various Persian literary forms. Among these forms were the dastan, a Persian prose romance of adventure and magic that became firmly incorporated into the Urdu literary tradition.

Because Hindi and Urdu were mutually comprehensible, the most obvious distinguishing point between Hindi and Urdu lay in the alphabets in which they are written. Early Hindi as spoken by worshipers of the traditional Indian religion was written in several related alphabets, including the Kaithi, or cursive, script, and modern Hindi came to be written in the Devanagari, the “script of the city of the gods,” which is also used to write Sanskrit. Writing;India Urdu is written in Arabic script, right to left, and uses thirty-six letters. All are consonantal except alif, which is exclusively a vowel in Urdu usage (as opposed to the classical Arabic of the Qu՚rān, in which it represents a glottal stop consonant). Three other letters can indicate either a consonant or a vowel, and readers must determine from context the exact value of the letter.

The literary tradition of both Hindi and Urdu were formed and enriched by the often conflict-ridden interaction between Muslims and Hindus. Although many Indians responded to the Turkic invaders’s repression of traditional Indian patterns of devotion by converting to Islam, others embraced their Hindu identity more fervently, developing Hinduism Hinduism;Islam and from a collection of local religious traditions into a cohesive system of practice and belief. Writers on both sides of the religious divide sought to express their devotion in the realm of letters and, as a result, produced powerful new works of poetry and prose. Among the notable works of the period was Somadeva’ Somadeva
Kathāsaritsāgara (eleventh century; The Ocean of Story
Ocean of Story, The (Somadeva) , 1924-1928), a verse epic of nested stories that drew on native Indian myth and folklore. The storytelling tradition of medieval India frequently dealt with tragic, even pathetic, plots: innocents being taken to their executions for crimes they did not commit, loyal family members being banished from their homes by unloving fathers or husbands, or other gross injustices. However, these stories inevitably culminated in happy endings, with innocence proven moments before the execution and family members joyously reunited, even if it required gross contortions of the storyline, even deus ex machina interventions, to achieve.


The development of a widespread common tongue made trade and travel easier throughout the area of northern India, resulting in commercial and cultural growth. Its position was further strengthened by the development of a literary tradition among both Hindu and Muslim Indians. So strong was the position of this language that it survived even the imposition of English by the British Empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to emerge as a unifying language after the attainment of Indian independence in the 1940’.

Further Reading

  • King, Christopher Rolland. One Language, Two Scripts: The Hindi Movement in Nineteenth Century North India. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A history of Hindi and Urdu, including the political and religious battles that had been simmering for centuries and came to a head during the British occupation.
  • Koul, Omkar N., and L. Devaki, eds. Linguistic Heritage of India and Asia. Mysore, India: Central Institute of Indian Languages, 2000. A collection of articles, some technical but some quite readable, on the development of the languages of India, including Hindi and Urdu.
  • McGregor, R. S. Hindi Literature from Its Beginnings to the Nineteenth Century. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz. 1984. A historical overview of the development of Hindi as a literary language, looking particularly at the role of intercultural conflict in defining a peculiarly Hindi mode of literary development.
  • MacLeod, John. The History of India. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. An overview of the history of India, including a bibliography for further research.
  • Singh, K. Suresh. Languages and Scripts. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, in association with the Anthropological Survey of India, 1993. An analysis of the relationships among the various languages of India and the alphabets in which they were written, including the Devanagari and its descendants and Arabic.
  • Watson, Francis. India: A Concise History. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002. A good basic overview of Indian history, including this critical period in which conflicts of religious devotion led to the development and flowering of Hindi and Urdu as literary languages.