A Brief
Hindi - Urdu FAQ

What is the difference between Hindi and Urdu?

At the level of the colloquial language that is spoken spontaneously or is heard in Bollywood movies, Hindi and Urdu are virtually the identical language. Thus,

gãv meñ voh lajavab hai.
[There is no one like him in the village.]

They are, however, written in two different scripts, Urdu in the Perso-Arabic script and Hindi in the Devanagari script of Sanskrit.

In the literary or "chaste" dialect, Urdu uses many more Persian & Arabic words and grammatical forms than Hindi, whose literary dialect is more Sanskritised. But it is false to suppose Hindi lacks Persian & Arabic loanwords and Urdu lacks etymologically Sanskrit words. Both languages share a common lexicon that includes native (Indian), Arabic, Persian, and English loanwords.

When expressing the elevated thoughts of science, philosophy, art and politics, the Muslims of India naturally always drew from the wealth of Arabic and Persian literary words, whereas the Hindus turned toward Sanskrit. This accounts for the differences between Hindi and Urdu (in vocabulary but almost never in grammar), but these are differences which exist primarily at the elite level and in abstract vocabulary. For example:

Pakistani siyasat meñ voh lajavab hai. (Urdu)

Pakistani rajniti meñ voh lajavab hai. (Hindi)

[There is no one like him in Pakistani politics.]

It's a good rule of thumb that whenever Urdu and Hindi words differ, it is becaue the one is using an Arabic or Persian word while the other a Sanskrit loanword.

Because the political vocabulary tends to be different between the languages, Pakistanis and Indians ordinarily don't understand each other's country's official radio and television broadcasts -- depite the fact that they understand each other's movies perfectly well!

What are the origins of Hindi and Urdu?

Urdu and Hindi are both descended from Sanskrit (or the vulgar Indo-Aryan tongue of which Sanskrit was an idealisation), just as French and Spanish are both descended from Vulgar Latin.

Their common origins cannot be emphasised enough, because people in India and Pakistan stuff their heads with a great deal of mythological rubbish about the origins of Hindi and Urdu. For example, it's frequently asserted that while Hindi is descended from Sanskrit, Urdu is a kind of pidgin mongrel of Persian, Arabic and Indian elements.

Well, Urdu is also descended from Sanskrit, and Hindi is also a pidgin mongrel of Persian, Arabic and Indian elements -- because they are the same language.

During the thousand years of Central Asian invasions of northern India, the Muslim conquerors introduced into the language of Delhi (often called Kari Boli) a enormous number of loanwords from Arabic, Persian and Turkish. The result was Hindustani -- a grammatically Indian language descended from Sanskrit with a large Sansrkitic vocabulary, but Persian and Arabic words perhaps numbering 30% to 40% of the spoken language.

What is the political status of Hindi and Urdu?

Hindi is the official language of the Indian Union (although it also recognises 15 or 16 other regional languages as official).

Still, it is the native language of only about a third of all Indians. Those who don't grow up speaking Hindi must learn it at school. Very little Hindi is spoken in the south of India, where dominant languages are completely unrelated to those of the north.

Urdu is the official language of Pakistan. It is also the official language of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir and one of the two official languages of the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

Like Hindi, Urdu is not the native language of most Pakistanis. For only about 10% of Pakistanis, primarily those living in Karachi and other cities of Sindh province, speak it as their mother tongue. The remaining Pakistanis grow up speaking Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi, Pashto, Kashmiri or other languages and must learn Urdu at school.

In fact, India has about ten times the number of native speakers of Urdu as Pakistan.

But this situation is changing because the Pakistani state has so thoroughly suffused the country with Urdu. Many of today's young Pakistanis for whose parents Urdu is not the mother tongue, have grown up speaking Urdu as though it was.

For political reasons, the Indian and the Pakistani governments have tried to widen the gulf between Hindi and Urdu by emphasising the literary standards at schools. Although these efforts are undermined by the influence of Bollywood films and the common history of Urdu and Hindi, nonetheless it's likely that as literacy rates rise in both India and Pakistan, Hindi and Urdu will drift apart.

Here is a small example of how the Pakistani state contributes to this drifting apart.

In standard Urdu, the Arabic spelling of Arabic loanwords is faithfully preserved, even if the original pronunciation is not preserved. For example the final H (choti he) of the Arabic loanword qissah (story) is silent and is pronounced as though it were simply qissaa:

However, increasingly in Pakistani Urdu, even native words (i.e., Indic words of Sanskrit origin) which never had Arabic spelling are being Arabised. Thus, the indigenous Indic word ghantaa

is often spelt ghantah

-- with a "choti he" at the end, as though it were an Arabic word, and even if the "choti he" is not sounded. The original native orthography can be gleaned in the Hindi spelling:

Just a long A at the end, no H.

Of course, the attempts to increase Arabisation and Persianisation in Urdu mirror the Pakistani attempt to move further toward the Islamic countries and away from "Indianness". After all, without this, what would a Pakistani be but an Indian Muslim, who is himself just a converted Hindu?

Last Updated on 25 April 2000

Also see

The Varieties of Arabic Script

















. 1