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What is Hindi?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Jan 26, 2024
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Hindi is a language spoken throughout most of northern India, although it is understood in much of the rest of the country. It may be used to describe either the language known as standard Hindi, spoken mostly in India, or increasingly, to describe the combined language of Hindustani, which also includes a standard form known as Urdu. The main distinction between standard Hindi and Urdu are their writing systems, and most people consider the two to be different registers of the same language.

The differing definitions of what does or does not constitute Hindi, as opposed to Hindustani, and whether some speech patterns constitute a dialect or an entirely different language, make pinpointing the exact number of Hindi speakers difficult. Estimates range as high as 800 million speakers worldwide, making it the second-most spoken language on Earth. Even conservative estimates place the number of total speakers at about 500 million. Hindi is part of the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages, along with languages such as Punjabi, Bengali, and Nepali. It is often known as the language of songs, because of the many epic poems and songs in Hindi.

Hindi uses the Devanagari alphabet, a descendant of the earlier Brahmi alphabet which also gave rise to Khmer and Tibetan. Devanagari first appeared sometime in the early 13th century, and became widely used not long after. After Indian independence on 15 August 1947, the Devanagari script was fully standardized and diacritic marks were added to help write words from other languages in the Hindi script. While Hindi is one of the official languages of India — alongside English — many people have commented on the distinct lack of social status the language holds. English-speaking is still seen widely as a prestige marker in Indian culture, and therefore much business and media is conducted in English.

Hindi is derived from the older Sanskrit, dating back to sometime before the 5th century BCE. The first Hindi poet, Siddha Sarahpad, composed his masterwork Dohakosh in the mid-8th century, helping to herald in the era of Hindi as a truly distinct language. By the 12th century, grammars were being written for Hindi. At the end of the 18th century, a printing press was established using the Devanagari script, and allowing a new age of Hindi-language works to flourish. Finally, at independence in 1950, the constitution refers to Hindi as "the official language of the union."

Over its long lifetime, Hindi has been heavily influenced by languages as diverse as English, Arabic, Persian, and the Dravidian language family. Its vocabulary is very wide, and particularly when it comes to modern terms, may derive many words from other languages.

The distinction between Hindi and Urdu is a contentious one, with most linguists holding it to be a socio-political difference and alphabetic difference only, and many nationalists strongly opposing a view that defines them as the same language. The more neutral term Hindustani has gained much favor as a way of avoiding cultural prejudice towards one register or the other, and so is widely used in media such as the Bollywood movies that are popular in both India and Pakistan. Unless otherwise indicated, the term Hindi should be assumed to refer only to the register spoken in India and written in Devanagari, while Hindustani should be assumed to include the Urdu register spoken in Pakistan and written in a Persian-derived script.

LanguageHumanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon43189 — On Aug 26, 2009

why should hindi be compulsory in schools?

By anon37208 — On Jul 17, 2009

Hindi is spoken in northern, northwestern, and central India. The entire southern half of the country (a huge percentage of the population) speak various Dravidian languages, foremost among them Tamil and Telugu. In Western India you will likely find speakers of Marathi and Gujarati.

Dravidian is a language family, composed primarily of Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada.

There are 22 official languages in India, Hindi is but one.

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