It’s hard enough to try and figure out which language of India you should learn - Sindhi, Telugu, or Tamil? Or maybe Punjabi? Is it easier to learn an Indo-European language or will you dare to try one from the Dravidian language family?
But once you have decided on Hindustani as the language in India with the most speakers and as being the most universally understood, you still find yourself confronted with the question:
Is there only one dialect of Hindi? If not, which should you learn?
Superprof is here to help!
What is the Hindi Belt?
The Hindi Belt (also called the Hindi Desh) refers to the area in India where Hindi and Urdu are spoken by the majority of the population.
It mainly groups those states in northern India where Hindi is the official language:
- Himachal Pradesh
- Madhya Pradesh
- Uttar Pradesh
Though Urdu, which is very similar to Hindi, is the official language of Pakistan, the term “Hindi Belt” is really only used for India.
Hindi and Urdu: One Language, Two Languages or Two Dialects?
Ask an Indian and a Pakistani whether Hindi and Urdu are two separate languages, and they will say yes.
Ask a linguist, and they will say no.
In short, Urdu is the language of Pakistan (though there are Urdu dialects spoken in northern India) while Hindi is spoken in India.
The problem is defining just how different the two are. Most scholars agree that they are two registers of the same language, Hindustani, as they have almost identical grammar and differ mostly in vocabulary. A Hindi-speaker from Delhi will be understood in Pakistan, just as a Pakistani speaking Urdu will be understood in Jodhpur.
Interestingly enough, the languages become less mutually intelligible in their more formal literary register, which uses a lot more words derived from Classical Sanskrit for Hindi and Persian for Urdu.
Some linguists see each of them as a dialect of Hindustani, with enough differentiation to warrant a certain linguistic separation.
When looking at the history of the Hindi language, you will find that Urdu, like Hindi, belongs to the Indo-Aryan language family of the Indo-European languages.
Hindustani derives from the Khariboli dialects which themselves evolved from the Vedic Sanskrit language. During the reigns of the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526 AD) and the Mughal Empire (1526-1858 AD), a great many Persian loanwords entered the language.
In parallel, the Persian spoken by the soldiers - Zaban-e Urdu-e Mualla, the “language of the court” or “of the camp” became more and more Indianised, until Hindustani was mostly spoken as-is but with a lot of Persian mixed in.
Along with the English language, the Urdu language was the second official language of British India. The great schism arose between the Hindu and Muslim populations, and it, at first, mostly centred around the script as the grammar is virtually identical.
The Hindu used the Devanagari script to write, while the Muslims wanted to keep the Persian Nasta’liq writing, a variation of Arabic script.
Interestingly enough, a 1900 government decree granting equal status to both versions of Hindustani exacerbated the conflict rather than resolving it. Speakers and scholars of both languages started deliberately increasing the divide between the languages by consciously feeding Hindi’s slight bias in favour of words of Sanskrit origin and Urdu’s bias in favour of Persian and Arabic words, which is why the difference nowadays is greater in poetic and scholarly texts than in everyday speech.
In 1950, the Indian constitution made Hindi rather than Urdu the official language of India (along with many others - India does not have a state language).
Interestingly, the Hindustani spoken in Bollywood and many Indian TV productions uses more and more Urdu vocabulary, thus introducing them into the Hindi vernacular, while Bollywood’s popularity in Pakistan also introduces many Hindi words into everyday Urdu.
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Learning Hindi: Hindi Dialects in India
One difficulty in dealing with the question of Hindi dialects is the unfortunate tendency of early linguists of grouping almost any Indian language they encountered under Hindi. Many, such as Maithili, have fought to have their language recognised as a separate Indo-Aryan tongue. You might still find Bihari, Rajasthani and Pahari classified as Hindi in some texts, though they are now recognised as separate languages.
Generally speaking, Hindi can be divided into two broad dialectal zones: Western Hindi and Eastern Hindi. Both evolved from slightly different forms of the ancient Prakrit language.
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Western Hindi came from the Shauraseni (dramatic) Prakrit in the Apabhramsa form, as used by Jain and Hindu poets. Hindustani (spoken in Delhi and western Uttar Pradesh), including its standardised versions Hindi and Urdu, belongs to the Western Hindi family.
Other Western Hindi dialects include:
- Braj Bhasha, spoken in the western region of Uttar Pradesh and some parts of Rajasthan and Haryana
- Haryanvi, spoken mostly in Haryana
- Bundeli, spoken in southwestern Uttar Pradesh and central and western Madhya Pradesh
- Kannauji, spoken in western and central Uttar Pradesh
Eastern Hindi dialects
Eastern Hindi evolved from the Ardhamagadhi version of Prakrit, used mostly by scholars of the Jain religion.
Eastern Hindi dialects include:
- Awadhi, spoken in northern and central Uttar Pradesh and on Fiji
- Bagheli, spoken in northern and central Madhya Pradesh and south-eastern Uttar Pradesh
- Chhattisgarhi, spoken in southeast Madhya Pradesh and northern and central Chhattisgarh
Dialects of Hyderabad
The erstwhile region of Hyderabad (now divided between the districts of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashta and Karnataka) is home to Dakhini, incorporating two dialects of Urdu:
- Hyderabadi Urdu
- Bangalori Urdu
Indian Hindi Creoles and Pidgins
Due to the great number of languages spoken in India, it is hardly surprising that pidgins arose to facilitate understanding between people who speak different languages.
A pidgin is usually a very simplified form of a language, with basic grammar and a small core vocabulary. A pidgin can come from one language, or incorporate words and expressions from several.
A Creole language, though, is fully realised linguistically, is used by a community of people rather than as a means of communication between two communities. It usually incorporates elements from several languages, at least one of them native and one import, though any number of influences can prevail. Many Creoles evolved from pidgins.
In the state of Assam, in the district of Dima Hasao, a pidgin form of Hindi known as Haflong Hindi emerged as a means of communicating between the speakers of various native languages. It is mostly based on Hindi but has many words from Bengali, Dimasa and Zeme Naga (both sino-tibetan languages not related to either Indo-European or Dravidian languages).
Hindi in Arunachal Pradesh
The state of Arunachal Pradesh in eastern India is home to at least 30, possibly as many as 50 different languages, such as the Tani languages, Galo, Bodic languages such as Dakpa, and several isolates (languages not easily assigned to any of the known languages families). They are spoken by a variety of different ethnicities, cultures and religions. A fascinating region, it has unofficially adopted a creolised form of Hindi as a lingua franca, due in part to the import of Hindi-speaking teachers.
The official language in Mumbai (or Bombay) is Marathi. However, since the great majority of Bollywood movies are produced in Mumbai, many of them in Hindi, Hindi-speakers have flocked to the city and Hindi has become the language of the industry.
The Hindi spoken in Mumbai, however, is greatly influenced by the Marathi language. It is a purely vernacular dialect that is often classified as pidgin, though its widespread use in the community makes it more of a creole.
Hindi Dialects Outside of the Indian Subcontinent
Hindi is also spoken in various forms throughout the world, either as local variants or as Creole forms of the language, for example, there is a Creole Hindi used as a trade language on the Andaman Islands. Fiji and various Caribbean islands use a form of Eastern Hindi mixed with Bhojpuri as a lingua franca, and South African Hindi is used by the Indian community of South Africa.
Which Hindi Dialect Should You Learn?
The very first question you should ask yourself is:
Hindi or Urdu?
This is important because of the two different scripts. Neither of them uses the Latin alphabet, so think carefully: do you want to study in India or take on a job in Pakistan? If the first, choose Hindi and learn the Devanagari script; if not, or if you already speak and read Arabic and don’t want to learn another new alphabet, Urdu is the way to go. You’ll be understood on either side of the border anyway.
However, if you are more interested on an academic level, you will notice greater differences in the language of poetry and literature, and you will have to consider whether you prefer Muslim literature or Hindu literature. However, if you find yourself in a bind and can’t decide - and don’t mind studying on the other side of the Pond - the University of Texas offers combined Hindi-Urdu language programs.
If you choose Hindi, it’s probably best to stick with the standardised version. Everyone in the Hindi Belt and much of North India will understand standardised Hindi, and if you are moving to India you will soon pick up the local dialect - it’s easier to find Hindi lessons near you than a teacher who speaks Awadhi or Bundeli.
However, if you are moving to Fiji or the Andaman Islands, finding a tutor who can teach you the local Creole is the way to go - maybe you can find Fiji Hindi speaking course online to help you out.
Whichever you choose, when learning Hindi, make certain that your teacher or language coach speaks Hindi as his or her mother tongue. Many Indians understand Hindi (Bollywood again) but didn’t grow up speaking it. They might have a good grasp of Hindi vocabulary, maybe even speak it relatively fluently, but they won’t know the finer points of grammar and idiom the way a native speaker would.