Facts Sheets of Major World Languages Hindi

About the major world language Hindi, history, number and location of speaker, samples, trivia, words used in English, and more.



Sample of Language: Bharat mein chaudah adhikrit bhashaen hein aur senkdo boli hein. ("In India, there are 14 official languages, as well as hundreds of dialects.")

How Many Speakers: 220 million

Where Spoken: The greater part of northern India, especially in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar.

History: Although Hindi ranks fifth among the world's languages, it is the language of only one third of India's population. In southern India, where the languages are as different from Hindi as English is from Japanese, scores of people died in 1965 protesting the government's attempt to convert them to Hindi. Today, Hindi's official status continues in limbo.

Like most northern Indian languages, Hindi is descended from Sanskrit, the Asian cousin of Latin and Greek. Originating as a trade jargon which became current after the Muslim conquest of Delhi in the 12th century, it was used in the cities and the army camps and was known as Urdu, which meant "camp." For centuries, it coexisted with innumerable other dialects, absorbing many Persian and Arabic words during the Mogul period (1526-1707). These conditions continued through the early years of the British regime, until 1835, when a popular form of the trade jargon was developed as a standard language through a teaching program for British civil servants. Known interchangeably as Urdu or Hindustani, it was used by the schools and the government, although English still dominated. Hindus would not accept Urdu for other than official purposes, because, written in Arabic script, it represented the religion of Mohammed. A new literary prose style, Hindi, emerged, written in the Devanagari script of Sanskrit, and many Persian and Arabic words were replaced by Sanskrit words. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, special societies were formed for the propagation of Hindi in devanagari script and Hindi schools. In 1947, with independence from Britain and partitioning, Hindi and Urdu, essentially the same language, Hindustani, became the official languages of India and Pakistan, respectively. Under pressure from Hindu extremists, a special committee was appointed to purge Hindi of foreign words and create new Sanskrit-derived words, 300,000 of which were needed to bring Hindi into the 20th century. In place of "station," they recommended the absurdly long, synthetic agnirathyantraviramshan, which means literally "resting place for a chariot run by fire." Hindi is still a long way from standardization.

Oddities: Hindi has complete sets of nasalized and nonnasalized vowels and aspirated, nonaspirated, dental and retroflex consonants, making puns inevitable. Gada means "club," but gadha, "ass"; khaanaa is "food," kaanaa, "one-eyed"; ghanta, "bell," is avoided because it sounds like the word for penis. Roko mat jane do can mean "Stop, don't let him go" or "Don't stop, let him go."

Instead of prepositions, Hindi uses postpositions, which come after the noun. Verbs occur at the end of the sentence. Apna, the reflexive, indicates possession more accurately than English can.

Hindi abounds in "echo words," which express similarities: puli gili, "tigers and the like"; roti voti, "bread and baked goods"; aros paros, "neighborhood and surroundings." It also uses repetition for emphasis. Near near means "quite near" and slow slow, "very slowly."

The traditional salutation, namastee, literally means "I bow to thee" and is accompanied by the cupping of hands. Yes is indicated, not by nodding, but by tilting the head from side to side.

One of Hindi's worst insults is to call a man brother-in-law, because it insinuates that you have slept with his sister. Death is euphemistically referred to as "reception in the Ganges."

Words Now Used in English: pajamas, dungarees, khaki, cashmere, shampoo, jungle, curry, punch, cot, bungalow, loot, thug, Brahmin, maharaja.

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