Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
The development of Hindi and Urdu gives a glimpse of the processes at work in language evolution in South Asia.
Hindi and Urdu are essentially one language with two scripts, Devanagari and Persian-Arabic, respectively. In their most formal literary forms, the two languages have two vocabularies (Hindi taking words by preference from Sanskrit, Urdu from Persian and Arabic) and tend to be culturally connected with Hindu and Islamic culture, respectively. Hindi-Urdu developed from the Khari Boli dialect of Delhi, the capital city of the Delhi Sultanate, and it was the speech of the classes and neighborhoods most closely connected with the Mughal court (1556-1858). In time, the language spread even into South India because it served as a common medium of communication for trade, administration, and military purposes. Classical Urdu appropriated a large number of words from Persian, the official language of the Mughal Empire, and through Persian from Arabic.
By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Urdu had developed into a highly stylized form written in a Persian-Arabic script. After the British took over from the Mughals, whose language of administration was Persian, Urdu began to serve as the language of administration in lower courts in the north. British administrators and missionaries, however, felt that the high literary form of Urdu was too remote from everyday life and was suffused by a Persian vocabulary unintelligible to the masses. Therefore, they instigated the development of modern standard Hindi in Devanagari script. Hindi now predominates in a number of states, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh, and in the National Capital Territory of Delhi. Urdu is the majority language in no large region but is more commonly spoken in North India and is the official administrative language of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. In South India, people in urban Muslim communities in former administrative capitals, such as Hyderabad or Bangalore, may regularly use Urdu at home or in their workplace.
Hindi has spread throughout North India as a contemporary lingua franca. Its speakers range from illiterate workers in large cities to highly educated civil servants. Many city dwellers learn Hindi as a second or third language even if they speak another regional language, such as Marathi, Bengali, or Gujarati. As professionals have become increasingly mobile, they rely more heavily on Hindi as a means of communication; those aspiring to career advancement need to learn standard Hindi. Speakers of other Indo-Aryan languages tend to chose Hindi for their third language in school because of similarities in grammar, vocabulary, or script with their own mother tongue and because it has a wider use than another regional language.
Hindi, especially in the less highly Sanskritized form used in everyday speech, is barely distinct from everyday Urdu, which before independence was called Hindustani. However, Hindi has long had pan-Indian uses extending beyond the regions where it is the majority language. Hindi is the lingua franca at pilgrimage sites in all regions and is used to deal with devotees from all parts of the country. It is also the common means of communication of wandering Hindu holy men in their discussions with each other and is used frequently in preaching. Many publishers issue Sanskrit classics on religion, astrology, medicine, and other subjects with Hindi translations, cribs, or commentaries to help purchasers who may not be confident of their Sanskrit ability. Purchasers appear to find those aids useful, even though Hindi may not be their primary spoken or written language. Although there are major cinema industries in several other languages, the Hindi cinema (centered in Bombay, also known as Mumbai in the Marathi language) dominates the Indian motion picture market, and Hindi films (the songs tend to be in Urdu) are shown around the country without subtitles or dubbing (see The Media, ch. 8).
A number of former literary languages with established and major bodies of literature, such as Braj, Avadhi, and Maithili, have been essentially subsumed under the rubric of Hindi. Maithili, spoken in northern Bihar, has a body of literature and its own grammar. Proponents of its use insist that it is a language in its own right and that it is related more closely to eastern Indo-Aryan tongues than to Hindi. Nonetheless, efforts to revive Maithili have had minimal success beyond its use in elementary education. Other regional tongues that lack literary forms, such as Marwari (in Rajasthan) and Magadhi (in southern Bihar), are considered variants of Hindi. Some of them differ from Hindi considerably more than does Urdu. In general, religious affiliation is the distinguishing characteristic of Hindi and Urdu speakers; Muslims speak Urdu, and Hindus speak Hindi, although what they actually say in informal situations is likely to be about the same. The use of two radically different scripts is a statement of cultural identity. However, there are still Hindu religious periodicals published in Urdu, and Urdu writers who are Hindu by religion.
There is little information on the extent of knowledge of English in India. Books and articles abound on the place of English in the Indian education system, job competition, and culture; and on its sociolinguistic aspects, pronunciation and grammar, its effect on Indian languages, and Indian literature in English. Little information is available, however, on the number of people who "know" English and the extent of their knowledge, or even how many people study English in school. In the 1981 census, 202,400 persons (0.3 percent of the population) gave English as their first language. Fewer than 1 percent gave English as their second language while 14 percent were reported as bilingual in two of India's many languages. However, the census did not allow for recording more than one second language and is suspected of having significantly underrepresented bilingualism and multilingualism.
The 1981 census reported 13.3 percent of the population as bilingual. The People of India project of the Anthropological Survey of India, which assembled statistics on communities rather than on individuals, found that only 34 percent of communities reported themselves as monolingual. An Assamese who also knew Bengali, or someone from a Marathi-speaking family living in Delhi who attended a Hindi-medium school, might give Bengali or Hindi as his or her second language but also know English from formal school instruction or picking it up on the street. It is suspected that many people identify language with literacy and hence will not describe themselves as knowing a language unless they can read it and, conversely, may say they know a language if they can make out its alphabet. Thus people who speak English but are unable to read or write it may say they do not know the language.
English-language daily newspapers have a circulation of 3.1 million copies per day, but each copy is probably read by several people. There are estimates of about 3 percent (some 27 million people) for the number of literates in English, but even if this percentage is valid, the number of people with a speaking knowledge is certainly higher than of those who read it. And, the figure of 3 percent for English literacy may be low. According to one set of figures, 17.6 million people were enrolled in English classes in 1977, which would be 3.2 percent of the population of India according to the 1971 census. Taking the most conservative evaluation of how much of the instruction would "stick," this still leaves a larger part of the population than 3 percent with some English literacy.
Some idea of the possibilities of studying English can be found in the 1992 Fifth All-India Education Survey. According to the survey, only 1.3 percent of primary schools, 3.4 percent of upper primary schools, 3.9 percent of middle schools, and 13.2 percent of high schools use English as a medium of instruction. Schools treating English as the first language (requiring ten years of study) are only 0.6 percent of rural primary schools, 2.8 percent of rural high schools, and 9.9 percent of urban high schools. English is offered as a second language (six years of study) in 51 percent of rural primary schools, 55 percent of urban primary schools, 57 percent of rural high schools, and 51 percent of urban high schools. As a third language (three years of study), English is offered in 5 percent of rural primary schools, 21 percent of urban primary schools, 44 percent of rural high schools, and 41 percent of urban high schools. These statistics show a considerable desire to study English among people receiving a mostly vernacular education, even in the countryside.
In higher education, English continues to be the premier prestige language. Careers in business and commerce, government positions of high rank (regardless of stated policy), and science and technology (attracting many of the brightest) continue to require fluency in English. It is also necessary for the many students who contemplate study overseas.
English as a prestige language and the tongue of first choice continues to serve as the medium of instruction in elite schools at every level without apology. All large cities and many smaller cities have private, English-language middle schools and high schools (see Education, ch. 2). Even government schools run for the benefit of senior civil service officers are conducted in English because only that language is an acceptable medium of communication throughout the nation.
Working-class parents, themselves rural-urban migrants and perhaps bilingual in their village dialect and the regional standard language, perceive English as the tool their children need in order to advance. Schools in which English is the medium of instruction are a "growth industry." Facility in English enhances a young woman's chances in the marriage market--no small advantage in the often protracted marriage negotiations between families (see Life Passages, ch. 5). The English speaker also encounters more courteous responses in some situations than does a speaker of an indigenous language.
Data as of September 1995
NOTE: The information regarding India on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of India Hindi information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about India Hindi should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.