The Hindi language is spoken by over 590 million people worldwide. Even Indians who don’t speak Hindi as their mother tongue might speak it as a second language.
With so many Hindi speakers around the world, how has the language influenced others in Asia and elsewhere? Can learning other languages help you understand Hindi?
It’s hard to consider the influence of Hindi without speaking of Urdu. The hard part about it is deciding whether or not they are different languages.
Urdu is the official language of Pakistan, whereas Hindi is one of the many languages of northern India, as close to being the official language of India as politics will allow. Both of them evolved from the same Prakrit dialect under the Persian dynasties (such as the Mughal Empire), and both were influenced by the Persian language. But where Hindi incorporated more words from Classical Sanskrit, Urdu has more terms derived from Persian and Arabic. They also use different scripts:
However, the difference is mostly in the literary registers – poets and writers tended to draw more from the foreign influences of each dialect and so it is there that the differences are greatest. A Hindi speaker might be understood by an Urdu speaker, but they might not be able to read each other’s literature or poetry.
The grammar is much the same and many words as well, but some of the most basic vocabulary words are different, such as the words for “thank you” or “day” or the greetings.
After a period during which Urdu and Hindi drifted ever farther apart, they are coming back together thanks to loan words. Bollywood uses a lot of Urdu, introducing it into the Hindi vernacular and at the same time, Bollywood’s appeal in Pakistan is bringing more Hindi words into everyday speech.
As such, the influence is mutual. Hindi vocabulary is becoming more common in the Urdu language, and Urdu words are appearing in Hindi. Though politically India and Pakistan may never see eye to eye, their languages (or dialects, depending on whether you ask a native speaker or a linguist) seem to be coming together.
Hindi, though spoken by a very large number of people, is mostly confined to part of northern India. Elsewhere, people might understand Hindi, but not speak it as their mother tongue.
Politically, there has long been a push to make Hindi the true national language of India, and make teaching Hindi in schools mandatory, and would mean that official documents would be in Hindi. While this scheme had many supporters, including Gandhi himself, who advocated making Hindi the national language even though his native language was Gujarati, ultimately regional nationalism prevailed.
Regions where other languages are predominant have opposed this scheme vehemently, so that the only true lingua franca of India remains, rather ironically, the English language introduced by British colonialism.
In protest, many non-Hindi speakers officially resist any Hindi influence, actively trying to keep Hindi phrases and vocabulary out of their languages.
It’s easier to do trade when you understand each other – and so Hindi Photo credit: DavidSanchini on VisualHunt
However, in the Assam region where there are several different languages besides Assamese, a pidgin language call Haflong Hindi serves as a common tongue between them. Similarly, the state of Arunachal Pradesh has over 50 native languages or dialects, and use Hindi to communicate between themselves.
There are a lot of similarities between the various Indo-European languages of the Indian subcontinent. However, that doesn’t mean that these nouns, verbs and adjectives come directly from Hindi.
Because many of the Indian languages (particularly in northern India) come from the Indo-Aryan language family (a subset of Indo-European, of which English is also a part), they often have similar-sounding words that mean the same thing. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that these words came into that language from Hindi – simply that both have the same etymology, having evolved from a common ancestor.
Equally, some words may sound alike because they come from the same root (perhaps Prakrit or Vedic Sanskrit) but have evolved into an entirely different meaning. A lot of Bengali words, for example, come from Sanskrit, not Hindi.
Even some Dravidian languages such as Tamil have many words that sound a lot like their Hindi counterparts; however, they generally entered the language as loan words from the Prakrit dialects or Sanskrit, all precursors of Hindi.
Interestingly, Sanskrit also influenced other Asian languages – more so than Hindi. Here, one of the earliest inscriptions on Java, in Vedic Sanskrit. Photo credit: Ms Sarah Welch on Wikipedia
This said, once more Bollywood comes into play. Bollywood is interesting in its role in disseminating the various Indian languages. While Bollywood movies are generally in Hindi with a good splattering of Urdu, movies often feature other Indian languages as well, such as Punjabi, Kannada, Tamil or Telugu.
A Hindi movie featuring a Sindhi-speaking family will attract a lot of viewers with Sindhi as their native language. At the same time, they will be exposed to Hindi as the second language of the film, and new words and phrases from the Hindi language might become popular for a time in the Sindhi community. Some will fade away, but other Hindi phrases will survive and make it into the permanent vocabulary of Sindhi.
Bollywood is very popular, and Hindi movies will be available in non-Hindi-speaking communities. Photo on Visualhunt.com
No country lives in a vacuum, and neighbouring countries will always influence each other linguistically to some extent. So you will find Hindi terms in Malay, Indonesian (though Indonesian has more Sanskrit terms than Hindi), Lao, Burmese and Thai.
However, on the whole, Hindi’s influence on other Asian languages is minimal.
There is a large Indian community that has built up in Nepal over several centuries. They call themselves Madhesis and many still speak the Awadhi dialect of Hindi.
Anywhere there is a sizeable Indian population, it seems likely that Hindi words will enter the local language. Hindi loanwords can turn up in places you might not suspect.
In certain places, Hindi has been combined with other languages, either imported or local, to create a sort of lingua franca to allow various different populations with different languages to communicate with each other.
Fiji uses a form of Hindi derived mainly from the Awadhi dialect, with some influence from the Bhojpuri, Magahi and Bihari language of India. Called Hindustani by the Fijian Indian community, it also incorporates words from the native Fijian language and English.
Fiji Hindi is quite similar to Caribbean Hindustani, a lingua franca for the population of Indian descent living on most Caribbean islands (except for French Guyana, Martinique and Guadeloupe, where most of the Indians are from southern India, where Dravidian languages are spoken). Carribean Hindustani mostly borrows from the Hindi Awadhi dialect, as well as a mix of Bhojpuri and other Bihari dialects along with smatterings of the local languages.
There is Fiji Hindi creole used to communicate on the Pacific islands of Fiji and Vanuatu. Photo credit: Björn Groß on Visual hunt
There is a large Indian diaspora in South Africa, mostly concentrated around the city of Durban. They speak a form of Hindi with a lot of Awadhi and Bhojpuri mixed in. The language they speak is similar to a form of Indian spoken on Mauritius.
Because a lot of Indians came to Africa during the Colonial Period – some as slaves, some as servants and some as free men and women – Hindi words have entered some African languages such as Swahili or Somali.
You will find Hindi words in other languages, too, such as Hebrew, Italian or even Scots. However, those words usually did not come directly from Hindi, but from the Hindi terms that have made it into the English language.
Through over a century of colonial rule, a lot of Hindi words made it into standard English vocabulary. Of course, you first think of food – words such as chutney (from chatni) or toddy (from tari, the juice of the palmyra palm) -curry comes from Tamil, not Hindi – or spiritual terms such as yoga, karma or nirvana.
But did you know that the Englishmen who fought in the Indian wars, traded with the East India Company, owned plantations or served in the Colonial government also brought back words such as:
So as you see, you are speaking some Hindi without even knowing it!
You can learn more by finding Hindi lessons on our Superprof website.