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“Does Hindi have a future?”

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on February 24, 2008 3 Comments

Just finished reading a somewhat alarmist article in the Indian national newspaper, The Times of India, entitled Does Hindi have a future? In that article, the fate of Hindi in the Indian urban landscape is considered precarious; the writer, Mohammed Wajihuddin, asserts that “An unsettling reality of metros and towns of India is that Hindi is slowly becoming an alien language.” That, in the writer’s words, is the “unkind truth” of our day.

Wajihuddin next goes on to “show” how academic interest in Hindi has declined over the years, quoting a former Mumbai University (in a region not a part of the “Hindi belt”) teacher who notes that the number of students enrolling in graduate programs in Hindi there has halved since the 90s. The decline of Hindi is bemoaned in other settings as well; an anecdote the writer provides as a case in point is this: “Soha Ali Khan [a young up-and-coming film actress in the Bollywood (Hindi) film industry, based in Mumbai, when asked] whether she speaks Hindi at all when she is not mouthing dialogues on the sets, [offers]: ‘Yes, I talk to my driver, dhobi [washerman] and liftman [elevator operator] regularly.’”

Not everyone believes the language is dying, however, as Wajihuddin notes; a Hindi “optimist,” Prasoon Joshi, thinks all is not lost, that there is hope to salvage the language, saying: “Yes, Sanskritised Hindi of Doordarshan [the government-run national television channel] is dying and it should die.” His point is clearly directed at the increasing popularity in the last decades of “Hinglish,” and the increase in less formal structures in Hindi popularspeak. The language, if it is able to adapt to an increasingly Anglicized world, and rid itself of the rigors of Sanskritic formality, will not only survive but flourish. The overall tone of the article, however, indicates that Hindi is endangered.

There are too many comments I am tempted to make here, but for the sake of brevity, I am going to address only a few. Let me start with a Forbes article published two days ago, entitled the Bleak Future of English, asserting that the increased thrust in education across India will result in greater Hindi usage, and diminish the number of English speakers there. The article goes on to note that since English is the second language of many speakers across the globe, the first languages are not endangered, a point that Wajihuddin totally misses. One count puts the number of first language speakers of Hindi at a reasonably respectable 180 million people, a fact Wajihuddin neglects to mention as well. He is not alone in his beliefs that Hindi is endangered; politicians and scholars are commonly quoted in the news media lamenting the rapid decline in Hindi usage. However, the alarm bells are rung regarding its usage in towns and cities, where people have become increasingly bilingual in Hindi and English, not monolingual in English. Hindi continues to thrive in the heavily populated rural areas of the “Hindi belt” and beyond. My own observations lead me to believe that there is a popular decline in “Sanskritised” Hindi use, but that doesn’t automatically mean that English (that dreaded colonial inheritance!) is being increasingly incorporated into the language; popular Hindi has adopted a lot of Urdu vocabulary as well. The adaptability and elasticity of the language, as Joshi notes, will help it survive. I think scaremongers are generally more troubled about the survival of “pure” Hindi than about the survival of Hindi. There is plenty to comment about the question of “purity,” but I will have to reserve detailed comments for another posting: as a Native Speaker and former teacher of Hindi (I taught it over five semesters at Cal), I have many mixed feelings on the issue. Briefly, I believe linguistic purism is principally rooted in nostalgia, and while I totally understand that sentiment, I also feel that it sometimes leads to blinkered perspectives (e.g. failing to recognize recognizing popular varieties as legitimate), that is, resistive linguistic snobbery.

I have no doubt Hindi will survive. It may not remain the literary Hindi of yore, but it’ll be a Hindi of the people. Let’s not ring the death knell for Hindi yet.

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3 Responses to ““Does Hindi have a future?””

  1. daveski on: 24 February 2008 at 10:53 pm

    There seems to be no shortage of self-styled language purists in the world who bemoan language change as a kind of language death. But is what they’re really arguing for the museum-ification of those languages, an imperviousness to change, a stasis that is de facto death?

  2. Jesse Dorland on: 26 February 2009 at 9:05 am

    Although your article is old but, but it’s rings true even to this day.

    I have lived in India, and I remembered my teacher was obessed with “Sanskritised Hindi”, once, he shouted at me because I said “mere pass dictionary hai!” He reminded me that proper word is “shabdkosh” not dictionary.

    Anyway, I think Indian government should spend more money of helping people then trying force people to used dead language.

  3. Nancy Kaufmann on: 9 September 2011 at 7:36 pm

    I’m currently taking private Hindi lessons in Chicago. My teacher keeps injecting English words such as dictionary, sorry, post office, please. When I object and ask for the Hindi word, she giggles and tells me I can do quite well without it. This is disturbing.

    I’m preparing for my fourth visit to India/Pakistan. What’s obvious to me is that for those people using all these English words so freely, I’ll have no need for the Hindi. I know that whatever Hindi I manage to learn will get used with those who haven’t been privileged enough to learn English.

    Language purity doesn’t appeal to me (Look at what fools the French have made of themselves) but I worry about what’s happening to a society that it constantly reaching outside itself.

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