Hindustani From Madras

by Prof. A.S. Bokhari, M.A. (Cantab)
Deputy Controller of Broadcasting in India, 1939

"Such and such a Car," declares a well-known advertisement, "is more than a Car---- it is an Investment.” It is with some such feelings that progressive Indians approach the question of a common language for India. To them Hindustani is not merely a language or even a new language. It is a new idea and a new vision. It is, if you like, a kind of spiritual investment for which they are willing, if need be, to pinch and scrape. That is why their aspirations have been undaunted by the arguments – the very sound arguments – of the realist-sceptic school. These arguments are by now fairly well-known, for they have been repeated on innumerable occasions during the past fifty years. India, it has been said, uses far too many languages to possess one common language; the peoples of India profess far too many faiths and cultures to be on speaking terms with one another; the only language that can hope to become the lingua franca of India is English; English has already achieved that position and it will be foolish and wasteful to try to replace it by an Indian language, etc.

A Spiritual Need
All these arguments have some force, but only on the utilitarian plane. They fail to check the desire for a common language, because such a desire does not spring from “practical” considerations. There is no doubt that a common language, if and when it exists, is bound to be of great practical use to the tradesman and the teacher, the tourist and the journalist. Even the beggar in the street will, let us hope, find it of great value. But it will be a great mistake to imagine that this is what the supporters of the idea of a common language are primarily trying to attain. Primarily the need for a lingua francais a spiritual one, and but another aspect of the new national consciousness. The difficulties and the dangers of the task, however great and real they may be, are therefore merely looked upon as a challenge to enterprise and enthusiasm.

The “realists” have, however, rendered very valuable service. They have not indeed been able to discourage the idealists but they have certainly forced them to find practical means for the realization of their dreams. Faith may be able to move mountains, but it can hardly do so without some sort of a lever, however short the arm and however weak the fulcrum.

After half a century of bickering and debate, the first practical step has at last been taken and the realists would do well to subject it to scrutiny and analysis. Two little books have been published under the auspices of the Madras Government which seek to lay the foundation of a common language for India, Hindustani (in Devanagri script) and Hindustani ki Pehli Kitab (in Urdu script) represent the first concrete shape given to the dream of equipping 360 million people with a common language.

Except in certain minor respects, which I shall indicate later, the two texts are identical, the only difference being, that of scripts. They present the reader with an everyday vocabulary of about 350 words. It is true that our minimum daily needs cannot be satisfied by such a small vocabulary. But a First Language Book can hardly be expected to be exhaustive. It is possible that other authors would have chosen a different set of words. It is again possible that the elementary vocabulary offered here does not suit the daily needs of this or that particular individual. But a choice has to be made, an average has to be struck and a limit has to be placed on the fund of words that a First Book must supply. Judged from this point of view, the authors deserve to be congratulated on their sound judgment and judicious choice.

The vocabulary consists of about 70 common verbs (ana, jana, khana, pina, uthna, baithna, gana, bhaunkna are all there), of a dozen or so place-nouns (ghar, bazaar, gaon, shehr, etc.), of names of common articles of furniture (mez, kursi, chatai, etc.), of common articles of food (dudh, roti, pani, bhat, etc.); of about a dozen names of animals and birds (kutta, billi, gae, ghora, murgha, etc); of a score or so of common adjectives (thanda, garm, achha, bura, etc.,) and of the usual pronouns and prepositions. The real purpose of the book, however, is not to serve merely as a First Book, but as a Hindustani First Book. It is, therefore, not enough to say that it covers our daily needs. It is necessary to go further and examine the conception of Hindustani embodied in the vocabulary employed for this purpose.

Conception of Hindustani

You can, if you are a pessimist, persist in believing that the term Hindustani is only a camouflage adopted to gloss over the conflict between Hindi and Urdu. You can, on the other hand, if you have enough faith, take the term to be an invitation to those who speak Urdu and those who speak Hindi to consider whether the difference between the two languages has not been grossly exaggerated by the difference in scripts.

The authors have obviously accepted this invitation in the proper spirit. The choice of words is so happy, so patently free from political, communal or academic bias, and so widely acceptable, that like the man who suddenly realized one day that he had been speaking prose all his life without knowing it, many Hindu as well as Muslim readers of the books, and the educated no less that the uneducated will find that they have been speaking Hindustani all their lives without knowing it.

A Warning

Here one must sound a note of warning against those who conceive of Hindustani as a sort of compromise between Hindi and Urdu and in pious tones preach the principle of “give-and-take”, which in matters linguistic is only another name for real-politik. Such peace-makers will not be satisfied unless their own language is “adequately” represented (perhaps according to a fixed percentage) in every single Hindustani sentence. We should perhaps stipulate that the Indian national language shall contain 60 p.c. Hindi, 33 p.c. Persian and Arabic and 7 p.c. European words. Such a “linguistic award” will no doubt dispel many doubts and fears, but it will hardly produce a language which anybody will care to use. In deciding whether a word should or should not be included in the new Hindustani vocabulary the sole test should be “Is it more common and more easily intelligible than its alternatives?” If it passes this test, the fact of its being Persian or Arabic or Hindi or English is of no consequence whatsoever. It is therefore totally irrelevant to calculate the percentage of Hindi words or Persian words or English words that are to be found in these books. It is enough to know that each of the words chosen is the most common and the most easily intelligible of the alternatives available. Those, therefore, who look upon Hindi as a menace should not be alarmed by the fact that nearly all the verbs used are of Hindi origin, nor should Hindi lovers be offended at the inclusion of verbs like Kharidna............andband karna....................which have a Persian flavour. Nevertheless, it will come as a pleasant surprise to a large number of readers that about 90 percent of the words used are of native origin. Those who are used to Hindi only may perhaps jib a little at mazbut..............(strong), kamzore.............(weak),pak...........(pure) just as those who are used to Urdu only, will get a foreign taste in the mouth in such words as jag........(world), man........... (mind), ban............(forest),desh...........(country), etc. But they must remember that where the aim is to extend the coverage of a language to the whole of India, fastidious standards of purism and exclusiveness must receive minor shocks. So long as such words stand the only applicable test viz., that of maximum intelligibility, they have every right to be included in a Hindustani vocabulary. Mazbut............and desh...............are certainly preferable to balwan..................and mulk............(although I do wish it was des and not desh – it is so in the Urdu edition). Similarly platform, ticket, rail and school have done such good work that to disown them would be sheer priggishness.


Each book starts off with the alphabet and for the first few pages (10 in the Devanagri version, 16 in the Urdu) which are devoted to Orthography, follows its own course. This was only to be expected, as the two alphabets are widely different and combinations of letters designed as orthographic exercises cannot follow the same principles in one script as in the other. The vocabulary introduced in this section is therefore, not identical in the two books. The authors have made a virtue of necessity by building up their orthographic exercises round a collection of words which are common and useful. Their choice of vocabulary for purposes of orthographic practice is, therefore, on the whole, a happy one; for words like agar............(if), khat ...........(letter), paltan...........(regiment),sarak...............(road) are welcome whether they have been included from orthographic or from semantic considerations. In view, however, of the large number of simple and common words on which orthographic exercises can be based in either script, it is a little surprising to find that uncommon words obviously not intended to help in laying the foundation of a common language, such as zan ........ maraz ............. fikr................basar..............sanam............or rare and abstruse words like ma’mal............and fadak...........or meaningless combinations of letters like zamzam................should have been pressed into service. Pedagogically, the inclusion of such words can hardly be justified. Where the purpose is to find the greatest common measure of vocabulary between Hindi and Urdu they are even less excusable. (By the way isn’t............... in the Hindi edition a bad misprint for...............)

Brief foot-notes intended for the teacher are given in both the editions. These are not in the common language. For words like past, present, future, masculine, feminine and even pronunciation the Devanagri edition uses Sanskrit grammatical terms and the Urdu edition uses terms borrowed from Arabic and Persian – a painful reminder to the optimists, of the great difficulties that have to be surmounted in the future. We have taken the first step with ease and grace but as we travel further along the new road, gulfs will appear here and there which, somehow or other, will have to be bridged. These, however, are yet a long way off. There is much more in common between Urdu and Hindi than can be exhausted by a vocabulary of 350 words. There are thousands more of duly qualified candidates just waiting to be employed – waiting like all of us, for the Second Book of Hindustani to appear and the Third and the Fourth....................

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