Debate: Plurality of Hindi’s Linguistic Trajectory Belies Claims of Colonial Creation

Devdan Chaudhuri’s response, “It’s Not Exaggeration to Say the British Codified the Language We Know as ‘Hindi’ Now rightly pointed out an oversight in my piece “Was Hindi Really Created by India’s British Colonial Rulers?”, published in The Wire in September 2020. Here, I engage with the ideas in Chaudhuri’s essay, which are held by a wide range of both Hindi speaking and non-Hindi speaking intellectuals.

In my original piece, I referred to the resentment against the politicised role of Hindi in 20th century nationalism, citing Chaudhuri’s 2019 article “Hindi was Devised by a Scottish Linguist of the East India Company – It Can Never be India’s National Language”. However, as Chaudhuri wrote, his article had been prompted by a recent event and it did not directly refer to the 20th century nationalist discourse on Hindi. However, both sides of the debate in that article reprise old 20th century positions.

The language question for the 21st century is not whether Hindi will impose itself on India as national language but, rather, how will Indian regional languages, including Hindi and Bengali, resist the enormous pressure they face from English. While there was a chance in the 20th century to introduce Hindi as national language, in the 21st century, any gestures towards such an action can – at most – be considered symbolic.

Today’s elite does not deem regional languages good enough even for kindergarten education. Debates about regional languages might appear to have intensified these days, but, given the choice, bhasha-premis are more likely to send their children to English-medium schools. Furthermore, regional languages are losing their intellectual vitality, and in the 21st century, one can rightly talk in terms of “death of vernaculars”, as the title of Vasudha Dalmia’s article warned already in 2006.

Let me start with the idea of Hindi as a British invention mentioned in Chaudhuri’s rejoinder. I would like to address three aspects to this claim, writing the language in the Devanagari script, the standardisation of its grammar and the purging of its vocabulary. The agents for these actions are usually held to be the teachers at Calcutta’s Fort William College in particular, and the introduction of print culture, which was a corollary of colonialism for all Indian languages in general. Let me examine the side that seems unique to Hindi, the role of Fort William College, Calcutta.

As I demonstrated in my earlier article, by the time the college was established, writing Khaṛī Bolī in the Devanagari script had already been a tradition for almost 200 years. I have cited some examples in the article and let me add one more to them. Below is the kabitt quatrain by Bājīd (fl.1600) that includes the confused speech of gopis to Krishna’s messenger Uddhava. This quatrain is one of more than a dozen in several Devanagari manuscripts, the earliest of them copied in 1654 (word-separation, line breaks and commas are mine):

गोपी गाय ग्वालनि तौ बेहाल हैं बिहारी बिन,
होता न मालूंम मकसूद क्या तुम्हारा है।
इनायात रहै, मकाम कीने है कमल-नैन,
मैनमथि मारै, माधौ, चारा क्या हमारा है।
जौ तौ तकसीर कछु भई है हमारी, हरि,
कीजिये जू माफ, तुम जीते, हम हार्या है।
तुम तौ सखा हौ, साखी सांची किनि कहौ, बलि,
ऊधौ, ब्रजनाथ ब्रज काहे तैं बिसारा है।

gopī gāī gvālani tau behāla haiṁ bihārī bina,
hotā na māluṁma makasūda kyā tumhārā hai |
ināyata rahai, makāma kīne hai kamala-naina
mainamathi mārai, mādhau, ćārā kyā hamārā hai |
jau tau takasīra kaćhu bhaī hai hamārī, hari,
kījīye jū māpha, tuma jīte hama hāryā hai |
tuma tau sakhā hau, sākhī sāṁćī kini kahau, bali,
ūdhau, brajanātha braja kāhe taiṁ bisārā hai || 7||

Without Krishna the gopis, the cows and the cowherds are despondent. It is not known what you are up to.
The lotus-eyed one favoured us by taking up residence in us — We have been smitten by the Soul-Churning Love for Krishna, what is our way out?
If we ever offended O God please forgive us, you have won, we are defeated.
You are his friend — who else can I call a true witness? — Uddhava, why has the Lord of Braj abandoned us?

Although there is an abundance in north Indian archives of such Nagari Rekhta poetry, written in an unstandardised form of Khaṛī Bolī in Persianised style, hardly any of this literature has been published or discussed in Hindi or Urdu literary histories. Over the past two centuries, they have become “homeless texts”.

Let us now consider the standardisation of the grammar. What later came to be called Khaṛī Bolī showed more features of Braj in the 17th to mid-19th centuries in northern India than it does today. These features were gradually eliminated. Mir Taqi Mir’s (1723-1810) poetry is a good example of the level of standardisation that the literary language had achieved by the middle of the 18th century. Yet occasionally even he relied on Braj forms (e.g. ćāhte hai so āp kare hai, چاہتے ہیں سو آپ کرے ہیں).

Also read: Love of Urdu in Times of Shrinking Diversity

Surprisingly, the only Fort William publication in Devanagari Khaṛī Bolī, Prem Sāgar, written in 1803/4 by Lallu Lal, a munshi at the college, and first published in 1810, appears to be less standardised than Mir’s work. The first ten lines of the 1882 edition of the first story in Prem Sāgar use forms such as हुये huye (for हुए hue), तिनके tinke (for उनके unke), बुलाय bulāy (for बुलाकर bulā[kar]), तैने taine (for तूने tū-ne), तिस्से tisse ([sic] for उससे us-se or उसे use), so सोंहीं (for सामने sāmne), and सतावेगा satāvegā (for सताएगा satāegā). These variations include Braj and regional forms as well as orthographic variants. (It should be mentioned that the various editions of Prem Sāgar differ in their spellings.)

The work of Sadal Mishra, the college’s other Hindi munshi, was even further removed from the modern standard, as it occasionally used not only Brajbhasha, but also eastern Hindi and Bengali forms. Standardisation of Khaṛī Bolī apparently had little association with Fort William College.

Might it still be possible that John Gilchrist, the first principal of Fort William College, standardised the language through A Grammar of the Hindoostanee Language published in 1796? First, Gilchrist’s work was only one in a series of Hindustani grammars written in various European languages starting around 1700 that were aimed at foreign learners and not Indians (for a history of early grammars, see T.K. Bhatia’s History of the Hindi Grammatical Traditions). Secondly, Gilchrist’s grammar does not present standardised Hindi: most examples are given in the Urdu script, supplemented by another few in Kaithi (and not Devanagari). The examples in the Kaithi script are also not in modern standard Hindi (see the page reproduced below). For example, of the four words given in the Kaithi script on page 23, dīragh, gura, laghu, haraśh/haras, only laghu tallies with the modern standard Hindi form (dīrgha, guru, laghu, hrasva in modern Hindi).

Thirdly, and more interestingly, Gilchrist gives examples in both Urdu and Brajbhasha within the grammar. Although he was aware of these language varieties, he did not consider the two to be distinct languages. Also, after the founding of Fort William College, several of its Hindustani publications were published in both scripts with minimal changes, suggesting that the publications were not “exclusive” to one language (see Francesca Orsini’s Between Qasbas and Cities: Language Shifts and Literary Continuities in North India in the Long Eighteenth Century, 2019).

Notwithstanding all the arguments presented so far, Prem Sāgar, the first printed book in modern Hindi and the first prose fiction in Devanagari Hindi, was certainly prepared in and published under the auspices of Fort William College. Similarly, Sadal Mishra created Sanskritised Khaṛī Bolī versions of the Nāsiketopākhyāna (1803) and the Adhyātma Rāmāyaa (1805) in the Devanagari script. To what extent was the college promoting these experiments? While the two munshis were apparently instructed by Gilchrist to produce their work in de-Persianised Hindi, the college as an institution was reluctant in its support. Lallu Lal’s work was interrupted by Gilchrist’s departure in January 1804 and was first published only in 1810 as mentioned above. Neither of Sadal Mishra’s Khaṛī Bolī works were used or published by the college, although his Ramayana was printed in 1860, when the linguistic situation was more favourable to Khaṛī Bolī.

A similar experiment with purified Khaṛī Bolī was also carried out by the Urdu poet Insha Allah Khan, ‘Insha’, who after living in Delhi and Murshidabad, settled down in Lucknow. Insha wrote Rānī Ketkī kī kahānī in the Urdu script in heh, that is, ‘pure’ Hindi. Academic consensus dates it to 1803, which then makes the primacy of the Fort William munshis  questionable. In Hindi Literature of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, R.S. McGregor gives three reasons for Insha’s invention. First, he mentions that the polyglot Insha, author of the first Urdu grammar in Persian, realised “the artificiality of literary Urdu in the Indian context and may have composed Rānī Ketkī kī kahānī with this artificiality in mind” (p.65), in other words he experimented with a de-Persianised register on the pattern of de-Sanskritised Urdu. Secondly, following other scholars, McGregor speculates that Insha might have been acquainted with the example of Fort William College. Thirdly, and most importantly, McGregor sees in these works “a broader similarity, in that all are products of the same linguistic circumstances, which have operated variously to impel persons of different backgrounds and interests in the direction of a new and similar use of language.”

Insha Allah Khan ‘Insha’ (c1756-1817). Source:

Kerrin Dittmer’s detailed study of the role of Fort William College has largely gone unnoticed. However, Alison Safadi’s more recent research, on which I rely in the following discussion, is informed by Dittmer’s monograph.

Gilchrist has also been blamed for the establishment of two separate departments for Hindi and Hindustani and, thus, institutionalising the divide. Safadi, however, reminds us that there was no separate Hindi department at Fort William College. From 1802 onwards, the college employed both ‘Bhasha’ and ‘Hindustani’ munshis, and all forms of Hindi and Urdu came under the Hindustani department; Gilchrist likely believed in plurality than in duality of forms.

Would the creation of distinct munshi positions have led to the separation of Hindi from Urdu? Safadi examined the list of college publications and statements on what the college taught. She demonstrated that, apart from Prem Sāgar, which was apparently printed on Lallu Lal’s insistence six years after Gilchrist’s departure, all the published Hindi books were either in Brajbhasha or in Avadhi. Similarly, extant statements about the Hindi taught in the college show that it was ‘Bruj bhakha’ and not de-Persianised Hindi.

The ‘separation’ introduced by the parallel munshi appointments was not between what are now Hindi and Urdu; instead it was based on the pragmatic exigencies of teaching, between the two extremes of the existing literary idioms, Brajbhasha and Urdu. The college might have experimented with Sanskritised Hindi not to create a new idiom, but rather to unite Sankritised Brajbhasha and Khaṛī Bolī Urdu.

Also read: Hindi-Hindu Nationalism and Secular Retreat in the Heartland

Following Dittmer, it is possible to view the purified Hindi works of Insha, Lallu Lal and Sadal Mishra as emerging “curiosities in the literary history of Hindi-Urdu” (p. 61). Safadi, in her conclusion suggests that the division was more the result of the hardening of Hindu-Muslim and of linguistic identities after 1857.

Safadi accepts Gilchrist as the person behind the production of Prem Sāgar, but she reminds us that his agency in producing the de-Persianised register is not beyond doubt. I would not, however, deny the early colonial participation in the formation of the new literary style. In Lallu Lal’s words, Gilchrist appears to have asked him (and apparently also Sadal Mishra) to reproduce Indian classics in non-Persianised Khaṛī Bolī prose as one of the possible styles to write Hindustani. Still, this was a peripheral activity for Gilchrist as well as for the college and he had not thought of creating a new language.

In my previous article I have shown that Khaṛī Bolī had been used for poetry as well as for practical documents, such as the Mahzar-nāma of the inhabitants of Benares, already before the establishment of Fort William College and the use of the language was attested by both travellers and grammarians. As I have mentioned earlier, Hindi was standardised and conceptualised gradually. The separation of Hindi and Urdu from Hindustani and the creation of modern Hindi did not happen in Fort William College, although they definitely had significant roots there.

In The Hindi Public Sphere 1920-1940: Language and Literature in the Age of Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 5-6), Orsini, examining the trajectory of Hindi in the 19th and early 20th centuries, explains the later stages of standardisation through the work of the two towering figures of this process, Bharatendu Harishchandra (1850-1885) and Mahavir Prasad Dvivedi (1864-1938),

“Nineteenth-century writers like Hariśchandra and his circle, while embracing the aim of unity and reform, had actually drawn on all the resources of the language and the various literary traditions in their own creative writing – they used the colloquial spoken language and concrete metaphors in a way that retained the particularity of language use, so that the caste, region, and profession of every character showed in their language … A generation. later Mahāvīr Prasād Dvivedī did exactly the opposite, and exhorted other writers to do so too. By purging print-language of colloquialisms, regional usages and ‘Urdu’ words, by privileging abstract over concrete words and making Sanskrit loanwords the rule, and by fixing syntax along regular subject-object-verb lines, Dvivedī ‘standardized’ Hindi into a sober written language.”

Mahavir Prasad Dvivedi (1864-1938). Source:

Orsini’s more recent study of multilingual north India, ‘Between Qasbas and Cities’, calls for a reassessment of the role of Fort William College,

“Rather than a story of momentous literary and linguistic break with the past in the context of Calcutta’s ‘colonial modern,’ then, Fort William College becomes a story of remarkable literary continuity with the literary culture of eighteenth-century North India.”

Furthermore, Orsini observes a new turn in historiography that can also be applied to language development,

“while historiography has come to a more gradual view of the colonial takeover and emphasises the dynamic role played by groups and individuals who took advantage of the political vacuum in competition and collaboration with the increasingly powerful East India Company (EIC), literary historiography still starkly narrates the turn from pre-colonial to colonial culture as a complete epistemic shift.”

There are, however, more interesting questions at play than the role of the British in the development of Hindi and other north Indian languages. I will touch briefly on two of them: the lack of clarity in terminology when talking about what a language is, and the parallel trajectories of north Indian languages.

What is a language? In popular usage, language often refers to a singular speech form. However, in a linguistic sense, language is an umbrella term for a plethora of speech forms, styles, registers, dialects, sociolects and so on. Many of these forms would in popular use be considered as languages in themselves. Thus, we can speak of Premchand’s language when referring to his style, or of Haryanvi language when referring to a dialect (or a group of dialects).

Those who reject the pre-colonial tradition of Hindi appear to use double standards for Hindi and other languages. Languages change over the times, Ćalit bhāā, that is, modern Bangla, is different from Sādhu bhāā, the language of Bankimchandra, which is different from the classical Bengali of the great Mangalkabyas and of Krishnadas Kabiraj, which in turn is different from the archaic Śrīkṛṣṇakīrtana of Badu Chandidas and from the Persianised Dobhāī or Musalmani Bangla.

Linguistic distance, although not measured in India diachronically, and rather referred to anecdotally, cannot be an argument to cut off earlier language forms. The language of works such as the Hindustani Sanandh is not further removed from modern usage than the language of the Manasāmagal, the Eknāthī Bhāgavat or the Amuktamālyada in Bengali, Marathi and Telugu, respectively. On digging deeper, we may find that the linguistic distance between the earliest layers of Namdev’s bhajans or Badu Chandidas’s Śrīkṛṣṇakīrtan is no less than the linguistic distance between Avadhi/Brajbhasha and Modern Hindi. Moreover, poetic language in India can at times be so literarised that it is incomprehensible without special studies. The highly Sanskritised poetry of some of the most outstanding early Telugu poets, such as Nannayya, Shrinathudu or Peddana, lucidly illustrates this.

Codification, too, cannot be an argument for separation. Otherwise, only Urdu would be able to pride itself as having a pre-colonial past among the north Indian vernaculars as it was theoretically codified in the 18th century. Similarly, the argument that printing had a role in ‘creating a language’ would backfire for almost all Indian languages, since early printing in them was done by missionaries or colonial intellectuals. The same is true about the creation of early grammars – at least in north India.

Also read: Pushing Hindi as Politics, Not Hindi as Language

Instead of singling out Hindi as a language with an anomalous history, or rather with a lack of history, it may be more useful to consider the parallel trajectories of Indian, especially, north Indian languages. I draw attention to a little-discussed phenomenon, namely that all north Indian languages developed a Persianised register between the 16th and 19th centuries. Yet colonial and nationalist attitudes towards these language varieties differed widely.

The earliest Rekhta compositions in Hindustani appear in the 16th century, Marathi became highly Persianised during Shivaji’s reign, and even Assam developed its Persianate register in compositions like the zikrs of the 17th century poet Ajan Fakir. Bengali had Dobhāṣī or Musalmani Bangla committed to writing in various scripts. Gujarati also began to include the Persianised Parsi Gujarati and Musalmani Gujarati in the 19th century, and the Arabicised Lisan al-da‘wa is still used among Gujarati Bohras. Panjabi has developed Sanskritised and Persianised versions with accompanying splits in the scripts.

Ajan Fakir’s dargah in Horaguri (Saraguri) Chapori, Shivasagar, Assam. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although a parallel development under modern nationalism is clearly observable among Indian languages, that is, languages distancing themselves from the Persianate registers, attitudes to these ‘Musalmani’ versions have varied over the centuries and have included accommodation, marginalisation, suppression and language split.

A parallel phenomenon in language development was the role of colonialism. I have already referred to the introduction of print culture. Another aspect to examine in a comparative light is the colonial attitude towards Persianisation. In her study of the trajectory of Islamic Bangla literature, Ayesha Irani, relying on Dinesh Chandra Sen’s History of Bengali Language and Literature (2007, first published in 1909; vol. 2, p. 915) writes,

“The initial efforts of the Bhaṭṭācāryas, Sanskrit ola pundits, in the College’s employ, resulted in the creation of a language which relied on an entirely Sanskritic tatsama vocabulary, simultaneously purging both the ‘vulgar’ idioms of colloquial tatsama speech (calita bhāā) and Perso-Arabic words”.

Irani points out that the mastermind behind this reform was N.B. Halhed (1751-1830), who in A Grammar of the Bengal Language claimed to present the language “merely as is derived from its parent the Sanscrit” and to have avoided Perso-Arabic wordsHalhed, 1778, pp. xxi-xxii[footnote]. Perhaps Gilchrist borrowed the idea of examining the possibility of non-Persianised Hindustani from Halhed. Thus, later nationalist efforts to purify a language by de-Persianisation may well be indebted to early colonial thinking. However, Halhed imagined a single form of Sanskritised Bengali while Gilchrist was open to accepting Indian linguistic plurality, and by acknowledging the variety within Hindustani, he committed less epistemic violence than Halhed did.

The title page of Halhed’s A Grammar of the Bengal Language (1778). Source:

The languages of India have developed along parallel trajectories in Persianisation, print culture and other colonial interventions. Within these trajectories, they also had their own fascinating differences. A comparative study of these parallels and differences still remains to be done.

Imre Bangha teaches north Indian languages and literatures at the University of Oxford and has extensively published on Old Hindi literature as well as on Rabindranath Tagore

Content retrieved from: