My Language, Your Language

My father had a deep relationship with language. He could speak multiple dialects of Haryanvi and Punjabi, in addition to Urdu and English. He could talk to a rustic in the rustic’s dialect of Punjabi or Haryanvi, and with equal ease recite a couplet of Faiz in impeccable Urdu at a poetry meet. In his youth he was a news reader for the All India Radio, which might account for his refined Hindi, but it was in his childhood in Lahore that he studied Urdu, and also picked up the multiple flavors of Punjabi spoken in Lahore: Manji, Pothohari, and Lahnda. He must have picked up Haryanvi when he arrived in India as a “displaced person” (not a “refugee”, a term he abhorred) from Lahore after India’s partition in 1947; and he would have learnt English when he studied for his MA in English in Delhi.

With his knack of languages, he was a son on the soil; he could bond with local people, snap, just like that. He could walk into a bureaucratic Indian office, easily bypassing the official protocols, and talk to the babu in charge, in the babu’s own dialect of Hindi, Punjabi or Haryanvi: the babu’s impassive, indifferent and haughty face would break out into a smile. Tea would be ordered, my father would be offered a seat, his files would be attended to, while a lively conversation, laced with jokes and witticisms, in the babu’s local tongue, would ensue.

My father was a very handsome man, tall and well built. He was often mistaken for the actor Guru Dutt. In his later years, he reverted to wearing the Pathani Salwar Kameez he used to wear as a youth in Lahore. This started a minor fashion trend in the small town we lived in. What was previously seen as a Muslim dress, now became acceptable in our town, and it even became fashionable with the town’s youth who saw it as a masculine dress. My father engaged a small time local tailor to stitch his Salwar Kameez, for which he gave him detailed instructions: the ghera (pleats) of the Salwar must flow like this, the Kameez should be this long, the naala (chord) to hold the Salwar up should be this long . This was his dress till his death at the age of 78.

We imbibed culture from my father by osmosis. With his Lohari dress that he proudly wore in a Hindu town; with the Hindustani music that he played on his tape recorder: Begum Akthar, Bhimsen Joshi, Bada Gulam Ali Khan, Ravi Shankar, Ustad Bismilla Khan, Pandit Chaurasia; with his recitation of Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi poets: Faiz, Iqbal, Bacchan, Batalvi; he proudly lived the integration, the melting pot that is Hindustani culture. On his death bed, when he was in coma, I played his favorite Bhimsen Joshi’s Krishna bhajans, which he had listened to all his life, even though he was an atheist.

Growing up, the languages Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi all belonged to us. The thought that Hindi is for Hindus, Punjabi for Punjabis, or Urdu for Pakistanis was never in our mind. This was because of my father’s influence who was the living role model of the inclusiveness of the Hindustani culture, a culture where Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi are intricately blended, like the masalas, the ingredients of an exquisite cuisine.

In an interview, the poet Javad Akhtar talks about people who want purity of language. “It’s like peeling an onion and finding that the real onion is the peels itself”. Language is not script. For example Punjabi is written in three scripts, Urdu, Devanagari and Gurmukhi, but it remains Punjabi. Language is not vocabulary. If I say “Yeh hall air-conditioned hai,” I am not speaking English even though the two words that convey information (hall, air-conditioned) are English words, nested between two trifling Hindi words. Language belongs to a region and cannot belong to a religion. The language of Punjab is Punjabi, the language of Bengal is Bengali, the language of Sindh is Sindhi; Germans speak German and French speak French. So it is illogical to say that Hindi is for Hindus and Urdu is for Muslims.

Language is syntax, it is grammar. Till we have the syntax right, till the time we do not say,”Ham ja raha hoon,” all is well. Hence we should not be scared of bringing new words from foreign languages.

Consider this simple dialogue in Hindi:

एक माकन के एक कमरे में एक गोरा चिट्टा आदमी और एक नन्हा मुन्ना बच्चा नाश्ता करने के लिया बैठा | बावर्ची नाश्ता लाया | नाश्ता में उरद की दाल लाया | नाश्ता करने से पहला नाहा लिया – एक बाल्टी पानी से | नाश्ता करने के बाद वह उठा, चिक हाटई, उस में से एक पिस्तोल निकाली, दीवार पे टंगी बन्दूक ली, और चला गया | बच्चा बेबस देखता रहा |

The words used in this simple dialogue are derived from the following languages:

Makan: Arabic

Kamra: Italian (Le Camera = room)

Balti: Portuguese (balde = bucket)

Nanha: Gujrati

Munna: Persian

Urad: Tamil

Chic: Turkish

Sandook: Turkish

Pistol: English

Devar: Persian

Bandook: Turkish

Ba-baas: Sanskrit

Try removing “foreign influences” from our languages and what you will have is George Orwell’s , “Newspeak”, a language characterized by a continually diminishing vocabulary: complete thoughts reduced to simple terms of simplistic meaning.

In his book Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and her Greatest Poets, Saif Mahmood traces the evolution of our Hindavi language which, according to him, can be traced back to Mahavira and the Buddha who, in the 6th BCE challenged the hegemony of Sanskrit and started preaching in the natural language of the people: Prakrit. The purists who continued to maintain that only Sanskrit was the “language of the Gods” derisively referred to these emerging languages as apabhramsas, the fallen language, and one such language was Shurseni.

A rough timeline of the emergence of Hindavi, and its subsequent division into Hindi & Urdu is as follows:

6 BCE : Prakrit evolves.

Mahavira and the Buddha teach in Prakrit.

1 BCE: Shurseni evolves.

Shurseni, a “fallen language”, an apabhramsas evolves.

1179 CE to 1266 CE : The Sufis preach

Baba Sheikh Fareed lived in Multan. He was the founder of Chisti Sufi order (the most famous follower of this order was Amir Khusro, who shaped Hindavi). The influence of the Sufis on our spiritual and cultural life continues to resonate well over 800 years after the first of them set foot in Hindustan. The Sufis established a number of monasteries (khanqah) and the language Saraiki (the language of the sarai, the inn) evolved due to their influence.

12 CE to 14 CE: Evolution of various strains of language,

In this period, the speakers of the Indo-Iranian languages principally, Turkish, Persian and Pashto moved into North India and into Delhi, seeking the famed wealth of Hindustan. “Among the new arrivals were traders, men of faith and adventurers. The new arrivals brought with them new lifestyles and knowledge systems, all of which began to be gradually absorbed, adapted and appropriated by the older inhabitants of the subcontinent. This interaction between two civilizational streams, the Central Asian and the South Asian, led to hybridization of all markers of cultural identity and eventually to the emergence of new music, architecture, cuisines, attires, etiquettes of social discourse and—most important, in the context of this essay—new languages.” (1)

A number of languages and tongues evolved in this period. These include:

  1. Hindavi: During this period, the evolving, hybrid language spoken here, often referred to as Hindavi or Hindi, moved to Gujarat, Deogiri, Deccan, Gulbarga, Golconda, Bijapur, Aurangabad and returned, richer and more vibrant, to Delhi again.
  2. Lashkari: the language of the Lashkar, the army camp also evolved at this time. Its grammar and syntax relied on local usage but its vocabulary drew many words and phrases from Turki, Farsi, Dari and Pashto. Sandooq, bandooq, tafang, zarrah baktar, band-o-bast, kamaan, kamaandaar, sipahi, pyada, gasht (trunk, gun, muzzle-loaded rifle, armour, arrangement, bow, commander, sepoy, foot soldier, beat) and hundreds of other words travelled and became a part of the vocabulary of common people as soldiers dispersed after battles and returned to their villages.
  3. Saraiki : Sarai ki Zabaan—the language of the sarai—or Saraiki evolved in this period. Sufi influence was predominant. The doors of the Sufi khanqah (hospice or monastery) were open to all creeds, classes and castes. “The khanqahs became centres of dialogue, debate and exchange of ideas and of music and poetry. This culture of inclusion and openness produced some of the finest literature and music of the medieval period. The Sufis, who mostly spoke Turki, Persian, Dari or Pashto, wished to communicate with the growing number of new adherents in their own languages. As they travelled far and wide and settled across the length and breadth of the subcontinent, they acquired new languages. Those who settled in Punjab and Multan and neighbouring areas chose Saraiki, Sindhi, Multani and Punjabi as the languages of their discourse, just as those who travelled to the east chose Awadhi.” (1)

1253 CE - 1325 CE : Amir Khusro lived in Delhi

Amir Khusro belonged to the Chisti Sufi set, was the disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya, who was the successor of Baba Sheik Farid. He was instrumental in giving shape to Hindavi, the language that split into Hindi and Urdu.

“Khusrau is the first—and best—known poet of Hindavi, the language that was to later evolve and, unfortunately, get divided into Hindi and Urdu. These two languages, the music and poetry of India—especially of North India—and much of what went into making us an inclusive society, owes a lot to Khusrau.” (1)

16018 CE - 1707: Aurangzeb rules.

1700 CE: Dakhani or Rekhta (Urdu) evolves

Hindavi had spread from Delhi to present-day Gujarat to different parts of the Deccan, absorbing words, phrases and expressions from Gujarati, Marathi, Telugu and Kannada and enriching these languages, too, with words, expressions and phrases from Hindavi, Gojri, Persian, Dari and Turkish. This exchange and intermingling gradually led to the rise of a dialect called Dakhani—a flexible, adaptive language of daily life in large parts of the Deccan. The Sufis are believed to be the first group of people to write in this language

In 1700 CE, Dakhani arrived in Delhi from Deccan as an almost fully developed language with the poetry of Wali Dakhni. Dakhani, the language in which Wali wrote, was derisively called ‘Rekhta’ or mixed language. It was considered a language of the marketplace and therefore lacking refinement and unfit for civilized discourse. All the master poets of Delhi were soon trying their hand at writing in a language that had started life in their own city and virtually been a gypsy for 350 years, before returning to the land of its birth. The story of Urdu as we know it today begins here.


  1. Mahmood, Saif. “Beloved Delhi: A Mughal City and her Greatest Poets.”
  2. Interview With Javed Akhtar