Hindi: India’s New English


Narendra Modi just returned from his first foreign trip as India’s prime minister. The two-day Bhutan visit focused on mutual trade and development, but one of the biggest stories in India was Modi’s use of language: Modi addressed the Bhutanese parliament in Hindi.

In doing so, Modi reminded us that Hindi is one of the world’s most widely spoken languages, understood by millions outside India as a second language, if not a first. He also distinguished himself from all of India’s leaders since independence, who have almost always used English on the international stage. 

Leaders of every South Asian nation attended Modi’s inauguration last month. Modi spoke in Hindi to the leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and the Tibetan government-in-exile. They all understood him. Just by chatting, Modi demonstrated Hindi’s multinational status.

This has Indians talking about Hindi: some with excitement, others with anxiety. As Modi was concluding his Bhutan trip, reports circulated that the Home Minister’s Office had instructed government offices to favour Hindi in social media communication. This prompted charges of Hindi chauvinism from India’s non-Hindi regions, and jokes about Hindi tweeters buying dictionaries to decode the government’s formal Hindi.

India’s national laws have been written in both Hindi and English for six decades. Official government communication between the central government and non-Hindi states is generally conducted in English, which is spoken by around 15% of India’s population. Critics fear government preference for Hindi in social media would run counter to that convention, and thereby weaken the status of non-Hindi Indian languages.

Hindi sparks controversy in South India, especially in Tamil Nadu, which has a history of anti-Hindi protest. Tamil is spoken by 60 million people within India and millions more outside India.

A 2006 state court order in Tamil Nadu enforced Tamil-only instruction through to year ten in state government schools. A local group just filed a challenge to this order. Citing Hindi’s use in much of India and the world, they demand Hindi instruction be allowed. Pro-Hindi sentiment in Tamil Nadu is not widespread, but the anti-Hindi riots of the 20th century seem increasingly distant.

Learning Hindi in Tamil Nadu.
Flickr/1ieve, CC BY

Much has been made of Modi’s rise from tea seller to prime minister. His embrace of Hindi fits his humble-origin narrative and provides a contrast with his political opponents and with six decades of English-fluent predecessors. To her credit, current Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi learned Hindi as an adult after her Italian upbringing, but she has nevertheless been mocked for reading Hindi speeches off notes in Roman script.

Sonia’s son Rahul Gandhi, Modi’s opponent in the recent election, is awkward speaking publicly in any language. He could never be a Hindi champion. And despite occasional flashes of Urdu and Hindi wit, the softly spoken English addresses of former prime minister Manmohan Singh cemented his characterisation as a silent and ineffective leader.

Narendra Modi’s enthusiastic embrace of Hindi has sparked a debate about the language’s place in India.

Modi is hardly silent. From the inflammatory speeches of his 2002 Gujarat chief minister campaign to his record-breaking number of campaign rallies, Modi has demonstrated skill at captivating massive audiences.

Modi does this in Hindi: whether in the Hindi heartland of North India, or in the states of South India where languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada — all unrelated to Hindi — are spoken by the majority.

Hindi speakers often lament the lack of respect accorded their language, even by those who consider it their mother tongue. India’s youth want to learn English, because they have seen English as a path to prosperity and status.

Modi is fluent in his Gujarati mother tongue and in the related Hindi language. He also knows English. But with his weak English occasionally mocked, his decision to favour Hindi may have been necessary. Just as he transformed his tea-seller background into a strength, Modi has embraced Hindi as a point of pride.

During Modi’s first address to the Indian parliament, volumes of social media comments elaborated on this feeling of pride. Although many national leaders have spoken languages other than English, many Hindi speakers suggested they had never seen their language accorded such official respect.

Modi’s journey to the prime minister’s office has made many Indians rethink Hindi’s position in the world, and the connections between Hindi and success.

Questions remain. Will Modi’s conversations with India’s neighbours encourage Hindi as India’s language of diplomacy? Will Modi address the United States Congress in Hindi, if calls for him to address a joint session are successful? And finally, will individuals from the south and northeast states be increasingly mocked for bad Hindi, rather than bad English? That is, has Hindi become India’s new English?

The Conversation

Ian Woolford does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


3 responses to “Hindi: India’s New English

  • Vijay Dandapani

    Modi’s deliberate use of Hindi which as you note is not his mother tongue is an unfortunately retrograde step. There are economic and social reasons for that being the case but firstly your assertion that Hindi is “widely” spoken is widely off the mark. While the number of Hindi speakers is doubtless large and perhaps is spoken by more Indians than any other it is far from “widely” spoken. Other than UP, Bihar and perhaps Madhya Pradesh and Delhi the lingua franca is not Hindi. That the Hindi heartland in these areas (Delhi excepted) has some of the lowest metrics for socio-economic factors and literacy is not accidental; more illiterates are Hindi speakers than Indians who speak other languages.

    India’s recent economic growth in the services sector is no thanks to Hindi and indeed despite it. Socially, Hindi is anything but the glue that fanatics like Rajnath Singh (Home Minister) claim it to be. It is even less in terms of literature and history as any cursory reading of Tamil will confirm.

    Ironically, Modi’s economic determinism requires a pragmatic approach. By adopting a Hindi first if not only stance he invites the kind of scorn the BJP’s prior version, the Janata party was showered with when they embarked on a similar xenophobic political structure when Indians from the South and North-East felt estranged.

    • Ian Woolford

      Hi Vijay, we’ve moved on a bit since this story was current. It doesn’t seem that Modi’s government is taking a “Hindi only” stance. As for “Hindi first”…. we’ll see…

      As for “widely”—the numbers speak for themselves.

      But, goodness, yesterday the Hindustan Times actually argued that Modi’s use of Hindi with Chinese President Xi Jinping could be perceived as a sign of weakness by the Chinese: http://www.hindustantimes.com/comment/chanakya/china-doesn-t-take-india-seriously-yet/article1-1266580.aspx

      I haven’t taken the time to monitor the reactions to this insane statement, but from what you are saying, it sounds like some in India might agree.

      You mention Tamil literature. Tamil is a hugely important language—a global language—with a big future, and an amazing past. That past includes some of the most spectacular literature ever written. Absolutely spectacular. It stands on it’s own merit. And, so does Hindi literature! You needn’t put one down to appreciate the other. I hope to find the time to study Tamil some day. Right now I can only read Tamil literature in Hindi or English translation, and I know I am missing a lot.

  • Vijay Dandapani

    Thank you for taking the time to reply. Yes, the story as reported is no longer current but unfortunately it is not clear that Modi and his team do not intend to impose Hindi on the rest of India. His interview on CNN America, an English language channel with few if any viewers who speak Hindi showed him responding, spontaneously, to the interviewer’s questions in English, in Hindi!

    I do doubt that his next visit to Tamil Nadu will result in his adopting English to address audiences there. As you know, the visceral nature of the debate on this issue there is not recent which is why C.N.Annadurai, a noted Tamil leader, urged the continuance of English by noting that it “distributes advantages or disadvantages evenly” among Hindi and non-Hindi speakers.

    As for the Hindustan Times article, I think the columnist’s point is that the Chinese only recognize economic might and even if Modi had spoken in English it would not have resulted in any materially different outcomes. That said, it is unclear what Modi achieved by speaking to Xi Jinping in Hindi as nothing of import was said extemporaneously.

    best wishes,

    Vijay Dandapani

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