Language Development and History, Part II

Continual churn and evolution of languages is a feature of all dynamic civilizations. Such has always been the case in India. As described earlier, the administrative and literary language of a particular age has to become standardized and resistant to change to serve these twin purposes. After some time it becomes archaic and loses touch with the common people among whom the spoken language continues to evolve with changes in pronunciations, lengthening or shortening of vowels, dropping of consonants, development of new words, etc.

Apabhramsa, which became a pan-Indian link language and replaced the regional Prakrits by 900 CE, lost that status by 1300 CE. On this occasion there was no spoken language ready to take its place because of the loss of status as a result of the Islamic invasions.

Beginning at the close of the 10th Century and reaching a peak in the 13th Century, the Turk conquest damaged the Hindu civilization by the bloodshed and enslavement of its people and the destruction of its cities and temples. In the 14th Century, a great effort made by these invaders to subjugate the whole of India ended in failure by the losses they suffered in Rajputana and South India—these setbacks inspired the various Muslim satraps to revolt and set up their own petty sultanates in regions like Gujarat, Bengal, and Maharashtra. This fragmented political condition lasted until the formation of the Mughal Empire in the 16th Century.

Political effect on language

After the initial bloodshed and chaos, when the Turks settled down to govern the conquered areas, they used Persian and the local languages for the purpose of administration. Apabhramsa, the old pan-Indian language was of no use to them since they had no pan-Indian control. So the effect of the Muslim conquest was a breakdown of the old cultural unity of India and the development of regional chauvinism. This chauvinism became evident in the language splits that occurred in this period and in the competition between these new languages for claiming the cultural and literary themes of the past.

The areas that were not conquered also had no use for a link language that wasn’t used in the economic and cultural centers of the Ganga plains. So here too the local languages came to the fore. However, the Rajput courts continued to patronize Apabhramsa as a literary language till the 16th Century. The Jains of western India, living under the protection of the same Rajput Kingdoms, also rendered their religious and secular literature into Apabhramsa and produced works in that language till a late period.

The various regional Apabhramsas split along the following lines:

Magadhi: covering the eastern parts of India, Magadhi Apabhramsa split up into two great streams that divided further into the modern Indian languages. The first consisted of Oriya-Bengali-Assamese…out of the three Bengal came under Muslim rule while Orissa and Assam maintained their independence and developed as separate languages. The other stream was of Bihari-Bhojpuri-Maithili. Out of these the tiny state of Mithila, at the foot of the Himalayas, alone maintained its independence until the late 14th Century and made a great contribution to the preservation of Hindu culture. The literature produced in Maithili was eventually absorbed into Hindi, while later Bihari and Bhojpuri also came to be looked upon as dialects of the national language.

Ardh-Magadhi: further west the languages spoken in Awadh (which came under Muslim rule), Baghelkhand, and Chhatisgarh (which remained independent) were all sister languages derived from Ardh-Magadhi Apabhramsa. All of these were absorbed into Hindi in a later period.

Sauraseni: the area covered by this Apabhramsa gave birth to Hindi (i.e. Khariboli), as will be described later. The other languages of this group, in fact, developed closely together and shared their literary output—these were Brajbhasha and Kanauji. Of this group, only the Bundeli language area remained independent from foreign rule but it too was ultimately absorbed by Hindi. The Jaipuri language, on the other hand, seceded from this group and joined Rajasthani as will be shown later.

Saindhavi: the Apabhramsa of Punjab was alternatively termed Gandhari and Madra. It broke up into Western and Eastern Punjabi—of these the former region remained on the fringes of Indo-Muslim civilization and split very early into Lahndi, Hindko, and Potohari. Eastern Punjabi, on the other hand, was under the domination of the Delhi Sultans and even earlier had been under the influence of Sauraseni languages. This can be seen clearly in the Adi Granth , the Sikh text, which has a surfeit of Brajbhasha and Awadhi peppered by only a few Punjabi phrases.

Western Apabhramsa: the land of the original and definitive Apabhramsa also saw language splits occurring in Gujarati-Marwari, and Mewari-Malavi. Of these, Gujarat and Malwa came under Muslim rule, while Mewar and Marwar fought and won independence under their own rulers. Here again regional chauvinism between Marwari and Gujarati became evident with the Turk conquest of the latter. Both claimed the old Apabhramsa literature as their own heritage and describing the other as a mere dialect. When the Rajput saint-princess Mira Bai composed poems and songs in her native Marwari, these were quickly rendered into Gujarati and were claimed as the literary compositions of that language!

Apart from these, the Sindhi language developed from the old Vrachhada Apabhramsa and Marathi from the Maharashtri Apabhramsa. The various Himalayan languages from Dogri in the west to Gharwali and Nepali in the east had their own independent development. (Nowadays Gharwali and Kumaoni are wrongly regarded as dialects by Hindi chauvinists while Dogri, Bilaspuri, and Kangri are claimed as dialects by Punjabi chauvinists. In the same way, Bengali chauvinists in Bangladesh, in their ignorance, claim Assamese to be a mere dialect of their language.)


The Rajasthani language is being discussed separately—not for its literary output, which is meager, nor for its status, which is abysmal (Rajasthani is not even recognized as a separate national language by the Government of India to this day). But while the other modern Indian languages developed by splitting from larger groups, Rajasthani is a unique case of the union of separate languages into one.

Geographically Rajasthan is made up of four distinct regions: the dry plain of Marwar, the fertile Jaipur plains, the Mewar hills, and the plateau region of Hadoti. The quintessential Rajasthani is Marwari (the old Dingal), which produced a mass of literature under the powerful Chauhan clan that ruled that region for a long period. Mewar, on the other hand, first came into prominence only during the Islamic invasions when the fort of Chittor was repeatedly attacked by those invaders. The mass of literature in Mewar was produced much later under the Sesodia Ranas who expelled the Muslims from Rajputana in the 14th Century.

In that same period the Hada Chauhans, under the tutelage of the Mewar Ranas, annexed a portion of the Malwa plateau (from the Muslims) into Rajasthan, bringing yet another language (Malavi now called Hadoti after the conquering clan) into Rajasthani. The expansion of the Kachawa clan into the area north of Ajmer, and the conquests of their important branch the Shekhawats, brought the Dhundhar region (modern Jaipur) from the Delhi Sultanate into Rajputana. The Sauraseni spoken here now became part of Rajasthani.

All these states formed a close alliance centered on the accepted leadership of Mewar, and all their languages were after all descended from a common source (Sanskrit>>>Prakrit>>>Western Apabhramsa). If this alliance had prevailed, Rajasthani would have been like the old Apabhramsa, which was propelled to a pan-Indian status by the 8th Century Imperial Pratiharas from the same region. But the alliance was short-lived, and in the Mughal period each Rajput state promoted its local speech and a commonly accepted Rajasthani did not emerge until the 20th Century. By that time it had already been outstripped by the more prolific language of the Ganga plains.

The rise of Hindi

The Turk conquerors of the Indo-Gangetic plain almost immediately lost control of northwestern India to the mighty Mongols, and of the plains southwest of Delhi to the Chauhan Rajaputras. Their effective rule was over eastern Punjab and western UP, roughly the area where offshoots of Sauraseni Apabhramsa were spoken. This speech was given the generic name Hindui/Hindawi (the language of the Hindus) by the Turks who used it for administrative purposes along with Farsi (Persian). With the passage of time, the pronunciation evolved to Hindi, which took the identity of the Khariboli spoken around Delhi, with Devnagari as its script.

This Hindi, even though a spoken language, could not become a pan-Indian language (in the place of Apabhramsa) in that early period because the Delhi Turks failed to conquer the whole of India, and failed even to keep the conquered regions united under a single ruler. But where political causes could not elevate this language, cultural reasons propelled it to national status. For it was in this very period of political vacuum (14th-16th centuries) that the flow of literary themes and devotional songs helped in the rise of Hindi.

First, the heroic stories of Rajputana ( Prithviraj Raso, Alha-Udal, Khuman Raso,, etc.), which were a source of inspiration to the subject people of the Ganga plains, were re-written in Hindi. Then the romance themes from Rajputana and other provinces were also subject to such translations. The devotional songs of the numerous saints of that age (Kabir, Mira Bai, Chaitanya, Vallabhacharya, etc.) were all rendered into Hindi and now form part of its vast literature.

The formation of the Mughal Empire (16th century) placed some hurdles before the development of a pan-Indian language due to the confusion between Hindi-Urdu-Hindustani. Essentially these are forms of the same language, the oldest of which is Hindi. Urdu was formed by the admixture of Hindi with the languages of the (foreign) Muslim soldiers in the Mughal army camp ( ordu ). Hindustani was the spoken form of Urdu—the latter is specifically a literary language written in the Persian script.

Hindustani/Urdu never became pan-Indian languages because their prose was too elaborate, and their speech too sophisticated for the masses. The other important elements of the Mughal army, namely the Rajput cavaliers, the mostly Hindu infantry, and the mostly Hindu camp followers did not have any use for Hindustani in their own homes and stuck to their native languages. Instead Hindustani became the lingua franca of cities in the Indo-Gangetic plains (and also some cities in the Deccan) because the foreign Muslims settled down in these places. Even today every such city has a Mughalpura, an Afghan mohalla, a Sayyidganj, or a Sheikhupura, where these soldiers settled down with their extended families.

The fall of the Mughals (early 18th Century) signaled the death of Hindustani, which was eventually absorbed into Hindi. Urdu had a great rebirth and became the language of poetry and music—however, the continued use of the Persian script made it inaccessible for the masses. With the establishment of the British Raj in the 19th Century, Hindi began producing prolific amounts of literature and captured the popular imagination.

It acquired a pan-Indian status because:

The brand name “Hindi” was not provincial but national, unlike Awadhi or Bundeli.

In Devanagari it had the best and most legible script.

Having already absorbed Brajbhasha, Awadhi, Bundeli, and numerous hill dialects, it went on to swallow Rajasthani, Bagheli, Chhatisgarhi, Malavi, Bihari, and Maithili. More importantly, the speakers of these languages freely adopted Hindi as their language, even if they used elements of their own local speech in pronouncing it.

The freedom-fighters campaigning against the British chose to address public meetings in different parts of the country, in Hindi. Later the Government of India accepted Hindi (Khariboli form) as its national language but made it very Sanskritized to find some common ground with languages like Marathi and Telegu.

In modern times Hindi has acquired an Apabhramsa like status with varying regional pronunciations for the same language. But it has surpassed Apabhramsa in reach, covering almost the whole of the Indian continent, and being taken overseas by immigrant populations. Ironically the decision of the founders of Pakistan, to make Urdu its national language, has only furthered the influence of Hindi. Since Urdu is based largely on Hindi, and an Urdu-speaker can understand Hindi better than he understands Pushto, Baluchi, or Bengali, the impact of Indian cultural themes is widespread in Pakistan and beyond. Bangladesh, on the other hand, chose Bengali as its national language after that country became independent of West Pakistan during the 1971 Indo-Pak war, but the early impact of Urdu and the latter-day influence of Indian cultural themes have still made Hindi knowledgeable in that country.

The future of languages in India

All through the period that saw the rise of Hindi, there was the sad spectacle of the headlong decline of Sanskrit. The status of the literary, scientific, and intellectual language was taken by English and is maintained to this day. Original works in Sanskrit are no longer produced, and even reproductions and re-interpretations of earlier works are not happening.

But Sanskrit is still alive in religious hymns (mantras), devotional songs, ceremonies, and of course in the hearts of most Indians. In the old days, royal patronage aided in the study of Sanskrit, but at least there were scholars in those times eager to express their ideas in this ancient language. The greatest contribution to Sanskirt came from individuals in every age, from Patanjali (2nd century BCE) to Vachaspati Misra (15th century CE). The availability of numerous technological tools makes the preservation and propagation of Sanskrit today a comparatively easy task if any inspired individual chooses to make such an effort.

Hindi continues to expand worldwide and, if the Government of India wills it, could become one of the many international languages. The preservation of regional languages also continues—most Indians are multi-lingual, speaking their parents’ language at home, English at work, and Hindi on the streets.

It will be interesting to see which region produces the next pan-Indian language…and when!