David Boyk’s vivid webpage Bollywood for the Skeptical presents a CD’s worth of Indian movie-pop hits (and if you think you don’t like Indian pop music, check out the rockin’ “Ina Meena Dika[mp3] from the 1957 movie Aasha) along with a brief introduction to the genre, but what brings it to LH is the section on language:

Before Independence in 1947, a lot [of] people in the North actually spoke a related dialect called Hindustani, which was written in Arabic script regardless of religious community. Incidentally, a common mistake is for people to refer to Hindi as “Indian,” implying that there’s only one Indian language, but “Hindustani” really just means “Indian” – “Hindustan” and “Bharat” being the most common names for the country, other than “India.” Since Independence, though, most Muslims speak Urdu, which is written with the Arabic alphabet in a slanting style called Nastaliq. Urdu speakers are proud of Nastaliq, since they feel that Urdu is one of the most beautiful languages in the world and this way of writing is more beautiful than the flat way they write in the Middle East. I think they’re right, too – it’s one of the most graceful writing styles…

Urdu and Hindi, though, aren’t that different. In theory, Urdu is more Persianized and Hindi is more Sanskritized, and literary Urdu definitely is that way, and the government and media speak Sanskritized Hindi. But really, most people speak Hindi that’s more or less Persified depending on their community and fairly heavily influenced by English, but never as Sanskritized as Hindi on the TV news. There are differences in dialect, like how Urdu speakers will say “sar” for the English “head” and Hindi speakers will say “sir,” but most people will prefer to say “university” instead of “vishwavidhyalya,” which is what you’re supposed to say in “real” Hindi. And there are regional dialects, too. Northerners will often pronounce “vegetables” as “sabzi,” which is the way you say it in Farsi and Urdu, and Southerners will usually say “sabji,” because “z” is one of the sounds that Hindi doesn’t have. Given that it’s not always obvious what the difference is between Urdu and Hindi, it’s actually more accurate to say that Bollywood movies are in Urdu, mostly because it’s considered more beautiful than Hindi. Religion, which is the ostensible difference between the dialects, is a tricky thing in movies, because nowadays, moviemakers often try not to offend anyone – although other times, they’re complete demagogues. Sometimes people seem to switch religions during the course of a movie, but even when a character is obviously Hindu, she’ll often speak Urdu, or especially sing it, for beauty. Also, my friend Daniel, who helped me with this page, told me that after Independence, when the film industry was starting, “Muslims were those who wrote poetry and songs and went to courtesans, and these courtly cultured people shifted to film after the nawaabs lost money. And the langauge of education was Urdu, so the screenwriters all spoke and had their entire education in Urdu. Therefore, it was only natural for them to write in Urdu. Also, a ‘respectable’ Hindu would not act in a film.”

Obviously a highly simplified discussion, but a useful basic orientation (here’s a little more on Hindi/Urdu, and here’s the Omniglot page on the Urdu writing system), and I hadn’t known about the Muslim/Urdu influence on the film industry. (Thanks to Songdog for the link!)


  1. That song sounds like it’s been influenced by American music.

  2. Mumbai cha Bhau says

    Hmm.. That doesn’t sound right.
    Quote: Northerners will often pronounce “vegetables” as “sabzi,” which is the way you say it in Farsi and Urdu, and Southerners will usually say “sabji,” because “z” is one of the sounds that Hindi doesn’t have.
    Northerners speak mostly Hindi while southerners (four states) rarely speak Hindi.
    Hindi does have ‘z’ sound.
    And it is (Biharis/UP-iets) == northerners that use ‘j’ instead of ‘z’
    Quote: It’s actually more accurate to say that Bollywood movies are in Urdu, mostly because it’s considered more beautiful than Hindi.
    ‘more accurate’? :confused:
    Bollywood movies c ome in a wide variety. Some song writers do use Urdu words for poetic reasons. But regular conversation/dialog is totally random depending on the characters in the movie- using any dialect from any state. But mostly a version of Hindi (not Urdu)
    Some classic movies use pure Hindi including the songs.
    Most third grade movies (which is roughly 60%-80% of all movies made, I’d guess) use Bombaya=(modified Hindi + English+Urdu+Konkani+Marathi+Gujarati+Marwari+Bihari+..) with many words originating from the underworld.
    Quote: Also, my friend Daniel, .. told me “…a ‘respectable’ Hindu would not act in a film.”
    Now, where did Daniel get that from 🙂 😀 ?

  3. This may be an occasion to raise the issue of how “Punjab” is to be pronounced.
    Speakers of English are notoriously inept at sorting out how sounds represented by “a” and “u” are to be dealt with (to say nothing of “e”, “i”, and “o”). Lexicographers, and generally English-speaking authors of guides to other languages, are often poorly informed about these things, sometimes doing more harm than good. The “u” in “Punjab” was originally introduced to give a friendlier representation of the short first /a/ sound in “Panjab”, in which “pan” is meant to sound like the English word “pun”. But confronted with this “naturalised” spelling, people started pronouncing the word as if it were “Poonjab” (in an uninformed effort at pronouncing the “u” in an authentic foreign way). I have even heard native speakers of Panjabi saying “Poonjab”, just to fit in with common practice.
    Not much can be done about these things. I must say, though, that Americans typically manage pronunciation of “un-Englished” words better than Australians do – and much better than most British speakers, many of whom will say “Poonjab” with a second syllable like the English word “jab”, not with the more correct “jahb”. Finally, let it be observed that the stress belongs on the second syllable.

  4. Mumbai cha Bhau: Thanks, I was hoping someone would come along and provide more accurate information!
    Noetica: That “Poonjab” thing has always bothered me too. It’s just one of a number of similar conflicts between comfortable Victorian “say it like it’s English” transliteration and today’s uptight multiculti “say it like a native” style.

  5. Bollywood Hindi is sometimes called “filmi Hindi”. I don’t know enough of Hindi/Urdu to make the fine distinctions, but agree with “In theory, Urdu is more Persianized and Hindi is more Sanskritized”. One of our Swedish group’s Hindi teachers in Mussoorie, Uttaranchal, was very open about the difficulty/impossibility to make a difference between the two spoken varieties. When reading newspapers, however, the Persianized/Sanskritized difference was more obvious (or perhaps rather the more/less Persianized style).
    The transcription problem has been especially interesting to me. I was very young when I took a liking to Kipling’s “Kim”. I read it in Swedish, and have been rereading it first in Swedish and later in English at least every other year. Only after starting with Hindi, I have understood the correct pronunciation of lots of words. The Swedish translators have kept the Kipling spelling of words, and so they get very nontransparent when reading them in Swedish.
    As late as in spring this year, I for example suddenly realized that the name Huneefa, which I for more than 40 years had read with u = schwa (or rather Swedish throughstroke u) and ee = IPA [e:], must be [Hani:fa] (with an emphatic, underdot H), meaning the pious one’, and my theory is now that Hurree babu ([huhre:]) might be “Harry”. And there are lots more like this. In Sweden, you will often see Punjab for the five-river country, but some more modern maps and careful newspapers will write Panjab.

  6. Are there parallels to this Hindustani / Hindi / Urdu situation? Coptic was Egyptian with a Greekish alphabet and koine loanwords. Mongolian got a new script and Tibetan terms; and then again 750 years later it was Cyrillic and Russian words. But none of these suggest simultaneous independent literary communities using different scripts and different sources of innovation, but retaining very closely related spoken languages.
    The 1911 Britannica has the pre-independence imperialist take on the history of these languages. There is a not-so-good OCR here, if you don’t take up several linear feet with the old volumes in your library (like I do).
    In the same vein, some remainder bin yielded Colloquial Hindustani from 1944, Dover reprint from 1970. Other than a page or two explaining the Devanagari and Persian/Arabic alphabets, it’s in the “All-India alphabet”.
    From the introduction:
    In this simple romanic orthography Hindustani, though appearing in clothes of a new design, is still dressed in a national costume which fits it well, whereas in the usual European transliterations and transcriptions bristling with dots, dashes, and other diacritical marks, which do not really belong to the letters, it looks like a man who has lost his own clothes and has to make shift with an ill-fitting borrowed suit, pinned up here, let down there. To remove the pins and drop the fussy alterations, leaving Hindustani in the bare roman alphabet, is a great temptation to the European. And we know that the dots and dashes do, in fact, tend to wear off. The feeling that diacritics are extraneous to the roman alphabet is very strong indeed among people who do not require them. It is a sound instinct.
    Imagine the poor chap in a Vietnamese restaurant!

  7. my theory is now that Hurree babu ([huhre:]) might be “Harry”
    It’s more like Hari (pronounced as in “hurry”)

  8. The line between Urdu and Hindi is very blurry, especially in the movies. I always considered that the songs in Bollywood films are often Urdu-like, because they draw from an Urdu poetical and literary tradition. The dialog is more varied, with people from different walks of life portrayed. However, if you had to place Bollywood dialog on a spectrum between Hindi and Urdu, it would be closer to Urdu because the “shuddh hindi” (Pure Hindi – ie very Sanskritised) syle is quite artificial and contains a lot of recent borrowings from Sanskrit and neologisms that haven’t been fully assimilated into the spoken language. That is not to say that there is not overly Persianised Urdu that is artificial too, but many of the common Persian words have penetrated into the everyday vernacular in a way that many Sanskrit terms haven’t. That being said, the everyday language of Hindi speakers is slowly becoming somewhat more Sanskritised, especially as Hindi-medium education and literacy spreads. Oftentimes one finds Indians from non-Hindi speaking regions speaking a more Sanskritised style than locals, because they learned the language in books rather than on the street.
    Both Urdu and Hindi are based on the “Khari boli” (Upright speech) dialect of the Delhi region. However, Urdu literature in this dialect has a longer history than Hindi. Before the 19th century, Hindi literature was most often written in other dialects, such as Braj (or Brij) Bhasha and Avadhi. In the 19th century a movement to standardise Hindi emerged, which ironically used the same dialect as Urdu as its starting point, but with a Sankritised vocabulary and indigenous script. In a sense, written Hindi as we know it was a constructed language, in that khari boli literature with a Sanskrit/Indian vocabulary bias simply did not exist at the time. However some combination of khadi boli’s prestige, it’s wide comprehension throughout the Hindi/Urdu speaking area, and pure chance, made it the basis for the new standardised Hindi.
    In a way this was fortunate, because if they had picked a different dialect to form the standard on, Indians and Pakistanis might not be able to watch and enjoy the same films and TV shows today 🙂

  9. Greetings from India! Even on my slow connection here in Dehradun I need my weekly dose of LanguageHat! You might be interested in this post on Bollywood English, and this one where I discuss hindi/urdu.

  10. Like Anders, I studied Hindi in Mussoorie, and I was looking for a page about Teesri Manzil, which takes place there, when I found this page, which then turned out to mention my page. I hope you all found it useful or interesting; like you said, I was simplifying matters, but I tried to get the basic idea right. Mumbai cha Bhau, I hope you’ll forgive my inaccuracies. I did mention elsewhere that Hindi is spoken more commonly in the North than in the South, and I have heard people in the South (in Kanniyakumari, TN, for instance) pronounce sabzi with a j. The main point I was trying to get at was that movies are generally, though not always, in a more Persianized dialect than you might expect from what you hear about Hindi in the West. Also, Kerim, your post on your blog about Bollywood English was very interesting, I thought.

  11. Hi David — glad you found my post! I’m willing to forgive all sorts of simplification to get an important basic concept like the one you provide. Somewhere I’ve got a book on the history of Hindi/Urdu; once we’ve moved and I can go through the boxes I’ll have to dig it out.

  12. Thanks David. As you know Mussoorie is a short drive from here, but I haven’t yet been up there. Hopefully we will go later this week…

  13. Eena Meena Deeka is fun, but the best is Chaiyya Chaiyya. It’s ‘picturised’, as we say, on top of a moving train, and the music, by A. R. Rahman, is full of train sounds. Speaking of Hindi / Urdu, this song caused a bit of a stir, because it contains the line, ‘tere paun ke niche jannat hogi’ – ‘heaven is beneath your feet’. Since Urdu ‘jannat’ was used for heaven, instead of Hindi ‘swarg’, a Muslim group claimed that it insulted Islam. But no one paid much attention (and the lyricist and music writer were both Muslim), and the controversy went away.

  14. Hindi has a z sound because special symbols were added to existing letters of the Sanskrit-based Hindi alphabet to accommodate Urdu sounds, like q, the broad ‘a’ as in Nancy, gh as in ghazal, and f.

  15. Just a little correction to Nancy’s post: the broad “a” as in Nancy was added not to accomodate Urdu sounds, but to accomodate English loanwords. As for the other sounds you mentioned, you are of course correct.

  16. mishac — that’s interesting — I had thought that the modified ‘a’ was for the Urdu letter ‘an’ used in words like ‘be-chan’ — but I may certainly be wrong.

  17. Hi people,
    i have heard how this one driector said that audeiences don’t want watch SRK all the time. I say that SRK is what all the people want rather than those sex films such as “Muder.” I Think the people that are saying that nobody wants to watch SRK are just freakin’ jealous that he is getting more proposal for doing films, and that he is just too good.

  18. SIR

  19. SIR
    i’m urdu speaker but learning english as well.i observed that urdu speakers face difficulties in pronouncing english diphthongs.what is it reason….?????
    kindly guide me why urdu speaker cant pronounce diphthongs accurately

  20. I want to know why urdu speakers have difficulty in pronouncing diphthongs. What is the basic reason? How can urdu speakers learn to pronounce it correctly?

  21. Vijay Kumar says

    Hindi never had z if you go back in history are Hindu ppl change history we all know this Hindi came in as Hindu did not wanted to write speak Urdu Sanskrit was more Hindu spoken Hindustan n Hindustani was spoken by Mughal empire wich they bought in wich later called zubanai- Urdu, Sanskrit has j not z the word z is always in Urdu in all it’s words like a Moslem will have a name with a word z like zaheer Zohar zora list goes on we’re in Hindu name I have not come with 1 name in a letter z, so in Hindi it was put in later Hindi of today’s Bollywood sounds more Urdu because of its beautiful words n songs so Hindi of Bollywood is copy of Urdu my grandfather n his family n my father wrote in Urdu we are Hindus but Urdu speakers n writers it’s beautifully done in pakistan it’s official language were here in India Hindi is not official. Watch joda Akbar n you will see the diffrance Urdu beautiful words.

  22. I like cheese

    I like cheese

  23. This lecture, which opens with “Eena Meena Deeka,” by the author of the book Taj Mahal Foxtrot, published in the decade-plus since this post, outlines an origin of Bollywood music. Hindu / Hindi plus Muslim / Urdu, as we’ve discussed. Plus Goan Christian, adding musicians who were taught Western harmony, as needed in talkies’ big orchestras, in convent schools. (Apparently maaka naaka is Konkani.) Plus a handful of touring African-American jazz musicians.

  24. Thanks!

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