So how big is the Hindi lexicon?
It’s hard to say…
Counting the number of words that exist in a language is not a simple feat. Languages that are strictly controlled and governed by the official institution in charge of editing the official dictionaries, like the English “Oxford Dictionary” or the “Académie Française” both fall short.
They just can’t keep track of all innovations that happen in a language, and how do you decide exactly when a word has gone out of use, and when a foreign loan-word is used enough in the language to be considered part of it?
(Or maybe you’d consider me a rawgabbit for thinking so?)
Yet, English and French make great efforts towards making this work, and they both publish annual press releases as to the status of the languages, new words admitted and old words that disappear.
When it comes to Hindi, the situation is very different. It is true that the Indian government gradually adds new vocabulary to the official dictionary, but they’re not critically judging the merits of each word, searching for Sanskrit or traditionally “Indian” alternatives to loan-words, or even being public about new admissions.
As of 2019, it’s estimated that the Hindi lexicon contains some 150,000 words, whereas other sources, such as the online Hindi Wikitionary lists 183,175 words.
As many as 600,000 scientific and technical terms equally exist according to the same sources, indicating that the 183,175 words would be of a more “general” nature.
While many languages are somewhat critical of using foreign loan-words indiscriminately, Hindi doesn’t seem so hung up in this regard. Even in public speeches by the country’s officials (such as the prime minister), English loan-words are used freely.
Hindi: A Language Rich With Foreign Input
It’s no secret that the history of the Hindi language has been a bumpy ride. Since evolving from Sanskrit centuries ago, Hindi, or Hindustani has been influenced by Persian, Turkish, Arabic, and several other languages.
Relatively recently, however, the “Hindustani” language was reformed and “divided” into Urdu, a language written with the Arabic script and enriched with vocabulary from the Middle East, and “Hindi”, which was a new and purified version of Hindustani with fewer loan-words from the time of the Delhi Sultanate.
In principle, one could say that Hindi is a very new language, because the new purified version took a new direction, got rid of a great deal of the historic loan-words, and came to be written with the Devanagari script originally used for Sanskrit.
This is why it seems a little ironic that Modern Hindi so easily and uncritically accepts English loan-words, while it refuses the vocabulary that was used in Hindustani for centuries.
(You might also be interested in reading my comparison of Hindi and Urdu).
Conclusion: Hindi Is A Language In Movement
This article might come across as critical to the way that the Hindi language is governed, but it is actually not my intention.
It’s true for all peoples that the language that they speak is a strong symbol of their identity and their culture. The organic evolution of the Hindi language simply reflects how people adapt to the changing world and all the new words that come as a byproduct.
Because this evolution not only happens in Hindi. In English, people much prefer to call it a “jungle” rather than a “rainforest”. Fitness-adepts speak of “health-gurus” rather than “experts”. They walk around in their Pajamas and wash their hair in Shampoo, thinking that they’re perfectly Anglo-Saxon in doing so.
And perhaps they are because even though the English language is filled with Hindi loan-words, nobody bats an eye at their use. They’re accepted and they’re gradually changing along with English-speakers and becoming more English in the process.
Why shouldn’t the same happen with Hindi?
So how many words exist in the Hindi language?
183,175 is probably just the top of the iceberg.