Hindi is recognized as the world’s fourth most widely spoken language, yet people don’t exactly agree about what the Hindi language actually is and what it isn’t. Because of this, it can be difficult to actually date the Hindi language and decide how old it is, because what actually makes it Hindi?
When people speak of Hindi, they most often refer to the standardized version of the Hindustani language, spoken officially in India. Modern Standard Hindi has been the official language of independent India since 1949 when language reforms were carried out and the Devanagari alphabet was chosen as the official script. In other words, it’s roughly 70 years old. Hindustani, more broadly speaking, goes back a lot further. Most linguists agree that “Old Hindi” was first spoken in the Delhi-area in the 13th-15th centuries and that it, in turn, came from a medieval language called “Shauraseni Prakit” which was related to Sanskrit.
There are major differences between Modern Standard Hindi and the different varieties of Hindustani that have been spoken throughout the centuries, but many of these differences are because of the 1949 reforms that were made to differentiate Hindi from Urdu, which up until then was almost the same language.
How Old Is Hindustani, The Source Of Hindi?
Hindustani is the language that has given us both Hindi and Urdu. In fact, Hindustani used to be very close to the Urdu spoken namely in Pakistan today, with a great number of Persian, Turkish, and Arabic loan-words. Hindustani was also written in the Persian Nastaliq script which is mainly associated with Persian and Urdu today.
So one could make the argument that Urdu is changed much less from Hindustani than Hindi and that the historical changes in Urdu and Hindustani seem much more natural than what we see in Hindi, where reforms changed vocabulary, script, and, in some cases, pronunciation in a time period of only a couple of years.
The changes that were made to form modern Hindi was mainly to replace vocabulary with Arabic, Turkish, or Persian origin to words that are closer to the original Sanskrit roots of Hindustani. The alphabet was equally changed to Devanagari, a script which was originally used for writing Sanskrit, but which hasn’t been commonly used for Hindustani in the past.
But if we were to trace back the steps of Hindi to its linguistic ancestor “Hindustani”, how old is it actually?
In the Middle Age, from around the 2nd to the 10th century, Central India used a language called Shauraseni Prakit which itself descended from Sanskrit. The language was first a spoken vernacular language but quickly established itself to a language of drama and literature.
By the end of the 10th century, several dialects of Shauraseni Prakit had developed, and some had in turn become written languages used in the regions around Delhi.
It’s from Delhi where the first Muslim sultanate of India established itself in the 13th century. The Delhi Sultanate was formed mainly by Turks and Afghans who spoke the Persian language in their court, but they quickly adopted a dialect of the Shauraseni Prakit language in order to communicate with the local people. The language was, however, infused with words that the Muslims brought with them from the Persian, Turkish and Arabic languages, and the first form of Hindustani was born.
So How Old Is Hindi Or Hindustani?
So, to conclude: How old is the Hindi language?
As it’s often the case with questions that I try and answer on this blog, the correct answer depends on a number of things.
It always depends!
In this case, it depends on how you really define “Hindi” as a language.
If Hindi, is defined as a version of Hindustani that’s written with the Devanagari script and which replaces Arabic, Turkish, and Persian loan-words with mostly words of Sanskrit origins, Hindi is a quite new language, only with around 70 years on its back because all of these changes that characterize Modern Hindi took place in the middle of the 20th century.
If, however, you permit yourself to look more broadly at Hindi as a modern variant of Hindustani, you could argue that the language is closer to 800 years old, since it was originally formed in the Delhi Sultanate in the 1200s.
The ancestor of Hindustani, Shauraseni Prakit, in turn, goes as far back as the 3rd century, and before that, various variants of Sanskrit go back to 2000 BCE. It’s very unlikely that Modern Hindi would be very much like Classical Sanskrit, however, so, personally, I’d stick with Hindustani as the most distinct ancestral language of Hindi.
So Hindi is either around 70 or 800 years old, depending on how you look at it!