Hindi VS Urdu - What's The Difference Between The Hindustani Languages?

avatarMille Larsen
10 mins read

Hindi and Urdu are two Indo-Aryan languages that both developed from Sanskrit in Northern India beginning some 2700 years ago.

While both Hindi and Urdu exists in many dialects, there were no distinction between them up until the 19th century. Before then, they were referred to as "Hindustani" which was a language derived from Sanskrit, but with Arabic, Persian, and to some extent, Turkic influences and loan-words.

Hindi and Urdu are essentially the same languages. The main difference is that Urdu is written with the Arabic script whereas Hindi is written in the script originally used for Sanskrit, Devanagari. Urdu has a lot more Persian and Arabic loanwords than Hindi, but these are almost exclusively used in formal speech and the two languages remain completely mutually intelligible. Today, Urdu is the main language of Pakistan and is perceived as a language spoken by Muslims, while Hindi is spoken mainly in India, and is the language spoken by Hindus and non-Muslims.

In the following, I'll dive into discussing the history of the two languages (briefly) and then have a look at some of the differences and similarities between Hindi and Urdu.

If you want to learn Hindi or Urdu, then I personally recommend these excellent online resources:

If you'd like to go more in depth on the history of these languages, I recommend reading "Before the Divide" - a great book and the literary histories of Hindi and Urdu.

A Brief History Of The Urdu And Hindi Languages

The modern Hindustani languages have most of their grammar and vocabulary from Sanskrit, or more precisely Shauraseni Prakit which was the language spoken in Northern India some 2700 years ago. It was both an everyday language, but also a language of literature and poetry.

While the language evolved and changed over the centuries while producing vast amounts of literary work, the most significant changes occurred with the arrival of the Islamic Empires in the 13th century.

While frequent raids and plundering by Turkic warlords had been going on in North India since the 9th century, it wasn't before the early 13th century that the first Islamic Sultanate was formed in India.

This happened when a series of Islamic dynasties began, referred to as the "Delhi Sultanate". In this period a great number of sultans interchangeably ruled Delhi and different parts of India.

Most leaders didn't last long, and a Sultan's rule more often than not ended with an assassination. This meant that most of these short-lived regimes were rather weak, and progress and development was relatively limited.

Despite this fact, Hindustani began being used as a Lingua-Franca that both the ruling class and the people used to communicate between one another.

Hindustani was based on Sanskrit, the local language, but with a lot of vocabulary from Persian, the language officially spoken by the Islamic administration (despite their Turkic origins). A lot of Arabic vocabulary also saw its way into Hindustani, both indirectly through Persian, but also through the Islamic religion to which Arabic was the liturgical language.

In the 16th century, the Delhi Sultanate was replaced by the Mughal Empire, where Hindustani thrived and became more influenced by Persian and Arabic.

During the Mughal period, Hindustani began to be referred to as Urdu, which refers to the Turkic word for "Army". This might refer to the military encampments that existed outside the city-wall of the Mughal Empire's capital city. It is equally the Turkic word for "army" that has given the English language the word "horde".

Up until the second half of the 19th century (when the British colony, or Raj began) Hindustani was mostly written with the Persian-Arabic script (called "Nasta'liq"), but the colonial forces' presence sparked a debate over whether Urdu or the slightly less Islamic-influenced Hindi variant of Hindustani should be the official language of the colony.

During this period Hindus and Muslims alike became more and more conscious of their individual identities, and Hindus started distancing themselves from many of the Islamic influences to their language. They began using the Devanagari script, the Indian script used to write Sanskrit in place of the Nasta'liq script, and many Arabic and Persian loan-words were replaced by words derived from Sanskrit.

Likewise, Muslims began replacing much of the vocabulary that was considered "purely" Sanskrit with terms from Arabic or Persian

From this period on, the interchangeable names of "Urdu" and "Hindi" started being used specifically for each language. Urdu came to be the name of the Muslim variant whereas "Hindi" was the term referring to the version of Hindustani that was less enriched by Arabic and Persian and which used the Devanagari script instead of the Nasta'liq writing system.

Eventually, with the Independence of India, Urdu became the official language of Pakistan whereas Hindi remained the most common language in India.

The Difference Between The Urdu Writing System Nasta'liq and the Hindi Devanagari

An important difference between Urdu and Hindi is how the two variants of Hindustani are written. Hindi uses the Sanskrit writing system known as Devanagari. Urdu uses an adapted version of the Arabic script, referred to as Nata'liq.

Whereas the Urdu script is written right to left, the Hindi script is written left to right.

Generally, I'd say that that the Devanagari script is better adapted for writing the Hindustani languages. The fact that Hindustani as a descendant of Sanskrit, the language for which Devanagari was initially developed, further underlines this point.

The Devanagari script has a letter for each sound in Hindi (and for most sounds in Urdu). There are exemptions, however, and the Devanagari script has adapted by adding new letters such as “ज़” (z) which is simply a “” (j) with a dot underneath. This letter is used when the foreign loan-words uses the Arabic letter "ز" (z) which didn't originally exist in the Devanagari script.

Nasta'liq, on the other hand, is not the ideal choice for writing a language such as Hindustani. One major reason is the vowels. While Arabic has 3 vowels (in short and long versions), Hindustani has 13. Add to that that vowels, in general, are omitted in Urdu writing. This means that you need to know how a word is pronounced when you read it, because there isn't any way that you'd be able to figure it out from simply spelling your way through the words.

Devanagari, on the other hand, is a phonetic script, meaning that everything is pronounced exactly the way it's written. You do need to know the writing system by heart and memorize the pronunciation, but once you've got that down, you can pronounce pretty much everything.

The Difference Between Hindi And Urdu Pronunciation

Generally, Urdu and Hindi are pronounced the same way, especially when the vocabulary words are shared between the two languages.

Urdu, when writing loan-words from Arabic or Persian does, however tend to pronounce quite a few letters as they would be pronounced in Arabic. Examples of this are letters such as ق, غ, ع, ز, خ,ف and others.

In Hindi, Arabic loan-words originally pronounced with these letters are often pronounced differently.

  • "ف" which is an "F" in Urdu is pronounced "Ph" in Hindi.
  • "ع" which has no equivalent in English (or Hindi) is pronounced as a long "A".
  • "ق", the guttural "Q" sound in Urdu is pronounced like a "K" in Hindi.
  • "غ", which sounds like a "French R" is turned into "Gh" in Hindi.
  • "ز", a letter pronounced like "Z" in Urdu is pronounced like "J" in Hindi
  • "خ", which is pronounced like you're cleaning your throat in Urdu, is pronounced "Kh" in Hindi.

Other than these differences when it comes to loan-words, Hindi and Urdu pronunciation are very similar.

Differences in Vocabulary Between Urdu And Hindi

In everyday speech, you most likely wouldn't notice much of a difference between the vocabulary of the two languages. For most simple, daily discussions Urdu and Hindi are almost completely the same.

When you start looking a little deeper, however, you start to seeing differences in vocabulary, especially when it comes to more scientific, political, formal or otherwise more "high-brow" terms.

One reason for this difference might be found in the history of the Hindustani language. As mentioned earlier, it was the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Empire that brought the Arabic and Persian influences into the Hindustani language. In other words, the foreign loan-words came from the administration of the invaders and being an occupying force, they needed vocabulary that was specifically political and formal.

As mentioned earlier, the Hindi language got rid of a large part of loan-words that the Mughals and Delhi Sultanate brought along, whereas the Urdu speakers didn't.

As an example, I'm going to compare the two languages by citing a text translated into both languages. The following is the first article of the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights. (Transliterated into Latin characters).

First in Hindi:

sabhee manushyon ko gaurav aur adhikaaron ke maamale mein janmajaat svatantrata aur samaanata praapt hai . unhen buddhi aur antaraatma kee den praapt hai aur paraspar unhen bhaeechaare ke bhaav se bartaav karana chaahie .

And now in Urdu:

tamam insaan azad aur haqooq o izzat ke aitbaar se barabar peda hue hain. inhen zameer aur aqal vdiat hui hai. is liye inhen aik dosray ke sath bhai chaaray ka sulooq karna chahiye .

As you clearly see from the comparison - the two texts don't look a lot alike. In fact, they are completely different. And much of this is due to the loan-words present in the Urdu version that are replaced by words with Sanskrit roots in the Hindi version.

Just from looking at the first few words in the Urdu version, "tamam", "insaan" and "haqooq" are all loan-words from Arabic, and it continues in the same way.

Finally: Is Urdu And Hindi The Same Thing?

Many people would argue that Hindi and Urdu are the same language. And I tend to agree - to a certain extent.

Because there are important differences between the two languages too. While a script or an alphabet isn't really part of a language (it's simply a way of representing it on paper) the nature of each script makes for different pronunciations in the two languages.

And while the two languages have much in common in terms of everyday vocabulary, the above example illustrates that they can be extremely different when it comes to other, more formal registers of the languages.

Something else, which I haven't discussed in the above, however, is politics and identity. A common expression states that "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy". And there's some truth to that.

Hindi and Urdu speakers have decided that their tongues should be distinguished as separate languages. They've even gone out of their way to modify them and make them different from one another.

Other tongues, which are clearly very different, are considered as dialects, also because of politics and identity. An example of this could be Yemeni and Algerian Arabic. Or Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese.

So are Urdu and Hindi separate languages? Yes they are.

Would you be able to get by speaking Hindi to an Urdu speaker or Urdu to someone who speaks Hindi?

Yes, that would work.