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"Hindi" vs. "Urdu" - A perspective from Punjabi

I am of the opinion that it is a bit of a shame to the extent that a lot of people think "Hindi" and "Urdu" are rather different languages. That is to say: It seems to me (observation, opinion) that even many people who say that they are similar or nearly the same at one "level" nonetheless maintain that they are significantly different at some other level. I really think that, while it is certainly possible to distinguish registers of language use, to distinguish dialects, and to distinguish the particularities of language use among speakers in certain social communities—for example West Los Angeles surfers vs. East Los Angeles Chicanos—these differences don't merit speaking about them as if they were so different. Both the West LA surfers and East LA Chicanos are speaking English. (And there is probably a greater difference in their language use than between "Urdu" and "Hindi" speakers!) The exaggerated (I think) perception of difference has so much to do with politics, of nationality and religion. Yes, and of course writing system/script factors in.

Anyway, my opinion aside: I thought a comparison to Punjabi might be interesting for some people to consider.

Punjabi is in the same boat in terms of script, nationality, and religious heritage. And yet... Punjabi speakers manage to see their language as ONE language, "Punjabi," and don't imagine there being two different things.

Punjabi in India is written in Gurmukhi script, which descends from the same family of scripts as Devanagari. Punjabi in Pakistan is written in the Arabic alphabet—for all intents and purposes, identically to how Urdu is written.

Numerically, the greater number of Punjabi speakers are located in Pakistan. In fact, Punjabi is the "mother tongue" of the largest number of people in Pakistan though it tends to receive less official recognition as Urdu. (Urdu is by far the minority mother tongue of Pakistan.) Pakistani Punjabis speak Punjabi but use Urdu in written communication and in education. Punjabi in India receives recognition as the state language of the currently small Punjab state.

Because Pakistan is majority Muslim, Punjabi speakers there have a greater exposure to a heritage of Perso-Arabic words in their literary tradition. In India, more Punjabi speakers are Sikh and Hindu, and their literary tradition includes more "Sanskritic" words. While Punjabi is popularly associated with Sikhs—because Sikhs have been vocal about championing the language—I believe there are more Hindu speakers of Punjabi than there are Sikhs. There is a very famous phenomenon of language politics that occurred in India whereby some Hindu speakers of Punjabi either convinced themselves that their language was Hindi or where they made the choice to claim they were Hindi speakers for the purpose of politics. In 1966 (most notably), the state in India called "Punjab" was substantially reduced when enough Hindu speakers of Punjabi, in the states now called Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, told census collectors that their language was "Hindi" when in fact their mother tongue was Punjabi! On the basis of this census, a small Punjab state was carved from the region where Sikhs (who said they speak Punjabi) predominated. Punjabi dialects extend down to Delhi, where the number of speakers is so great that public signage includes Punjabi.

Back to the main point: So far as people speak Punjabi in Pakistan and India, in Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, etc. communities, it is all "Punjabi." People don't say there is "Muslim Punjabi" or "Hindu Punjabi" etc. When one reads a Punjabi text produced in Pakistan and then a Punjabi text in India, one is experiencing the same sociolect difference that one experiences reading "Urdu" and "Hindi."

In short: There is something worth considering about how some people want to distinguish Urdu and Hindi whereas fewer people want to distinguish two different Punjabi-s.

The same might be observed for Sindhi and some other languages that people here might have knowledge of.

Does this speak to a greater desire, by speakers of "Hindustani" to want to divide themselves and a desire by speakers of Punjabi to want to see themselves as a unified linguistic community. I don't know!

It does have an effect though. Because Punjabis don't "split" their language, there have not been attempts to make the Hindu/Sikh Punjabis' language "more Indic" or to make the Muslim speakers' "more Arabic." The differences in sociolect are more "natural" (I think), rather than the result of the politics of educators, media creators, etc. manufacturing a divide.

Your thoughts?

August 10, 2018



Hi, this is very interesting. Although, I'd like to comment with my thoughts here. If a fluent Hindi speaker and a fluent Urdu speaker met, they would understand each other, right? But what about, when the Urdu speaker wants to read Hindi literature or articles, and the Hindi reader wants to read Urdu literature or articles? All political and religious divisions aside, they would have to learn a new way of reading and writing. Maybe a challenge but it CAN be done, I suppose. Learning languages should help enable people to appreciate each other better and avoid pointless divisions.


...Yes, but that is the same with Punjabi. Moreover, the Gurmukhi script is different from the Devanagari script.


Yes, I completely agree with you! We often collectively think of Hindi and Urdu as two separate languages, when I would say that Hindi/Urdu or Hindustani is really just one language. What I think is especially interesting is how Indian Hindi is often lumped together as definitely one language - all the way from Rajasthan to Bihar. Is Marwari really still Hindi? Within India, I think the dialect/language line is very blurred around many Hindi "dialects," but people tend to not think about that and just lump it all together. But then you come across Urdu, which is essentially just another "Hindi dialect" like all the other ones inside of India, but people are convinced it is another language. I think this contrast is interesting: how dialects in India aren't really paid attention to too much, but how THIS dialect is suddenly a completely new language! So why do we think of Hindi and Urdu as separate languages? I believe it is precisely because we have a linguistic distinction between the two - we have two different words for them. I think because of this, we are able to more easily talk about "Hindustani" specifically from Pakistan or from India and this slowly causes us to really separate them in our minds. It is also MORE difficult to talk about it as a whole (from Pakistan and India). Yes, you can say "Hindi/Urdu" but that's long (and still implies some distinction), and you can say "Hindustani" but that term is less common I think, especially in the West. Another contributing factor I think is the governments. Arguably, the main language of India is Hindi and the main language of Pakistan is Urdu. Because these two words have become so strongly associated with two SEPARATE governments (and two separate governments that aren't really that friendly), I think that this has helped create more SEPARATION between the two words "Hindi" and "Urdu." And again, I think it is this verbal distinction that has greatly contributed to our belief that they are two languages. This government theory also explains why Punjabi (as neither the "main" government language of India or Pakistan or any country) has not been separated in our minds, despite the script differences. It also explains why something like Marwari, arguably a dialect of Hindi (like Urdu) has not been separated from Hindi in our minds the same way Urdu has. However, I would still definitely say that the difference in script contributes to this separation we have made in our minds. However, while I think this contributes, it is clearly not the only reason since a script difference has not made us think of Punjabi as two separate languages.

Wow, okay, I just wrote longer than I thought! Disclaimer: I don't actually speak Hindi :) just a language-geek interested in India. I do have a question for Hindustani-speakers, though. How different is Marwari (or other Indian dialects of Hindi) from "standard" Hindi? And how different is Urdu? Are these Indian dialects more different or is Urdu more different? Just curious :)


Very informative/enlightening commentary. Thanks! Language is our main communication tool and a very personal one, tied to our multiple cultural/religious/national identities. As a tool, it can used politically, to either unite or divide us, and unfortunately it feels like the later is having the upper hand.


This phenomenon is known in other parts of the world, too.

Serbo-Croatian is one language, divided largely into two countries, two religions, and two writing systems, but with overlap into several neighboring countries, and an admixture of other religions.

Flemish is very nearly Dutch, but they cannot agree on a dictionary because the Flemings in Belgium refuse to use any spelling that looks like French, spoken by Walloons. Meanwhile the Dutch refuse to use any spelling that looks like German. There is also Catholic/Calvinist divide that roughly matches the national boundaries.

Mongol is written in one of the old Mongolian scripts in China/Inner Mongolia, and in Cyrillic in the former Soviet Republic/Outer Mongolia.

Then you have the oddity in the USA, where Noah Webster deliberately changed various spellings in his famous original dictionary, including theatre/theater and colour/color, just to separate American English from British English. Since then, new words in the two countries have often been quite different, like lift/elevator or lorry/truck.

In the last century, Turkish switched from writing in Arabic script to the Latin alphabet. Since then hundreds of other language communities have had to decide whether to stay with Cyrillic or make switches from Cyrillic to Arabic or Latin.

One of the oddest cases is Pali, the language of the early Buddhist scriptures. Pali has been written in many writing systems, and is still in use in the writing systems of Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma. They were transcribed into Devanagari, and also translated to Sanskrit, which again was written in several scripts. European scholars have preferred to work with transliterations to the Latin alphabet.

I have friends on various sides of many of these confusions, including Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs in India and elsewhere; Muslims who speak Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and other languages; and various others.


Lingot for a comprehensive essay


I'm with you, Hindi & Urdu are basically two registers of the same language. The distinction is political & relatively recent. Before Indian\Pakistani independence, there was no distinction - the language was "Hindustani". It was arguably the Indian government adopting it as the national language & standardising it that leads to them being seen as seperate, they really aren't in actual practice. More technical from Sanscipt & Persian that is the only real difference are arguably being replaced by English in both.


I’m learning modern Hindustani. I’ve been told that it is an educated Bollywood Hindi. Many Pakistanis claim my manner of speech is more Urdu than Hindi. However, I only know Devanagari, and I only study Hindi. Throughout my studies I come across many Hindi words that are out of date and the general population now either uses an English or Urdu word instead. I think time is morphing these 3 languages into one. You can call it Hindi or Urdu, but it is the same languages, that language being a combination of English, Old Hindi and Old Urdu.


Let's see if this comment works the second time around. I cake across this post while researching the difference between Punjabi and Hindi. Isn't the internet wonderful? However, I digress: When I was in high school, I was working with hard of hearing kids. There were two Urdu speaking 1st graders who I worked with and I had a Hindi music CD. I played it for them and there was no convincing them it wasn't Urdu. I've thought about it over the years, but never really researched it. I just figured they were probably similar.

Thanks for the cool post!


I agree with what you've written. The division is definitely more political and religious than linguistic. Perhaps Hindustani suffered from being the most widely spoken language of the undivided India, and thus receiving the same fate as the states of Bengal and Punjab (that is, division along religious lines, into east and west regions). Urdu, the Persianized register, was made the official language of British India, and then subsequently Hindi, the Sanskritized register, was given the equivalent status in United Provinces. Being a language of the official matters of the British government in India, it was more prone to conflict. Whereas, even though Punjab itself was divided, Punjabi never faced this conflict of officialdom (please correct me if I'm wrong here), thus saving it from the kind of divisive politics that Hindustani went through. (This is speculation on my part.)


Yes, I think what you said about Hindustani being split up (like Bengali and Punjabi) is really interesting! Because I do sort of separate Hindi and Urdu in my mind, I never made the comparison to Bengali and Punjabi in terms of the religious lines splitting up more similar linguistic communities.


Just to clarify, I did not mean the division of the languages Bengali and Punjabi but division of the states of Bengal into East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and West Bengal, and Punjab into East Punjab and West Punjab (now in Pakistan).


Yes, but it is almost the same discussion and I think the same comparisons can be drawn


Really interesting stuff ! I had no idea about many of the things mentioned here.


Another thing: many people outside and inside India consider Hindi the "Hindu" language and Urdu the "Muslim" language. My mom, a speaker of "Hindi", feels that she can't understand "Urdu" (this is simply not the case). Great essay though! Have a few lingots.


I’m an Indian Muslim, and am fluent in Urdu and Hindi, among other languages. I don’t think language has a religion. Of course, if you ask me to choose one language, I would choose Urdu, no doubt about it. But not because I’m a Muslim, but because Urdu, to me, sounds better and gives you a better chance to learn languages such as Arabic, Persian and Turkish. Of course, Punjabi and Hindi can be mastered by any Urdu speaker in less than a month!

[deactivated user]

    This is a very interesting post. I didn't even know that Punjabi may be also written in the Nastaliq script.


    If you're interested in contributing to adding Urdu to Duolingo - comment/vote on the following post! https://forum.duolingo.com/comment/8699437 also try to apply to becoming a contributor for "Urdu" for "English" Speakers! Here: https://incubator.duolingo.com/apply


    two thoughts come to my head, but to preface first, I'm also Punjabi though I can't speak it, i understand much of what is said and I'm fluent in Urdu.

    The first thought that comes to mind is the statement that a language is a dialect with an army, or in this case, a nationality. I compare this to Scots, and I think the comparison is apt. Personally, when I was watching a pure Hindi movie... well I gave up when I had no idea what the Hell they were saying for the first 10 minutes xd. This makes sense, of course, the movie was about war and Urdu and Hindi are pretty different in vocabulary when it comes to things like nations, kings, and wars. But I didn't understand it the same way I don't understand Scots. I'll understand the sentence structure, and 80% of the words, but the words that are missing are integral to the understanding. Scots is arguably its own language in the same way Urdu and Hindi are separate languages in my opinion, it's just Scots has no nation, or rather, it does but within another nation.

    My second thought is that Punjabi would too be separated if Pakistan chose it as its unifying tongue. Punjabi already has several diverse dialects, even within the city of Lahore where I was born, if you go within the inner city walls, there is a significant dialect shift. There could be a case made for Punjabi being another language entirely and it would likely be considered one if it was a national language.


    Aside from anything political - I am learning Hindi. Everybody learns differently. I learnt at the beginning with pure Hindi so thats the way I like to keep learning otherwise i get very confused. I know that Urdu is used a lot and i'd like to learn more later. But for now it's too confusing as a lot of words are different.


    I have been learning Hindi for a while now... and just from a very simple perspective... when I learn it's too confusing for me to learn Urdu words on top of or instead of Hindi words. So I always ask my teachers for '"Hindi". It's not that I'm against Urdu, but only because of the way I like to learn - one language at a time. Other people are different. And still I am learning some Urdu words as sometimes they are used so much with Hindi. So thats ok. But I just try to keep things as simple as possible for the way I learn - just a personal way I guess. Sometimes I'll ask my teachers - is that Hindi or Urdu? as you can often tell. And if Urdu I'll ask for the Hindi word as well, just so I know. So that's just me. I understand that a lot of these replies are on a deeper level. ;-)


    It is both logical and linguistically correct to count "Hindi" and "Urdu" as registers of the same language.

    If we look at history, we realize that they are both artificial modifications (Sanskritization, Arabacization) of shared parent language, mainly for political reasons. It is owing to the political history that each variety and script got a religious association. Unfortunately, the divide has only been furthered post-Independence.

    There have obviously been different varieties of the parent language, but they present a more complex (but realistic) picture than the simplistic Hindu vs. Muslim version of it. This view is informed by a number of factors like professional identities, social class, and the obvious - the geographic region you belong to.

    At the end of the day, a language is just a group of people who agree to understand each other. Sadly, that has not been the case for India and Pakistan as nations, but the people, who do "understand" each other (talking both literally and metaphorically here) can make a difference. I am personally in favor of and willing to contribute in any way possible to bridge the artificial divides we've created and furthered mostly for political gains, and that is partly why I have long advocated the teaching of both the scripts for Hindi/Urdu on Duolingo.

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