Ghavri: Where is Hindi-Urdu?

Dartmouth needs to offer classes in the third most spoken language worldwide.

by Anmol Ghavri | 1/25/18 12:45am

According to language reference publication “Ethnologue,” Hindi-Urdu (or Hindustani) is the third most spoken language worldwide. The Swedish-language encyclopedia “Nationalencyklopedin” places Hindi, not including the significant number of Urdu speakers, as the fourth most spoken language worldwide by native speakers. Beyond being a beautiful language with a unique history, hundreds of millions of speakers and two different scripts, Hindi-Urdu is a strategically important language for Americans for reasons including scholarship, trade and national security. Why, then, does Dartmouth not have a Hindi-Urdu Program?

Depending on who you ask, Hindi and Urdu can be classified either as a single language written in two different scripts or as two unique languages. For the most part, the two languages are mutually intelligible in spoken form. Indeed, half of my family is Indian and were taught Hindi in India, and the other half is Pakistani and was taught Urdu in Pakistan, but they can understand each other. Still, Urdu has a more significant amount of loan words from Persian, which creates a small rift between speakers of the two forms of Hindustani. In India, Hindi’s public life has become a contentious issue as rising Hindu nationalists seek to minimize the role of the Perso-Arabic and Islamicate tradition in spoken Hindi in favor of its more “pure” Sanskrit and Vedic roots. But it is really in the written form where Hindi and Urdu are divided, as Hindi is written in Devanagari script and Urdu in Nastaʿlīq, the predominant style of Persian calligraphy. Under colonialism, this division was exacerbated by the British-Indian government through issues of patronage and what the “official” language of government business would be. This would be mapped onto and co-opted by various subsets of the nationalist movement. This history is too long and interesting to chart in a short opinion piece.

Because of this division in written form, it would be a challenge to teach a Hindi-Urdu program in the same type of course sequence used for languages like French or Spanish, as two distinct scripts would have to be taught in three terms. Still, Dartmouth’s renowned language program could undoubtedly work through this problem. It already does something similar for Chinese and Arabic: Dartmouth’s three-course introductory sequence for Chinese teaches traditional Chinese for the first two courses before shifting into simplified Chinese, which is written with different characters. Likewise, introductory Arabic at Dartmouth teaches Modern Standard Arabic; despite being akin to what Shakespearean English would be to a modern English speaker, this provides a baseline for students on the LSA+ in Morocco to learn regional Arabic dialects. For a Hindi-Urdu program, Hindi could be taught first — in my experience, its script is easier to learn, so students could learn the more complicated Nastaʿlīq script already knowing spoken Hindustani.

The fact that Hindustani is still not taught at Dartmouth is emblematic of the lack of serious consideration the academy and research of South Asia receives at American universities generally and Dartmouth in particular. This is especially relevant considering the relative size and impact of South Asia. Combined, the countries of South Asia, or what was formerly British India, are the most populous in the world and contain two nuclear armed States. India itself will overtake China in population in the coming decade and currently has the second largest Muslim population worldwide, with Pakistan as a close third. Indeed, South Asia already has the world’s largest Muslim and Hindu populations and is home to several of the world’s great faiths, from Sikhism to Christianity to Buddhism.

Rebuttals to my line of argument may call me myopic in my outrage. After all, there are many subjects and issues that do not get significant attention at Dartmouth and its peers. Yet South Asia is unique given its billions of souls and its significance for multiple religious and ethnic communities. Moreover, South Asia’s nuclear arsenals and position in the so called “war on terror” make it a place of strategic interest for the United States. The subcontinent is also a key player in the global economy and has major technology and manufacturing hubs scattered throughout.

Dartmouth administrators must first gain awareness of the impact the College’s lack of South Asian studies, resources and language training have on scholars of South Asia. Currently, individual departments support scholarship of South Asia. The Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Department runs an excellent foreign study program to Hyderabad. Visiting AMES professor Nikhil Rao is teaching multiple classes this year on relevant topics in South Asian studies ranging from ethnicity and development to cities and partition. We have multiple scholars whose work engages with South Asia in departments such as anthropology, government and religion. Dartmouth’s history department also has a renowned historian of South Asia in Douglas Haynes. But without a Hindi-Urdu program, enrollment in South Asia-related courses and student engagement cannot reach its potential. Because area studies majors are generally linked to language study, without a Hindi-Urdu program, Dartmouth limits what its scholars and students of South Asia can study.

Dartmouth is alone among the Ivies without a Hindustani language program. With the proposed restructuring of the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies department, I hope that there exists the will to begin one. A Hindi-Urdu program has been considered for a while now, which is a step in the right direction. I urge Dartmouth administrators to turn that into a reality. If they really want Dartmouth to be a “global” institution with students engaged with the world, they need to understand and learn to communicate with the 1.8 billion people of South Asia. Dartmouth is renowned for its language and foreign study programs. It is time for us to begin a Hindi-Urdu program and give professors and students who study South Asia the resources and support they deserve. Only then can we help shape America’s future engagements with a rising South Asia.