South Asian Languages

Ellora Caves

Ellora Caves

The Department of Asian Languages and Cultures offers instruction in Hindi, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Urdu.

 Why Study Hindi?

As of 2011 there were 182 million speakers of Hindi, making it the fifth most spoken language in the world.  Outside of India, it is spoken by substantial populations in Bangladesh, the UK, the US, and thirteen other nations. Hindi has been one of the two official languages of all of India (as opposed to the many official languages of individual states) since India’s independence in 1947. Its close linguistic relative, Urdu, is the official language of Pakistan.  Hindi is also related to Bengali and Punjabi and uses the same script and shares many elements of vocabulary with Sanskrit.  The literature of Hindi is now a well-developed tradition in both prose as well as verse. It is also the main language of the Bollywood film industry, which produces an astounding number of films every year-- films that are not only popular in India and the Indian diaspora but also in the Middle East. In recent years, Bollywood films and individual artists in that industry have gained substantial international recognition.

 Why Study Punjabi?

Punjabi (also transliterated as Panjabi) is the first language of more than 28 million people in South Asia and other British Commonwealth countries. It has been in use as a literary language since the eleventh century. It is the language of the sacred scriptures of the Sikhs, the official language of the state of Punjab in India, and a language of Sikh and Sufi mysticism and of regional literature among Punjabi Muslims in Pakistan. In Canada, Punjabi is the fourth largest spoken language after English, French, and Chinese, while in the USA it is spoken by about half a million Punjabi and Sikh immigrants.  Punjabi is an Indo-Aryan language closely related to earlier forms of Hindi, and the two languages are to some extent mutually intelligible even today. Punjabi is usually written in a different but similar script to that used for Hindi, one that was devised by one of the Gurus of the Sikh religion. The Punjabi program at the University of Michigan is the oldest in the US.

 Why Study Sanskrit?

Sanskrit is the gateway to premodern, and especially pre-Islamic, India. It also served as a language of culture and religion and as a lingua franca in Central, East, and particularly Southeast Asia. It was carried into those regions along with the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism. The position of Sanskrit in Asia can be likened to that of Latin in medieval and early modern Europe. Sanskrit is recognized as one of the official languages of India and every university there has a Sanskrit department. Sanskrit is of great value to the cultural self-definition of Hindu communities that have now spread across the globe. To children of Indian cultural background, Sanskrit opens the door to their classical culture. To academic students of Sanskrit, it is a gateway to the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and to the pre-modern history of the subcontinent and beyond. Discovery of Sanskrit by the west in 1770s led to the development of Indo-European linguistics and reconstruction of the Indo-European language family and the cultural and religious pre-histories of Europe.  Thus, the historical understanding of languages such as English requires some understanding of Sanskrit. Sanskrit is also the ancestor of a number of the South Asian languages taught at the University of Michigan, including Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu.

 Why Study Tibetan?

Tibetan literature has an uninterrupted history of at least 1300 years. It includes a vast corpus of indigenous works of great value for the academic study of literary genres, religious praxis, state formation, and the development of canonical systems.  Classical Tibetan is duly famous as the medium for the largest, and most accurate, body of translations of Buddhist texts from India, the majority of which are lost in the original Indian languages. In addition to being essential for the study of Tibetan history, literature, art and religion, classical Tibetan is of scholarly value for the study of South Asian culture and history, Chinese history, and historical linguistics. Modern Tibetan is spoken by a population of approximately six million, in the Tibet Autonomous Region of the China, in other Tibetan cultural regions of China, and in the Tibetan diaspora (with speakers concentrated in India and Nepal, but found increasingly in Europe and North America). With the recent opening of Tibet to foreign travel and research, knowledge of modern Tibetan has become essential for students of any aspect of the region. There are numerous (and mutually unintelligible dialects) of modern spoken Tibetan, and the study of these dialects — essential for the study of cultural practices such as pilgrimage — is becoming an area of research at several institutions, including the University of Michigan.

 Why Study Urdu?

Dating back to the thirteenth century, Urdu is an Indo-European language closely related to Hindi, from which it is separated primarily by the script used and items of vocabulary. Urdu has been more influenced by Persian and Arabic (because of its role as the lingua franca of the Mughal dynasty), while Hindi has been more influenced by Sanskrit. Together with Persian, Urdu was the literary language of the Mughal court. Classical Urdu literature is particularly rich and extensive. Urdu is the state language of Pakistan. There are an estimated 60 million people who speak Urdu as their primary language.  If second language users are included, there are over 100 million Urdu speakers worldwide (in twenty-two countries), including over a million in the US.