The Language of Law and Bureaucracy

Pictured: Bilingual Arabic and Urdu inscriptions, Hazrat Kamar Ali Darvesh Dargah, outside Pune. Photograph by Walter Hakala.

Title: The Language of Law and Bureaucracy
Insight article by Rebecca Dingle, BA ’22, The Baldy Center Staff
Keywords: language, Hindi, Urdu, India, vernacular, writing, literature.

Published May 11, 2022

When it comes to deciding what language to use when recording laws or writing official documents, most would agree it makes sense to use whichever language is used by the majority of the population. But what happens when the language used by the government and the elite is different than the language used by the people? 

Walter N. Hakala.

Walter N. Hakala, PhD

Walter N. Hakala  studies this phenomenon in India. Hakala is the recipient of  The Baldy Center Research Award, 2018-2019,  for his project “Imperial Legitimation and the Vernacular Public Text in South Asia”. The grant helped to support research trips to the Indian states of Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Gujarat. This article is about Hakala's reasearch.

The Mughal Empire ruled over a large portion of South Asia, including what is now India, from the early 16th to mid-19th century. During the Mughal reign, Sanskrit and Persian were the languages associated with the ruling class and elites, while the masses spoke languages such as Hindi-Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi, Panjabi, and Bengali. Hakala explains that since the ruling class and elites used Sanskrit and Persian as the main languages of written communication, they are also the main languages found on many of the stone inscriptions from the time. Because of the use of these elite languages, commoners who were literate in the languages of the masses were often unable to read inscriptions or writing prepared on rock or other hard surfaces. According to Hakala, this wasn’t a concern at the time, as the signs often weren’t meant for anyone outside of the elites who were able to read them. When it came to signs that did concern ordinary people, such as those warning against trespassing or theft, images that depicted what would happen to trespassers were often added as a deterrent.

From the middle of the 18th century, the British East India Company began to assert control over much of the Indian subcontinent. This British-controlled trading company, Hakala states, “was interested in reaching as large a market as possible and increas[ing] trade between India and the United Kingdom.” While the rulers of the Mughal Empire had been more concerned with communicating with other elites, due to the East India Company’s aspirations for a stronger hold on trade in the area, their focus was on reaching a broader range of people. This goal of reaching a larger audience played a role in the shift of languages found on public inscriptions from classical languages such as Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic, to the vernacular, spoken languages such as Hindi-Urdu. Other factors that lead to this shift include a 19th century rise in literacy in the vernacular languages, especially among some populations, such as women, who have traditionally had little access to formal educational services.

Answering questions about whom rulers choose to communicate with, which populations they are content to ignore, and what it means when writing in public spaces changes from a medium of communication aimed solely at elites to one intended to reach a broader public can help inform our views of historical and modern policies. By tracing the languages used to make public proclamations about law and policy, we can learn more about the mindset of governing officials and the societies in which they rule, as well as how these practices unfold. Hakala continues to study the shift in the languages of public spaces in South Asia, as well as its importance to language, policy, culture, and the people.

Biography: Walter N. Hakala is an associate professor in the Department of English at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. He is the author of Negotiating Languages: Urdu, Hindi, and the Definition of South Asia (Columbia University Press, 2016; Primus, 2017) and has published articles on coffee in 18th-century Delhi, language in Afghanistan, and South Asian lexicography. His current project is a survey of Urdu epigraphy.

On Twitter: @WNHakala

Faculty Profile: 
Walter Hakala, Department of English, University at Buffalo


Bilingual English and Urdu inscriptions on Nizam-era Gateway, Jalna (Maharashtra). Photograph by Walter Hakala, 2019.