Urdu/ Hindi are often referred to in legal documents and common usage as distinct languages. But linguistically, they are said to be two registers of the Hindustani language, in fact, sometimes as two forms of the same dialect of the Hindustani language. In informal settings, people who consider themselves Hindi speakers and Urdu speakers essentially speak the same language. In formal settings, Urdu uses lots of Persian and Arabic origin words, while Hindi uses a lot of Sanskrit origin words.

But if that is the case, how can someone grow up speaking Hindi or Urdu as the first language? Both "Urdu speakers" and "Hindi speakers" grow up speaking the same language, which is Hindustani, and use one or both of the formal registers in formal settings.

That way, does the statistic "number of native speakers" even make sense for a register? And if it does under certain circumstances, does the case of Urdu and Hindi fall in one of those circumstances and how? How does Ethnologue come up with its numbers mentioned on Wikipedia for Urdu and Hindi?

One possibility that comes to my mind is, these are just the number of people who report "Hindi" or "Urdu" when someone asks their mother tongue, going by the idea that "a language is just a dialect with a navy". I agree that can be sensible in many cases and for many purposes.

But I want to know, whether purely defined as a language that someone grows up speaking when very young, it makes sense to assign numbers to native Hindi or Urdu speakers, since no one grows up speaking the formal registers. At least no one I know who reports Hindi or Urdu in the census of India speaks Hindi or Urdu in daily life, all of them speak Hindustani which cannot be distinguished into Hindi or Urdu in any easy way.

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The numbers are self reported, so one can't argue with what people identify as. The technical terms like language/dialect/register don't mean anything.

The situation with Hindi and Urdu is more intriguing due to two things. Firstly, these registers have labels, so people have a way of identifying it. Secondly, its highly politically motivated - hardly any Hindu reports as Urdu speaker and hardly any Muslim reports as Hindi speaker.

Compare this with languages like Malayalam, Tamil and Bengali where there are significant number of Muslims who speak the same language as Hindus. They all simply report it as Malayalam, Tamil or Bengali because there is no label attached to the slightly different registers used by different communities, although native speakers can instantly identify the person by the idiosyncracies of the language used, and even colloquially label it as Muslim X and Hindu X.

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