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A DISCUSSION OF THE URDU LANGUAGE

A Discussion of the Urdu Language


Sarah J. Tahir
Collegium Charter School
December 2015

Author Note
Sarah J. Tahir, Collegium Charter School
This research was compiled for Portfolio II, senior year
Correspondence should be addressed to Sarah Tahir, Collegium Charter School,
535 James Hance Court, Exton, PA 19341
Contact: sarah.tahir@ccs.us

A DISCUSSION OF THE URDU LANGUAGE

Abstract
Urdu is the Rosetta Stone of South Asia. From using it to communicate in daily life to incisively
studying it in a reputable university, the language serves an immense purpose. Why? An analysis
of the Urdu language reveals a complex representation of South Asian history and culture. The
historical divide of 1947 rocked the political climate of South Asia indefinitely. In her telling
book, Violent Belongings, Kavita Daiya delves into the lack of unity evident in contemporary
South Asian society due to the aforementioned divide. This identity is marked by a religious
divide which is blaringly evident in the Urdu language. In addition to providing insight into the
complex repercussions of the divide of 1947, Urdu enables a vibrant culture of its own. Early
Urdu Literary Culture and History by leading Urdu poet and critic Shamsur Faruqi, discusses the
literary origins of and progresses made by Urdu. The implications of such development are
monolithic; the world can learn from a once scattered, constricted language now richly
developed with a unique identity of its own.

A DISCUSSION OF THE URDU LANGUAGE

Revealing South Asian History and Culture One Word at a Time:


A Discussion of the Urdu Language
Why is it that there is no way to say Hi in Urdu? Instead, the greeting used is Asalamu
Alaikum, meaning, May peace and blessings be upon you, the Islamic greeting. Hence, an
example of a language conforming to the ways of the people who identify with it. Although Urdu
is an Indo Aryan language, linguistic twins with Indias Hindi, it has formative influences which
span the scope of Sanskrit and Arabic. This paper aims to reveal how those historical and
cultural influences shaped the Urdu language to give new identity to the subcontinent in which it
is used.
Literature Review
Hannah Bradby uses sociology in her Research Note on Multilingual Settings in order
to concisely explain the Urdu language compared to Hindi and Punjabi. Hindi and Urdu are
mutually understandable in the spoken form and Punjabi is a close sister-language. Discrepancies
amongst the languages, for example in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation, have been
magnified for political and religious reasons, particularly since Pakistan became an independent
Muslim state after the divide of 1947 (Bradby 2002). Whereas Punjabi is the language of the
Sikh religion in which the holy text, the Granth Sahib is written, Urdu is the language for the
Muslim population of South Asia for including Arabic: the language of the Holy Quran.
In his book, Early Urdu Literary Culture and History, leading Urdu poet and critic
Shamsur Faruqi discusses the origins and progresses made by Urdu as a language as an integral
asset of South Asian culture for its unique emphasis on poetry. He begins by explaining how the

A DISCUSSION OF THE URDU LANGUAGE

language got its name. Early names for the language now called Urdu where Hindvi, Hindi,
Dihlavi, Gujri, Dakani, and Rekhta. Dakani was the name of the language well into the 19th
century. Faruqi uses an example of an English perspective of the language in order to provide
insight into how the language was genuinely reacted to during the time. Edward Terry
described the language in his A Voyage to East India (London. 1655) as Indostan, saying that is
was a powerful language which could say much in a few words, had a high content of Arabic and
Persian, but was written differently from Arabic and Persian (Faruqi 2001). With the advent of
the Mughal Empire over Northern India during the 18th century, Urdu meant the city of
Delhi. Urdu became the language of the Court in 1772 Shah Alam II moved to Delhi. Faruqi
continues to provide details, which include historical accounts, of the journey the language now
called Urdu took to attain its namefinally arriving to the point at which Hindustani, the name
given by the British to describe the language of the Muslim conquerors of Hindustan, became
Urdu with the largely agreed-upon definition of the word, royal camp, referring to the military
camps established under Mughal rule, and its sister name which to refers to the aforementioned
language of the Court, or, Urdu-i-mualla ki zaban. Urdu is also a Turkish word, creating
obvious ties to Islam and exemplifying the long-term linguistic effect of Indian-Persian
interaction. To summarize the views on this regal new language, Faruqi uses the sentiments of
Insha at the beginning of Darya-e latafat. Excellent speakers and narrative artists of that place
[Delhi] extracted attractive words from many [different] languages, and having made creative
appropriations in some words and texts, put together a new language, different from others, and
named it Urdu (Faruqi 2001). See Appendix A to read the earliest printed observation of Urdu.
Over time, Urdu and its poetic disposition spread over India, paralleled with the spread of Islam.

A DISCUSSION OF THE URDU LANGUAGE

In 1893, Alttaf Husain Hali (1837-1914) published his Muqaddamah-e shir o shairt (Preface
on Poems and Poetry). It was an extensive theoretical statement on the nature of poetry [it]
remains the outstanding Urdu prose critical work of the nineteenth century (Faruqi 2001).
Faruqi delves into his theory on why the Urdu language has such an emphasized place in poetry.
The answer lies in its Muslim association: the Holy Quran. It is the most powerful single
component in the matrix of Muslim literary ideas seen by all Muslim poets as the repository
of all wisdom, and also as the supreme exemplar of balaghat generally translated as
eloquence (Faruqi 2001). To read more on the Quranic theory of Urdu poetry, please refer to
Appendix B.
Author and professor Dr. Tariq Rahman published an article for The Express Tribune in
2011. In it, he discusses how Urdu got associated with Indian-Muslim identity between the late
18th and early 20th centuries. Rahman describes the movement for the linguistic purification of
Urdu as Islamisation. During this Islamisation, the Indic element which was the ancestor of
Urdu with its prevalently Sanskrit style and Indian allusions, was purged by Muslim poets.
Among the changes which occurred were: the removal of local (bhaka) and Sanskritic words,
the substitution of Iranian and Islamic cultural allusions and metaphors in place of Indian and
Hindu ones, and the replacement of the Indian conventions about the expression of love by
Persian ones (Rahman 2011). One concrete example of Islamization in found by Rahman in
poet Shah Hatims Divan Zada (1756). To preface this work he established in Persian that he had
stopped using the local idiom called bhaka. Instead, he started using the refined idiom of
Delhi, then under Islamic rule and utilizing the Hindustani vernacular of which would be referred
to as Urdu. One Persian poet who had superior influence during the 1750s was Sirajuddin Ali

A DISCUSSION OF THE URDU LANGUAGE

Khan Arzu. Rahman summarizes how Urdu got its Islamic association with the following
information. Arzu corrected an existing dictionary naming it Navadir-ul- Alfaz (1751). In this
he indicates at several places that the standard language he had in mind was that of the elite of
Delhi. And this idiom was far more Persianised and full of Islamic cultural references than the
other styles of the language spoken elsewhere. Therefore, it was this Persianized language
which became the identity marker of Muslims in India (Rahman 2011). The significance of
this movement was that it formed two distinct languages: Persianised Urdu and Sanskritized
Hindi. Rahman the article with the following inference. The process of Sanskritization started
from 1802 onwards and it was a consequence of political awareness, incipient nationalism and
reaction to Muslim cultural dominance.
Dr. Rahman also published a book called From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political
History to inform about a case where language is directly associated with nationalistic, ethnic,
and religious identity, in detail. He initiates the research with a useful guide on symbols
commonly used for Urdu, Hindi, and Persian sounds (see Appendix C for the guide). He
proceeds to assert that Urdu is not a pidgin, or a reduced language that results from extended
contact between groups of people with no language in common (Rahman 2011). Rather, when
the base language of Hindi came in contact with mainly Arabic and Persian, it absorbed enough
words, morphemes and phonemes, to a point where it became its own language with an Islamic
identity, as discussed in the article mentioned above which refers to Chapter 5 in this book. He
includes a chapter dedicated to analyzing various sources that help estimate the age of the Urdu
language. Probably the first specimen of ancient Urdu-Hindi writing available, are the legal
documents in the Devanagari script from the Rajput courtsassuming that they do go back to the

A DISCUSSION OF THE URDU LANGUAGE

twelfth century as claimed by scholars (Rahman 2011). In the next chapter, he discusses a
variety of different theories on the historiography of Urdu, coming to the conclusion that it has
been dominated by identity politics. While in Pakistan, Urdu is often associated with
pro-establishment and right-wing forces; in India it is anti-establishment and generally stands for
autonomy, identity and rights of the Muslim community (Rahman 2011). Furthering the
discussion of Urdus identity, Rahman credits many different reformers with the Islamization
of Urdu. One of these major reformers was poet Mirza Mazhar (1701-1780) who carried out
linguistic reforms in the language as a religious and political duty in order to maintain paralleled
literary traditions in both Persian and Urdu. With his contributions, Urdu poetry developed some
of the features which are largely associated with the ghazal: Persianized diction, Iranian literary
allusions, and Islamic cultural symbols (Rahman 2011).
To summarize:
What changed the identity of Urdu from a composite language of Hindus and Muslims to
a language of urban Muslims was not only the expurgation of certain words [rather]
the overall discourse became oriented to elitist Indian Muslim culture Thus the
themes, cultural references, formulaic utterances, salutations, religious allusions, and
overall atmosphere came from Islam as practiced in North India (Rahman 2011).
Rahman follows his analyses with an application of Urdu in todays South Asia; linguistic choice
is also an economic and political choice. On the blaring issue of contemporary Pakistani-Indian
divide, Rahman asserts, It is only by not losing sight of the continuities and shared cultural
features among Pakistanis and (north) Indians that we can hope to transcend the mutual hatred
which threatens to annihilate this ancient land.

A DISCUSSION OF THE URDU LANGUAGE

The climax of Muslim-Hindu tensions is accredited to the 1947 Partition of India,


creating Pakistan. In her book, Violent Belongings, Kavita Daiya discusses how the Partition
happened as a result of clashing identities. Ethnicity, often used interchangeably with race,
religion, and culture, has become and increasingly intensified site of identification In spite of
the globalizing spread of modernity, and of its avowed values of secularism, humanism, and
individualism (Daiya 2008). Ethnic riots involving Hindus and Sikhs versus Muslims
escalated all over the subcontinent. This violence combined with pressure from the Hindu and
Sikh communalist groups led the Congress Party to accept the Partition demanded by the Muslim
League. Thus, the South Asian subcontinent was free of British colonial rule and contained a
new country in August, 1947. This divide is immensely relevant to understanding the religious,
linguistic, and cultural dichotomy of South Asia today.
Discussion
Limitations of Research
The discussion of the Urdu language as a representation of South Asian history and
culture tends to be clouded by biased political views. In the Origins and Historiography
chapter of Rahmans analysis, he concludes the multitude of different theories on the ownership
of Urdu with the following reasoning. ... The narratives of ownership of Urdu are constrained
by the political realities of ones country of residence, the religious community one happens to
be born into and such other non-linguistic factors. Therefore, different people with different
circumstances will offer varying theories on Urdus origins, and it is difficult to decipher which
pieces of which are most accurate. Additionally, resources which provide detailed analyses of the
rich historical, cultural, and linguistic background of Urdu as well as their respective social and

A DISCUSSION OF THE URDU LANGUAGE

political implications are rare to find in the overwhelmingly Westernized pool of accessible
search engines. Further analyses and discussion would be an asset to any researcher or student
looking into South Asia.
Background and Application. With the divergence of Urdu as a language with its own
religious and cultural associations, the Partition of South Asia was unavoidable. There are a few
steps that can summarize how Urdu developed to be the language that marked the dichotomy of
South Asia which is still blaringly evident today. First, many Sanskritic words as well as words
of local dialect were purged out. Second, Arabic and Persian words took their place along with
Islamic literary and cultural allusions. For example, Allusions to Indian landscape were
replaced by references to an idealized and conventionalized Iranian landscape the rose and the
nightingale of Islamic, elitist culturerather than Hindi, mass culture [was] imperative
(Rahman 2011). Third, the literary and scholarly influences perpetuated the new identity of Urdu
by exclusively using its new form, creating a trend of regality and refinement that would be
associated with it. This standardization or Islamization of Urdu exacerbated a divide between
Muslims and Hindus that would ultimately result in a Muslim state, Pakistan, and an independent
India.
Conclusions and Future Study
The Urdu language reveals a complex representation of South Asian history and culture.
Its delicate Persian words, definitive Islamic parallels and vibrant Arab-inspired allusions tell the
South Asian storyone of the Mughals and conquerors, religious riots and the quest for identity.
It is imperative that detailed Urdu researches become more widely conducted and accessible for
their educational value and potential to create understanding of not only a unique language, but

A DISCUSSION OF THE URDU LANGUAGE

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also a powerful statement of ethnic, nationalistic, and religious identity amongst the profusion of
peoples that is South Asia.

References
Bradby, H. (2002). Translating culture and language: A research note on multilingual settings.
Sociology of Health & Illness, 24(6), 842-855. doi:10.1111/1467-9566.00321
Daiya, K. (2008). Violent belongings partition, gender, and national culture in postcolonial
India. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Faruqi, S. (2001). Early Urdu literary culture and history. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Rahman, T. (2011). From Hindi to Urdu: A social and political history. Karachi: Oxford
University Press.
Rahman, T. (2011, August 20). How Urdu got associated with Muslims in India. The Express
Tribune. Retrieved November 29, 2015, from
http://tribune.com.pk/story/235805/how-urdu-got-associated-with-muslims-in-india--i/

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Appendix A
Earliest Printed Observation of Urdu
The following passage from Early Urdu Literary Culture and History gives insight into how the
Urdu language was perceived and explained during its early years. It reveals observations that
describe the language as prestigious and Persian-influenced.

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Appendix B
Quranic Theory of Urdu Poetry
The following passage from Early Urdu Literary Culture and History helps explain why the
Urdu language is reputable for its poetic character, and how that character has roots in its Islamic
upbringing.

A DISCUSSION OF THE URDU LANGUAGE

Appendix C
The following symbols and sounds guide provided in From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and
Political History not only helps the reader understand common Urdu pronunciation but also
exemplifies the linguistic ties between Urdu and Arabic/Persian.

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A DISCUSSION OF THE URDU LANGUAGE

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