Think Urdu and what are the first few images that come to your mind? A green flag? Hindi’s cousin? A man with a skullcap clad in white, saying his prayers on a mat? An ornamented white mosque, with its golden minarets and domes? The flawlessly beautiful women you see in Pakistani soap operas, in their flowy salwars, exquisite jewellery and porcelain-like skins? Well, you’re not too wrong. A refined language often associated with beauty and grace, sufis and shayars, a rich bank of vocabulary and an identity symbol for many Muslims across India – let’s explore more on Urdu.
Urdu – what and where?
The language Urdu comes from the Indo-Aryan group of languages under the Indo-European family. Spoken as a first language by nearly 70 million people, predominantly around Pakistan, India and the Middle East, it is notably the official language of Pakistan and is also officially recognised by the Constitution of India as one of its 22 official Indian languages. It is spoken by many people across India, particularly in the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Telangana and Jharkhand.
As for interesting facts, the word ‘Urdu’ was first used by the poet Ghulam Hamadani Mushafi in 1780. However, from the 13th century until the end of the 18th century, Urdu was commonly known as Hindi. The language was then also known by various other names such as Hindavi and Dehlavi.
Tracing back the links
The earliest linguistic influences in the development of Urdu probably began with the Muslim conquest of Sindh in 711. The language started evolving from the first few Farsi and Arabic influences during the invasions of the Indian subcontinent, by Persian and Turkish forces in the 11th century and then on. Since a significant number of Persian-speaking sultans ruled the Indian subcontinent for a number of centuries, Urdu was influenced by Persian and to a lesser extent, Arabic, which have contributed to about 25% of Urdu’s vocabulary.
Urdu definitely developed more during the Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526) and the Mughal Empire (1526–1858). When the Delhi Sultanate expanded southwards to the Deccan Plateau, the language was further influenced by the languages spoken in the south, by Punjabi and Haryanvi, and by Sufi and court usage. Urdu religious prose goes back several centuries, while the 18th–19th centuries were regarded as the golden period of Urdu poetry.
The newly formed speech, then called Hindvi, was also known as Zaban-e-Hind, Hindi, Zaban-e-Delhi, Rekhta, Gujari, Dakkhani, Zaban-e-Urdu-e-Mualla, Zaban-e-Urdu, or just Urdu, literally meaning ‘the language of the camp.’ Major Urdu writers continued to refer to it as Hindi or Hindvi until the beginning of the 19th century.
Association with Hindi and the Hind
Urdu and Hindi share an Indo-Aryan base, but Urdu is associated more with Persian and Arabic, especially from the calligraphy point of view, and reads right-to-left, whereas Hindi is closest to Sanskrit and reads left-to-right. Phonologically, Urdu sounds are the same as those of Hindi except for slight variations.
They are known to share similar phonological and grammatical elements. In terms of lexicon, however, they have borrowed extensively from different sources i.e. Urdu from Arabic and Persian, Hindi from Sanskrit – so they are universally recognised and treated as independent languages. Their distinction is most marked in terms of writing systems: Urdu uses a modified form of Perso-Arabic script known as Nastaliq (nastaʿlīq), while Hindi uses Devanagari.
The way forward
As a new wave of Indic Localisation is sweeping across the internet world in India at this moment, governments and companies alike, are making a painstaking effort to bridge linguistic barriers and reach out to the 90% population of India that does not communicate in English. Urdu, among Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Punjabi, Marathi and Gujarati, are some of the sought-after languages on the internet today, where the need to consume content in vernacular languages is indeed the need of the hour.
Modern Urdu, the national language of Pakistan and the tongue spoken by the many millions of people in India, has always been known for its elegant poetry-like vocabulary, its rich literature, artistic script and its graceful free-flowing manner of speaking. At the current rate of the internet adoption levels around the Indian subcontinent along with its heavy influence on Bollywood music, it will soon almost become indistinguishable from the Hindi we speak 🙂