Urdu is a captivating and vibrant language that holds significant importance in South Asia. With its roots deeply embedded in the Indo-Aryan family of languages, Urdu is spoken by millions of people as their mother tongue. Let’s explore the fascinating aspects of this language, its history, and its cultural significance.
Urdu is the national language of Pakistan and serves as a lingua franca in the country. It shares the status of an official language with English. In India, Urdu is recognized as an Eighth Schedule language, highlighting its cultural heritage and significance. It also has official status in various Indian states. Additionally, Urdu holds the status of a registered regional dialect in Nepal and is protected by the constitution of South Africa. While Urdu is spoken as a minority language in Afghanistan and Bangladesh, it does not have official recognition in these regions.
Urdu has been described as a Persianized register of the Hindustani language. The vocabulary, phonology, syntax, and grammar of Urdu and Hindi are quite similar, allowing for mutual intelligibility during colloquial conversations. However, as the level of formality increases, the mutual intelligibility between the two languages decreases. Formal Urdu draws heavily from Persian for its literary, political, and technical vocabulary, while formal Hindi incorporates aspects from Sanskrit.
The significance of Urdu became evident during the British colonial period. In 1837, Urdu was declared an official language of the British East India Company, replacing Persian as the language of administration in northern India. Prior to this, Persian had served as the court language for various Indo-Islamic empires. However, with religious, social, and political factors coming into play during the colonial era, a distinction between Urdu and Hindi began to emerge, leading to the Hindi-Urdu controversy.
Urdu emerged as a literary language in the 18th century, with two standard forms taking shape in Delhi and Lucknow. Since the partition of India in 1947, a third standard has developed in Karachi, Pakistan. Furthermore, an older form of Urdu known as Deccani flourished in the Deccan region and became a court language of the Deccan sultanates in the 16th century.
According to estimates from 2022, Urdu ranks as the 10th-most widely spoken language in the world, with approximately 230 million speakers, including those who speak it as a second language.
The etymology of the name “Urdu” traces back to various sources. The poet Ghulam Hamadani Mushafi first used the term “Urdu” around 1780 to refer to the Hindustani language. However, he also used the term “Hindavi” in his poetry. The word “Urdu” has its origins in the Turkic languages, where it means “army.” Another name used for the language in the past was “Hindvi,” “Hindi,” or “Hindustani.”
The historical origins of Urdu can be traced back to the Khariboli language spoken in the Delhi region. Khariboli, also known as Old Hindi or Hindavi, belongs to the Western Hindi group of the Central Indo-Aryan languages. The interaction between Hindu and Muslim cultures during the Islamic conquests in the Indian subcontinent led to the development of Hindustani, which became a product of the composite Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb (culture).
In cities like Delhi, Old Hindi started incorporating numerous Persian loanwords and came to be known as “Hindi” or “Hindustani.” Amir Khusrau, a prominent poet of the late 13th century, played a significant role in establishing a literary tradition of Hindavi. With the conquest of the Deccan and the migration of noble Muslim families to the south, the language flourished and evolved further. In the Deccan region, which encompasses present-day states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, the interaction between Persian and local languages gave rise to a distinct form of Hindustani known as Dakhini or Deccani.
During the Mughal Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, Hindustani continued to develop as a language of literature, poetry, and administration. The Mughal emperors, particularly Akbar and his successors, patronized the language and contributed to its enrichment. Persian vocabulary and literary styles heavily influenced the language, and Hindustani emerged as a vibrant blend of Persian, Arabic, and local dialects.
The Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal period also witnessed the rise of renowned poets like Mirza Ghalib and Amir Khusrau. Their works in Hindustani showcased the beauty and versatility of the language, further solidifying its position as a literary medium. Hindi and Urdu, two forms of Hindustani, began to diverge primarily due to their respective linguistic influences. Urdu incorporated more Persian and Arabic words, while Hindi drew more from Sanskrit.
However, it is important to note that the division between Hindi and Urdu as separate languages became more prominent during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with political and social factors playing a significant role. The Indian independence movement and the subsequent partition of India in 1947 led to the linguistic divide between Hindi and Urdu becoming intertwined with religious and political identities.
Despite the political divisions, Hindi and Urdu continue to share a common linguistic foundation, mutually intelligible to a large extent. Both languages coexist in various forms of media, literature, and everyday conversation. In contemporary India, Hindi serves as the official language and is widely spoken, while Urdu is predominantly spoken by the Muslim population and has official status in certain states.
The historical evolution of Hindustani, its incorporation of Persian loanwords, and the subsequent development of Hindi and Urdu highlight the rich cultural and linguistic heritage of the Indian subcontinent. This linguistic fusion has contributed to the diversity and depth of the region’s literature, poetry, and artistic expressions, making Hindustani a symbol of unity amidst its linguistic variations.