Urdu and its origins

Often, when I see ‘Indian Idol’ I take notice of the complaints by the eminent judges that the contestant is not pronouncing the Urdu language properly. Javed Akhtar’s countenance changes, his brows wrinkle, his face takes on an indignant frown and he lets loose a tough sermon to the nervous singer in front.

I can imagine that Javed Bhai was severely lectured on this by his illustrious father the Urdu poet Jan Nisar Akhtar and his famous uncles and his grandfather, all of whom were great Urdu poets. I mean no disrespect to any of these people; I hold them all in greatest regard. However, I wanted to share with you all some details on how the language evolved, from its origins as a language meant to be spoken by the lowly soldiers in the Islamic ruler’s military. I have to make a comment here, which is..... It is after all a camp soldier’s language that morphed into the poet’s language. As a mixture of a number of languages, corrupted over time, could it ever have ‘a’ correct pronunciation? A Turk would balk at the way a Turkish component in Urdu is pronounced, so also an Arab would frown at the Arab word as pronounced in Urdu!!

Now how would I ever know about all these? It takes me back to the 51/2 years I spent in Turkey. Many people there would ask me ‘you speak Urdu’? Did you know that Urdu evolved from Turkish? Some would say – Urdu is not how it was called originally, it was Urduca (Urduja if phonetically spelt) or soldier’s language. Then I came across a very interesting person, an ex Ambassador of India in Turkey, Mr Gajendra Singh who had done his doctorate on this very subject. He provided me with a copy of an article written by him ‘contribution of Turkic languages to Hindustani languages’ which I then read with great interest.

Starting with Mahmud of Ghazni (971-1030AD), Urdu grew to lay its roots in the North West and Central India. It evolved over the last two centuries and soon became a base for poetry in the North of India and Pakistan. The mogul courts used basically two languages, Persian or Farsi and the religious language which was Arabic. The sultans themselves spoke Turkish (or a Turkic variant). Urdu or Ordu means tent or army and Urduca was thus the language of the army. This ‘Lashkarai Zaban’ or Zaban e Ordu was needed for the armies of India, armies that often comprised soldiers with various native mother tongues from diverse regions of the Middle East & India. Hence, Urdu evolved to become the chosen language to address these soldiers as it abridged several base languages.

Urdu later enjoyed commanding status in the literary courts of late Muslim rulers and Nawabs, and flourished under their patronage, partially displacing Persian as the language of elite in the then Indian society.

Mir Amman of Dihli (1804) explains the origins in the preface of his popular Urdu book ‘Bagh O Bahar’ – (Extracted from J Muir’s Origin & history of the people of India Vol2 pg 6)

I have heard the following from my ancestors – The city of Delhi has existed in the opinion of Hindus for the last four yugas. It was inhabited of old by the kings with their subjects, who spoke their own dialects. A thousand years ago, the rule of the Mussalman’s began. Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni came. Then the Ghori and Lodi dynasties held sway. In consequence of this intercourse, a certain mixture of the languages of the Mussalmans and Hindus took place. At length, Amir Taimur conqured Hindustan. In consequence of his arrival and residence, the bazaar of the army was introduced into the city and the bazaar of the city came in consequence to be called Urdu. When King Akbar acceded to the throne, all races, learning the liberty of that unequalled family and patronage of merit gathered round his court from all the surrounding countries. But the language of all the people were different. From their being collected together, trafficking together and talking with each other, a camp (Urdu) language became established. At length the Urdu language being gradually polished attained such a degree of refinement that no speech of the city can vie with it.

The Encyclopedia Britannica by Chisholm states that it is the dialect of prose, rather than poetry. But over time Urdu got heavily Persian’ized. It is interesting to note that this happened due to the Hindu’s in the Mughal courts and due to their apparent intent to please their rulers who spoke mainly Farsi or Persian. The formal prose took shape in the College of Fort William when text books had to be written in early 19th century for the new Soldiers of the British army. The recent forms are mainly due to the loading of Arabic and even more Farsi words into that Urdu by the users in Lucknow. The present form of Hindi was also apparently due to the teachers at Fort William, adopted to teach the Hindu soldiers. But the naturally adapted version of Urdu became popular with poets.

Today when you hear the adab’s and takalluf’s, think a bit of the rough and tough of the battle field – for that is also where all this politeness and polish of tongue was perfected. The word horde comes from Ordu – Army!! Interesting, isn’t it?

Pic – Battle of Haldighati – Historical Rajasthan


Anonymous said...

Very interesting indeed. Arguably, the language, like most other languages has evolved after going through rigorous spells of conquests and migrations, which in turn were responsible for its pejoration as well as amelioration.

That apart, I do agree with Javed Akhtar (ji?! :P)'s insistence on the right pronunciation. Not so much for the poetic flow, but whether it's a harsh expletive or a sweet nothing, you need to have your pronunciation & intonation right.

That's another reason anglicized pronunciations of vernacular languages infuriate me. Especially when contrived, but I digress.

Very informative post. Here's something I came across, though I can't comment on the veracity of the source/article.

Thanks for letting me use your space ;)


Anonymous said...

Forgot to post the link:



Maddy said...

thanks gauri - I do not disagree.. but the point still is - As a mixture of a number of languages, corrupted over time, could Urdu ever have ‘a’ correct pronunciation?

Why i make this comment is because my Turkish colleague kept on correcting me whenever i used Hindi-Urdu words to exemplify our conversation saying that i was pronouncing it wrong from a Turkish perspective (Though it was how it was pronounced in our part of the world and according Javed Bhai's likes).

Maddy said...

The attached link was very interesting indeed...

P.N. Subramanian said...

adaab arz hai. Thank you for the nice post which has made me more knowledgeable.


That was simply lovely - I did enjoy reading it. Did you know that 'khaki' is an Urdu word meaning dust coloured? There may be many more such words in English.

But then English is a language that evolves by absorption. And differing pronounciations too.

Anonymous said...

//As a mixture of a number of languages, corrupted over time, could Urdu ever have ‘a’ correct pronunciation?//

Over a period of time, no. At any given point in time, yes. Of course, discounting valid multiple pronunciations at that point, like sugges-shun and sugges-chun.

Every language originates from one source, and then evolves because of various influential factors we spoke of before. Even English, for that matter originated from German (yes!). Then there were so many other influences Saxon, Celtic, Norse...

Even as we speak, it's evolving. Infuriating expressions (subjective, of course) like "my bad", which really make me squirm, are on their way to being official, if they aren't already. At one point, a Grammarian would have brought the world down, but our kids and their kids are going to be using these as they've always been right - and they will be, by then.

But for Urdu, in particular - the most common pronunciation mistake is, according to me the 'k' Vs 'q' (Qaboo / Inteqaam) - Indians tend to pronounce it like a velar plosive, like in 'kidhar' - it's actually an uvular sound, further behind.

Alright, I think you're going to ban me from your blog now. You happened to write on something I'm really passionate about. Sorry for the long comment. You have an interesting set of articles, will get to them one by one (and won't comment on all, promise! ;) ).


Maddy said...

Thanks again for the comments, On the contrary Gauri, i am delighted with the educated responses. I would definitely look forward to more comments on all the blogs you find worthy of commenting!!

did u see this one?

Anonymous said...

hey maddy,

enjoyed this one. enjoyed you diverting away from history ! :o))

also had missed the one on "anyways". i enjoyed that one more as "anyways" never fails to irk me !


Cynic in Wonderland said...

this is fascinating. that is the reason probabaly that if one hears any of the languages or the middle east -turkey - it gives a sense of familiarity ( even if one doesnt actually understand the words).

Maddy said...

aha venu i get the point - i am starting to hear similar comments at home too and hope i can move away from my preoccupation with history - even though it still is fascinating..

cynic - yup this blending and mixing of dialects and languages is quite interesting. Though there are some 3000 or so Turkish words in Urdu & colloquial Hindi, it took me months to identify many as they are sometimes very differently intonated in Turkish..

Sunita Mohan said...

Very interesting! If a rough and tough soldier's invective-laden tongue can be transformed into poetry, just imagine other possibilities.... the mind boggles!
With American English being increasingly adopted as the language of the day over the Queen's English, I dont know why we even bother wondering about 'correct' pronounciations.
I think that the tendency to irk is exactly what the originators of these words strive for anyways (sorry... couldn't resist that)! Think teens and early-20s and you've got the 'culprits'. Culprits? Hmmm, I wonder. I think they're more of word-artists. Some great, some terrible. Just think what a boring language we would be mouthing minus the colourful phrases added on at various points of time.
I'm all for new words and distortions in existing ones. What can I say? I dont think I've outgrown my rebellious teen spirit ... which irks my teenaged son no end. Ha! Turnaround's fair play!

Happy Kitten said...

That was a good one..

I realized I can read Urdu since I can read Arabic!

I hear we have now "minglish" too.. so even our Malayalam is evolving!

Maddy said...

Thanks Sunita - Queens English is still fun right? But in a way you are on the dot. Change usually adds a lot of fun. I find it difficult to accept change with English though and hardly understand how some of today's usages have evolved, but well we have to.

Thanks PNS and Raji - Hobson Jobson is the book to refer, if you have not tried it..

HK - Thanks and as you pointed out Malayalam too is undergoing change though I hate the usage 'adichu polichu' or adipoli..What rubbish. But Manglish is OK, and one of the popular user's of Manglish - Ranjini of Idea Star singer a favorite..

Happy Kitten said...

Don't know why I cant stand the "Manglish" of Ranjini... We are told that she used to speak perfect Malayalam until she went to UK...

madraskaapi said...

informative post, and well presented too.

i don't have info to agree/disagree wrt to the pronunciation of urdu words, but most of the urdu words (that i have heard of) are very sweet sounding.

Maddy said...

hk - she got affected by the queen and her English - you see!!! ippol malayalam rajchkneekarichu (queenikarichu - when written in malayalam it funnily becomes rajnikarichu)

thanks madraskaapi...wish i could get a madras kaapi now!!

harimohan said...

tks maddy
quite informative ,the links too,i love hearing urdhu though i cant speak a word ,the question came in our hosp where there are a lot of pakistani colleagues and my search was quite intresting indeed

Anonymous said...

You are very right. There can't be a "single" correct pronunciation in Urdu, because of the way it originated and grew...

Thanks a ton for this brilliant piece of writing...

windwheel said...

Your stay in Turkey gives you a unique perspective. I recall Dr. Gajendra Singh was a real gentleman and scholar after the fashion of those times- i.e. doing some real research and using common sense, not just a cookie cutter PhD filled with jargon.
It is strange that few Turkish rulers sponsored Turki to the same extent as they patronized Persian. One consequence was that writing Turkish in Islamic script became difficult and counter-intuitive. Kemal Ataturk was able to raise literacy from just 10 percent to something like 70 percent by switching to Latin alphabet- perhaps on the advice of the great John Dewey. Mao also tried similar reforms.
I don't know the reason for the Turk's partiality for Persian. Maybe, after Iran became Shia, the Turks had no option but to turn their eyes to Europe. Still, even when the Ottomans were at war with the Persians, the Caliph wrote Persian poetry while the 'Grand Sophy' (that dynasty was or Turkic origin) lambasted his rival in Turkish. Babur, of course, wrote in Turkish- but he was chased out of his beloved Ferghana by the Uzbeks and had to lord it over the zari speaking Pathans and sabak-e-hindi Indians. Later, Nadir Shah offered to speak Turkish to his Moghul captive- but even use of that language could not soften that stony hearted 'Zalim'!
Incidentally, 'Ashraf'- i.e. foreign origin- Muslims were still labelled 'Hindustani' by more recent immigrants. Perhaps, this is a universal phenomenon. The British also discriminated against 'country bottled' Whites, however pure their English lineage- which is why kids had to be sent back for Schooling in England!
Interestingly, now in London, the new billionaires who are recent immigrants and naturalized citizens look down on the older Hindu immigrants- especially those who came from Uganda! Within Hinduism, this sort of sub-caste distinction was especially prevalent in Bengal leading to 'kulinism'!
It is very interesting that you mention Fort William as having a pivotal importance in determining the 'pukka' form of Hindi and Urdu.
In this context I would make the following 3 points which may be of interest
1) Currently, Indian Muslims are divided into 2 categories- those who go to madrasas and those in mainstream schools. The latter learn Arabic script but find reading in the local script or English easier. They are often of more 'khandani' families and learn 'polite' pronunciation as part of good breeding. Those who go to madrasas, on the other hand, for whom Urdu writing on theological topics is of vital interest, are now changing their pronunciation so as to sound more 'Arabic' and they are also changing the rules of grammar for the same purpose. Prof. C.M. Naim, in his articles for Outlook, has drawn attention to this.

windwheel said...

2) Even before, the Urdu camp was divided according to the prestige enjoyed by different Cities. Delhi claimed superiority but it was destroyed by the Mutiny. Lucknow was always considered somewhat too luxury loving and effete. Aligarh tried to revive the old Delhi style but it was condemned by people like Maulana Azad as 'English-loving'. Meanwhile, the British built up Lahore as a centre for 'Orientalist' traditionalism. Arnold, the chief Education officer concerned with this, even considered converting to Islam. However, Lahori Urdu was considered to have an earthy 'Punjabi' flavour. Even Iqbal was accused of 'Punjabism'. Poor fellow, he took up Persian- but it wasn't his ancestral heritage so, till recently, he was neglected by the Iranis. This caused him much heart-ache because the Persians loved Tagore and showered awards upon him.
Hyderabad could and perhaps should have emerged as the next centre for Urdu but the Court was riven with factions. The older 'Munshi' types hated the new Aligarh graduates and both combined to deprecate the native 'Dakkani' jargon which South Indian people of my father's generation still recall- though to speak it was to mark oneself a 'badava'.
3)Pakistani Urdu is considered a mark of low breeding by Indian Kashmiri Muslims. I discovered this for myself some years ago. I went to a shop in Janpath (Delhi) to buy some kurta-pajama etc. Since there were no other customers, the owner served me himself. Thinking I could drive a better bargain if I spoke Urdu rather than English, I chatted to him a little. His manner was cold. Good! I thought to myself. I can now price some items without being obliged to purchase them. So, I asked the price of a nice embroidered jacket. He said 'no, it is not for you.' I said 'why not?' 'It is for ladies. See the buttons are on the wrong side. Look, I'm a merchant- it is my job to make a sale. I could easily have the buttons restitched. But you will look ridiculous. This is the type of coat you can wear' He pointed to some garments fit for Jail under-trials or Executioners.
I then saw a shawl and said 'for my Mother.' He snatched it from me- 'not for respectable women-'- then he showed me some paschminas fit for widows found guilty of throttling their own starving babies.
In the end I bought some plain Pajama-kurta and some Hindu type of Religious shawls for my parents.
Once I had paid- he offered me tea and said- where are you from in Pakistan. I said, I'm an Iyer South Indian and went to school at St. Columba's which is ten minutes walk from here. Because I live in London, I've picked up Pakistani accent- otherwise I am a Madrasi as you can see.'
Then he relaxed and, typical middle aged Indian man, started telling me about his son in IIT and daughter at I.I.M.
Why did this Kashmiri Muslim shop-keeper treat me like this? The answer was that he thought I was some low class 'mazdoor' with money to burn from Gulf or U.K or whatever and that I'd take back some garish garments to my village in Pakistan and say- 'this is all the rage in Delhi'.
In this way, Delhi would get defamed.

Who says Kashmiri Muslims are not great patriots of India? That same day, a Hindu Brahmin from Bihar sold me an outfit which even my son would refuse to wear because it is just too gay. Mind you, that fellow- like all this younger generation- wears 'slim-fit' jeans which are very expensive and come only in woman's sizes.
Anyway, whatever the truth of the matter, like my ancestors before me, I firmly believe that everyone under 50 is a homosexual. That is the real reason language is being mispronounced and rules of grammar are being obscenely violated.

Maddy said...

Thanks Windwheel..
The very mention of Singh brings smile to my face for our meeting was one such - amazing guy. As far as i can recall, he settled down in Turkey after retiring. Something I would also love to do, I think...

The interaction between Indians is a subject fit for a book. Especially how one looks upon, at or down on a person based on the tonality, accent and the culture evident in speech. Eventually it is a matter of the confidence you have in uttering whatever you say I suppose.
Nevertheless, it wa svery interesting, your experience.

Exactly what happens when you visit Istanbul and try to buy a carpet in the kapali carsi. If you do not know what you are buying, they will give you a long sob story a couple of cups of apple tea and you will eventually dole out one half of what was quoted which was 5 times the actual value..

But if start the process in pidgin turkish the situation changes. Only because you took the effort to respect the person in front of you and try to speak his language!!

Have you read Archer's story on a carpet purchase? Great one..

windwheel said...

I've met Lord Archer and his 'fragrant wife' (a High Court Judges's words) and, as was my fashion back when I was young, insinuated that they were actually illegal immigrants from Ludhiana. Jeff got the joke and started not just looking but acting like a Desi. His wife- who actually looks Indian- was frigidly polite and went away.
I admit I haven't read Archer's books that closely so I don't get your reference precisely. But he was a big man here in London, once upon a time, getting people visas and Council flats and so on. Now he has spotted, as ever ahead of the curve, that India is going to be the biggest market for English language books in the future.

Incidentally, Gajendra Singh and I have crossed swords. He is not Ankara based any more- at least not when I was in conflict with him.
He had the courtesy or fidelity to truth to withdraw the offending article- on the theme 'Brahmins are to blame for everything', which is Racist- thus rendering my intervention unnecessary.
I think I confused your Gajendra Singh with another gentleman of similar rank who was my Dad's patron on his first diplomatic posting.
My problem is My Dad always talked so highly of all people so as to inculcate Pan-Indian love and loyalty in me and My Mum was brought up Socialist, even living in a Worker's slum, (where she was raped by an 'escaped convict' who came to her father to mediate for his return to Jail. This was when the Brits thought he was a Communist and Stalin was supporting Hitler. The convict who was allowed to sleep on the 'pyol' was expert at moving silently and stealing my Mum who was sleeping cuddling her Mum and smothering her cries. He raped her and went off happily. The White S.P. came and explained everything. Grandfather refused to budge. But, the workers knew- the Raj itself had put this story abroad to show that the Brahmins can be raped and their men are powerless- and after my worthless windbag of a Grandfather died, the workers came to T.Nagar and refused to leave. My Mum was unmarried. They said- we each give one anna- they couldn't some only gave a half pice- for the dowry of our 'thalaivar's' only daughter.
Actually, according to the old reckoning, this would have been okay. Mum was raped as a child. A sum of money made up for her defect. She could be married within a lower sub-caste.
Grandmother said 'no.' She used the money to build a house and get tenants on rent. She educated not just the boys but my Mum. She had an M.A when she married my Dad whose family did not want dowry but did want to be associated with 'Freedom Struggle'.
They say, an imperfection must be left in a handwoven carpet to defeat 'Ayn-ul-kamal' the eye of Perfection. If Marriage brokering is a trade, it is like selling Carpets. You may know of Nobel Laureate Shapley's work on 'Matching problem'.

I say all this to say something which you may not like or which contradicts something you have written directly above.
But, I don't say it to be disputatitous but, rather, to pay you a compliment.
It so happens, I went through a period of extreme mental illness and poverty. I survived and paid my debts by buying and selling at the lowest prices. I myself dont permit low prices in my presence now and I can sell what I buy. In Econ this is called a 'Repugnancy Market'
By speaking Turki you don't get a better deal. By appearing thin and poor and maddened by poverty you get the lowest price- but there is a Repugnancy Market effect at work here. This, Sir, is the secret of Bourdieusian arbitrage whereby everything is Capital.

Maddy said...

Thanks Windwheel..
distressed to read the contents of your comment. What more can i say but well, your mom & you let life go on, which is what it is all about..
I met singh just once and we talked language. I would have liked discuss his gorgeous partner of the time, but we discussed urdu instead...

perhaps you find ayn rand interesting?