The murder of linguistic history — II

Published: July 23, 2011
The writer is Distinguished National Professor Emeritus of Linguistic History

The writer is Distinguished National Professor Emeritus of Linguistic History

Read any textbook for children and you will be told that the word ‘Urdu’ means ‘military camp’ or ‘cantonment’ in Turkish. The inference will be that Urdu is a military language (lashkari zuban). This is explained further in some books by the supposition that Urdu was born in the Mughal military camps, where soldiers speaking different languages came together for martial purposes.

While the word Ordo — from which comes the English word ‘horde’ — does, indeed, mean ‘military camp’ in Turkish, this is not the only name for the ancestor of the language we now call Urdu. Indeed, the oldest name for this common ancestor of both present-day Urdu and Hindi was Hindi, Hindvi and sometimes Hindui. For those who want to know the details of this should read chapter two of my book From Hindi to Urdu: A social and Political History (OUP, 2011). For others, let me give an outline of what schoolchildren are never told.

The term ‘Hindi’ was not used only for the ancestor of modern Hindi and Urdu. It was used vaguely by Persian writers for all languages of India (Hind). Even today, the census of India uses it in two ways: First, for Sanskritised Hindi, which is the modern, Sanskritised form of Khari Boli, patronised officially in India. And, secondly, for all the area-bound varieties (dialects) of the Hindi belt such as Awadhi, Braj, Bhasha, Bhojpuri etc.

So, after reading many sources, it emerges that the ancestor of Urdu and Hindi was called by the following names: Hindi, Hindvi (13th-19th century); Dehlavi (13th-14th c.); Gujri (15th c.); Dakhani (15th-18th c.); Indostan (17th c.); Moors (18th c.); Rekhta (18th-19th c.); Hindustani (18th-20th c.). The term Urdu to refer to this language was first used, at least in existing written records, in 1780 by poet Ghulam Hamadani Mushafi (1750-1824). Before Mushafi, the term Zuban-e-Urdu-e-Mualla (the language of the Exalted City) was used for the Persianised language of the Mughal capitals Agra and Delhi. Later the term was shortened to only ‘Urdu’. Let us also remember that the word ‘Urdu’ in the Persian sources of India did not mean ‘military camp’ but only ‘city,’ and generally the capital city of the empire. Its origin is not military but urban; not soldiering but urbanisation and sophistication; not the battlefield but the hustle and bustle of life, especially life in the courts of kings.

All living languages pick up new words just as we have witnessed with English words — brake, accelerator, clutch, thermometer etc — becoming a part of all our languages. In the same way, all the varieties of a large language stretching all the way from Peshawar to Behar picked up Persian, Arabic and some Turkish words when the Turkish, Pathans and Iranian soldiers, merchants, holy men, scholars, poets, adventurers and bureaucrats came to India. It is my guess that some variety around Delhi (Khari Boli) picked up more such words than others and was taken by the functionaries of the state to Gujrat, Deccan, the urban centres of Awadh and other areas. It is this language which was called by the different names given above. We know about these names because scholars used them. Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) did not call all languages ‘Hindi’. He mentions Sindhi, Lahori (Punjabi), Kashmiri and nine other languages but mentions Hindi as the language around Delhi since ancient times. Abul Fazal, writing in 1590, mentions many languages, including one of Delhi.

The terms ‘Indostan’ and ‘Moors’ were used by Englishmen in India. English traveller Edward Terry, who came to India in 1615, called it the popular language of the Mughal Empire. And popular it must have been because in Kuniguram, Waziristan, Bayazid Ansari (1526-1574) wrote a religious book called Khairul Bayan around 1560 in four languages: Arabic, Persian, Afghan (Pashto) and Hindi. This ‘Hindi’ is written in the Perso-Arabic script and can be understood by anyone who can understand Urdu and Hindi.

The term ‘Moors’ was used by Englishman and one called George Hadley wrote a grammar of it in 1772. But both these terms went out of fashion and the British commonly used the term ‘Hindustani’ for the language which they wrote in the Devanagari, Perso-Arabic and the Roman (English) scripts. Indeed, the army even had a newspaper for soldiers and also orders were given to soldiers in the Roman script.

Similarly the terms ‘Gujri’, ‘Dakhini’ and ‘Rekhta’ went out of fashion by the late 18th century. Hindustani was recorded in British census reports and used by Englishmen in India but disappeared after 1947 as Urdu and Hindi took its place.

Nowadays we use the term ‘Urdu’ for Persianised Khari Boli written in the Perso-Arabic script and Hindi for Sanskritised Khari Boli written in the Devanagari script. But when we give the false history of the name of ‘Urdu’ from Turkish and call it a military language, we are not only just plain wrong, but also divisive and anti-peace. Instead, let us teach our children that, despite this name, Urdu does not have a military origin. In India, as Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, one of the greatest scholars of Urdu literature, points out, this myth creates a feeling of guilt in the Urdu-speaking community. That is why Syed Sulaiman Nadvi wanted the name Urdu, which is the latest name for this language, to be abandoned even in 1939 when he wanted the Muslims and Hindus to unite to obtain freedom.

But the name cannot be abandoned now. It is invested with the emotion and love of about two centuries. What is possible is that people should be told that the ancestor of present-day Urdu and Hindi was one and it had many names. That, for at least five hundred years, this ancestor was mostly called ‘Hindi’— even when it was also called Dehlavi, Gujri, Dakhini, Rekhta etc — and that the Persianisation and Sanskritisation of it occurred during the 18th and the 19th centuries respectively.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (26)

  • Jul 23, 2011 - 10:07PM

    Very insightful! But we are too caught up in trying to be “not-India” to accept this.


  • Cynical
    Jul 23, 2011 - 10:20PM

    Wish had teachers like you in my younger days.


  • Max
    Jul 23, 2011 - 10:30PM

    There is a popular expression that “Urdu” was born and grew up in Shahi forts and the bazaars around the forts. You have done an excellent job in explaining that it was not the language of the Shahi forts but developed in urban centers of modern day Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. You argument sounds very reasonable, but it is hard to separate “fort” from urban life of upper middle classes, popularly known the Rais, or Mirs or the evening life of the shuraffa (courtiers). Would you, please, elaborate on this in your next article?
    Thank you again for sharing you knowledge and understanding of lingua franca of India of sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.


  • Mir Agha
    Jul 23, 2011 - 11:06PM

    Thanks for the supposed history. You don’t seem to get it. It isn’t about a common origin in khari boli, it is about the wanted Persianizing (muslim) and Sanskritization (hindu) by the respective nations. Either way, both of these languages are useless in the modern world.


  • Reality
    Jul 23, 2011 - 11:44PM

    Nadir seems to be obsessed with “india”, whatever that means. Try to keep on topic, which is about language, not myths, conspiracy theories, or psycho-analysis.


  • ap
    Jul 24, 2011 - 12:00AM

    Great piece, thank you for your research.

    I wonder if you have thought about the Mughal concept of ‘capital’ and how does that impact our understanding of ‘camp’.
    Mughal history was not my specialisation but I recall reading that despite the urban centers of Lahore, Delhi and Agra, the Mughal state was invested in the body of the ruler and its epicenter shifted with him. So a camp was not necessarily a transitory body for war but a state of being for a large and growing empire.

    History apart, I feel its quite tragic that language politics have marginalised Urdu in India. The generation of Indians who knew Urdu and treated it as a mark of learning is dying. While the Nehruvian push for Hindi as state language definitely played a major role, the push back by regional languages eroded any place for Urdu which lacked a physical constituency that claimed recognition.

    The slow death of Hindi literature in India is a bad omen for all South Asian languages. All said and done, we are the true inheritors of the colonial empire – its the dominance of English that allows us to reach beyond our bitter national borders and discuss our history.


  • najib moha
    Jul 24, 2011 - 12:23AM

    and you are obsessed with being “non -indian”. accept your past, only then you can build a better futture.


  • Adil Shah
    Jul 24, 2011 - 12:52AM

    Articles like these in very gratifying to see. There is finally some light emerging from Pakistan in the darkness of hatred.


  • Junaid A Khan
    Jul 24, 2011 - 3:18AM

    nice article. thnx


  • Rock
    Jul 24, 2011 - 8:17AM

    I want to know about 48 dialets of Hindi and various dialets of urdu.


  • vasan
    Jul 24, 2011 - 10:00AM

    I just wonder whether the linguistic history alone is wrongly taught in Pakistan. Dont they teach everyother aspect of history of Pakistan in the most distorted way??


  • Yea Right
    Jul 24, 2011 - 2:47PM

    Dear Sir,
    You have established a feasible, probable chain of evolution for Urdu. However what’s lacking in my opinion is that there’s no mention of what was the dominant local language ( if there was one to begin with) before this new “hindi” took shape. After all this “hindi” didn’t spread far and wide ( Peshawar to Bihar ) in India right from the beginning. Why did the historians and such felt the need to categorize “hindi” separately from Sanskrit or whatever it was called at that time ?

    Even if one is to accept the premise that Urdu originated in urban centres instead of military camps, the article still doesn’t clearly establish that it was Sanskrit that picked up foreign words and gave birth to “hindi/urdu” and not the other way around. The argument that Persians referred to all hindustani languages as Hindi doesn’t hold much water. After all America was incorrectly considered India for a while and the native people are still ignorantly referred to as Indians. Historically it seems much more likely that the foreign elite class would speak and patronize a language that expressed their culture, symbolized their cultural superiority and eventually through constant and unavoidable interaction with the locals picked up local tones, words and phrases and transformed into “hindi/urdu”. If I’m not mistaken there’s a reference in Babur’s Tozk about this transformation and coming together of arabic, persian, turkish influences and becoming the new means of communications within his camp.

    Finally, I fail to understand why any urdu speaking/loving person would feel guilty about Urdu’s military origins. If that’s the case then Sanskrit is in the same boat as it is an Indo-Aryan language and Aryans invaded India just the same. The local Dravidian people spoke languages that fall under the Harappan branch, very different from the Indo-Aryan branch.

    On a side note, I am all for taking steps that change the culture of animosity and rivalry between India and Pakistan, however, that should not include rewriting our respective cultural histories. Why not simply do the adult thing and respect and interact with each other despite our differences ? As far as I know, it is certainly not mandatory to be “same” to be friends.


  • Yea Right
    Jul 24, 2011 - 2:49PM

    @ ap: that’s a great observation.


  • Milestogo
    Jul 24, 2011 - 3:42PM

    Urdu is closer to Sanskrit than Persian or arabic.


  • rock
    Jul 24, 2011 - 4:06PM

    @Yea Right: You are right the base is ignored. The writer should talk about sanskrit first. Because Sanskrit is mother of all subcontinent languages.


  • P N Eswaran
    Jul 24, 2011 - 4:28PM

    “….the push back by regional languages eroded any place for Urdu which lacked a physical constituency that claimed recognition”. The physical constituency (which need not necessarily be geographic) exists in terms of 13% Muslim population. The main cause seems to be the script and the secular utility of the language.


  • goggi
    Jul 24, 2011 - 6:31PM

    The murder of linguistic history is the cold blooded murder of our Hindustani cultural roots.


  • Jul 24, 2011 - 9:18PM

    Dr. Tariq Rahman is to be congratulated for this fine series of articles. We must also be grateful to The Express Tribune for publishing such scholarly tracts. Such articles would go a long way in clearing up some of the myths that we, as a people, have been fed for so long by various vested interests. History for us has become a vehicle to demean our ‘enemies’ and also create ‘enemies’ of whomever we choose to. Subjugation of a people was and is wrong but we must look at things in perspective. The British conquered and ruled India when colonialism was the norm and all nations were judged powerful only in terms of the number of territories held by them. One might not entirely agree that they were discharging ‘the white man’s burden’ of civilizing the locals but the benefits that they brought were not insignificant. The railway track laid by the British throughout India is still a marvel and of vital significance to the economies of both India and Pakistan. Could we have done it on our own? So what we got from the colonial era was not all bad.
    One thing that needs to be also addressed is the fact that Urdu has nothing to do with Islam. One does not become a better Muslim if one speaks Urdu just as much as we do not become better Muslims if we speak Sindhi, Balochi, Punjabi, Pushto or even Arabic. One fails to understand how and why has this ridiculous idea become a part of our psyche. Lest I be misunderstood let me make it clear that I am a great fan of Urdu litreature and use it as my lingua franca, but to say that Urdu and Islam have any historical affinity is misleading and must be abandoned.


  • Imtiaz Ali
    Jul 24, 2011 - 9:57PM

    Two statements:
    1. Your columns have opened my linguistic third eye. Now I can ‘hear’ what I ‘speak’.
    2. How do we de-indoctrinate ‘the man on the street’ about this?
    This plays into the crosshair of his cherished identity,
    on which lot of our antagonisms and ‘otherhood’ is based.
    This too needs to be addressed directly.


  • LOL
    Jul 24, 2011 - 10:21PM

    The author seems to be in favour of disbanding Urdu as a language. Urdu adab is vast, rich and enterprising. Does the author want us to lose that as well?

    No one has ever really disputed the fact that the two languages have had a common history. But, why then dispute that Urdu and Hindi today are separate languages, with some similarities and some differences?


  • gp65
    Jul 25, 2011 - 12:33AM

    @P N Eswaran:
    It is an incorrect assumption that the 13% Muslim population in India are all Muslim speakers. Muslims in Gujarat, Tamil Nadu. Kerala, W. Bengal speak Gujarati, Tamil, Malayali and Bengali respectively.


  • Wequar Azeem
    Jul 25, 2011 - 2:16AM

    Based on my observations, following corrections are required for the sake of records :
    1. SPOKEN Urdu and SPOKEN Hindi were almost one and the same language until partition of India. WRITTEN Urdu always had more of Persian/Arabic/Turkish words than the spoken Urdu, and WRITTEN HINDI always more of Sanskirit words compared to spoken Hindi.
    2. When Pakistan declared URDU to be the only National language, Radio Pakistan started over-loading it with Persian, Arabic, Turkish words, as was normal with WRITTEN Urdu prior to Partition
    3. India declared Hindi as her national Language. Cosequently, to make it distinctly different from Urdu, All India Radio made it very different from former SPOKEN Hindi by over-loading it with words of Sanskirit.
    4. Over the years, the two languages became so distant apart that Indians can not understand Urdu news bulletins of Radio Pakistan, and Pakistanis can not understand the Hindi news-bulletins of AIR.
    5. Sanskirit is not spoken anywhere in India. It has been reduced to religious scriptural language in print form only.
    6. Indian movie industry has also become only little more sanskirit laden than before, and therefore it is still understandable completely for Urdu-speaking audience


  • Rajan Mitra
    Jul 25, 2011 - 5:09AM

    Just as well, regional ‘Hindi speakers’ are also really speaking Rajasthani / Marwari, Haryanvi, Maithili, Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Marathi, Bihari and Braj Bhasha. Where does that leave the Shuddh Hindi of Jaishankar Prasad, Nirala and Dinkar? It is poiness to deny that both Persianised Urdu and Sanskritised Hindi have created new and beautiful trajectories in South Asian cultures. We are all, Hindus and Muslims; Indians and Pakistanis; fortunate to have this confluence if idioms. I don’t see this as a divergence. Much rather have the parent idioms and culture preserved in renewed strains, rather than lose them in a headlong rush to a modernist future with no reference to aesthetics of our traditions. Having Persianised Urdu and Sanskritised Hindi allows us to do exactly that quite efficiently. It is why Ghalib is still read and understood. It is why the gems of Sanskrit literature have not been lost. Lastly, those who think Arabic, Sanskrit and Persian are ‘usess’ in this day and age. Don’t underestimate the value of these classical language. The values they hold are the ornaments of our culture. Even the European Enlightenment was spurred on by their rediscovery of Greek and Roman Classics. It is not a coincidence, the loss of vues in the West today is very much due to their neglect of that priceless heritage. The decadence and decline happened when tellingly Classics were dropped from the compulsory curricula. The language of the Classics in this case being … Latin. Minus an investment of time and effort in learning our classical languages, we are merely paying lip service to our culture.


  • Ravindra
    Jul 25, 2011 - 1:31PM

    @ wequr azim – Initially nehru try to imposed hindi as sole national lang. but due to opposition from southern states he scrap his plan.
    Accordingl 2 constitution of india Hindi and English r official langs.(Not National lang)
    Hindi is outspoken lang. of india but all other regional lang have priveleged by constitution.
    As hindi is not imposed by subsequent govt.regional identity within national identity has flourished.


  • P N Eswaran
    Jul 25, 2011 - 2:14PM

    I do agree with you that there are Muslims who speak the regional languages. Perhaps other than West Bengal many of the Muslims have started adopting Urdu as a language. Sometimes they sound very funny when they make the cocktail of two languages.


  • Abhi
    Jul 25, 2011 - 3:37PM

    Agree with Rajan Mitra.


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