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.