Urdu speakers

Samar Abbas abbas at IOPB.RES.IN
Thu Dec 3 18:12:24 UTC 1998

  To answer this question, one must first define `Urdu'. The famlly tree
of Urdu is given below:

                   Arabic   Persian    Turkic
                        \      |       /
                         Zaban-e-Urdu (`Urdu') ca.1000 AD
                     Hindustani (or `Hindi' in short) ca.1200 AD
                   /       /       /           \             \
              Punjabi  Avadhi     Delhvi      Dakhini       Sharqi
         Hindustani   Hindustani  Hindustani  Hindustani    Hindustani
           /                        |
      Punjabi              Mughal Hindustani
                             ( ca. 1700s)
                              Khari Boli
                        or Nagari Hindi `High Hindi'
                             (ca. 1900s )

  Urdu is a contraction of `Zaban-e-Urdu' (`Language of the Camp') which
arose in the camps of Mahmud of Ghazni in the 10th century as a common
language of the Turkic, Afghan, Arab and Persian ghazi liberators. At this
stage, it only contained Islamicate words (Arabic, Persian, Turkic,
Pashto) and was only written in Arabic.

    When these persons established the Hindustani Califate of Delhi (which
lasted for almost 1000 years and is one of the greatest empires the world
has seen), this langauge became de facto national language of the Islamic
Empire of Hindustan (Hindustan = `Land of the Indus' in Persian; later
erroneously rendered `Land of Hindus' by the British), ie. India north of
the Narmada. Thus Urdu absorbed a number of words from the Prakrit
langauges (Vangi/Bengali, Braj, Kanauji, Ayodhyi etc.), Vedic langauges
(Rigvedic, Samavedic, Yajurvedic, etc.), Pali, Sanskrit, Dravidian
languages etc. Thus this simplified Urdu (still more than 80 %
Perso-Arabic) became the national language of North India (Hindustan), and
thus came to be known as Hindustani or Hindi in short. It replaced the
Prakrits in Hindustan (Braj, Kannauji etc.) and became in fact the mother
tongue of most Hindustanis (somthing English has not done). It is the most
liberal langauge as far as vocabulary is concerned, and only English has a
source as wide.

   In the 19th century the British encouraged Brahman fundamentalists who
enforced the Prakrit Nagari script for the use of Hindustani (which till
then had been always written in the Perso-Arabic script). This Nagari
Hindustani which arose out of Mughal Hindustani is called Khari Boli or
Nagari Hindi. The introduction of the Devanagari script naturally led to
many problems which still persist (eg. more than 500 characters required
etc.: Madan Gopal in his book `This Hindi and Dev Nagari' has fully
documented the grave defects of the Nagari script), as did the
introduction of more Sanskrit words which the common man did not
understand. Although it is the official langauge of the Indian Republic,
it is only spoken by a very small percentage of the population, who prefer
Hindustani. This Hindustani is still predominantly written in the Arabic
script, but smaller fractions use Devanagari (Khari Boli dialect), Roman
(Christians and Britishers), Bengali etc.

  Sometimes the simplified Urdu called Hindustani is also referred to as
Urdu, but technically Urdu is the pure Islamicate language without the
pre-Islamic influence. So the number of speakers of Urdu is practically
the entire emigrant Indian population, who know some Urdu or Hindustani.
The use is by no means dead, thus Hindustani films are spreading the usage
of Urdu. So asking about the number of Urdu speakers is like asking about
the number of speakers of Anglo-Saxon: Practically every Englishman
would understand some Old Anglo-Saxon since it is the presursor of
English, so similarly practically every North Indian (and most South
Indians at that) understands some Zaban-e-Urdu since it is the presursor
of his/her mother tongue, Hindustani.

 Thus there is only a linguistic definition of Urdu, no such thing as an
`official definition'. Official definitions have very little meaning esp.
in South Asia; thus the official national langauge of India is Khari Boli,
a Sanskritised version of Hindustani,; but it is to all effects and
purposes a dead language (despite official support and the money wasted in
propagating it).


On Wed, 2 Dec 1998, Lalita du Perron wrote:

>  Following on from the messages on the number of Urdu speakers in
> various countries, I am puzzled as to what is the 'official' or indeed
> accepted definition of an 'Urdu speaker'.
> Lalita du Perron
> Dept of South Asian Studies
> SOAS, University of London

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