A Tongue Twisted

“Isn’t Urdu the language of Muslims?” An obstinate question, also a shallow one.

If this were true then why are so many non-Muslim poets and lyricists masters of the language and use it as tools of expression. Further more, why wouldn’t Muslims in Kerela call Urdu their mother tongue instead of Malayalam.

It is because the evolution of any language is always a cultural domain and never a religious one. When has a religion ever been responsible for the birth of a language? Urdu was born in India and so is an Indian tongue. To better understand the dynamics that shaped Urdu let us try and relocate it in history.

Urdu comes from the word Ordu meaning army camp. It was created with the amalgamation of Persian and vernacular Indian languages.

Mostly all languages are classified according to their development from a single parent language. Urdu belongs to Indo-European language family. The speakers of this language probably lived around the Black Sea. As they moved and migrated from there in every direction the language changed around the way. All major regional languages in India as well as English, French and German belong to this category.

Many a times different languages use similar writing systems. It might seem surprising but Urdu and Arabic come from two different language families, despite having similar scripts.

The Urdu patois that was a result of the cultural diffusion between the native North Indians and invading Muslims from Central Asia later spread towards the deccan and as far as Hyderabad. So, what began as an unsystematic hodgepodge language in the 12th century acquired a status of Lingua Franca by the turn of the 18th century. Even the Mughal courts and ministries switched over from Persian to Urdu. Traces of the use can be found in the present day Indian jurisdictions. Words like “dakhil kharij”, “ jurmana”, and “muqadma” are still a part of the legal jargon.

So we are looking at a language that has a glorious and admirable past. The reason for this was the immense popularity of the language amongst the masses. With heavy morphological borrowings from Persian and grammatical borrowings from Hindi developed a language intensely lyrical in nature and apt in style. A language that deeply resonated the North and Central Indian spirit and vivacity.

It is sad that such a powerful language is not embraced with open arms as it was in the gone by days. It is said that if you pigeon hole a concept it dies of suffocation. In other words, strictly categorizing a language is like placing it on the fast track to extinction. This is exactly what is happening to Urdu today.

It is true that Urdu is more tilted towards Islamic lines and let us not be apologetic about it.

One major reason for the decline in Urdu speakers and learners today is the partition. After 1947 majority of the Urdu speaking populace migrated across the Indian borders. Pakistan declaring Urdu and India declaring Hindi as their national languages left the speakers of Urdu in India totally perplexed. This lead Urdu to suddenly acquire no man’s language status in India.

The truth, however, remains that Urdu forms a rich and essential constituents of the chronicles of Indian culture. Anybody trying to undermine its importance will probably find only a half-baked linguistic history.

We have cut, dried and neatly labeled Urdu as either a bard’s or an illiterate’s language…and more recently the terrorist’s tongue. There are only a few people who promote its learning and fewer institutions, which patronize it. The poise, diction and articulation of Urdu stand unparalleled. To make this point clear and sum everything above that let me quote a famous Urdu couplet.

Maazi ka ehteraam zaruri hai aaj bhi,
Yeh aur baat hai ki zamaana badl gaya.

In other words it means that to respect history is important even today when the entire world has changed.

Poetry by Bahadur Shah Zafar on an Indian Postal stamp commemorating the centenary of the Emperor

7 Replies to “A Tongue Twisted”

  1. I think Urdu not only became a no man’s language in India after partition but was also relegated to a language that showed no economic viability. As you have rightly said that it became associated with Muslims and Islam and unfortunately Muslims believed in this false ownership of the language. As a result there were hardly any efforts even on the part of Muslims to spread and promote Urdu across religious and cultural boundaries.

    The government of India’s decision to replace overnight Urdu with Hindi as a national language and ignoring Urdu completely further fueled the fast decline of the language.

    Urdu found place in madarsas (religious school) in the north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar mainly. But the madarsas totally ignored the rich and inspiring cultural aspects of the language and only used it as a medium of instruction. Few institutions and boards are established with lofty names but do not do any justice to the language. How can these institutions of higher learning survive when there are no efforts to establish and promote the language at the primary level?

    As a result of our own parochial adoption of Urdu, mass exodus of Urdu speakers, the apathy of the Indian government and an insecure environment after independence all led to the decline of Urdu.

    Thank you for your historical notes on Urdu. This is the first time I have come across an article that talks about the origin of this language. Thank you.

  2. hi arhama

    i am suprised at your name, at a very young age i heard this name and decided if i have a girl will name her after this name. allah mashallah gave me a beautiful girl and i named her arhama tauheed, tauheed means allah aik hai. and arhama means reham karne wala, i have read the stuff you have written and very impressed. my daughter is also very intellegent and i think the name has alot to do with it along with genes ofcourse. well done keep it up

    sonia lone

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