Common Misconceptions about Urdu

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Rauf Parekh

Myths, or widely held misconceptions, are sometimes so deep-rooted that no matter how hard you try to dispel them by proving them wrong, they refuse to go away. And, it is not limited to our society. Many incorrect notions had lovingly been held in the west for centuries. The wrong attribution of the remark ‘let them eat cake’ to Queen Mary Antoinette (1755-1793), for example, or the misconception that the famous Ancient Library of Alexandria was destroyed by Muslims, did not originate in the east.

There are a number of common misconceptions about Urdu and sometimes quite well-educated people, too, so firmly believe in the ‘popular wisdom’ that no logic, scientific data or historical fact can compel them to change their views. Here is a list of a few such misconceptions which are not validated by facts. In some cases, they have been proved incorrect even in published works, but the myths seem to be so popular that many continue to believe in them:

1. Myth: Urdu is a ‘camp-language’ and a mixture of languages born in the Mughal era.

Fact: Though Urdu’s exact origin remains undecided, experts agree that Urdu and Hindi are sister languages and their origins can be traced back to dialects spoken in and around Delhi some 1000 years ago. Those dialects had developed, in turn, from Prakrits. Most probably, Khari Boli is the dialect from which Urdu was developed in 13th Century and in the later era, after the advent of Muslims. So the notion that Urdu was born in the era of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who died circa 1666, does not hold water.

Secondly, linguists say that two or more languages cannot give birth to a third, new one. As for the words of different languages in Urdu vocabulary, there is no language in the world that does not have foreign words. In the later era, Muslims of the Sub-continent had a tendency to favour Arabic and Persian vocabulary and Hindus did the same for Sanskrit and Prakrit words. In the 19th Century, a movement for revival of Hindi and Sanskrit script, renouncing Perso-Arabic script that both Hindus and Muslims had been commonly using till then, sowed the seeds for Hindi-Urdu controversy. Yes, it is true that ‘Urdu’ is a Turkish word that means fort, army camp or army (lashkar), but it does not prove that Urdu is a ‘camp-language’. Urdu did not get its present name till late 18th Century and before that had had a number of different names—including Hindi, Hindvi, Hindustani, Dehlvi, Gujri, Dakkani, Lahori and even Moors—though it was born much earlier.

In 1930s, Mohiuddin Qadri Zor had proved in his book ‘Hindustani lisaniyaat’ that Urdu was an Indo-European language and had tried to establish its geographical boundaries in the early phase as well. Linguists such as Shaukat Sabzwari and Mirza Khalil Baig have dismissed the so-called ‘camp-language theory’ with contempt. So Urdu is not a camp-language, not a mixture and is a modern Indo-Aryan language having roots much older than the Mughal era.

2. Myth: Pakistan’s national anthem has but one Urdu of word, and that is ‘ka’.

Fact: There is not a single word in Pakistan’s national anthem that is not commonly used in Urdu, though most of them have been borrowed from Arabic or Persian. A word that the English language has borrowed from, say, French or Old Saxon, is now definitely English. No one can blame Shakespeare for using so many “foreign” words. Similarly any word that Urdu has borrowed from Arabic or Persian or any other language and is commonly used in Urdu is now Urdu by any yardstick and we, therefore, cannot accuse Ghalib or Iqbal of using countless “non-Urdu words”. But the flawed logic is mindlessly repeated by many.

Once some students asked this writer why there was only one word of Urdu in Pakistan’s national anthem. Before replying, I asked where they had got the notion from. They said Mustansar Hussain Tarar, a well-known and very popular writer of Urdu, had expressed such views in his interview published in ‘Jang’, an Urdu daily. My comment was: “by that standard his own name has got only one word of Urdu (or local dialect) since ‘Mustansar’ and ‘Hussain’ both are Arabic words. The gentleman should rename himself or read a bit about languages and linguistics before spreading such askew ideas.

3. Myth: Urdu is the language of Muslims.

Fact: According to Moulvi Abdul Haq (1873-1961), Urdu is not a language that Muslims brought into Indo-Pak sub-continent. The Muslims who came to India from Arabia, Iran or elsewhere centuries ago did not speak Urdu. They spoke Arabic, Persian, Turkish and even Pashto. The people who had contributed towards ‘creating’ or originating Urdu were mostly Hindus because Urdu has a syntactical and morphological structure that is essentially same as Hindi’s. Ninety-nine per cent of Urdu verbs are of local origin—call it Hindi or Khari Boli or Prakrit or whatever. Urdu nouns and adjectives are overwhelmingly Persian and Arabic but it does not prove Urdu is a foreign language. These were assimilated into the local dialect/s and Perso-Arabic script was adopted for writing these dialects, and that was how Urdu began taking shape (still it does not prove that Urdu is a ‘mixture of languages’ because borrowed vocabulary counts least while deciding the family of a language. What counts is the grammatical structure).

A large number of Urdu poets were Hindus, just as a large number of Muslims have written in Hindi. Kabir, the great 15th Century mystic poet of Bhakti Movement, composed poetry in Urdu. In fact, his name Kabir comes from Arabic. Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred text of the Sikh religion, has Urdu words. Christian missionaries in India preached in Urdu and translated Bible into Urdu.

S. W. Fallon in the preface to his dictionary has mentioned that Christian priests used to recite Nazeer Akberabdi’s verses in the street of Agra while preaching. Hindu scriptures, too, were translated into Urdu. It proves that different religions have contributed towards promoting Urdu and Hindus did use Urdu. They were the ones who adopted it in its early phase, because the Muslim immigrants spoke their own languages. As Suniti Kumar Chatterji (1890-1977), a great linguist, has written: “Urdu or the new language was destined to develop and had Muslims not arrived in the Sub-continent, it would have taken a few more centuries to develop and would have been a little different from what it is today.”

4. Myth: Urdu was the language of kings, not the common people.

Fact: Urdu had become Sub-continent’s lingua franca, used by all and sundry and written in a common script, by the 18th Century. John Gilchrist has mentioned this fact in his writings and the reason behind his deciding to learn Urdu was the same: being able to communicate with the people in the street in their own language. The language of the Mughal court was Persian but common folks, man, women and children, spoke Urdu. In 1837, the British had replaced Persian as the official language with Urdu.

Citation
Rauf Parekh, “Literary Notes: Common misconceptions about Urdu,” in Dawn, August 25, 2014. Accessed on March 1, 2015, at: http://www.dawn.com/news/1127464/literary-notes-common-misconceptions-about-urdu

Disclaimer
The item above written by Rauf Parekh and published in Dawn on August 25, 2014, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on March 1, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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