Confusion over the linguistic heritage of Urdu is evident in the comment section of our recent article about the world’s most beautiful languages. While more than one person remarked that the Urdu language is poetic, nobody could agree on where it came from. Matador intern Neha suggested it shared roots with Farsi, while blogger Ameya said that “it’s pretty much the same language” as Hindi. A third person, calling himself or herself the “Indo-Euro language expert” disagreed saying, “Urdu isn’t the same as Hindi…Urdu is in fact almost a mix of Hindi/Farsi.” The Urdu Language website claims, “Urdu vocabulary contains approximately 70% Farsi and the rest being a mix of Arabic and Turkish.”
So who’s right? Where does Urdu come from and what other languages is it related to? Languages cannot be “conglomerations.” When linguists describe language groups, they talk about language trees. Every language has roots. It has sister branches with which it shares common ancestors, and just because it absorbs some vocabulary from another language doesn’t mean that its fundamental structure is changed. For example, our use of Japanese words like “sushi” and “karaoke” doesn’t mean that English is closely related to Japanese.
Languages and Dialects
Urdu is technically classified as an Indo-European language on the Western Hindi branch of the language tree. It does not only share roots with Hindi, but linguists actually classify Hindi-Urdu as one language with four distinct dialects: Hindi, Urdu, Dakhini (spoken in northern India) and Rekhta (used in Urdu poetry).
Dialects differ from each other in the same way languages do: syntax (structure), phonetics (sounds), phonology (systems of sound changes), morphology (systems of grammatical changes) and semantics (meaning). Two ways of speaking diverge into two different languages due to the degree of difference rather than the types of differences.
Think about American English and British English, or even different dialects of English within your own country. Speakers may use slightly different grammatical structures, sound a bit different, and sometimes use different words to mean certain things, but they can still understand each other most of the time. Two ways of speaking are said to be two dialects of the same language when there is mutual intelligibility, meaning that the two speakers can understand each other.
I’ve crossed the Indo-Pak border multiple times, and as long as I remember to swap Salaam alaikum for Namaste when greeting people and shukriya for dhanyabad when thanking people, nobody in India ever questioned my Hindi. At the intermediate level, I experienced 100% mutual intelligibility. I could understand Hindi speakers, and they could understand me. Most people in India asked me where I had learned Hindi, and when I responded that I had studied Urdu in Pakistan they were surprised.
Languages and Political-Cultural Identity
Hindi and Urdu both originated in Delhi and have roots in Sanskrit. After the Muslim conquest by Central Asian invaders in the 11th and 12th centuries, the new rulers learned the local tongue. These rulers spoke Persian and Turkish and wrote their languages in the Arabic Nastaliq script, so when they started speaking Hindi-Urdu they wrote this new language in the Nastaliq script as well. By the 16th century, it had developed into a dialect of its own termed Urdu with a prominent literary culture revolving around the royal court.
Because it was used by Muslim rulers and became largely used by the Muslim population, a number of Farsi, Turkish and Arabic loan words made their way into Urdu. Hindi, on the other hand, retained its religious and formal vocabulary from Sanskrit and utilized the traditional Devanagari script. Nowadays, a Muslim Urdu-speaking imam and a Hindu priest may have difficulty discussing deep theological topics with one another due to these differences in vocabulary, but for normal conversations they would be able to understand each other just fine.
Why are some people so insistent that Urdu and Hindi are different languages? And why have people in Pakistan and INdia been brought up to think that way? Language and culture are so intertwined that people groups often use language to define themselves. In Pakistan, the myth that Urdu comes from Arabic, Farsi and Turkish is prevalent, and bogus claims like Urdu vocabulary being “70% Farsi” are common.
I’ve talked with dozens of Pakistanis about Urdu and Hindi, and many insist that Urdu has more in common with Persian and Arabic than it does with Hindi. When I ask them how they can understand Bollywood films and Indian TV, I’m usually just told that it’s because they “watch it a lot” and hence have “learned Hindi.” Objective analysis seems a casualty to the desire for a strong political, social and cultural identity as a separate, Muslim nation.
From a linguistic standpoint, the idea that Urdu is more closely related to Arabic than Hindi is simply ridiculous. Urdu is more closely related to English, French or even Welsh than it is with Arabic, and Urdu itself is only the native language of about 10% of the Pakistani population. Most families who speak Urdu as their first language emigrated from India during the 1947 partition.
Over 60 languages are spoken throughout Pakistan, and over 400 languages are spoken in India. Many of these languages form what linguists called a dialect continuum, a group of dialects or languages that gradually fade from one to the next across geographic areas. Arabic is also technically a continuum of several languages and sub dialects that differ progressively from each other. While a Jordanian person and a Lebanese person may understand each other just fine, an Egyptian will have much more trouble understanding a Moroccan because these “dialects” of Arabic are not mutually intelligible and are so different from each other they are classified as different languages.
Due to a shared cultural, historical and religious heritage, Arabic is considered as one language by many of its speakers even though they may not be able to understand the several different varieties of Arabic throughout the region. All these “Arabics” do share a common linguistic ancestor, but they have differed so much from each other over the centuries that it’s more the notion of Arab unity that continues to bind these languages than the similarities between them.
Similarly, in South Asia it is more the idea that Urdu and Hindi are different languages that represent different cultures that prevails over their linguistic similarities as sister dialects. We often choose to believe and promote what makes sense in our worldview, and when people come in and question the way we define ourselves or our culture we aren’t very likely to change the way we think about things.
Do you know of any other situations where dialects are considered separate languages or several languages are considered to be dialects of one language? Share in the comments section.
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Heather is a secondary English teacher, travel writer and editor who has lived in Morocco and Pakistan. She enjoys jamming on the bass, haggling over saris in dusty markets and cross-country jumping on horseback. Currently she's a grad student attempting to wrap her tongue around Middle English, analyze South Asian literature and eat enough to make her Portuguese mother-in-law happy. Learn more on her blog at ExpatHeather.com.
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