The Urdu language developed in the northern Indian subcontinent, an area that underwent centuries of invasion. This allowed Urdu to acquire a rich variety of linguistic influences.
Development of the Urdu language is closely intertwined with the history of Islamic expansion on the Indian subcontinent. It offers an intriguing look at the significant role that religion can play in the development of a language.
Classification of the Urdu Language
The Urdu language is classified as a member of the Indo-Aryan group of the Indo-European family of languages.
In its early stages, Urdu was known by a number of names. It was primarily referred to as Hindyi, although alternate titles included Zaban-e-Hind, Hindi, Zaban-e-Delhi, Zaban-e-Urdu, or simply Urdu, which translates literally to “a language of the camp.”
People continued to refer to the language primarily as Hindyi until the early 19th century.
Early Development: Shared History of Urdu and Hindi
Modern Urdu and Hindi are very closely related, and both find their roots in Hindustani. The language of Hindustani, also known as Hindi-Urdu, is believed to have developed from the Middle Indic languages of northern India from the 7th to 13th centuries.
The close historical ties shared by Hindi and Urdu are apparent today. The languages share a very similar phonology, grammar and basic vocabulary. In spoken form, they are mutually intelligible – in fact they are essentially identical.
Most linguists actually consider Hindi and Urdu to be standardized registers of the Hindustani language, meaning they are simply varieties of the Hindustani language but used in different contexts.
Developing Differences Between Hindi and Urdu
Hindi and Urdu began to diverge significantly from one another around the 16th century. During this time, India came under Islamic rule. With Islamic rule, the cultural and political center of the subcontinent of India shifted to Delhi. The Hindustani vernacular spoken in Delhi throughout the 17th century was referred to as “Urdu” by Persian-language speakers.
Contact with the Persian language led to the Urdu language’s adoption of a greater number of Persian loanwords. The fact that Urdu was also adopted as the language of many Muslim courts at the time also allowed for contact between Urdu and Arabic, and the Urdu language subsequently came to borrow many Arabic loan-words as well.
Expansion of the Urdu Language
As Islam spread across India and neighboring areas, the Urdu language spread with it, coming into increased contact with other languages, such as Arabic and Persian. The spread of both Islam and Urdu surged during the Mughal Empire, which reigned over the subcontinent for more than 300 years (circa 1526 to 1858).
The campaigns of expansion led under Mughal emperors gave the Urdu language the opportunity to expand like never before. As the armies of Mughal empires set up camp across the empire, they brought the Urdu language with them. Thus the fact that the term Urdu literally translates to “a language of the camp” makes perfect sense.
Differences Between Urdu and Hindi: The Written Language
The primary difference occurs in the written form, as Urdu is written using a modified calligraphy-style Perso-Arabic script, while Hindi is written using Devanagari, the same alphabet used in the Sanskrit language. This difference is due to the fact that Urdu came under a heavy Arabic and Persian influence in its development, while Hindi turned to Sanskrit sources as a basis for its written form.
Further differences between Hindi and Urdu can be found in terms of vocabulary. Urdu has borrowed many words from the Persian and Arabic languages that are not commonly found in Hindi.
Effects of British Rule
Throughout the British occupation of India, the terms Hindi and Hindustani were used interchangeably to refer to the languages we now separately refer to as Hindi and Urdu. It is important to note that “British India” was significantly larger than the country we know as India today, as it included India as well as parts of modern-day Pakistan.
With the 1947 partition of British India, the independent nation of Pakistan was formed, and Urdu was declared its official language. Meanwhile, Standard Hindi remained the official language of independent India.
Urdu Language Literature
The first notable example of literary Urdu can be found in the work of Amir Khosrow, who lived from 1253 to 1325. Khosrow was a pioneer in the literary use of the language, and his work included folksongs, riddles and traditional couplets known as dohas.
From the 16th century onward, Urdu language poetry flourished. One of the most beloved Urdu language poets of all time is Mirza Ghalib, whose 19th century lyrical and spiritual poems remain popular today.
Oddly enough, however, despite the early flourishing of Urdu-language poetry, no significant body of Urdu prose writing appeared until the 19th century. Poetry is extremely popular in Pakistan, a country that is home to a significant number of Urdu-language speakers. The tradition of the “mushaira” (poetry reading) is extremely popular in Pakistan, and such an event can attract hundreds of listeners.
Modern Urdu Language
The Urdu language is spoken by an estimated 104 million people around the world, most of them located in Pakistan and India. Urdu is the official language of Pakistan, which is home to an estimated 10.7 million native speakers.
Urdu is officially recognized by the constitution of India and serves as a state language in some states. A great number of Urdu language speakers – approximately 48 million – can be found in India, mostly in the predominantly Muslim state of Uttar Pradesh.
Significant numbers of Urdu-speaking immigrant communities can also be found in the United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and United States.