One of the INDO-ARYAN LANGUAGES, Urdu is the twin of hindi. It has the same origin in the regional language of the country around Delhi. Culturally, the two languages are a world apart.
Urdu̅ is in full Zabu̅n-i-urdu̅, ‘language of the camp’ – a Persian phrase that incorporates the Turkish word ordu. Thus ‘Urdu’ is the same in origin as horde, see box at UZBEK. The spoken Urdu of the 19th century, one of the major languages of British India, was then called Hindustani – the lingua franca of the subcontinent whose Persian name is Hindu̅stu̅n, ‘country of the Hindus’.
Urdu, in origin the speech of the northern Indian Muslim courts and cities, spread as a lingua franca in India wherever Mughal influence was felt. Evidently well known and serviceable in both north and south, it was much favoured during the early expansion of British rule.
The earliest Urdu poetry, of the 16th and 17th centuries, comes from the Muslim courts of the south of India, particularly Hyderabad. At the beginning of the 19th century, the British Fort William College encouraged the development of a new literary standard on the basis of the Urdu of Delhi, a literary language intended to supplant the Braj form of Hindi. But this policy overlooked the fact that Islam was a minority religion in India, and Urdu vocabulary and style, under Persian influence, had drifted away from its popular base. Its script, too, was not ideal for an Indo-Aryan language and unsuitable for typesetting.
When, at independence, India split on religious lines, Urdu, which had the best-developed cultural tradition among languages of Indian Muslims, took its place as the sole official language of Pakistan. It is thus widely spoken there as a second language, but it is the mother tongue of only a minority, numbering about 8,000,000 – and many of these are emigrants or children of emigrants from North India. Their main centre is Karachi. Urdu functions as the literary language of the numerically dominant panjabi and Lahnda speakers of Pakistan.
In India, Dakhini̅ Urdu̅ (Urdu ‘of the Deccan, of the south’) still centres on Hyderabad, Bijapur, Gulbarga and other mainly Muslim towns of the Deccan plateau. Urdu is still widely spoken in the big northern Indian cities. The total number of speakers in India may be as many as 32,000,000 – a figure is difficult to give, since they may well be competent in Urdu and Hindi equally.
The history of Urdu as a lingua franca lives on in its use in pidginised form as a trading language in great cities such as Calcutta and Bombay – both of which owe their early growth to their status as centres of British rule. Naturally influenced by the majority languages (Bengali and Marathi respectively), Baza̅r Hindusta̅ni̅ in these cities serves for communication among those who do not themselves speak Bengali or Marathi.
Outside the subcontinent, Urdu is the cultural language of many emigrant communities of Indian Muslims, particularly Panjabi and Gujarati speakers.
Urdu is written in a script based on Arabic, with added letters as used for Persian, and some variants specific to Urdu. It is usually printed from calligraphy. Its typical sloping style cannot be satisfactorily imitated with movable type. One or two specially designed word-processing programs are now able to generate good written Urdu.
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