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Urdu language

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Urdu (اردو)
Spoken in: India, Pakistan and 19 other countries
Total speakers: 104 Million
Ranking: 20

   Central Zone
    Western Hindi

Official status
Official language of: India, Pakistan
Regulated by: not regulated by a language academy
Language codes
ISO 639-1: ur
ISO 639-2: urd

Urdu(اردو) is an Indo-European language which originated in India, most likely in the vicinity of Delhi, from where it spread to the rest of the subcontinent. Other major metropolitan areas with a strong tradition of the language include Hyderabad, Lucknow, and Lahore.

Urdu developed as a vernacular dialect from the interaction between local Indian Sanskrit-derived Prakrits and the languages that were spoken in the courts of the rulers of the The Subcontinent, from the time of the Delhi Sultanate to the Mughal Empire and its succeeding states. The language of the court, and of literature, was usually Persian, while that of religion was Arabic, the language of the Quran. This process of the mingling of these languages and the local dialects led to the development of everyday speech that sounded much like today's Urdu and Hindi. There is still a spectrum of dialects spoken in the streets of cities from Lahore and Karachi to Delhi and Calcutta and in the villages all over the region.

Urdu, especially in its less formalized form as it developed from a dialect to a more formal language, has also been referred to as "raikhtha" 1, which literally means "a rough mixture".

The formal language is sometimes referred to as Zaban-e-Urdu-e-Moalla, which can be translated as "Language of Camp and Court". The word urdu itself means "army", "horde" or "tent" in Turkish. Urdu, the Turkish word ordu, and the word horde (found in several European languages) have the same origin.

It soon became the language of the Mughals, distinguished linguistically from local languages by its large and extensive Arabic-Persian vocabulary (40%) superimposed on a base of grammar, usages and vocabulary that it shares in common with Hindi. The result was what has been called one of the world's most beautiful languages, the "Kohinoor" ("Mountain of Light," a famed native, large and brilliant diamond) of India. It is widely spoken today in both India and Pakistan and all countries having a sizeable South Asian diaspora.

The mix of Urdu and Hindi, forming the Hindustani dialects spoken in northern India and Pakistan, form the second-most-popular 'first' language and second-most-popular 'first or second' language in the world. Urdu by itself is the twentieth most popular 'first' language in the world and the national language of Pakistan.



There are many views on the origins of Urdu, differing in both time and geographic location.

Urdu may have originated anywhere in India: the Deccan, in the Punjab, in Maharashtra, in Bengal, in Sindh or in the neighbourhood of Delhi. These hypotheses are backed by Urdu literature having been found in these areas as far back as the period of the Delhi Sultanate. Keeping in mind the linguistic character of the areas around Delhi, it is often said that Urdu originated in or around Delhi over a period of a few centuries.

A continuous progression is seen in linguistic development from Sanskrit down to the modern languages of Northern India, though there is a very strong link between the Prakritic language 'Hindvi' of the middle ages and Urdu of today. The works of Amir Khusrau are intelligible to the speakers of Urdu/Hindi even though they were written in the 14th century. It is hypothesized that Urdu is the language developed when a regular and slow stream of Arabic and Persian words were infused into the language Hindvi.

Urdu has been known by a host of names during this seven century long interval: Hindvi, Hindi (not to be confused with the modern sister-language), Rekhta, Shahjahani, Deccani, Urdu-e-Mualla, and Urdu. There is some debate as to whether all these names represent the same language, but the majority of experts agree that these are names of the language known today as Urdu.

Although the language orginiated in the neighbourhood of Delhi, it was in the Deccan that it first gained acceptance. The rulers of the Deccan were supportive of local languages, opposing the Persian influence in northern South Asia. There, the court became the centre for the development of Urdu, and propagated the initial Urdu poetry and literature. The idea of using Urdu rather than Persian as the medium for poetry and literature eventually spread to the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent.

After the acceptance of Urdu as a poetic language in North India, a large number of poets began writing in it. Great poets such as Mir , Sauda , Ghalib and Zauq made the language acceptable as a literary medium. The increasing quantity of poetry and literature caused the languge to become more uniform and less volatile than it had been in the past.

Classification and Related Languages

Urdu is a member of the Hindustani group of languages, which is a subgroup of the Indo Aryan group of languages, which is in turn part of the Indo European family of languages.

Urdu is related to most of the languages of northern South Asia — they all have similar grammatical structures and even a certain common vocabulary. The Punjabi language is very similar to Urdu. Written Punjabi (in Shahmukhi script) can be understood by speakers of Urdu, with a little difficulty, but spoken Punjabi has a very different phonology (pronunciation system) and cannot be easily understood by Urdu speakers. However, the language mostly closely linked to Urdu is Hindi.

Urdu - Hindi - Hindustani

Urdu, Hindi and the consequent Hindustani language have a very strange and complex relationship with each other. Urdu and Hindi have been called different languages on the one hand and dialects of the same language on the other. Hindustani is generally thought of as the language that encompasses both Urdu and Hindi and forms the mother language of these two languages.

The largest difference between Urdu and Hindi is that Urdu is written in the Nasta'liq form of the modified Arabic script while Hindi is written in the Devanagari script.

Urdu, Hindi and Hindustani are all segments on a long linguistic chain. At one end is a heavily Persianized language which is written in the Nasta'liq font and in a modified Arabic script. At the other end is a heavily Sanskritized language which is written in the Devanagari form. The progression from one to the other is continuous and slow. The basic grammars are the same. The words are replaced either by more Sanskritized or more Persianized forms. Urdu forms the segment of the chain more towards the Persian side and Hindi forms the segment of the chain more towards the Sanskrit side. The langugage generally spoken in the north of the Indian subcontinent is basically halfway between the two extremes and represents Hindustani.

Despite this, the casual spoken languages are similar and in some cases not even distinguishable. For example, it is said that Indian movies (of the North and North-West regions, primarily of Bollywood) are made in Hindi, but the language used in many of these movies is exactly the same language used by Urdu speakers in Pakistan. On the other hand, Pakistani TV dramas are said to be made in Urdu, yet the language used in many of these dramas is exactly the language used by Hindi speakers in India.

As the language becomes more formal, the difference between the two languages starts to become clearer. In more serious speech and writing, the Sanskritization or Arabo-Persianization will become more pronounced. The languages used in newscasts, encyclopaedia articles and courtrooms become very heavily Sanskritized or Persianized and may be nearly unintelligible to speakers from the other languages.

Roman Urdu

Roman Urdu is Urdu written in the Roman script. Roman Urdu has been used since the days of the British Raj, partly as a result of the availability and low cost of Roman movable type for printing presses. The use of Roman Urdu was common in some contexts, such as product labels. It is gaining popularity among users of text-messaging and Internet services — especially the young — and is developing its own style and conventions. Habib R. Sulemani says in his article, "In fact, Urduís inherited script can produce and display its sounds properly. Urdu can be proud of having the richest variety of alphabet characters (44 compared to Englishís 26) that can represent most of the sounds. Urduís own script is far more superior [sic] to the Roman script, yet the younger generation of Urdu speaking people around the world are using it on the Internet and it has become essential for them, because they use the Internet and English is its language. A person from Islamabad chats with another in Delhi on the Internet only in Roman Urdu. They both speak (almost) the same language but with different scripts, The Urdu message is alien for an Indian and similarly the Devanagari message is alien for a Pakistani. Moreover, the younger generation of those who are from the English medium schools or settled in the west, can speak Urdu but canít write it in the traditional Arabic script and thus Roman Urdu is a blessing for such a population. It is the need of the time to recognise and properly shape the Roman Urdu officially. We canít deny the ground realities of 21st century." [1]

Speakers and geographic distribution

In Pakistan Urdu is spoken as a mother tongue by a majority of urban dwellers in such cities as Karachi and Hyderabad in the southern province of Sindh. In spite of its status as the national language, however, only 8% of Pakistanis speak Urdu as their first language with about 48% speaking Punjabi as a mother tongue. It is, however, the language of prestige and all signage, and literacy is compulsory in the Pakistani school system. As time goes by, more and more Pakistanis of Punjabi or other backgrounds are speaking Urdu as a first language. It is evident that the number of native Urdu speakers is increasing quickly in urban centers.

In India, Urdu is spoken as a mother tongue by many in the northern and central states. While in India Muslims might ostensibly be seen as identifying more with Urdu, Hindus and Sikhs naturally speak Urdu regardless of religion, especially when they have grown up in such traditional Urdu strongholds as Lucknow and Hyderabad. Some would contend that Language spoken in Bollywood films is in fact closer to Urdu than Hindi, especially in filmi song s.

Apart from the Indian subcontinent, Urdu is also spoken in urban Afghanistan. It is also spoken to some extent in the major urban centres in the Persian Gulf countries and in Saudi Arabia. Urdu is spoken by a large number of people in the major urban centres of the UK, the USA, Canada and Australia.

Coutries with large numbers of First Language Urdu speakers.

Official Status

Urdu is the national language of Pakistan. Although English is the official language and is used in most elite circles, and Punjabi has a plurality of native speakers, Urdu is seen as the one lingua franca that is expected to prevail. Urdu is one of the official languages of India, and while the government school system emphasizes Hindi, many universities, especially in Lucknow, continue to foster Urdu as a language of prestige and learning. In Jammu and Kashmir, Urdu is the state's official language.


Urdu nouns fall into two grammatical genders: masculine and feminine. However, there is disagreement over the gender of some words, particularly words newly introduced from English which do not have genders.

In Urdu there is also a singular or a plural noun form.


A host of words are used to show respect and politeness. These words are generally used with people who are older in age or with whom you are not acquainted. For example the English pronoun 'you' can be translated into three words in Urdu: the singular 'tu' (informal, extremely intimate, or derogatory) or the plural forms 'tum' (informal) and 'aap' (formal and respectful).


Urdu has a vocabulary rich in words with Indian and Middle Eastern origins. The Urdu language is dominated by words from Hindi, Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian. One count placed the number of Hindi-Prakrit words in the vocabulary at about 60% with the remaining 40% comprising Arabo-Persian words. There are also a number of borrowings from Turkish, Portuguese and English. Many of the Arabic words that have found a place in the Urdu Language, often through the conduit of Persian, have different nuances of meaning and usage.

Writing System

Urdu is written in a derivative of the Persian alphabet which is itself derivative of the Arabic alphabet. It is read from right to left. Urdu is similar in appearance and letters to Arabic, Persian, and Pashto. Urdu differs in appearance from Arabic in that it uses the more complex and sinuous nastaliq script whereas Arabic tends to the more modern naskh . Nastaliq is notoriously difficult to typeset, so Urdu newspapers are made from hand-written masters. Although the styles are different, people who can read Urdu can read Arabic, as Arabic uses the same alphabet but with fewer letters. There are efforts underway to develop more practical Urdu support on computers.

Usually, bare transliterations of Urdu into Roman letters omit many subtle phonetic aspects which have no equivalent in English or other languages which are written with the Roman alphabet, such as a sharp exhale at the end of certain words (known as aspiration). It should be noted that a reasonably comprehensive system has emerged with specific notations to signify non-English sounds, but it is only properly read by someone already familiar with Urdu or Hindi; this phoneticizing script, however, does serve a valid purpose as it would allow Indians, who usually write Hindi and even Urdu in Devanagari script, to communicate with Pakistanis only familiar with nastaliq.

A list of the alphabet of Urdu along with its pronunciation is given below. A more detailed list with detailed phonetic information will be added later on.

Alphabet English Name Pronunciation
ا Alif a
ب Bay b
پ Pay p
ت Tay t (plosive dental)
ٹ Ttay T
ث Say s
ج Jeem j
چ Chay ch
ح Hay h
خ Khay Kh
د Daal d (plosive dental)
ڈ Ddaal D
ذ Zaal z
ر Ray r
ڑ Arrhay R (hard r sound used in South Asian lanugages)
ز Zay z
ژ Dzhay Y
س Seen s
ش Sheen sh
ص Suad s
ض Zuad z
ط Toay t
ظ Zoay z
ع Aein e
غ Ghain Gh
ف Fay f
ق Qaaf q
ک Kaaf k
گ Gaaf g
ل Laam l
م Meem m
ن Noon n
و Wow w
ہ / ھ Hay h
ء Hamzah
ی Choti Yay y
ے Bari Yay y


Urdu has been used as a language for literature for a relatively short period of time, Persian being the language of choice until recently. But even so, a varied and extensive literature of the language has come up.

A large number of volumes of Islamic works are present in Urdu. Currently the most important and widely read of these are ascribed to Maulana Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi.

Two genres have seen a lot of development in Urdu as compared to other languages. The Daastaan is a long story which might include multiple story lines, plots and may not have any particular focus but it had the usage of beautiful lingustic structures, it is not used any more. The Afsaana is a short story. It has come to become the primary genre of Urdu literature. The most well known Afsana writers or Afsana Nigaar in Urdu are Saadat Hasan Manto, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi , Munshi Premchand and Krishan Chander . Premchand, a Hindu writer, became known as a pioneer in the afsana (though some contend that his were not technically the first) and showed that religion was not an obstacle to Urdu's grand capacity to express.


Urdu is very well known for its beautiful poetry. Urdu was the premiere language of poetry in South Asia for two centuries and has a large and rich collection of poetry in a host of different poetic forms.

The Ghazal (غزل) is a form of poetry that was used extensively by poets all over South Asia, generally by Muslim poets. Its beauty and grace has made it well-liked by people from all faiths all over the region. Mir , Ghalib and Faiz are some of the major poets in the genre of Ghazal.

Except for Ghazal the poetic forms of Rubai , Masnavi, Qaseeda , Geet , Marsia , Shehr aashob , Doha, Urdu and Nauha are very well developed in Urdu. Foreign forms such as the sonnet and haiku have also been used by Urdu poets, mainly in the modern era.

Urdu also gave birth to a new genre of poetry, the Noha (نوحہ). It usually describes the circumstances of the Martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Hussain in the form of an elegy, occasinally accompanied by lamentation.


English Transliteration IPA Notes
Hello As-Salam Alaykum ˈaʔsaɭam ˈaɭikum The standard Muslim greeting, the correct response is "Wa-Alaykum As-Salam"
Hello Adaab arz hai aˈdaːb aɽˈzai secular
Good Bye Khuda Hafiz kudaː hafəz literally means God protect you
yes haan haː̃ casual
yes ji ʤi formal
no na nã casual
no nahi ˈna̤i formal
please Meherbani mɛhɛrˈbani
thank you Shukriya ʃʊˈkrija
Please come in Aap tashreef laaiye aːpʰ ʈaˈʃrif ɭaˈiː lit. Bring your honor
Please have a seat Aap tashreef rakhiye aːpʰ ʈaˈʃrif ɽaˈxi "lit." 'Place your honor'
It is nice to meet you Aap se mil kar khushi hui aːpʰ sɛ miɭ kar kʊˈʃi hwi
Do you speak English? Kya aap angrezi boltay heyn? kja aːpʰ ˈaŋgrɛzi boɭʈɛ hś̃
I do not speak Urdu. Main Urdu naheen bolta. mś̃ urdʰu nahĩ boɭʈa
My name is ... Mera nam ... hai. mɛɾa naːm ... hai
Which way to Lahore Lahore kiss taraf heyh
Where is Mumbai? Mumbai kahaan hai?
Urdu is a good language. Urdu ek achchhee zubaan hai.


1 As in Ghalib's immortal tribute to Mir  :

Raikhtha kai aik thum hee ustadh nahee Ghalib
Kehthay hain aglay zamaanay main ko'ee Mir bhee thhaa
(You are not the only master of 'Raikhta', Ghalib
They say there was one called Mir in days gone by)

See also

External links

  • : oldest Urdu language website
  • Ethnologue report for Urdu
  • Introductory Urdu (Volume 1)
  • Introductory Urdu (Volume 2)
  • BBC News in Urdu
  • Urdu Wikipedia
  • Urdu Wiktionary
  • The New Urdu

Last updated: 02-07-2005 10:01:00
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55