Monday, January 21, 2013

Language Profile: Urdu

This week's language profile is on Urdu. It has approximately 60.6 million native speakers and is the national language and lingua franca of Pakistan, as well as an official regional language in India. It's a Hindustani language that is intelligible with Hindi.

Hindustani, or Hindi-Urdu, was originally the language of Hindus and Muslims in North India and Pakistan. In the late 1800s, the two religious groups decided they couldn't agree on the name of the language anymore, and it started to be called Hindi by Hindus (mainly in India) and Urdu by Muslims (mainly in Pakistan). Things got even more contentious when Urdu was made the national language of Pakistan, which upset Indians who believed the language should always be written in Devanagari script instead of the Perso-Arabic script used by Pakistanis.

This awesome animal is a markhor, the
national animal of Pakistan.
As usual, both religious groups believed they were right and the other was wrong. Instead of just agreeing to disagree on naming and happily using their respective dialects, they began to claim that Hindi and Urdu had always been separate languages, which is far from the truth. However, over the years the two standard dialects have diverged quite a bit from their shared Hindustani roots, to the extent that they are now often unintelligible in their formal registers.

Hindi and Urdu share many linguistics similarities, including syntax, morphology, and core vocabulary. The main thing that sets them apart is lexical differences in their respective formal registers. Urdu tends to have more loanwords from Arabic and Persian, while Hindi uses more from Sanskrit. They're also written using different scripts. However, most linguists agree that the differences between the two "languages' are sociolinguistic, or cultural differences. The colloquial registers used in everyday life by both Hindi and Urdu speakers are mutually intelligible. In fact, a purposely ambiguous colloquial variety referred to as Hindustani is often used in Bollywood films in order to target a wider audience in both countries.

Urdu was actually chosen as the lingua franca of Pakistan as a way to unite its people, who generally speak one of a number of regional indigenous languages. Urdu was selected in order to make sure that none of the Pakistani languages was given preference. It is usually learned as a second or third language by most Pakistanis, since their official language is English and most speak an indigenous language at home. This has lead to Urdu influencing the indigenous languages and vice versa.

"Urdu" written in Nastaʿlīq script.
Register is also important in the Urdu language, and the etymology of words is used to help decide how polite someone's speech is. It's like how in English, words of French origin are often considered to be more formal than those from Old English. You'd never say "let's commence eating" in an informal situation. You'd use the word start instead, unless you were just being silly. The same goes for Urdu. For example, there are two words meaning "water", پانی pānī and آب āb. Words of older Hindustani or Sanskrit origin such as pānī are used coloquially, whereas words of Persian or Arabic origin such as āb are used in formal situations.

The Urdu alphabet is written from right to left using the Nastaʿlīq script. It's based on the Persian alphabet, which is in turn based on the Arabic alphabet. This style of writing is apparently quite difficult to typeset, or form into a font, so Urdu newspapers were handwritten by calligraphers up to the late 1980s. We imagine that must have been quite an arduous job!