The Development of the Urdu Language

Whilst the British ruled over India (when India and Pakistan were considered one territory), a regime that spanned almost two centuries from the arrival of British traders representing one of the world’s first corporations, the British East India Company, to the takeover of British-controlled territories by Queen Victoria during the British Raj, these rulers took a bit of inspiration from their predecessors, the Mughals (مغل), in promoting Urdu as one of their languages of administrative communication. In North and Northwestern India, especially, the British attempted to replace the local (دیسی/desi), official languages with English (انگریزی/Angrezi, fem. noun) and Hindustani/Urdu (written in the Persian nastaliq/نستعلیق‎ script) to “streamline” communications and official business.

But, in order to truly appreciate the depth and breadth of the language’s history, we have to begin farther back in time. Arabic (عربی/Arabi, fem. noun), one of the principal languages that makes its presence felt in Urdu, began to make inroads in the Indian subcontinent with late first-millennium Muslim (مسلمان/musalmaan) conquests in the region. A few centuries (صدی/sadi, fem. noun) later, Central Asian Turks and Afghans who had migrated to the area set up consecutive and sometimes competing dynasties that were heavily influenced by the sophisticated Persian court of the time, thus bringing Persian (فارسی/Faarsi, fem. noun) to the subcontinent. The Turko-Afghan Delhi Sultanate, a powerful, well-known dynasty, naturally declared Persian as its official language. This tradition (روایت/rivaayat, fem. noun) was continued by the mighty Mughal Empire, whose influence spread over much of Northern South Asia from the 16th to the 18th centuries. The fact that Persian was the official language of this incredibly powerful (طاقتور/taaqatvar) Empire made the ever-deepening influence of Persian over developing Indian languages, such as Hindi and Urdu, that much stronger.

Prior to the commencement of the British Raj in 1858 , the British had transitioned from Persian to the more-indigenous Hindustani in 1837. Written in nastaliq, this language was used (استعمال کریں/istamaal karnaa) by both Hindus and Muslims, in addition to English (the other official language), in the Indo-British civil service. This promotion of Hindustani over Persian was regarded as a smoother transition than, say, Hindi’s devanagari script, from the similar nastaliq script of Persian. Moreover, this decision (فیصلہ/faislaa, masc. noun) to promote Hindustani rather than Persian functioned as a way for the British to differentiate themselves from the long shadow cast by the Mughal Empire.

However, the highest caste of Hindus, the Brahmins, were snubbed by these policies and suffered due to consistently low literacy rates, especially in nastaliq. Thus, it was primarily this group, especially in Northwestern India, that argued for a change in policy that administrative business be conducted in Devanagari, a script with which they were more comfortable, instead of nastaliq. Gradually, many groups became involved in a push toward a division (تقسيم/taqseem, fem. noun) between the Hindi and Urdu components of Hindustani, with Hindi becoming progressively more Sanskritized (and thus supposedly “purified”) and Urdu becoming more heavily influenced by Arabic and Persian. In 1881, a new literary register of Hindi (what we now refer to as “Modern Standard Hindi”), which was heavily Sanskritized, replaced traditional Hindustani as the official language of the Northwestern Indian state of Bihar.