The Urdu language is spoken in many countries, with an estimated 70 million native Urdu speakers globally. It is best known as the national Pakistani language. However, the Urdu language is also officially recognized in India and used by Pakistani communities across the globe. Additionally, more than 160 million people learning Urdu as a second language can understand Urdu words.
When counting these second-language speakers, there are 230 million Urdu language speakers worldwide. This puts Urdu as the tenth most spoken language globally by population. In fact, almost 3% of the world’s population speaks the Urdu language! But how has the national Pakistan language become one of the top ten living languages? And how is it that more people are learning Urdu than there are native speakers?
To answer these questions, we must return to the origins of the Urdu language. Urdu belongs to a branch of the Indo-European language family called Indo-Aryan languages. All languages in this family are derived from Sanskrit, the oldest language in the world. Sanskrit gradually evolved into Middle Indo-Aryan languages before developing into the modern languages used today.
The Urdu language follows this trend, and we must travel to 12th-century Delhi to find its beginnings. This article takes you there, back to the conception of the first Urdu words. You’ll then learn how Urdu became the Pakistani language, the alphabet used for writing Urdu words, and its differences from the closely related Hindi language. Anyone interested in learning Urdu history is in for a treat!
Origins & Roots of the Urdu language
The Urdu language has evolved from Sanskrit, which first developed from 1500—500 BCE. However, it took until the 12th century for Sanskrit to remotely start resembling the Urdu language. This first version of the current Pakistani language was known as Hindavi or Old Hindi and was spoken in Dehli and the surrounding areas.
Islamic conquests of the Indian subcontinent from the 12th to 16th centuries caused substantial changes to the language. Persian was made the official language, and Urdu words were acquired from Persian as a result. Loanwords from Arabic and Turkish were also integrated. Numerous names for the Urdu language emerged during this period, including Hindi, Hindustani, Dehlavi, and Lahori.
Authors began using the Urdu language in literature and poetry throughout the 13th to 15th centuries. Amir Khusrau, a renowned scholar who lived under the Delhi Sultanate, made a substantial contribution to the growth of the language. He was once known as Hindavi and was regarded as “The Father of Urdu Literature.” He wrote in both Persian and Urdu, the latter flourishing in aristocratic and courtly contexts. As a result, learning Urdu became more popular.
Modern “Urdu Language”
The number of people learning Urdu grew substantially during the colonial times of the 1800s. The British made Urdu and English co-official languages of the Indian Subcontinent in 1837. As a result, many Urdu words derived from English were integrated into the vocabulary. Hindus and Muslims spoke the Urdu language, yet while Muslims wrote using the Perso-Arabic script, Hindus wrote in the Devanagari.
During the colonial period, there was no division between the Muslim and Hindu languages – both went by the multiple names we’ve already mentioned. However, by the time British colonialism ended in 1947, a distinction had emerged. Although both spoken languages were the same, the language written in the Perso-Arabic script became known as the Urdu language. In contrast, the language written in the Devanagari script was known as Hindi.
When the British finally left, the subcontinent was divided into two independent nations: India and Pakistan. Pakistan has a Muslim majority, and the Urdu language was made the official Pakistan language in 1973. With its Hindu majority, Hindi became the language of India. Nevertheless, the language spoken day-to-day has remained neutral and serves as the lingua franca across the Northern Indian subcontinent.
Alphabets & Writing System
The Urdu language is written in a modified version of the Nasta’liq-style Persian script. The Persian script is derived from Arabic, so Urdu words are written right-to-left. Like its Arabic ancestor, short vowels are also omitted. Instead, the script only uses consonant characters and long vowels, the number of which is somewhat contested: There are 39 or 40 characters, depending whom you ask!
The Urdu language is of Indo-European origin, so the use of an Arabic-style script is somewhat limited. Indo-European languages have stronger vowel pronunciations than languages with Arabic roots, meaning vowel omission makes learning Urdu more complex. Calligraphic characters were also limited in a print-based setting. However, Pakistani newspapers published handwritten reports in Urdu, even after the 1911 invention of the Urdu typewriter.
Scholars believe the Urdu alphabet was first used to write the Pakistani language in the 13th century. It was initially developed in Iran and brought to the Indian subcontinent, and it’s today the official script for Urdu used in Pakistan and several Indian states. It is also used by Pakistanis living abroad in the UK, UAE, US, Canada, Saudi Arabia, and many other countries worldwide.
Urdu Language Dialects
There are four recognized dialects of the Urdu language: Dakhini, Dhakaiya, Rekhta, and Modern Vernacular Urdu. The Dakhini dialect is spoken in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. Dkahaiyya Urdu is spoken in Bangladesh, but its usage is declining. Rekha is the language used to write Urdu poetry. Finally, modern vernacular Urdu is spoken in cities such as Dehli.
All the above dialects of the Urdu language are mutually intelligible. Moreover, spoken Urdu is also mutually intelligible with spoken Hindi, as they’re part of the same language continuum. Therefore, people learning Urdu can understand spoken Hindi and vice versa. This puts Urdu and Hindi (known jointly as Hindustani) as the lingua franca of Northern India – which explains why so many people are learning Urdu as a second language in India.
Nevertheless, Urdu and Hindi are considered distinct. This is largely due to the wide distribution of both languages, compared to dialects that are typically spoken in smaller regions. Moreover, written versions of the languages are not mutually intelligible as Urdu words are written in Nasta’liq. Differences are also found in vocabulary; the Pakistani language contains more words from Persian and Arabic, whereas Hindi contains more vocabulary from Sanskrit.
Urdu Translation Services
The Urdu language is spoken by 230 million people worldwide, and Urdu translations are becoming a common choice for businesses. Accurate translations into the Pakistani language help you communicate with Pakistanis in the country and the Pakistani diaspora.
Renaissance Translations has a qualified team of Urdu translators having years of translation experience under their belt. Our translators are native speakers and have been learning Urdu since birth! They’re familiar with the history and various dialects, giving them invaluable insight and an edge over competitors. We even have experts with knowledge of technical Urdu words, able to translate content on healthcare, law, finance, and more!