Urdu: Language of Poets

Urdu is an Indo-European language from the central zone of the Indo-Aryan branch, with over one hundred million speakers worldwide. Once associated with the Mughal Empire, it is most prominent in Pakistan, northern India, and South Asian diaspora communities.

Urdu is the official language in Pakistan and some states of India (marked in dark orange; marked in yellow is Hindi).

Due to its mutual intelligibility with Hindi, Urdu and Hindi are often referred to jointly by the term Hindustani (literally: “from the land of the Indus”). Considering Hindustani as a single unit, it is the third or fourth most spoken language in the world, depending on which source you look at.

People often ask what the differences between Hindi and Urdu are, and I would say that there are essentially two. First, the writing system: Hindi employs the Devanagari script, which is a descendant of older Indian scripts, whereas Urdu uses a version of the Perso-Arabic script, which came into use for several South Asian languages after Muslims entered the subcontinent. Second, while the grammar and syntax for both is alike, higher-level vocabulary in Hindi is derived from Sanskrit while in Urdu it is often derived from Persian and Arabic. In regular conversation, though, Hindi and Urdu speakers can communicate with each other perfectly well. Due to the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, the differences between the two have been artificially magnified in Pakistan, where Urdu has national status, and India, where Hindi has national status, in quite a politicized manner.

Anyways, Urdu is known for its great canon of literature and poetry; figures such as Meer, Ghalib, and Iqbal have truly inspired millions. It makes sense that Urdu is a poetic language when one looks at the rich sources it draws from – it is built on a foundation of Sanskrit and Hindi, and ornamented with vocabulary from Persian, Arabic, and even Turkish.

Interestingly enough, the word Urdu is even synonymous with poetry in some cases. For example, take a look at the super-hit Bollywood song “Chaiyya Chaiyya” from the 1999 movie Dil Se. Skip to 1:28 and you’ll hear the line “Woh yaar hai jo khushboo ki tarah, jiski zubaan Urdu ki tarah”. This would translate to “My beloved is like a sweet aroma, whose words sound like Urdu”.

In this post I will highlight some of the interesting features of Urdu. (Of course, many of these apply to Hindi as well)
1) In Urdu, a noticeable number of words rhyme with their antonyms. Here are a few examples:

  • Dena (to give) دینا  – Lena (to take) لینا
  • Aana (to come) آنا – Jaana (to go) جانا
  • Torna (to break apart) توڑنا – Jorna (to fix/join together) جوڑنا
  • Daaein (right) دائیں – Baaein (left) بائیں
  • Tan (physical body) تن – Man (heart) من
  • Mera (my) میرا – Tera (your) تیرا
  • Saaz (instrument) ساز – Awaaz (voice) آواز
  • Dukh (sadness) دکھ – Sukh (happiness) سکھ

There are also many pairs of rhyming words that are connected by a similar theme, and while they aren’t necessarily exact opposites, they are distinct.

  • Neela (blue) نیلا – Peela (yellow) پیلا
  • Mota (fat) موٹا – Chhota (small) چھوٹا
  • Ghoomna (to wander/go around) گھومنا – Jhoomna (to sway/dance) جھومنا
  • Neeche (below) نیچے – Peechhe (behind) پیچھے
  • Agar (if) اگر – Magar (but) مگر

2) This is probably my favorite characteristic of the Urdu language. Many verbs are part of families (usually 3-4 verbs) that use a root verb to derive causative versions of it. Take a look at the examples below to see what I mean. The infinitive form of every Urdu verb end with the suffix “-na” (نا-), just as every English infinitive begins with “to”.

  • Banna (to become) بننا – Banaana (to make) بنانا – Banvaana (to have someone make, as in, to cause to be made) بنوانا
  • Seekhna (to learn) سیکھنا – Sikhaana (to teach) سکھانا – Sikhvaana (to cause to be taught) سکھوانا
  • Karna (to do) کرنا – Karaana (to have done) کرانا – Karvaana (to cause to have done) کروانا
  • Milna (to meet) ملنا – Milaana (to introduce/connect) ملانا – Milvaana (to cause to introduce) ملوانا
  • Khulna (to become open) کھلنا – Kholna (to open) کھولنا – Khulvaana (to cause to open) کھلوانا

It is a little confusing if you’re not used to it, so here is an example of how these multiple forms could be used:
.یہ دروازہ خود کھلتا ہے
Yeh darwaaza khud khulta hai (This door opens by itself).
.تم نے اس دروازے کو کھولنا ہے
Tum ne is darwaaze ko kholna hai (You need to open this door).
.اس دروازے کو کسی سے کھلوانا ہے
Is darwaaze ko kisi se khulvaana hai (Someone must be brought to make this door open).

3) Urdu also has the interesting feature of having rhyming series of certain pronouns and adverbs.

  • Is ka (his/hers, owner present) اس کا – Us ka (his/hers, owner absent) اس کا – Jis ka (whosever) جس کا – Kis ka (whose?) کس کا
  • Idhar (here) ادھر – Udhar (there) ادھر – Jidhar (wherever) جدھر – Kidhar (where?) کدھر
  • Itna (this much) اتنا – Utna (that much) اتنا – Jitna (however much) جتنا – Kitna (how much?) کتنا
  • Yahan (here) یہاں – Wahan (there) وہاں – Jahan (wherever) جہاں – Kahan (where?) کہاں
  • Aise (like this) ایسے – Waise (like that) ویسے – Jaise (however) جیسے – Kaise (how?) کیسے
  • Ab (now) اب – Tab (then) تب – Jab (whenever) جب – Kab (when?) کب

As you can see, there is a pattern, such that the first one always has to do with something removed from the present situation, the second has to do with something related to the present situation, the third is used for general statements applicable to any situation, and the fourth is an interrogative word for an uncertain situation.

4) Like many languages, Urdu has a rich vocabulary, but there is a focus on poetic and romantic words. There exist multiple words for things that have only one word in other languages like English. The reason for this is that some words have South Asian etymologies, while others have Central or Western Asian origins.

  • Dil دل – Man من – Jiya جیا (heart)
  • Nain نین – Aankh آنکھ – Chasham چشم (eye)
  • Zulfein زلفیں – Baal بال (hair)
  • Ishq عشق – Mohabbat محبت – Pyar پیار – Prem پریم (love)
  • Jeevan جیون – Zindagi زندگی (life)
  • Falak فلک – Aasmaan آسمان – Ambar امبر (sky)
  • Haseen حسین – Khoobsoorat خوبصورت – Sundar سندر (beautiful)

I hope that those who are interested in the study of languages enjoyed this post. Please feel free to comment below to ask any questions you may have about Urdu.


2 responses to “Urdu: Language of Poets”

  1. Urdu words are strangely familiar yet foreign at the same time. Some of us feel Urdu more than we understand it. When we hear “jiski zubah Urdu ki tarah”, we immediately get pulled to the idea of that person, we feel the connection to “kuch toh hai tujhse rābta”, even before we’ve Googled rābta and known what it means. Our tongue tastes Urdu, before the mind registers it, and that is the beauty of our relationship with this language.

  2. traveller Avatar

    This is beautiful. I am an urdu speaker – and this is exactly true. It is a melodic language, with rhyming mechanisms, and it’s evocative rich nature makes it a wonderful medium through which spiritual beliefs can be transmitted and conveyed.