Urdu, the language that many love, is still without an authentic pedigree, so to speak. There are a myriad of theories as experts have been looking for Urdu’s roots and its origin for quite long. Some theories of Urdu’s origin seem quite plausible while a few are so flimsy that they can hardly be called ‘theory’.
Anyway, let’s glance briefly at some of them:
Is Urdu a camp language?
The oldest and probably the most misleading of the theories is the one that says Urdu is a ‘lashkari zaban’ or ‘camp-language’. Though it was proven incorrect long ago, strangely enough, this is the most popular of the theories of Urdu’s origin and people, even some teachers of Urdu, still believe in this myth.
Mir Amman (1750?-1837) is the one who can be ‘credited’ for coming up with the theory. In the intro to his marvellous book Bagh-o-Bahar (1802), he opined that Urdu came into being when the soldiers of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who reigned from 1627 to 1658, began speaking a language that was a mixture of words taken from Arabic, Persian, Hindi and some other languages. Since the soldiers came from different linguistic and ethnic backgrounds, says the theory, they needed a common language to communicate among themselves and hence Urdu was born.
It is common knowledge that languages do not form like this and the developing of a language is a slow and natural process that may take centuries, even more. According to modern linguistics no two languages can give birth to a new, third one.
Some scholars such as Rudolf Hoernle and George Grierson were convinced of the theory in the beginning but when Mr Greirson published his monumental research in several volumes titled ‘The linguistic survey of India’, he admitted that he was misled by Mr Amman’s preface. The massive survey, that took over 35 years to complete and covered over 350 languages and dialects of British India, conceded in the ninth volume that Urdu was not a camp-language and in the footnotes added: “Hindustani [Urdu] is simply the vernacular of the Upper Doab and Western Rohilkhand, on which a certain amount of literary polish has been bestowed, from which a few rustic idioms have been excluded.”
Is Urdu Brij Bhasha’s daughter?
Muhammad Hussain Azad in his enchanting book Aab-i-Hayat repeated the mantra floated by Mir Amman. But a few pages later articulated that “everybody knows that Urdu was derived from Brij Bhasha”. Braj Bhaka or Brij Bhasha was the literary language of the North-Western India centuries ago and it influenced Urdu, of course, to some extent. But soon it was overtaken by Khari Boli. Shaukat Sabzwari has amply proved that Brij Bhasha and Urdu are syntactically and morphologically so different that Mr Azad’s assumption does not hold water.
Was Urdu born in Sindh?
Syed Sulaiman Nadvi wrote that since Muslims had entered the sub-continent through Sindh, led by Mohammad Bin Qasim in 712 AD, Urdu must have been born in Sindh where Arabic and Sindhi mingled. Of course Arabic influenced Sindhi much — and later other languages of the sub-continent — and Sindhi adopted the Arabic script. But it did not give birth to Urdu and it must have been an early version of modern Sindhi that was influenced by Arabic. Also, according to linguists such as Max Muller, two languages cannot create a new language by intermingling.
Was Urdu born in Deccan?
Naseeruddin Hashmi opined that since Arabs navigators had been visiting South India even before the advent of Islam, Urdu was born when the Arabs landed on the South Indian coasts. Urdu came into being as a result of the intermingling of local dialects and Arabic, he said.
The theory was rejected on the basis of the fact that Arabic was a Semitic language and the local dialects and languages of Deccan were Dravidian. Urdu is an Aryan language and two languages of different families cannot give birth to a language of the third family.
Later, Mr Hashmi retreated from this point of view but Dr Amna Khatoon floated a similar theory saying that Urdu was born in Deccan as a result of the mixing of Marathi words with Arabic and Persian words. This, too, was simply not convincing enough for the linguists.
Was Urdu born in Punjab?
Hafiz Mahmood Sherani is credited with the theory that says Urdu was born in Punjab. He says since Mahmood Ghaznavi had conquered Lahore and Muslims stayed there for some 200 years before invading Delhi, Urdu must have taken shape during that period and, in a way, the Punjabi language gave birth to Urdu. Some two centuries later, Mr Sherani says, Muslim conquerors brought this new language to Delhi with them. He also enlisted some similarities between Urdu and Punjabi. Of course there are some identical traits that lend credulity to this theory, but Mr Sabzwari and Masood Hussain Khan proved this theory was incorrect.
Aside from historical aspects, they showed that in addition to similarities between the two languages, there were a large number of syntactical and morphological differences that proved that Urdu was not Punjabi’s daughter. In fact, Mr Sherani was not the first to reach this conclusion and before him some renowned linguists and scholars such as Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, T. Graham Bailey and Mohiuddin Qadri Zor had expressed similar views, though Mr Sherani was the first to try to thoroughly prove the theory.
Was Urdu born in Multan?
In 1957, Mehr Abdul Haq (1915-1996) was awarded a PhD by Punjab University on a thesis he presented saying that Urdu was born in Multan. The dissertation, titled ‘Multani zaban aur us ka Urdu se taalluq’, was published in 1967.
Mr Haq says Seraiki or Multani is a very ancient language and is not derived from Sanskrit. It is older than Vedas. He says a new language was born in Multan, then it arrived in Lahore and later moved on to Delhi. There it intermingled with the dialects spoken in and around Delhi and emerged in the shape of a language which was later called Urdu. He says Urdu is closer to Seraiki than Punjabi.
Aside from whether we are convinced with this theory or not, it is a fact that Mr Haq’s book is a virtual treasure of knowledge on history, linguistics, grammar, vocabulary and semantics.
Recently, a thesis comparing the theories of Mr Sherani and Mr Haq was awarded an MPhil at Multan’s Bahauddin Zakariya University. Written by Ajmal Mahar Ibn-e-Akber and supervised by Dr Qazi Abid, the thesis is titled ‘Hafiz Mahmood Sherani aur Dr Mehr Abdul Haq: lisaani nazariyaat, taqabuli mutal’a’ and is published by Idara-i-Farogh-i-Qaumi Zaban (formerly Muqtadira Qaumi Zaban), Islamabad.
The writer seems to agree with Mr Haq. He has done in-depth study of the works of two scholars. Aside from who we agree with, the need to explore the origins and development of Urdu is ever greater and such studies must be appreciated.