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“The only place where success comes before work is dictionary,” someone has said. But the hard work of writing an Urdu dictionary, either monolingual or bilingual, is something that is hardly, if ever, rewarded with success. It sounds strange but it is a fact that no Urdu dictionary has ever been able to escape the wrath of critics and scholars. Though some lapses might have occurred in these dictionaries as lexicography is a meticulous and backbreaking job, the critics have been a bit harsher with the lexicographers than what would have been fair. Maybe, this is what happened in other languages as well. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons why Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), a great English lexicographer, dubbed the tedious work of lexicography as ‘harmless drudgery’.

Spread over four volumes and compiled by Noor-ul-Hasan Nayyar Kakorvi (1865-1936), Noorul Lughaat is one of the authentic Urdu-Urdu dictionaries, sometimes criticised unjustly though. Its first volume appeared in 1924 and the fourth in 1931. Though before Noorul Lughaat some other Urdu-Urdu dictionaries existed, it is second only to Farhang-i-Aasifiya.

Dictionary-writing was not something new in Urdu and by the time Noor-ul-lughaat’s first volume appeared in 1924, many had blazed a trail. Aside from the versified bilingual dictionaries such as ‘Khaliq Bari’, Urdu’s first dictionary ever compiled is named Gharaibul Lughaat. Compiled by Abdul Vaas’e Haansvi in the late 17th century, it explained Urdu words in Persian, which was the language of the academia and intelligentsia in the sub-continent back then. Sirajuddin Ali Khan Aarzoo edited it in 1743 and pointed out some glaring errors. Next to come was Kamal-i-Itrat, a dictionary compiled by Mir Muhammadi Itrat around 1775 and explaining Urdu words in Persian. Meanwhile, the European scholars and Missionaries had been working on Urdu’s multi-lingual dictionaries and, according to Moulvi Abdul Haq, in Surat (Gujarat) an Urdu-English-Persian-Portuguese dictionary was compiled as early as in 1630. It enlisted Urdu words in Roman and Gujarati scripts.

In the 19th century, European scholars compiled Urdu-English dictionaries. Apart from some minor works in the late 19th century, the first major Urdu-Urdu dictionary was Farhang-i-Aasifiya. Consisting of four volumes and some 60, 000 entries, this magnum-opus of Syed Ahmed Dehlvi took some 30 years to complete and its last volume appeared in 1898. Ameer Meenai too was working on a comprehensive Urdu-Urdu dictionary named Ameerul Lughaat. He had planned to complete it in eight volumes but till his death in 1900, only three volumes could be finished, of which two had appeared in his lifetime.

Noorul Lughaat was the next milestone in the history of Urdu lexicography. Ranked among the most authentic and comprehensive Urdu-Urdu dictionaries alongside Farhang-i-Aasifiya and Urdu Dictionary Board’s ‘Urdu Lughat: taareekhi usool par’, Noorul Lughaat was in a way to compensate for the unfinished work of Ameer Meenai. Farhang-i-Aasifiya bore the stamp of Delhi School and Ameerul Lughaat was a work of Lucknow School. Noor-ul-lughaat’s compiler Noor-ul-Hasan Nayyar Kakorvi belonged to Kakori, a town situated a few miles from Lucknow. His father Mohsin Kakorvi is considered one of the best Urdu poets of Naat. Nayyar himself was a poet having a good command over Urdu, Persian, Arabic and English and was well-versed in rhetoric, prosody and linguistic matters. In his preface to the first volume of Noorul Lughaat, he says that when nobody among the disciples of Ameer Meenai tried to complete his work left unfinished due to his death, I began working on a dictionary in 1914.

Noorul Lughaat comprises of over 50, 000 entries. But it made some improvement over Farhang-e-Aasifiya in certain respects. It, for instance, tried to explain the pronunciation of each headword, though the pronunciation of sub-entries is not given and there is no unified system of explaining pronunciation. An area where Noorul Lughaat surpasses ‘Aasifiya’ is the explanation of the grammatical status of headwords. If a word has a dual status of, say, both noun and adjective, it is separately explained. Secondly, it amply explains the original roots and literal meanings of Sanskrit words used in Urdu. What is lacking though is the consistency, both in explaining the pronunciation and word origin.

Another aspect that provoked criticism on Noorul Lughaat was, aside from its pronunciation scheme and inconsistency in certain rules, Nayyar’s commentary in the preface on the words that are, according to Nayyar, “matrook” (obsolete or out of use) and “fasih” (eloquent or chaste). Many of the words enlisted by him as ‘obsolete’ were not so, and many are in use even now.

There are some other errors as pointed out by Hamid Hasan Qadri, Moulvi Abdul haq, Niaz Fatehpuri and Jafer Ali Khan Asar Lukhnavi, but they do not render Noorul Lughaat useless and aside from these errors, it is a great feat of Urdu lexicography. It carries a large number of idioms, proverbs, phrases and other lexical items. It has interesting word-histories, explanatory citations from Urdu poetry and word origins. Nayyar had really worked hard in compiling his dictionary and had done it single-handedly.

It would be unfair to reject Noor-ul-lughaat because of a few errors. Interestingly, the criticism on Noorul Lughaat by Jafar Ali Khan Asar Lukhnavi swelled so much that it was published separately as Farhang-i-Asar, later published in two volumes by Muqtadira Qaumi Zaban, Islamabad. But many objections raised by Asar Lukhnavi are not justified as his only argument on a considerable number of occasions is that ‘this usage is not in vogue in Lucknow’, as if Urdu was limited to Lucknow alone and the only authority on Urdu were those who lived in Lucknow. For a language like Urdu that is spoken in the vast areas of Indo-Pak sub-continent by millions of people with varied accents and local idiom, it is a rather narrowly focused approach.

Noorul Lughaat tried to address the shortcomings of all previous dictionaries of Urdu and did succeed in doing so to some extent. One must acknowledge the hard work that has gone into making of this dictionary.

A new edition of Noorul Lughaat was published from Karachi in 1961. National Book Foundation, Islamabad, published an edition in 1976 and later reprinted it twice. Recently, a new edition has been published and is available with National Book Foundation on concessionary rates.

Noor-ul-Hasan Nayyar Kakorvi died on Sept 6, 1936, and was buried in Kakori.