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SYED Muhammad Mirza Muhazzab Lakhnavi is not a much known figure in Urdu’s literary and academic world. So is his 14-volume Urdu-Urdu dictionary, which he compiled single-handedly over a period of some 50 years.

The 14-volume Urdu-to-Urdu dictionary, named Muhazzab-ul-lughaat, is one of the most significant and most comprehensive Urdu dictionaries compiled in the 20th century. In fact, it is only the second to the 22-volume Urdu-to-Urdu dictionary compiled and published by the Urdu Dictionary Board (UDB) over a period of 52 years. But the UDB had had continuous support of the government of Pakistan, along with its own premises, a host of editors and supporting staff hired from time to time since the beginning of the project in 1958 till the completion in 2010. The board is still working.

Though he later found some patrons and the government of India, too, at a later stage supported the project, Muhazzab Lakhnavi conceived and began the work on his dictionary on his own and tirelessly worked alone for about five decades. Yet, his hard work is not acknowledged the way it should have been. One can, of course, cite quite a few shortcomings of Muhazzab-ul-lughaat, however it does not mean the dictionary should be ignored altogether.

In fact, a multivolume authentic dictionary of Urdu can hardly be named that has not been criticised for one shortcoming or the other. Even UDB’s dictionary could not escape some caustic comments from scholars like Mushfiq Khwaja, Rasheed Hasan Khan, Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqi and some others.

Urdu lexicography began in the late 17th century and it had come a long way till the latter half of the 20th century. Many comprehensive dictionaries had been written in Urdu. Aside from Ameer Meenai’s Ameer-ul-lughaat, which remained unfinished, Farhang-i-Aaasifiya and Noor-ul-lughaat were considered two authentic Urdu-to-Urdu dictionaries, each consisting of four volumes. So why did Muhazzab Lakhnavi decide to compile another comprehensive dictionary?

In the foreword to the first volume of his dictionary, Muhazzab wrote that “looking at the decline that Urdu was suffering from and considering the changes that Urdu was going through, I decided to compile such a dictionary of Urdu that would preserve the language of Lucknow. It would highlight the difference between the parlance of Delhi and Lucknow and those who were interested in Urdu would be able to tell the correct standard usage from substandard one through this dictionary”.

This preconceived idea of the superiority of the Lucknow parlance over the other versions of the language spoken in a large area like Indo-Pak subcontinent was surely to create some problems for the compiler. Just after publication of its first instalment (initially the dictionary was published as unbound fascicles) the criticism began. Some articles published in Indian magazines and newspapers, such as Urdu Adab, Nava-i-Adab and Qaumi Avaaz criticised it for certain lapses. In addition to being wary of preferring Lucknow’s usage, critics were vocal against the frequent editorial notes included in the dictionary under the heading ‘qaul-i-faisal’, or the ‘deciding word’. Under this heading the compiler every so often gives his final decision on any varied pronunciation, disputed usage or a contentious gender of Urdu words (all three categories abound in Urdu).

Firstly, a lexicographer has no right to decide on the usage or at least it is not her/his job to give the verdict on how a language is to be used. A lexicographer’s basic job is to “record”, as put by Maulvi Abdul Haq, the words and their meanings on the basis of how a language is used. Borrowing the vocabulary from linguistics, a dictionary has to be ‘descriptive’ and not ‘prescriptive’. Writers of dictionary cannot and should not tell how to use the language. Their job is to explain how it is being used, on the basis of the texts of the great writers and poets, often as citations.

Secondly, Urdu was and is spoken in vast and varied areas of the subcontinent, with each claiming a right to Urdu and insisting on its own variety. Thirdly, Muhazzab-ul-lughaat has depended much on Noor-ul-lughaat, almost totally ignoring UDB’s dictionary, compiled on historical principles. Fourthly, many entries are redundant.

But despite the technical issues, Muhazzab-ul-lughaat is a commendable feat of lexicography, carried out without much outside help. It records a large portion of Urdu lexicon and includes some 150,000 entries.

The first such fascicle appeared in 1956. In book form the first volume appeared in 1958. Though there were many hurdles as Muhazzab had taken upon himself a responsibility too large for a lone warrior, somehow the project kept going. Some ministers in the Indian government took interest and one volume after another was published. The last and 14th volume appeared in 1989. But by then the man who single-handedly fought this long war had gone, though not before penning the last page and the last entry. Muhazzab Lakhnavi died in Lucknow on Nov 4, 1985.

Muhazzab Lakhnavi was born on Jan 6, 1906, in Lucknow. A poet and writer, he had written several other books. But his dictionary has conferred everlasting fame on him.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2018