THE strange thing about grammar is that the native speakers of a language do not need it, at least while learning it as a child.

Native speakers instinctively know the rules that govern the use of their language and speak it right from early childhood without bothering to know what a noun or verb is and how to inflect it. It is the foreigners and non-native speakers who need grammar the most.

This is, perhaps, one of the reasons why the earliest books on grammar of Urdu were written by foreigners — in Dutch, Latin, English, French, German and Italian. The Europeans who wrote Urdu’s early grammar did not call it Urdu but Hindustani or Indostan or even Moors, a word originally used for North African Muslims in Medieval Europe, as they wrongly believed that Urdu was the language of Muslims alone.

Urdu’s first grammar was written in the Dutch language some 300 years ago. It was John Joshua Ketelaar (1659-1718) who penned Urdu’s first-ever grammar in 1696-97. It was in Dutch and was named Grammatica Hindustanica. Ketelaar (also spelt Kettler), joined East India Company in Amsterdam in 1682 and arrived in the subcontinent the next year. He also served as Dutch ambassador to the Mughal court during the reign of Bahadur Shah and Jahandar Shah (1708-1712).

Ketelaar went to Iran as a Dutch diplomat but fell ill when he was coming back after serving there for three years. He died in the Iranian city of Bandar Abbas in 1718 and was buried there. Tej K. Bhatia in his book has tried to present Ketelaar’s grammar as Hindi grammar but Gopi Chand Narang disagreed. Narang has proved with evidence that Ketelaar’s grammar is Urdu grammar and not Hindi grammar.

David Mills (1692-1756), another Dutch orientalist, translated Ketelaar’s Urdu grammar into Latin. Published from Leiden in 1743, it was not the full version of Ketelaar’s book and was not free from errors either.

After the appearance of Ketelaar’s grammar, a steady flow of books on Urdu grammar written by foreigners began and we find at least 15 more books on Urdu grammar in the next 100 years or so, written by foreigners. Prof Mirza Khalil Ahmed Baig has mentioned the details of these books in his article published in January-June 2017 issue of ‘Urdu’. Notable among them are:

• Grammatica Hindustanica (in Latin) by Benjamin Schultze, Halle, 1744.

• Grammatical Remarks on the Practical and Vulgar Dialect of the Indian Language, Commonly Called Moors, with a Vocabulary, English and Moors, by George Hadley, London, 1771.

• A Grammar of the Hindoostanee Language, by John Gilchrist, Calcutta, 1796.

• A Grammar of the Hindustani Language, by John Shakespear, London, 1813.

• Rudimens de la langue Hindoustani (in French), by Garcin de Tassy, Paris, 1829.

• A Grammar of the Hindustani Language, in the Oriental and Roman Character, by Duncan Forbes, London, 1855.

• A Grammar of the Hindustani or Urdu Language, by John T. Platts, London, 1874.

• Grammatica Della Lingua Indostana o Urdu (in Italian), by Camillo Tagliabue, Turin, 1892, (title can be translated as ‘Grammar of the Indian Language or Urdu’.

• Theortisch Praktische grammatik der Hindustani-Sprache Mit Zahireichen Uebungstucken in Arabic Scher Schrift (in German), by A. Seidel, Vienna, 1893, (title can roughly be translated as ‘Practical Grammar of the Hindustani Language with Numerous Exercises in Arabic Script’).

Strange as it may sound, writing of Urdu’s first grammar by a native could not take place until after more than a century of Urdu’s first-ever grammar written by Ketelaar. It was Darya-i-Latafat, co-authored by Insha Allah Khan Insha and Mirza Mohammad Hasan Qateel in 1222 Hijri/1807-08 AD. But, ironically, it was in Persian and was not published until 1850. Pandit Dattatreya Kaifi translated it into Urdu and it was published in 1935. After Insha, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan wrote a grammar of Urdu in 1840 and it was the first-ever Urdu grammar written in Urdu.

After a while, Urdu grammar writing in Urdu by natives really took off. Till now, at least 50 scholarly and authentic books on Urdu grammar have been written in Urdu, not to mention the hundreds of commercially and unscrupulously produced substandard grammars of Urdu.

During the last few decades of the last century, some of the most admirable works on Urdu grammar by a foreigner have definitely been two books by the Russian scholar Sonia Chernekova. Her two books, written in Urdu and named Urdu Ke Seeghe and Urdu Af’aal, show her great command over the Urdu language and grammar. She indeed has some insight to offer to some of our grammarians. Some aspects of forms of Urdu verbs explained by her for the first time are unparalleled examples of fine understanding of Urdu’ s verbal forms.

Another remarkable work on Urdu grammar by a foreigner is Urdu: An Essential Grammar. Written in English by Ruth Laila Schmidt and published in 2008, the book presents some very interesting examples of colloquialism and everyday conversation.

Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2019