PUT in simple words, gender tells us whether a noun or pronoun is male or female. Technically speaking, in grammar, the word ‘gender’ means a class of words in which nouns and pronouns are placed and are distinguished by a particular inflection, suggests Concise Oxford English Dictionary.
But not in every language do nouns and pronouns have gender. Many languages of the world have no grammatical gender at all. These genderless languages include, for example, Persian and Turkish. On the other hand, some languages have a system of gender that may take a bit of effort to master. For instance, nouns in the German language have three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neutral. Though English has three commonly recognised gender pronouns (albeit experts might disagree), it has no grammatical gender for nouns.
As for Urdu, an aspect that poses some difficulties to the learners of the language is that in Urdu every noun has to have a gender, including abstract qualities and living and non-living things. Non-native speaker might wonder why a door (darvaza) is masculine and a window (khirki) is feminine in Urdu.
Interestingly, not only some Urdu adjectives have to agree with the gender of the noun and take a gender but even Urdu verbs sometimes have to have morphological agreement with other parts of speech used in a sentence and explicitly express their own gender. For instance, the opening couplet of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s famous ghazal says:
Baat karni mujhe mushkil kabhi aisi to na thi
Jaisi ab hai teri mehfil kabhi aisi to na thi
Baat karni (to speak, to talk) (with a feminine infinitive) may well be described as baat karna (with masculine infinitive) in Urdu, but here the rhyming word (qaafiya) ‘mehfil’ is used in the second line, which is a feminine noun. It forced the poet to use thi as the recurrent word (radeef) instead of tha, since thi must agree with karni, or else the poet could have said: Baat ‘karna’ mujhe mushkil kabhi aisa to na tha but it would have disturbed the rhyming scheme.
Well, another interesting aspect of this prosodic and grammatical discussion is that native speakers from Lucknow prefer a masculine infinitive and people from Delhi favour feminine infinitive. And Bahadur Shah Zafar was indeed from Delhi.
There is a ‘seemingly’ consistent system of recognising grammatical gender of many Urdu nouns as they are marked with an apparent sign of masculinity (a) or femininity (i) at the end, such as larka (boy), murgha (rooster) and bakra (billy goat) are masculine and larki (girl), murghi (hen) and bakri (nanny goat) are feminine.
But the guesstimate is risky as in Urdu, quite arbitrarily, dhobi (washer man), mali (gardener) and pani (water) are masculine despite ending in an i, while dua (supplication), mamta (motherliness) and pooja (worship) that end with an a are all feminine.
As if it was not complicated enough, some Urdu nouns are ‘marked’ and some are ‘unmarked’. For instance, mez (table) has a feminine grammatical gender in Urdu and patthar (stone or rock) is a masculine noun but neither has a marking and a non-native speaker must figure it out by simply listening to the native speakers.
So, grammatical gender in Urdu is not as easy as it looks. To make matter worse, many experts, notably poets, differ on the gender of many nouns in Urdu. For example, bulbul may be used as masculine or feminine depending on which part of the continent one belongs to. The linguistic feud between Lucknow School and Delhi School of Urdu has much to deal with gender of many words.
To settle the issue of disputed gender of Urdu words, many books have been written and one of the authentic ones is Qiraan-us-Saadain M’a Majm’a-ul-Bahrain. In fact these were two different works, Qiraan-us-Saadain (1911) and the other Majm’a-ul-Bahrain (1919), both penned by Raja Rajeshwar Rao Asghar on grammatical gender in Urdu and published from Hyderabad (Deccan). Later on, they both were extensively revised and published in one volume in 1936. But it had been out of print since long.
Now Idara-i-Farogh-i-Qaumi Zaban (IFQZ), Islamabad, has just published a new edition to coincide with Pakistan’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. The book enlists words in alphabetical order and mentions the source language — for instance Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit — from where it was borrowed in Urdu. The book gives, with very brief meanings, grammatical gender and then, the most important aspect: an Urdu couplet by a renowned Urdu poet as citation for usage, authenticating the gender of the word enlisted.
Dr Anjum Hameed, the director publications of IFQZ, has edited the work and her erudite intro offers Rajeshwar Rao Asghar’s biographical details and introduces his other works. A very useful foreword by Asghar discusses some basic rules of Persian, Arabic and Urdu grammar.
Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2022