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Urdu linguistics and Abul-Lais Siddiqi

September 07, 2009

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URDU is one of the major languages of the world and holds quite a prominent status among the South Asian languages. It is spoken in the regions where Urdu is not used as mother tongue and is understood even in the so-called areas of Dravidian languages. It has a very long and rich history of versatile literature, and its poets such as Ghalib and Iqbal are internationally acclaimed. But, alas, it lacks in scientific research in linguistics. What we badly need is a good number of institutes of linguistics at our universities. We may take a cue from India, where institutes doing research on descriptive linguistics were established as early as in the 1950s.

Prof Dr Gian Chand Jain had rightly mentioned in his book 'Aam Lisaniyat', or general linguistics, (first edition 1985) that Urdu was at least 30 years behind Hindi in linguistics. According to him, hardly any major writer of Hindi and any dialect of India was left on which linguistic study had not been carried out. That was the reason why, he added, when it came to books on linguistics, Hindi outnumbered Urdu in the ratio of 50 to one. That was some 25 years ago. Now, I am afraid, we have been left farther behind. Books in Urdu on Urdu's morphological and syntactic structures and phonological characteristics — based on original and modern linguistic research — can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Once Urdu was not only way ahead of Hindi in the realm of linguistics but no language of the subcontinent could match its linguistic research. For instance, in 1923, Prof Naseeruddin Hashmi wrote 'Deccan mein Urdu', proving on the basis of linguistic research that Deccan was Urdu's birthplace.

Then in 1929, Dr Mohiuddin Qadri Zor wrote a dissertation on Urdu phonetics. Later, he began work on Gujarati linguistics, but could not finish it. A little earlier Prof Hafiz Mahmood Sherani had begun his research on Urdu's historical linguistics. Though Waheeduddin Saleem and Pandit Kaifi were contributing papers on Urdu linguistics almost at the same time, Dr Abdus Sattar Siddiqi's approach was more modern. Later, Abdul Qadir Sarvari and Dr Shaukat Sabzwari wrote on Urdu's historical and descriptive linguistics and Dr Masood Hussain Khan carried out original research on Urdu's phonetics and phonemics. Then Dr Gian Chand, Dr Gopi Chand Narang, Anwer Shabnam Dil and Dr Abul-Lais Siddiqi enriched Urdu with their research works on Urdu's historical and descriptive linguistics as well as phonetics.

Some commendable work on Urdu morphology and syntax was done by Russian linguists. But somehow we lost that tempo and while scholars of Hindi began concentrating on linguistics, here in Pakistan more emphasis was laid on literary criticism rather than on linguistics since the former is easier of the two. Now things have deteriorated so much that you may hear certain 'scholars' talking of linguistics with quite scorn and derision. They prefer literary criticism to linguistics. What these poor souls do not know is that the latest trends in criticism rely heavily on linguistics and soon there will be a time when no critic worth his or her salt would be taken seriously unless they explained things from the point of view of linguistics as well. Whatever little material we have in Urdu in the name of linguistics these days is in fact on correct usage and etymology or, at the most, semantics while phonetics and phonemics are more important in linguistics.

Gone are the days when such scholars as Prof Dr Abul-Lais Siddiqi were contributing to Urdu linguistics in every possible way. Lais Sahib not only himself carried out extensive research on Urdu from a linguistic point of view, but trained many youngsters in linguistics by establishing a linguistic laboratory at Karachi University's Urdu department. He was among those few who sincerely strived to promote linguistics on a scientific basis in Pakistan.

The other prominent name in the field was Anwer Shabnam Dil, who had established 'Linguistic Research Group of Pakistan', writes Prof Dr Moinuddin Aqeel in his book 'Urdu Tehqeeq'. Dil organised the group that carried out studies on linguistics and published a number of collections of research papers. Dil himself wrote a paper 'An outline of Urdu sentence structure'. It is a pity that he left Pakistan shortly afterwards and Abu-Lais Siddiqi had to carry the burden with some other scholars, adds Dr Aqeel.

Prof Dr Abu-Lais Sidiqi was the first person to have obtained a doctoral degree in Urdu from Aligarh Muslim University. He was awarded a PhD in 1943 for his dissertation 'Lucknow ka dabistan-i-shaeri'. Renowned author Prof Rasheed Ahmed Siddiqi was his research supervisor. Abu-Lais Siddiqi was only the second person ever to do a doctorate in Urdu (Noor-ul-Hasan Hashmi was the first to get a PhD in Urdu, and Delhi University had awarded him a doctorate on his thesis 'Dilli ka dabistan-i-shaeri').

Born in Agra on June 15, 1916, Lais Sahib had begun writing articles while he was a student of MA at Aligarh. Research on Urdu's genesis and linguistics were of more interest to him and he wrote many articles on linguistics in 'Aligarh Magazine' and other journals. He was among those who began research on phonetics and descriptive and historical linguistics in Urdu.

In 1948, he went to London's School of Oriental and African Studies and began his research on the development of Indo-Aryan languages in Northern India. During his stay in London, he searched for the manuscripts of early Urdu dictionaries and in the British museum found rare manuscripts of four of them, compiled in 14th and 15th centuries. With their help, he penned a paper on the early forms of some Urdu words.

Prof Siddiqi taught at Aligarh University, and after migration to Pakistan in 1948 joined Punjab University Oriental College before joining Karachi University as head of its Urdu department. He also served at Columbia University as a visiting professor. Lais Sahib had supervised over 50 PhD dissertations and his students include luminaries of today's Urdu literature.

Having drunk deep from the fountain of classical literatures, Lais Sahib had a very clear historical perspective of both Urdu literature and language and, according to Dr Farman Fatehpuri, it is quite evident even from his early critical writings of the 1930s and 1940s. This perspective helped him write a history of Urdu literature and some books on Urdu's classical poets such as Mushafi, Nazeer Akbarabadi, Jurrat and other classical poets of the Lucknow school of Urdu poetry. Lais Sahib had been associated with education throughout his life and that was why he had a deep concern for education and a knack for writing textbooks. Some of his textbooks on Urdu literature remained among a few select ones and many are still used as reference books. One of his students, a Chinese woman, translated his two books on history of Urdu literature into Chinese and published them from Beijing. Another student of his, a French woman, edited and translated into Urdu from French three volumes of 'A history of Hindustani literature' (read Urdu) written by renowned French scholar Garcin De Tassy.

Having been appointed chief editor of the Urdu Dictionary Board in 1976, he served there till 1984 and edited and published six volumes of the Urdu dictionary being compiled on historical principles. Aside from Lais Sahib's other books, his autobiography 'Raft-o-bood' created quite an interest in literary circles when it was serialised in an Urdu daily. It described some literary personalities and life in Aligarh and Aligarh University in a very interesting manner. It has not been published so far in book form and we hope that some lover of Aligarh, maybe an old boy from Aligarh or some students of Lais Sahib's, would take up the project and make readers enjoy a very lively and informative autobiography. Prof Dr Abu-Lais Siddiqi died in Karachi on September 7, 1994.

drraufparekh@yahoo.com