Is Urdu related to Persian?

Bust of Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib of Delhi

How do you want to take your “no”? In Urdu or in Persian?

Hindustani (also known as Hindavi and Dehlvi) is a pluricentric language, with two standard varieties now. Hindi and Urdu. Although Hindi and Urdu are referred to by different names the spoken Hindi and spoken Urdu are essentially the same — except for some differences in accent and local/regional vocabulary.

However, the more formal written language has significant differences that reflect the cultural and religious identity of the speakers. But the development of these two standard languages is a much recent phenomena. For much of its history Hindustani was a single language. There are about 50 million speakers of Urdu in India and about 15 million in Pakistan. (Only about 8% of Pakistani nationals are native speakers of Urdu).

Hindustani is a member of the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family and a descendant of the Sauraseni Prakrit language from which all modern Indo-Aryan languages (Punjabi, Sindhi, Gujarathi, Marathi, Bengali, etc.,). If you go earlier than the Sauraseni Prakrit — it’s the descendant of Sanskrit, now -almost- entirely a liturgical language (same as Latin for Catholics).

Early form of Hindustani developed between the 7th and 13th century CE and it was a time of intense Islamic influence in the region (and others). In the 13th century CE, the Delhi sultanate began its rule and Hindustani was the language of the common people around Delhi. Persian became the official state language, language of the courts and the elite. These Turkic and Afghan dynasties were highly Persianized, so they brought the Persian language and its unique literary traditions.

They were followed by the Mughals who — like the Delhi sultanate — made Persian the official language of their empire, the lingua franca of the elite and literary language. (Arabic was the liturgical language). During this period Hindustani spread over much of the northern Indian sub-continent as the lingua franca — although there were significant differences in the local vocabulary.

Persian and Arabic also had a huge impact on the Hindustani language but the degree of that impact depended on the local area and its culture/religion of that particular community. For example, Muslim communities used more Arabic and Persian words and wrote in the Perso-Arabic script (Nastalic), while Hindu communities used more Sanskrit words and wrote in the Devenagari script. A good analogy is Persian script in Iran (modified Arabic) and Persian script in Tajikistan (Cyrillic).

In the 18th C, towards the end of the Mughal empire, a form of Hindustani based on the Khariboli dialect of Delhi came to replace Persian as the language of the elite. And soon after, under British rule, it became the official language along with English. It’s just a variety of Hindustani containing more Persian vocabulary and around this time an another name for that language started to be used… Urdu. That’s a shortened form of Persian phrase “Zaban-e Urdu” (language of the camp) because that was also the lingua franca of the Mughal army.

Until the Persianized Hindustani was made the official language, Hindustani was considered a single language for all communities with mere local variations. But when the Urdu variety written in Nastalic script was made official language by the British this angered most of the Hindu literary types who contented that it should be written in the ‘native’ Devenagiri script.

All this eventually erupted into a major dispute over which script the language should be written in — amidst this dispute the standard language of Hindustani began to diverge into two different languages; Hindi, drawing on Sanskrit for much of its formal vocabulary and vigorously purged of some of its Persian and Arabic vocabulary. Urdu went in the other direction, purging some of its Sanskrit vocabulary and expanded the number of Persian and Arabic vocabulary.

These differences mainly apply to the standard written language with the spoke languages remaining completely mutually intelligible. Sure, there are some vocabulary that filters down from the literary language but that is almost negligible. In fact, Bollywood movies are created in a kind of neutral Hindustani language by avoiding literary vocabulary that’s specific to either ‘dialect’ (Hindi & Urdu) and relying on the spoken language vocabulary.

Here, an illustration of the differences in spoken and literary languages:

“I want to meet you”
Urdu (spoken): “Mai aap se milna chahta hoon”.
Hindi (Spoken): “Main aap se milna chahta hoon”.
Urdu (Literary): “Mai aap se mulaqat ka khwahishmand hoon”
Hindi (Literary): “Mujhe aap se milne hi kaamna hai”

“I want to know, how you are”
Urdu (spoken): “Mai aap ka haal jaan’na chahta hoon”.
Hindi (Spoken): “Main aap ka haal jaan’na chahta hoon”.
Urdu (Literary): “Mujhe aap hi khairyat naik matloob hai”
Hindi (Literary): “Main aap ke halat ke bare me nishchit hona chahta hoon”

While the spoken language in Hindi and Urdu are the same the literary versions are crafted to reflect the differences in the religious and literary traditions (and preferences) of their speakers.

Having Persian vocabulary does not make Urdu ‘related’ to Persian any more than having Arabic vocabulary makes Turkic (Altaic family of language) ‘related’ to Arabic! A native Persian speaker will understand spoken Urdu just as much as he’d understand Russian. Not much!

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