From Urdu to Hindi, Farsi and Beyond

By Anjum Altaf

As an Urdu speaker, I had always felt it would be simple to learn Hindi and Farsi. The first shares the grammar and much of the essential vocabulary, differing only in script; the second shares the script and a considerable number of words, differing in construction of sentences and manner of speaking. My attempts to transform resolve into results yielded both confirmations and surprises and taught me something about learning, about languages, about our world and about myself.

I had always believed Hindi would be easier to learn than Farsi, but not by much. I felt I could learn Hindi within a month and Farsi within six. My Hindi-speaking friends tried to disabuse me by regularly tossing alien and tough-sounding words in my direction. I kept reminding them that I was fluent in English, yet did not know the meaning of many words. All that implied was the need for a handy dictionary if the context failed to provide sufficient clues. As for Farsi, I did not have any Farsi-speaking friends to guide me in any way.

As it turned out, Hindi did not require any learning. It was simply a question of mastering the mechanics of a different script, associating a particular shape with a particular sound. It took me all of one week in cumulative time using freely available material on the Internet to be able to start reading the BBC Hindi news feed and to write simple sentences without making egregious mistakes. From there on it was just a matter of practice. Thanks to the advances of technology, I didn’t even need a dictionary. All that was required was to cut and paste an unfamiliar Hindi word into the Google translator; it would not only pop back the meaning but spell the word phonetically and verbalize it to eliminate any errors.

On the other hand, Farsi was indeed like learning a new language where method mattered. Without guidance and deceived by the superficial similarities I went off on the wrong track. After nine months I was still struggling, repeatedly memorizing and forgetting the construction of simple sentences let alone mastering the conjugations and the tenses. This, despite investing a few hundred dollars on the highly recommended Rosetta Stone software and working with a much-touted Internet resource.

I take away a number of thoughts from this experience that might be of interest to others.

First, the experience confirmed the nature of my relationship to Indo-Persian civilization. I have borrowed a lot from Persia but my roots are in India. I don’t know about others but for me this is an important confirmation that keeps me from psychic schizophrenia. A denial of one’s roots, whatever the attitudes and realities of the present, is an invitation to a crisis of identity that we can ill afford. The science of languages provides support in its own unemotional manner. The Indo-European language tree has an Indo-Iranian branch which further splits into the Indic and the Iranian groups. Hindi and Urdu fall in the Indic group while Farsi is in the Iranian group. It should therefore be natural for an Urdu speaker to be more in harmony with Hindi than with Farsi.

Second, given the above, it was shocking to realize how political small-mindedness has kept us from healing our identities and its high cost in exacerbating the psychic schizophrenia. If all it takes is less than a month of mastering mechanics for an Urdu speaker to become conversant with Hindi (and I would presume it would be the same the other way around), why have we denied opportunities for our citizens to do so? A month-long course during the summer vacations could have had almost the entire student population of Pakistan with a working knowledge of Hindi.

Would this have made a difference? Engagement and familiarity always make a difference. Just imagine the mindsets of our young population had they been raised on a diet of Bulleh Shah in school instead of the substitutes that were favored by the guardians of the state. The choice to divide or unite is a political one and individuals are pawns in that determination unless they realize the nature of the game being played.

Third, languages are learnt best at an early age. Till my grandparents’ generation many individuals in India, irrespective of religion, learnt Persian at school or college without much difficulty. Quite independent of one’s identity, an alien language can be learnt relatively easily at an early age. The question that needs investigation is whether learning a foreign language, in turn, shapes the emergent identity and, if so, in what way? If we in Pakistan had all grown up reading and writing Hindi (or Bengali, for that matter), would we have been different human beings in some profound way?

Fourth, the relationship amongst languages is a fascinating subject in its own right. The solution I stumbled upon in my struggle with Farsi alerted me to this dimension. Having given up my attempt to learn Farsi, I turned to Pashto instead and made much faster progress because I had a greater prior affinity with the language. Surprisingly, I found that learning Pashto began clarifying puzzles about Farsi that had stymied me earlier.

A little digging revealed that Pashto belonged to the Iranian and not the Indic branch of the Indo-European language tree. Thus, for an Urdu speaker, it was an ideal bridge to Farsi. It shares the sentence structures and the conjugations without being totally strange to the Urdu speaker. In addition, quite unlike Farsi it has all the retroflex sounds of Urdu and Hindi. I suppose just the fact that many Urdu speakers in Pakistan have heard Pashto sounds and expressions in childhood make its linguistic patterns partially hard-wired and thereby more amenable to formal learning. For me, the fact that Pashto is a lot less standardized actually began to make Farsi easier to comprehend and appreciate. Thus, it is possible for a more difficult but familiar path to lead one faster to a destination which seems an important insight into the dynamics of learning.

How do I see myself in the midst of this journey? An Urdu-speaking Pakistani with his roots in Indian soil recovering his Persian heritage via a bridge that was always present but invisible to the intellect; An Urdu speaker aware of the power of language to dissolve differences; And a Pakistani conscious of how his education has been stolen and manipulated for ends that he did not support or share.

It has been a journey full of learning and self-discoveries that I could not have imagined at its beginning.

See the next step in the journey: Cracking Urdu: A Guide for Those Who Know Hindi

As a result of the response to this post we have started an innovative Language Exchange learning initiative. Do take a look and contribute your suggestions.


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79 Responses to “From Urdu to Hindi, Farsi and Beyond”

  1. Shadabi Says:

    Delightful read!

  2. Anil Kala Says:

    An interesting anecdote I read somewhere. Some Indians living in US decided to watch a movie. Their Pakistani friend said he doesn’t understand Hindi, will go only if they explained the story to him. The Indians agreed. The movie happened to be Mughal-e-Azam and as it turned Pakistani was the fellow explaining all the heavy Persian -Arabic dialogues to Indians. In another Instance an Indian was telling the Pakistani, he heard Zardari on TV. Pakistani asked, ‘Did you understand Urdu?’
    ‘No, he was talking Hindi with some Urdu thrown in!’

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Anil: There is an interesting anecdote of historical value in a book Mera Bayan (My Statement) by the late Akhlaque Ahmed Dehalvi who was the announcer on All India Radio for Pandit Nehru’s address on the day of independence. He writes that Pandit Nehru became very angry when the translation of his address was read out because it had been infused with unfamiliar Hindi words. The text has Pandit Nehru demanding to know who was responsible for the translation, what was the name of the language in which it was rendered, and why ‘voh’ had been changed to ‘veh’.

      Of course, this transformation of language into an expression of nationalism and patriotism continued on both sides. After a while, it became the subject of a wry joke in India: It was suggested that the old announcement (ab aap All India Radio se Hindi meN khabraiN suniye) should be replaced by a new one (ab aap All India Radio se khabron meN Hindi suniye).

    • Arnab Says:

      Something similar happened to me a while back in the US. The local “Indian” store was run by Pakistanis. Once I was there with a couple of friends and one of the shopkeepers, a man in his 50s (this was almost 10 years back), whom we called chacha-ji, was helping us load the groceries in the car. When we thanked him (we used shukriya and not dhanyavad, for no particular reason other than that’s what we would normally say), he asked us which part of Pakistan we are from. When we told him we are from India, he was surprised and asked us how is it that we spoke Urdu! I still remember how baffled my friends and I were as we explained to him that we are speaking Hindi, that there are as many Urdu speakers in India as there are in Pakistan, and that Urdu and Hindi are the same language. Growing up in India I cannot remember ever being under the impression that it was otherwise, if not for anything but the extensive use of Urdu poetry in lyrics of Hindi movie songs.

      A few years back I met another Pakistani who told me that the really old people in his village (somewhere close to Rawalpindi) still use “Hindu” words for the days of the week. This goes back to your comment about systematic denial of ones roots… it will take quite some effort to revert after more than 2 generations have been brought up in this fashion.

      • Anjum Altaf Says:

        Arnab: When asked whether one is from India or Pakistan one could answer either way without the questioner being able to guess right in the absence of further investigation. I think that says a lot. A Pakistani could never pass himself of as a Saudi Arabian, for example.

  3. Zubeida Mustafa Says:

    Anjum, this is very interesting. You would also like to read Dr Tariq Rahman’s latest book called From Hindi to Urdu. My article will give you an idea about it.

  4. Ashok Desai Says:

    How true, Anjum! And well said. Give me some advice: how can I, a Hindi speaker (actually, a Gujarati and Marathi speaker), learn Urdu? I have started a few times – not with much determination, I guess – but have been defeated by the script; the letters seem to run together, and often not to be so different from each other.

    • Aakar Says:

      One way of ensuring you do so is to let the mountain come to Muhammad.
      If you live in North or West India there are plenty of maulvis who can come home to teach you the script.
      If you live in Bombay, as your knowledge of languages suggests, a good option is Bombay University’s evening Urdu classes at its Kalina campus.
      If you live in town, there is a Persian class run by the Iranian consulate opp Marine Lines station. The former is better.
      One other way to learn the script is to take an Arabic class, either classical or colloquial, of which also there are plenty in all cities.
      KC Kanda’s books on classical Urdu poetry have Urdu, Roman Hindi and English scripts together and once you learn the alphabet these will help you read more fluently because you are likely to be familiar with the words.
      Two final things: Subscribe to an Urdu paper. Inquilab in west, Munsif in north and Siasat in south India.
      The single most important thing is to get a book by Sultan Nathani called Intekhab o Lughat. It is a dictionary of 10,000 words arranged and written in the Roman script but also with the Urdu spelling.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Ashok: I hope you have seen the follow-up article that was motivated by your request:

      This has been followed by the new initiative on the blog – The Language Exchange:

      Your feedback would be much appreciated.

  5. Kamran Says:

    Well said. It only demonstrates a now well known fact that Urdu and Hindi are essentially the one and the same language, with differing vocabulary copiously thrown in on either side of the border (Sanskrit in India and Farsi-Arabic in Pakistan) and a different script for writing. This fact has long been suppressed. Deliberate admixture of vocabulary of foreign stock languages has been successfully used to camouflage the fact of common stock by political and cultural establishments of both sides. We all know the vocabulary and script do not constitute essential components for determining the identity of a language.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Kamran: I agree with you. A language is defined by its grammar and both Hindi and Urdu share the same Khari Boli grammar. It is the same root but the branches have been pruned and grafted so extensively that they look like different trees. For those who look beyond appearances it is easy to spot the camouflage.

  6. Zubeida Mustafa Says:

    Ashok, if you are speaking Hindi you already know Urdu. You don’t have to learn the spoken language. As for the script, now much research has been done on teaching the Urdu script. We have the Jugnu series (three books) which teach the script (Nastaleeq) so scientifically that they are being used in literacy classes and are known to give fluency within three months. I am sure Anjum can help in someway. The University of California Los Angeles has combined its Urdu and Hindi departments into one. You can explore that too.

  7. prachi Says:

    Stumbled upon this blog just today ! Very thought provoking article! A different perspective to languages, indeed! (Even I did a failed attempt to learn Urdu in my school days! I should try again now!)

  8. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Many thanks to all who appreciated the post on the blog and via emails. In response to requests from Hindi speakers wanting to learn Urdu, I have put forward my suggestions in a new post. I would very much appreciate reader feedback on what works and what doesn’t.

  9. Ty Says:


  10. KR Says:

    “A denial of one’s roots, whatever the attitudes and realities of the present, is an invitation to a crisis of identity that we can ill afford.”

    Well said. Great read, thanks for this post.

  11. { Brown Pundits } » From Urdu to Hindi, Farsi and Beyond Says:

    […] From Urdu to Hindi, Farsi and Beyond « TheSouthAsianIdea Weblog. […]

  12. Anil Kala Says:

    I remember in our Hindi class, the modern language was called KhaRi Boli, Hindi was referred to as the conglomeration of all the dialects such as Braj Bhasha, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, etc. Even my mother tongue Garhwali is not considered a full language but a dialect of Hindi. But I don’t think any Hindi (KhaRi Boli) speaker will understand Garhwali. What exactly distinguishes a language and a dialect? I guess modern Hindi and Urdu can be called dialects of KhaRi Boli. After all reading Ghalib and Jai Shankar Prasad is entirely different experience.

    Jai Shankar Prasad

    shishir kaNRon se ladi huii kamali ke bheege haiN sab taar
    chaltaa hai paschim ka maarut lekar sheetaltaa ka bhaar
    bheeg rahaa hai rajni ka wah sundar komal kabhri bhaal
    aruNR kiraNR sam kar se chuu lo, kholo priyatam kholo dwaar


    naqsh faryaadi hai kis ki shokhii-e-tehriir ka
    kaaghzi hai pairahan har paikar-e-tasviir ka

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Anil: Without being an expert in this field, I will speculate that all dialects that share the same grammatical chassis belong to one language even if they are mutually unintelligible. If you look at some early Urdu poetry (samples below) you will see the similarity with Jai Shankar Prasad. The poets associated with the royal court in Delhi represented the hyper-Persianized version of Urdu poetry but that is by no means the only variant of Urdu. Also interesting in its own right is Insha’s Rani Ketki ki Kahani:

      Samples of early Urdu poetry (from a memorable course in the evolution of Urdu poetry I was fortunate to take with Professor Moazzam Siddiqui):


      taaqat nahiiN duurii kii ab tuuN biig aa mil ree piyaa
      I can no longer bear separation/distance, come soon and meet me, my love
      tuj bin munjee jyoonaa bahot hootaa hai mushkil ree piyaa
      without you living/life is/has become very difficult, my love
      khaanaa birah keetii huuN mayN paanii anjuu piitii huuN mayN
      I eat the food of separation; I drink the water of tears
      tujh tee bichhaR jiitii huuN mayN, kitnaa hai sangdil ree piyaa
      Separated from you I live, how stone-hearted/cruel are you, my love


      deekhoo sakhyaaN meeraa piyaa kis seej raataa saa disee
      Look friends, upon which bed my lover seems to be enjoying himself!
      mujh chhooR kar waqt aapnaa bhii kaNiiN gumaataa saa disee
      Abandoning me, he seems to be spending [wasting] his time somewhere else
      mayN mast hookar seej meeN beetaab hoorhaii thii nipaT
      Becoming ardent [ecstatic in love] I was feeling utterly restless in the bed
      baataaN pirem kii kaaR kar munj kuuN jagaataa saa disee
      It was as though he were [trying to] keep me awake by his love talk

      • Anjum Altaf Says:

        Anil: This 2011 talk (What is Urdu?) by Justice Markandey Katju of the Supreme Court of India offers an explanation for your question about the relationship of KhaRi Boli to the dialects. I find his hypothesis about rural languages and an urban discourse for the marketplace quite intriguing. I am sure readers will not agree with everything in the talk but it is valuable because it is very rich in suggestions that can be followed up and explored further:

  13. kumar Says:

    Nothing remarkable. It has been known for a long time that “urdu” and “hindi” are essentially the same language because they have the same grammar but a different mix of vocabulary.

  14. مهرداد Says:

    سپاس. نوشته خیلی جالبی بود LOL
    As a persian speaker, i found hindi and urdu similar to persian especially in vocabulary. I always wonder when i can understand meaning of words even the whole sentences when i watching indian movies.
    Also there are excellent examples of persian poetry in india and pakistan. Bidel Dehlavi and Muhammad Iqbal (known as Iqbal lahori in Iran) are famous and regarded among iranian litterateurs.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Mehrdad: The LOL scared me for a moment but I put the phrase in Google Translator and it came back as ‘Thanks for a post that was very interesting’ which was reassuring. I hope the translator caught what you were trying to say.

      The similarity of the vocabulary between Persian and Hindi/Urdu caused me quite a bit of difficulty. I thought I knew a word but found that in many cases the same word meant different things in the two languages. One I remember was ‘buland’ which in Persian means ‘long’ (as in mu-hai buland – long hair) and in Urdu means ‘high’ (as in buland darwaaza – high gate). Urdu speakers would never use ‘buland’ for hair. Another word I recall now is ‘shaam’ which means evening in Urdu/Hindi and supper/dinner in Farsi. I asked some experts about these differences and was given one hypothesis – Farsi became a dead language in India but continued evolving in Iran so some words were frozen and fossilized in one place but changed meaning in the other. This seems to make sense.

      Justice Katju’s talk on Urdu (linked in an earlier comment) has some interesting thoughts about the influence of Farsi in India. I would be keen to know what you think. Do also take a look at the new initiative on the blog – The Language Exchange. Hopefully, you can help with the Farsi Page.

  15. Anjum Altaf Says:

    I am adding here a private exchange with Dr. Moazzam Siddiqi. I found it fascinating and very informative and wish to share it with all those interested in the history and evolution of languages.

    Dear Moazzam Sahib, Aadaab

    I was reading a story in Farsi today and came across the word ‘qahwekhanechi’. I had no idea what it meant and discovered that it translated to qahwekhane owner. It was the first time I realized the etymology of words we use all the time like bawarchi, khazanchi, etc. Since then I have been thinking of words like dukandar, makandar, thanedar, etc. Could you explain what distinguishes the use of ‘dar’ and ‘chi’ as suffixes.

    Many thanks,

    Anjum Altaf

    • Moazzam Siddiqi Says:

      Anjum Sahib,

      Chi and daar are both suffixes that are added to the noun to denote the same meaning as we add waalaa/waalii/waale after a noun or adjective in Hindi-Urdu. chi comes from Turkish and daar from Faarsi. The language (I mean the mother tongue) of all the Muslim invaders to the subcontinent was Turkish, starting with Mahmud Ghaznawi down to the Mughals with brief interludes of Pashtun rulers (the Lodhis and the Suris). Here I am not considering the earlier Arab invasion, as its linguistic/cultural impact was limited largely to Sindh and southern Panjab. The Ghaznawids, Ghurids, Khiljis, Tughluqs and the Mughals they all belonged to various Turkic tribes from the vast expanses of Mongolia and Central Asia most of whom had settled in Afghanistan and established themselves there before venturing into the subcontinent. As such their language at home was Turkish, whereas the overall language of communication, culture and literature was Farsi. That is the reason why we have a much larger stock of Farsi words borrowed into Urdu than a much smaller number of Turkish words. Following the same logic, chi is not as common a suffix as daar. Just like chi there is the Turkish cha, which is used as a suffix after nouns or adjectives to denote their dumunitive form (baagh-baghicha, aabshaar-aabshaarcha, tapancha, rooznaamcha, kitaabcha, etc). Turkish influenced Farsi to a greater degree as at various times Iran was invaded and occupied by Turkish tribes the same way as the subcontinent was, thus influencing Farsi to a much greater degree than Urdu was influenced by Turkish. Actually, so profound was that influence that it left a lasting impact on Farsi phonology. Beginning with the Safawids and culminating during the rule of the Qajars, both from the region of Azabaijan. That is the reason why Iranian Farsi today sounds so different from the Afghan Dari and Tajik. Some other words with chi as a suffix: mashaalchi, kabaabchi, degchi, dastmaalchi, elchi (envoy).


    • Haris Says:

      In southern and northern Iraq the puncture-wala is called panchar-chi, while in the centre he is known as banjar-ji.

      I must say I find this Turkish chi business confusing – khazan-chi is the keeper of the treasury, while deg-chi is a small deg. Make up your minds fellows. Is banjar-ji the puncture fixer or a small puncture? Good to know if you’re on the road in Iraq.

      And is my city Karachi a small Kara or the keeper of the Kara, whatever the Kara might be. A lot of migrants from northern India call it Karanchi, and I discovered the reason while in India, where Raanchi is obviously a better known place name.

      Anyway, on a only slightly more serious note. Yes, I agree with your original thesis on Urdu-Hindi, having gone through a similar experience myself. The Devnagri script is fabulously logical, I’m not sure if Hindi speakers will feel the same way about Urdu. I watched a lot of the Indian serial Mahabharat on British TV with English subtitles and that sorted out much of the samasya with vocabulary. Though I must admit I was stumped when asked in a small town in UP ‘samprakdayita kay vishay mein aap kay kya vichaar heiN?’, at which point not knowing what to say I thought it safe to mutter,’ji woh bhi theek hai’.

      By the way, I got along famously travelling in Iraq many years ago, thanks to all the Ziaist linguistic engineering. For Pakistani Urdu-speakers modern Arabic is like the opposite of our encounter with Hindi: we know a lot of vocabulary but zero grammar. I suppose your original expectation of Farsi would have come true of Arabic.

      • Anjum Altaf Says:

        Haris: Speaking for myself, when one knows very little one can speculate a lot which I find exciting because it can generate hypotheses without doing any harm. I find your question about whether panchar-chi is the puncture fixer or a small puncture of great interest because it triggered a new thought in my mind. The bottom-line of my hypothesis is that when it comes to Urdu, all ‘chi’s’ are not the same. There is no gender in Persian (I don’t know about Turkish) so there would be no confusion about the difference between chi (keeper) and cha (diminutive). But Urdu is a gendered language so when the diminutive cha refers to an object considered feminine, the cha would turn into a chi – hence deg, deg-cha, deg-chi. This chi is the feminization of cha and has nothing to do with chi as keeper. So panchar-chi is puncture fixer in Iraq and there would be no confusion when one is on the road there.

        I wonder if bach-cha/bach-chi and cham-cha/cham-chi follow the same logic. Incidentally, I haven’t heard cham-chi in Urdu but it is commonly used in the Punjab. My grandmother never even used the word cham-cha; I always heard her ask for a ‘qasheq’ when she wanted a spoon. I am not sure now whether this was for a large serving spoon or for all spoons (the serving dish/tray she called a patnoos).

        As for Kara-chi, I would be curious to know what the chi stands for. I do know that Karachi is the outgrowth of a fishing village called Kolachi. I doubt that the pronunciation Karanchi (I heard it very frequently as Kiranchi on Burns/’Bunce’ Road all through the 1960s) has much to do with Ranchi. My guess would be that it came from people from UP who spoke Urdu with a nasalized twang.

        On the difference between the precision of the Devnagri script and the casualness of the Urdu script, I have speculated wildly (most probably completely in error) in another post:’s-urdu/

        I agree, the grammar was the big stumbling block for me as far as Farsi is concerned. The common vocabulary just gave me a false confidence. And unfortunately, I started with on the Internet which is grammar-oriented but very mechanical, teaching each tense separately. I later discovered that a conversation-centered approach suited me much better.

  16. Ashok Dhareshwar Says:

    Thanks for this discussion on Turkish influences on Urdu. The first word that came to my mind as I read the discussion is: tabal chi! I had also once shocked a Bengali friend named Bagchi by asking him if his last name meant his ancestors were gardeners. He was shocked because it turns out it’s a Brahmin name; I didn’t know.

    Let me take this opportunity to raise with you a couple of language-related issues that I ran into.

    First is regarding the extent of overlap between Urdu and Hebrew. It came up when I was interacting with an Israeli nettor on a music group. He had posted an album, in whose title there figured a word that he translated as “spirit”. When asked he gave the Hebrew original as “rooh”. I could also think of “aadmi” as originating from “Adam”. Are there any others.

    I told the Israeli person that the channel of transmission was perhaps Arabic. Then he made an interesting observation: that Hebrew has (or at least, old Hebrew had) some words that came from Persian dating from Persian rule over Israel. It would be interesting to find out if there are any such Hebrew words that are related to words in Sanskrit-Hindi-Urdu.

    The second issue is: in my language (Kannada), the word Khwaza means a eunuch (generally pronounced khoja). I hadn’t thought much of it until I read somewhere that that particular usage also exists in perhaps Arabic. It was mentioned as an interesting feature of the language and culture that the same word is used as a respectful epithet as well as to designate a eunuch. Is it indeed the case?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Ashok: I haven’t been able to locate anything on the Persian-Hebrew connection. I presume there must be overlaps between Hebrew and Arabic and therefore some words that have come into Urdu from Arabic (directly or via Persian) could have cognates in Hebrew.

      On Khwaja, you are right. The word is both a respectful epithet and used for a eunuch. The best source for Persian-Urdu-Hindi etymology is Platts ( and the following two meanings confirm your question:

      ḵẖẉāja : (page 494) خواجه ḵẖẉājaP خواجه ḵẖẉāja, s.m. Lord, master, owner; a man of distinction, a respectable man, a gentleman;—a rich merchant;—a eunuch (vulg. ḵẖojā):

      ḵẖẉāja-sarā, s.m. A eunuch in the service of a king or prince who has free ingress to all parts of the palace, or one who has charge of the seraglio;—chief of a household; a major-domo, a butler.

      How this came to be, I am still unsure. It is possible that eunuchs had a much higher status in earlier times than they do now.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Ashok: I placed the Hebrew/Hindi-Urdu question on Columbia University’s Urdulist forum and got the following helpful responses:

      (From Irfan) I remember reading somewhere that most of the Hebrew loanwords in Urdu came through Arabic. For example, shalom (H) –> salam (A/U); youm (H/A/U); zayit (H) –> zaiton (A/U), etc. However, there are some Hebrew loanwords in Hindi and Urdu that are not found in Arabic. At the moment, I can offer only one example: kiran (ray of light) in Hindi and Urdu is keren in Hebrew.

      (From Ali Hassan) I’m not sure that it is correct to speak of “Hebrew loanwords in Urdu”. There are words in Urdu that were borrowed from Arabic that have a common origin in the proto-Semitic language that became Arabic, Hebrew, Phoenician, Aramaic etc… But you cannot really say that Arabic borrowed those words from Hebrew.

      If anything both Arabic and Hebrew borrowed quite heavily from the lexicon of another Semitic language–Aramaic, which was the the lingua franca of the Near East from the rise of the Assyrians through the classical Roman Empire. It was Aramaic that served as the chancellory language of the Achaeminid Empire. It was the language that united the provinces of the Empire of Darius and Cyrus. When Persia ruled over Israel from 539 to 332 BC the soldiers and administrators that were sent to administer the province would have spoken Semitic Aramaic not Indo-European Old Persian which was confined at that point to Fars province. So I’m not sure that you will find a Hebrew-Persian-Sanskrit-Urdu connection in the way that you would like.

      (Incidentally I’ve always found it funny when Iranis bemoan the Semitic influence of Arabic on their language, from the very beginning of the first Persian Empire Semitic languages have inspired and influenced the vocabulary and grammar of the “prestige register” of Persian, whether Assyrian for Old Persian, Aramaic for Middle Persian,or Arabic for New Persian.)

      Aramaic became the day-to-day spoken language of much of the Near East and as such was the language spoken by Jesus. Its alphabet replaced the original Hebrew alphabet and is today the alphabet of the modern Jewish state. A cursive form became the Syriac and Pahlavi alphabets which in turn influenced the Arabic alphabet.

      Now lest you think I am claiming that Aramaic is the ultimate source of borrowings, I will point out that Aramic itself borrowed heavily from older Semitic languages such as Assyrian, Babylonian and Akkaddian. And Akkadian as the oldest attested Semitic language borrowed ultimately from Sumerian, a non-Semitic language isolate.

      A good Semitic word like “nabi” found in both Arabic and Hebrew was ultimately an Akkadian borrowing that was originally the the
      non-Semitic Sumerian “Nabu.” But as Sajjad Rizvi pointed out in an earlier thread Semitic languages easily create new triliteral roots when they absorb new words.

      (From Irfan) While this discussion is becoming very interesting — and can indeed be further problematized — I believe that we can use the term cognate to answer the OP’s query which was about “Hebrew words that are related to words in Sanskrit-Hindi-Urdu”. I would, thus, rephrase my earlier reply as follows: the Hebrew keren and Hindi/Urdu kiran are cognates.

  17. Irfan Husain Says:

    Having spent some time in Turkey, I was aware of the ‘chi’ and ‘cha’ connection. But thanks for this fascinating exchange.

  18. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Moazzam Sahib: A bit further in the story I mentioned earlier, I came across the word ‘doroshke-chi’ which is translated as ‘horse carriage driver.’ This suggested to me the suffix ‘baan’ which we use in words like gaRRibaan, saarbaan, etc.

    Also, in his comment Ashok mentioned the word tabalchi and this reminded me of a teacher who considered the term offensive and wanted to be called tabla nawaz. Why would this be so? It also made me think of other musicians and of the variation in terms used to describe them – sitaariya, sarangiya, but beenkaar. So, ‘kaar’ also seems a related suffix and I have seen it in words like kharkaar, kalakaar, etc. And what might be the reason for the variations?

    Could you clarify the links between ‘chi’, ‘daar’, ‘baan’, and ‘kaar’. It seems to me that roughly speaking chi=keeper, daar=owner, baan=driver and kaar=performer.

  19. راہنورد شوق Says:

    As a totally self taught, albeit reasonably fluent Farsi and Arabic speaker, I noticed a few interesting impacts of Turkish and Persian on Arabic. The Arbas use the suffix “chi” (pronounced “ji”) in words like “Mushkilji” (one who prefers the hard way to a simple issue) and “Ikhwanji” (a supporter of Ikhwanul Muslimeen – The Muslim Brotherhood movement). Another Turkish suffix is “li” which survives in the Name “Naazli” in Urdu, but is commonly used in Turkey in words like “lazzatli” (delicious) and “ghamzali” (I do not know how to translate ghamza. Ishwa o ghamza o ada kya hai -Ghalib). I was fascinated to observe that, while playing backgammon, the Arabs would switch to Persian numerals like yak, du, seh.. instead of wahd, ithnain, thalaathah etc.,

  20. Somil Chaturvedi Says:

    Anjum, very well articulated. Thanks
    Someone pointed out that Persian was taught in some parts of India in early part of 20th century. I indeed heard this from my grandfather who was born and brought up in U.P (Mathura) and was very fond of Urdu and persian words. Perhaps explains an Indian adage “Padhey Likhey ko Pharsi Kya”! which suggests that the language was held in high esteem.

    Interestingly, the word Hindu i understand was coined by Turks if i m not wrong. Word “Hindu” doesnt appear in any of Indian ancient writings like Vedas or Purans nor has been used in epics like Ramayana. The closest word used to denote what we call Hinduism now was perhaps “Sanatana Dharm” (Eternal religion).

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Somil: You are right, Persian was indeed taught in parts of India up till the first half of the 20th century. It must have had the status that English has now as the language of upward mobility. Hence, learning Farsi was not restricted to people of one religion. This is captured well by the adage you have quoted. I believe the complete version is “haath kangan ko aarsi kya, padhey likhey ko Farsi kya” which conveys the association of attainments and status. An unmarried woman wears glass bangles but graduates to gold bangles on marriage; an uneducated person speaks the vernaculars but needs Farsi to be counted as educated. Another interpretation is that when one is wearing (heavy) gold bangles you don’t need to look into a mirror for confirmation; similarly when one is educated, Farsi is child’s play.

      You are also, in my view at least, right about the etymology of the term “Hindu.” We had a discussion on the blog about this in a yet to be completed series. It would be good if you take a look and see if there are threads you wish to pick up:

  21. Rug Pundits | foreigners’ language proficiency in pakistan – not just a utility Says:

    […] Anjum Altaf on learning Hindi, Farsi and Pashto as an Urdu Speaker (note the language section on their page): As an Urdu speaker, I had always felt it would be simple to learn Hindi and Farsi. The first shares the grammar and much of the essential vocabulary, differing only in script; the second shares the script and a considerable number of words, differing in construction of sentences and manner of speaking. My attempts to transform resolve into results yielded both confirmations and surprises and taught me something about learning, about languages, about our world and about myself. […]

  22. Hagel Boville Says:

    Hi all,

    I’m a native English speaker, but living and working in Afghanistan, so have been learning Dari Persian, and becoming fairly proficient, including with writing.

    I’d be interested to consider the opposite direction — someone who knows decent Persian but wants to learn Urdu/Hindi (though going by way of Pashto would be a major extra step for a native English speaker).

    I previously learned Spanish and French; the first (Spanish) was very tough, since it involved lots of new vocabulary and grammar. However, since French shares 80% of its vocabulary with Spanish (, and has almost identical grammar, it took perhaps 20% of the time to learn French.

    I wonder, what is the % of vocab shared between each of Farsi, Dari, Pashto, Urdu, Hindi?

  23. Kamran Says:

    Hagel: As discussed above by Anjum, Farsi/Dari, and Pashto belong to what we now call Iranian branch whereas Urdu/Hindi belongs to the Indic branch. The structure, syntax, and the grammar are different in both sets of languages. Therefore, to move on learning curve from Dari/Parsian to Urdu/Hindi in my view would not be as easy as perhaps it would be to Pashto, though Pashto has significantly different vocabulary. I am not aware of any serious work that seeks to measure and quantify the amount of Persian/Dari vocabulary in either Urdu or Pashto.

    Superficially I could say that there is a very significant measure of Arabic vocabulary in Persian and in the same way a large measure of (may be about 30-40%) Persian & Arabic vocabulary in Urdu. Farsi (Irani Persian) and Dari (Afghani Persian) are essentially the same language in similar way as Urdu and Hindi are the same from a different Indic branch. Because of a fairly long (about 700 years) political and cultural domination of Persian speaking elite over Hindi/Urdu speaking region of north & central India, a large part of Farsi/Dari vocabulary is now part of Hindi, evolving over time a new form of Hindi, that is now called Urdu.

    Lately, I have also had the opportunity to frequently visit Afghanistan and observed the vocabulary and pronunciation of many familiar words of Dari. In the process I discovered something that was not very clear to me earlier. Here is what I observed.

    Though, somewhat familiar with a copious admixture of Persian vocabulary in Urdu yet I cannot claim to know and understand Persian. Nevertheless, during my many visits to Kabul I realized that I could comprehend conversation and read Dari texts far more easily (I’d say about 30-40%) than I could have understood Persian during my visit to Tehran many years ago. In fact, before visiting Tehran I always had a false belief, based on some irregular private tuition lessons in Persian during my early school days, that I had a basic knowledge of Persian language. But in Tehran my confidence was shattered very quickly when I was hardly able to make sense out of the language being spoken on the streets and from conversation among my Iranian hosts. Many familiar words had a different pronunciation that further made it difficult to follow the spoken language. But clearly that was not the case in Kabul. Why?

    After a while, what I discovered was that the variant of Persian language that made an impact on the spoken languages of north India for that long was, in fact, what we call today Afghani Dari and not what we today know as the Iranian Persian. These are two different variants of essentially one language. For a long time, before the rise of modern Iran, the variant of Persian language that was spoken in present day Afghanistan, Khurasan, and Turkmenistan held political sway. Even in Safvi & Qachari Iran the military-political elite of the ruling classes had all come from the wider Turkmenistan region and other adjoining areas of Central Asia. It was the kind of Kings & Queens language of the day — the Court language. In fact, many believe that the word Dari is derived from the Persian word Darbaar meaning the court. The ruling elite that migrated to India and held political and social sway over India for centuries had come mainly from Turkistan and Khurasan via Afghanistan. The old Farsi of Indian Muslim elite till early 19th century and the writings of Mir, Sauda, and Ghalib in India was closer to Dari than it was to the language of the proper Iran that gained pre-eminence over the old court language only recently. The pronunciation and usage of many Persian words that we are familiar with in our shared cultural heritage is strikingly similar to the pronunciation that is still used in Dari of Afghanistan today but we find it quite different in modern Iran.


    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Kamran: This is an invaluable input and further validation of my faith in learning through conversations. Whether you are right or wrong, and I feel you are right, this has resolved a major puzzle for me. A big contributor to my frustration with the slow progress in Farsi was the feeling that I ought to be picking it up much faster because of the assumed close links with Urdu. And it was a surprise when I found a more conducive route to Persian via Pashto although Pashto is difficult and, to me at least, a lot less standardized than Persian. Your analysis of the centrality of Dari provides a solution to both the conundrums.

      This also reinforces the assertion that no amount of desk study can substitute for hands-on interaction. This is a dimension that will get increasingly slighted in the age of the Internet and one that young researchers should take to heart. Thanks again.

  24. Moazzam Siddiqi Says:

    Regarding the Farsi-Urdu issue, I agree with Kamran’s analysis. As to the question of learning Farsi, in my opinion it varies from individual to individual. Some may find it easy to go via the Urdu route and others via the Pashto way, provided one knows Pashto as a native or near native speaker.

    Currently there are three varieties of Farsi in use: The Iranian variety (farsi-ye iiruunii), the Afghan variety (Dari) and the Tajik variety. The native Dari speakers in Afghanistan are called the Tajiks, as opposed to the Pashto speaking Pashtuuns, because ethnically the Afghan Tajiks and the dominant ethnic group in Tajikistan are one and the same people. Even though the Farsi language developed and evovled in the region of Fars/Pars in Iran [hence the language Farsi and Parsi, the followers of the Zoroastrian faith who fled to India when Iran was invaded and occupied by the Arabs, which resulted in the creation of the new language in the region of Pars/Fars when Arabic and Pahlavi interacted with each other, much the same way as Hindi/Urdu developed and evolved in West and North India when Farsi and Turkish (to a lesser degree) interacted with Old Panjabi, Haryani, Avadhi and Brij], the literary language in the true sense developed in the northeast region of Iran (Khorasan) and in adjoining areas of Central Asia. The court (darbar) of the Samanid king Ismail at Bokhaara was where the Farsi literature, particularly poetry made its debut. At this stage the literay Farsi was refered to as Dari. (Other major centers of Farsi/Dari poetry were Tuus, Nishapur, Mashhad and other cities and towns of Khoraasaan, producing such great poets as Daqiqi, Ferdausi, Moizzi and others.)

    This original literary form remained intact until the Safavids in late 15th Century became the rulers of Iran, and from that point onwards Turkish influences, especially in phonetics and phonology gradually begin to appear. The Safavids were from Azarbaijan and spoke Azeri. The dynasty that followed the Safavids, the Qajars were also Azeri and spoke that language as their native tongue. During the Qajars the Turkish influence became more pronounced, ultimately changing the phonology to such a degree that the distinct Iranian variety of Farsi appeared on the scene. Add to this some European influences, especially French language and culture among the Iranian elites.

    Among the most prominent distinguishing marks of Iranian Farsi is the Turkish way of pronouncing the words that end in the silent/unvoiced consonant “h.” In Dari and Tajik these words are pronounced with a final short “a” (some examples: laala, zaada, naama, etc). In Iranian Farsi their pronunciation follows the Turkish pattern where the final “a” becomes oblique and pronounced as “e,” for example laale, naame, zaade (the same pattern as “turkiye”). The other distinguishing feature is using the palatal “k,” which does not exist in Iranian languages. Some examples: kitaab (Dari and Taajik) vs ketaab (Turkish and Iranian Farsi); falak (Dari and Taajik with the velar “k”) vs falak (Iranian Farsi and Turkish where the final “k” becomes palatal). In Iranian Farsi there is a predeliction to pronounce all short “i” vowels as “e” (again, the influence of Turkish phonology). Some examples: del, as opposed to dil; mellat, as opposed to millat, kerdagaar, as opposed to kirdagaar, etc. And then the case of the majhuul and ma’ruuf “ye” and “waau.” Examples: ser vs siir, der vs diir, sher vs shiir, be vs bii; dost vs duust, farodgaah vs. foruudgaah, etc. These are some of the most obvious differences in Dari-Tajik and Iranian Farsi. In spoken Iranian Farsi there is a tendency to pronounce nouns ending in “aan” as “uun.” (iiraan to iiruun, khaane to khuune, etc.). The differences are too many to list here. As a result sometimes spoken Iranian Farsi may sound a totally different language than Dari and Tajik.

    We also have a fourth variety of Farsi, namely Indo-Persian, a language variety that was used in the Indian subcontinent for well over 800 years, producing the largest amount of literary output, both in terms of prose as well as poetry in the Farsi lnguage. At times Indo-Persian was the most dominant variety of Farsi, especially during the Safavid period when all the great Iranian poets came to India to join the Dakani and Mughal courts in the 16th through end of the 17th centuries. Even before the 16th century Indian kings and sultans were attracting Iranian poets to their darbars. Even the great Hafez dcided to go to the Dakani court at Ahmadnagar, but as the legend has it, changed his mind looking at the rough raging sea and decided to go back to the comforts and beauties of Shiraz at the banks of the Ruknabad river and the gardens of Gulgasht and Musalla.

    The Indian subcontinent became one of the most important centers of Farsi poetry as early as the eleventh century when Lahore became the capital of the Eastern Ghaznawid empire. Such great poets as Abul Faraj Runi and the native born Mas’ud Sa’d Salman were among the galaxy of major poets at the court of Lahore. Indo-Persian came under the influence of local Indian languages, as well as Sanskrit in the development of poetic theories (influenced by Sanskrit kaavya). We find these developments in the poetry and prose of the great Delhi poet Amir Khusrau (thirteenth/fourteenth century). Indo-Persian poetry’s one dominant feature in terms of phonetics is the appearance of the “nuun-e ghunna,” the nasalized or incomplete “nuun.” Examples: viiraan vs viiraaN, shabaan vs shabaaN, miskiin vs miskiiN, etc. We do not find nuun-e ghunna in the other varieties of Farsi.

  25. Hagel Boville Says:

    Kamran, Siddiqi, thanks for your thoughtful points. Fascinating stuff.

    Regarding the Iranian v. Afghan persian issue, a few observations: First is that most Afghans that I work with don’t really like that their language has been dubbed ‘Dari’ — they call it Farsi and say that it’s only superficially different from Irani persian or Tajiki.

    You do get a sense, however, that the vocabulary has diverged. I can’t even begin to run through the list of words where there are differences between the two (ghermez vs sorkh for ‘red’, masheen vs motar for ‘car’, etc. etc.). However, what’s interesting is that most Afghans are familiar with the Iranian vocabulary — they just don’t use it themselves.

    Another issue, is that there is a modern influence that can’t be forgotten: the impact of English on Dari, especially Kabuli, over the last 10-12 years has been massive.

    Finally, one thing that has tripped me up a lot is the ‘diglossia’ issue — where the written and spoken forms of a language have diverged to a degree. In Afghanistan, where illiteracy remains a major problem (the 28% figure that is commonly cited is very generous), this divergerence is especially marked.

    Many Afghans, especially in cities, when speaking to foreigners they don’t know, will use the more ‘literary’ way of speaking, as if they are speaking in public/giving a speech. Most of the time you never hear that spoken — only written. Some of the common phrasebooks even have the more ‘book’ like words in them, even though in practice no-one talks that way. In any case, the bottom line is that one sometimes feels as though he is learning two languages/dialects at the same time.


  26. Justanothercommonblog Says:

    What a delightful read. Thank you for sharing. :D

  27. Kamran Says:

    Siddiqi Sahib thanks for the detailed explanation and valuable leads for understanding the differences between various Farsi dialects. I am currently visiting Kabul again and found your observations very interesting. Your observations about the different sounds of wow, ye, and K in Persian, Dari and Turkish are valuable. The noon ghunna that developed only in Indian Persian was particularly revealing and new for me. I became vaguely aware of these differences a few years ago when once an Irani origin WHO Resident Director in Islamabad insisted that my son Sarosh’s name was Surroosh and not Sa-ro-sh (Sa as in Sarong and -ro- as in rose) as I had pronounced it. He also explained that its root word is ‘suroor’. Coming from an Ahle Zuban it sounded quite convincing but still Surroosh sounded to me as somewhat alien, although, I knew that the educator and writer from Lahore Suroosh Irfani uses the same pronunciation. I continue following the Ghalib’s tradition: ‘Ghalib sarir-e khama Nawai Sarosh hai. I was always intrigued by the differences of pronunciation of particularly the alphabets of ( ﻮ ) wow, and ﻰ) ) Ye. While in Kabul, I realized that unlike Irani’s, the Afghani’s pronounce the words Shair (lion) and sheer (milk), and ‘nauroz’ exactly as we do in India & Pakistan.

    A few observations:

    1. As I understand all native Darri speakers in Afghanistan are not called Tajiks in modern sense. True, traditionally the term Tajik in olden times was used rather pejoratively for all ‘non-Turks’ but in modern times Tajik is a separate ethnic group from few other Farsiwans – the middle-Persian speaking nationalities. Tajiks are about 28% of the Afghan population whereas the Farsiwans who claim Farsi/Darri as their primary language are estimated to be between 40-50% of the population. These include Hazaras, Aimaks, and Turkemans.

    2. The Zorastrian Parsis mostly migrated to India much after the advent of Arabs in Khorasaan and Persia. They emigrated mainly after Safvids coming to power and started persecuting both Zorastrian Parsis and other Shia denominations like Ismailis. The Parsis and Ismailis progressively moving eastward taking refuge in Afghanistan, Baluchistan via Qandhar, Sindh, and then ultimately in Gujrat.

    3. Safvids and Qachars were not Azeris. They were mainly Turkeman soldiers coming via Azerbaijan. Originally a Sunni Shafai order, Safvis gained prominence in Azeri town Ardabil of northern Iran. Shaykh Junaid of the Safvi order who first transformed it in a militant movement had most of his followers from Turkemens settled in that region. Shaykh Junaid’s son from a Turkemen wife, Shaykh Hyder had adopted the famous red headgear of twelve gores for his Turkemen military band that gave them the well-known name of Qizilbash – men of red headgear. Shaykh Hyder’s son again from a Turkemen wife, Shaykh Ismail first conquered Ardabil and later Tabriz to establish Safvi Empire as Shah Ismail. Since then the Persia – the modern Iran – was ruled by the Turkemen military elite. The later dynasty, the Qachars were also ethnic Turkemens. Even the Reza Shah who assumed power as the first Pehlavi Shah of Iran in 1925 was also a Turkemen military officer of obscure origins in the Qachar kingdom. However, with the rise of modern Iran in the first half of 20th century the ruling elite of Iran gradually suppressed its links of foreign Turkemen origins and started projecting a native Irani nationalism. As I understand, at this stage the present form of Irani Persian started distancing itself from the old middle-Persian still being spoken in the central Asian regions and Afghanistan. This was the political rise and cultural domination of the old provincial (Dehqani) Persian against the former court language – the middle-Persian of central Asia and Afghanistan. Hence, probably the differences in pronunciation, phonology, and many usages.

    4. Bagel is right. Afghanis do not use the name Dari in their common speech. It is only when they use the ‘statespeak’ with foreigners they name it Dari. It is the official name of the Afghani Persian that was formally adopted and recognized only in 1964, perhaps to distance it from the Irani Persian.

  28. Gunjan Says:

    I think the language commonly spoken in India is a mix between Hindi and Urdu. Due to the popularity of old time movies, many of them specially the classics were in chaste Urdu. As a result Hindi speaking people adopted many Urdu words in their vocabulary. To the extent that the Hindi words for the same were forgotten. Speaking this mix of language I feel gives a more colloquial touch to speech.
    So we have what is called as ” Hinglish “and we have what we can call as ” Hurdu “. Both have the colloquial element when spoken.That’s why one hears so much of it all over. It’s popular !
    By the way, Urdu words like – Taarikh ( date ), Raaz ( secret ), Dukaan ( shop/ stall ) and perhaps there are more, have the same meaning and are pronounced the same in Hebrew ( ! ) So, that must be the Hebrew to Arabic to Urdu connection. Interesting ! Believe there is more Farsi influence in Urdu. It’s really amazing what languages speak about themselves and the flow of humanity the was involved way back in history.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Gunjan: Yes, the study of languages and their evolution tells us a lot about ourselves. There is an interesting conversation among three academics about the language of Bollywood in the April 2012 issue of Seminar magazine. It is a bit esoteric for me but some readers might find it of value. The central idea is to investigate how Bollywood creates a common language across South Asia breaching all sorts of borders and boundaries so that it becomes possible, for example, in Kabul Express that “everyone breaks out into a film song – the Indian journalists, the Pakistani taxi driver, and the terrorist figure.”

  29. Hamari Boli (@HamariBoli) Says:

    hah! this thing never goes down! arey Hindi-Urdu is one and the same language baba log!

    “The Lingua Franca of South Asia is ‘Hindi-Urdu’, called ‘Hindi’ when written in Devanagari & ‘Urdu’ in Nastaliq”

  30. 123456789 Says:

    man khosro shayeg hastam va dar keshvare torkıye zendegi mikonam motavalede 24.2.1986 hastam

  31. monmirroir Says:

    Kheili khoob! Bahut accha! Really well written, and very interesting to read.

  32. Taariq Hassan Says:

    I am finding Farsi to be tricky to learn. I am good with Urdu and Hindi. Interestingly Tajiki as spoken in Bukhara was easier for me to handle than Tehrani Farsi . I have been to Iran and Uzbekistan as well as countless trips to India & Pakistan .

  33. Dalvinder Singh Basi Says:

    A very interesting article. I have been trying to learn Persian for some time now,but unsuccessfully. I can read Urdu and I have read a Farsi learning book through Urdu . This was very beneficial. I wonder if the Pashto route would be beneficial in learning Persian. I am not familiar with Pashto but maybe it would be beneficial

  34. Ved Parkash Vashist Says:

    My salaam to all of you who have posted comments above. Felt very proud of you all after knowing your thoughts.
    I am from near Delhi, India. I believe that it was a great mistake of the Indian Govt. to stop teaching of URDU SCRIPT in schools all over India after 1947.

    If URDU SCRIPT had been taught to INDIANS all along, India would have been in very friendly relations with many countries.
    Also there would have been many many INDIAN scholars of URDU, PERSIAN and ARABIC.


    A very enjoyable piece of writing. I have experienced similar situations in a joint learning programme. Punjabi with the Gurmukhi script, Hindi and Sanskrit through the Devanagri script. Urdu and Persian through the Arabic/Persian script.
    I still struggle with the Sanskrit and Persian, in a similar way the author of the above aricle did before using Pashto as a stepping stone.
    Any suggestions on books that may help in bridging the gap for me in Sanskrit and Persian would be gratefully appreciated. My difficuly is not the script of these languages but the grappling with the grammer.

  36. vijay Says:

    Anjum: you would also find it interesting that certain elegant sounding persian/arabic words that are used in urdu….but not in day to day hindi (or hindustani)….are very common in other regional languages like marathi…. my mother was posted to a small town in maharashtra….one evening a lady was talking to my mother in broken hindi (as she was marathi)…..she assured my mother that if she needed her help….she could be called for even at midnight……the word she used for midnight startled me….”neem ratri”…raat being the hindi word for shab (night)…..later i found manys buses with the “neem aaram” written on them…..other persian/arabic words such a ‘sohbat’…’faqat’….’talak’ are very common marathi. It is fascinating how certain words get incorporated in some languages and not in others….as both these regions had a considerable persian influence.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vijay: Thanks for this input which is of great interest. The other day, I saw a photograph of a board outside an office. The English term was INQUIRY. Underneath was the following Hindi equivalent: तहकीकात. I read that as as ‘tehqiqaat’ which is a very Arabic word and I wonder why the term remains in usage unless there is some other origin I don’t know of. It is always a puzzle how words move across geography and end up in strange places often with a meanings different from what they had at their origins. What is equally puzzling is that words for many terms already exist in the host language. For example, there must have been a term for midnight in Marathi so why did the ‘neem’ become common usage?

      • Indian Says:

        One of my favourite passtimes is identifying Arabo-Persiac words that continue to survive in Indian languages. Yes, तहकीकात continues to survive in Hindi. It has an official connotation. I particularly remember hearing the word used and over-used in police dramas on television. Hindi cinema of yesteryear is replete with Urdu or words that originate in Arabic and Persian. We have become used to some words to such a degree that people do not realise their origin or prefer them to their native counterparts. But as the Hindi-speaking section of the population gains confidence, zindagi shall be replaced by jeevan, dost by mitr, imtihaan by pariksha, mohabbat by prem, sawaal by prashn, jawaab by uttar, kitaab by pustak and darwaaza by dwar.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Indian: That is a wonderful pastime. What comes across is that there was a very rich language (Hindostani) that was at home comfortably with many words for the same phenomenon. It seems odd to me that people are abandoning that richness for not very well-thought out reasons. I recall a song from the 1960s:

          yeh mera prem patr paRh kar/ ke tum naaraaz na hona/ ke tum meri zindagi ho

          Prem, patr, naaraaz and zindagi could all coexist happily in the same lyric. It would be very hard to write equally alluring verses if half the vocabulary had to be jettisoned.

          One must note though that many Hindi words are becoming part of everyday conversation across the border perhaps because of StarPlus soap operas. I have been hearing prasad, shubkamnaeN, parampara, etc. Languages have a life of their own and we can at best be keen observers.

        • Vikram Says:

          Zindagi, darwaaza, dost are all words of the Hindi language. Their origin, although interesting, is of little importance today, since many of these words are not even used in the languages they were borrowed from.

          Words like zindagi and jeevan are not merely synonyms, they are used in completely different ways in Bollywood cinema.

          Consider the lyric:
          Zindagi kaisi hain paheli haye (Life is such a riddle)
          Here life is compared to a riddle, a paheli, which is qualified as feminine in Hindustani, thus the use of zindagi, the feminine form of life.

          Mera jeevan kora kagaz (My life, a blank paper)
          Here life is compared to a paper, a kagaz, which is masculine in Hindustani, thus the use of jeevan, the masculine form of life.

          So its not just vocabulary, these words enable poets/lyricists to create relationships where they would have been none.

          A cursory hearing of Kumar Vishwas’s recitations on the internet and Bollywood songs will deflate ‘Indian’ s fantasies of Hindutvazing Hindi.

      • vijay Says:

        anjum:precisely…..madhya ratri is also a very common term….so neem ratri becomes interesting………. on a different note….I sometimes wonder why we do not have a hindi word for kursi!…..anyways regarding the change in meaning across territories….a rather amusing example from the marathi patois is “kyee harkat nahi”….for” no problem”….for some strange reason I finf it quite cool at times-)

  37. Vikram Says:

    Is there a Sanskrit department anywhere in Pakistan? I think if someone knows Urdu and Sanskrit, they will actually speak, read and write the language most North Indians actually want.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: There are two dimensions to your question:

      First, Sanskrit used to be taught at Karachi University but is not any more. Read about it here:

      Second, Reading and writing the common spoken language of North India needs familiarity with Urdu and Hindi (especially its Devanagri script). It doesn’t really need knowledge of Sanskrit. Hindi is being taught in a few places in Pakistan (National University of Modern languages, Punjab University, etc.) but not on the scale it ought to be. We have had two workshops at LUMS this year with good response and are now hiring a faculty member trained in Hindi to offer it as a course next year:

      Personally, I feel we should offer Hindi as a summer elective in high schools. Learning the script is so easy and can be done from online resources without really needing an instructor. The commonality of the grammar and vocabulary is there to be leveraged to good advantage.

      • Vikram Says:

        Thanks for the link to the article by Dr. Haq. I still feel that with Hindi there isnt that much to learn, apart from the script, so I agree that offering it at high school level is a good idea. And in college, it definitely wont require more than a single course.

        My thought was that if someone knew Sanskrit, they would automatically know the script, the vocabulary of Hindi that Pakistani Urdu does not have and a door to other South Asian languages (even Punjabi/Sindhi) and Hindu religious literature.

        So, Pakistani Urdu + Sanskrit = North Indian Hindi + door to other languages + Hindu literature
        Pakistani Urdu + Hindi = North Indian Hindi

        Seems that Sanskrit is a more beneficial language to learn for the Pakistani interested in India.

        This article by Aatish Taseer (son of Salman Taseer) makes the point well,

        • Kabir Mohan Says:

          Vikram, a few things:

          1) What is “Pakistani Urdu” and how is it different from regular Urdu?

          2) Many Pakistanis already know Punjabi and Sindhi. They just write these languages in the Nastaliq script instead of in Devnagri.

          3) It seems to me that Sanskrit is a dead language like Latin so the only motivation to learn it would be academic interest. Similarly, I don’t think a lot of Pakistanis are interested in reading Hindu religious literature–unless out of academic interest.

          • Vikram Says:

            1) What is “Pakistani Urdu” and how is it different from regular Urdu?

            I dont think there is a ‘regular’ Hindi or Urdu. Pakistani Urdu would be the Urdu spoken in Pakistani TV shows. It would include words picked up from Punjabi and Sindhi.

            Regarding 2, and 3, you are right if a Pakistani just wants to travel to North India for leisure (honestly they dont need to learn any language for that). But for someone with scholarly interests, Sanskrit is the better language to learn.

          • Anjum Altaf Says:

            Vikram: Urdu in Pakistan has hardly picked up any words from Punjabi or Sindhi simply because that does not reflect the direction of either the power or the intellectual influence. Rather, Urdu is losing its Persian and character and replacing it with Arabic because of increased religiosity. It is also picking up words from Hindi, albeit more slowly, because of the popular cultural influences from Bollywood.

  38. Sandeep Dixit Says:

    Good that you knew the difference between learning a language and learning a script. Most people mistake a script with a language. I know people who speak their native language (the difficult part) but do not read the commonly used script for the language (the easier part).

  39. Tim Says:

    As a white American learning erm…Hindustani it amuses me that native speakers even have this perception that Hindi and Urdu are so different. I focus on Hindi/Devanagari since it’s easier to read the Urdu after knowing where the vowels are, but so far I’ve never had a Pakistani call bullshit when I simply say I’m learning Urdu ;)

    • Kabir Mohan Altaf Says:

      Tim, Hindi and Urdu are classified as different languages primarily for political reasons having to do with communal relations between Hindus and Muslims and then with the Partition of British India into Pakistan and India. Once Urdu was declared the national language of Islamic Pakistan it began its slow decline in India. Official Urdu in Pakistan has become much more Persianized and Arabized. Official Hindi in India has become much more Sankritized.

      You are of course right that the language of the common person remains “Hindustani”.

      • Vikram Says:

        “Once Urdu was declared the national language of Islamic Pakistan it began its slow decline in India.”

        There are two propositions here.

        1) That Urdu has declined in India.
        2) That this decline has something to do with Urdu being made the national language of Pakistan.

        How were these conclusions arrived at ?

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vikram: This is the view of most of those who have reviewed to state of Urdu in India though I don’t think there has been a scientific study which conclusively validates the hypotheses. A one-to-one correlation would be very hard to prove. A survey in the prestigious Annual of Urdu Studies published by the University of Wisconsin at Madison can shed some light:

          • Kabir Mohan Altaf Says:

            South Asian,

            Another piece of evidence that Urdu has declined in India since 1947 could be Anita Desai’s novel “In Custody” which revolves around a Hindi-lecturer from a small provincial town interviewing and forming a friendship with a renowned Urdu poet in Old Delhi. The novel is full of passages lamenting the decline of Urdu and the simultaneous rise of Hindi. While a novel is not scientific evidence, it confirms the impression that, since Partition, Urdu has come to be seen in India as solely a language of the Muslims.

          • Vikram Says:

            SA, this extensive report by Omar Khalidi documents the state of Urdu education in six Indian states since independence. Since education is a state subject in India, it is better to look at this issue at the state level:

            The report provides ample evidence for claim number 1, especially in UP. However, I still dont see how conclusion number two was arrived at.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vikram: I agree. Conclusion number two would be hard to establish the way it is formulated. I suppose two weaker claims might be made for purposes of discussion:

            First, that some antipathy towards Urdu derives from the fact that it was considered the language of Muslims.
            Second, those harboring anti-Pakistan feelings would be unsympathetic towards most things associated with Pakistan and these could include its national language. (Another thing could be the color green, for example.)

            These claims have no bearing on whether the feelings were justified or not. The focus, either way, is on the observed outcome – the relative neglect of Urdu.

  40. Vikram Says:

    SA, I would suggest that in India, almost all the languages in the Hindustani continuum, baring the ultra Persianized Urdu, are identified as Hindi. As such there is not an antipathy towards Persian/Arabic loanwords, they are used frequently in daily life. Hindi news on AIR, Doordarshan and private channels contain many loanwords.

    All our radio stations have popular sher-o-shayari based programmes. If you ever listen to the broadcast of the Independence Day celebration on Doordarshan, you will observe a good mixture in the vocabulary. Bollywood abounds in the use of Perso-Arabic words. Even Modi, for all his Hindutva, uses a good deal of Persian/Arabic words in his speeches.

    Indians have not historically identified Pakistan with Urdu. In fact, this association would seem surprising to most Indians given that Urdu originates from the Doab regions of Uttar Pradesh. In terms of region, most Indians associate Urdu with UP, especially Lucknow.

    Therefore, I am not in agreement with the suggestion that the neglect of Urdu is the result of a broad-based antipathy towards ‘Urdu’ in India. I would locate its neglect in the broader marginalization of Indian languages by English and the general failure of the school system in India, magnified by the chauvinism or opportunism of sections of the Indian elite. Also, any opposition is much more to the Arabic script, rather than the language itself.

    I think we must also be careful about the notion of a ‘decline’. While Hindustani was widespread in North India before independence, the first language of most people was one of Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Haryanvi, Bundeli among others. Of these Khariboli from Western UP became the language chosen for ‘standardization’ of Hindi. The population of North India has not resisted the adoption of this language. All in all, I would say that the desire among the majority of the population in North India is for a Hindi that has a good mixture of vocabulary, with Sanskrit providing the majority of words, and is written in Devanagari.

    Other regions of India dont want to have anything to do with either Hindi or Urdu.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vikram: I agree with most of what you have said. It still needs to be stressed that use of words does not overlap entirely with attitude towards a language. This is not the case in India alone. In Pakistan, the attitude towards Punjabi as a language is one of neglect. The interesting questions in every case revolve around the reasons that explain the neglect. Shamsur Rahman Faruqi is a leading intellectual in India. In this interview he provides his explanation which might be useful in the discussion:

      • Vikram Says:

        SA, a few salient points from S.R. Faruqui’s interview:

        1) The situation for Urdu education was better at the time of the interview than immediately after partition. Since the effect of Hindu nationalism has only grown since independence, it is unlikely that the status of Urdu has much to do with Hindu chauvinism. An alternate hypothesis is that the attempts by a section of the Hindu elite to introduce more Sanskrit vocabulary and an Indic script into the lingua franca of North India was resisted by the Muslim elite of the region.

        2) Faruqui mentions, “Still, the condition of Urdu is the worst in Uttar Pradesh, the responsibility for which lies with the feeling of superiority and the stagnant attitude of the Muslims who live there.” Why do the Muslims of UP have a feeling of superiority ?

        3) Statements like “secret orders not to give them employment in the police department” reduce the credibility of the interviewee. Employment in India’s police forces is through written examination, and this ‘secret order’ makes no sense.

        4) The interviewee points out that Urdu has a ‘standard language’ (miyari zabaan), while Hindi doesnt ? Wouldnt this be an advantage for Hindi ? It enables one to claim both Mughal-E-Azaam and B.R. Chopra’s Mahabharata to be Hindi works.

        5) There is a lamentation of neglect by the state, but it is mentioned that the government establishments have brought a “lot of money to the Urdu world”.

  41. bhojpuristan Says:

    Hi Mr. Anjum I am rohit from Bihar state of india.I want to learn urdu would you please tell me best possible method to learn this very beautiful language of the subcontinent.I love the script of this language and i want to learn this language any how.Someday in my life i want to travel Pakistan

  42. Nathan Says:

    This is beautiful! If all of us South Asians learned abut humanity though languages there would be peace! I hope to learn Hindi, Uruguay, and Persian soon! The most beautiful languages.

  43. Harbans Mukhia Says:

    Well, old hat really! Both Hindi and Urdu emerged as fully fledged languages in their own right sometime late in the 17th-early 18th century. Prior to that it was “Hindawi” in which Amir Khusrau and Bihari wrote their exquisite poetry, apart of course Persian, in which was Khusrau’s main oeuvre. By the way, I find Khusrau’s Persian poetry very mechanical and boring and I am not the only one; it is his Hindawi poetry, especially about daughters, that moves you to tears. Hindi and Urdu got divided because the freedom movement got divided into two rival camps. But here is yet another anecdote. Sometime in the 1930s a very surcharged Maharashtra patriot fervently strove to purge Marathi language of all the impurities from Urdu it had absorbed. He issued what he titled Farman and urged fellow Marathas to follow him. Then someone analysed the Farman and pointed out that about 30 to 40 percent of the text had Persian/Urdu words, including the title !!! On the other hand some 70 percent of Urdu have Sanskrit origins. So, it is very easy for Urdu/Hindi speakers to learn each-other’s language. Script requires a small bit of effort as Anjum found out. Very small, really, but a little more determination.

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