The Lovely Peculiarities of Urdu

By Anjum Altaf

Urdu hai jis ka naam hamiiN jantey haiN Daagh
Saarey jahaaN meiN dhuum hamaarii zubaaN ki hai

Daagh, we know, the language, Urdu is its name
Celebrated over the entire world is its fame

A Hindi speaker, fond of Urdu, came across the following text in a letter by Premchand (dated 22 February 1925):

Priy Shivapujan Sahay ji, Vande.

Mujhe to aap bhool hi gaye. Leejiye, jis pustak par aapne kaii maheene dimagh-rezi kee thi vah aapka ahsaan ada karti hui aapki khidmat men jaati hai aur aapse vinti karti hai ki mujhe do-chaar ghanton ke liye ekaant ka samay deejiye aur tab aap meri nisbat jo rai qayam karen vah apni manohar bhasha men kah deejiye…… ”

He puzzled over the term dimagh-rezi and enquired on an Urdu forum whether it meant “banging one’s head against” which didn’t quite seem in consonance with the positive connotation apparent from the text.

Urdu readers, at least those over a certain age, were quick to decode the puzzle. The reader was misled by the term reza (or rezah) which in Urdu connotes fragment or fragmentation. The most common example is the term rezgaarii which is used for change in monetary transactions as in mujhe ek rupay kii rezgaarii de deejiye.

The more poetic usage is conveyed by the term reza-reza which means [fragmented into] tiny pieces. A particularly beautiful usage is made by Faiz in the following couplet (see Urdu, Hindi, English text and audio/video here; translation here):

Na GaNwao Naavak-e-Neem-Kash, Dil-e-Reza Reza GaNwa Diya
Jo Bachay HaiN Sang SameT Lo, Tan-e-Daagh Daagh LuTa Diya

Do not waste (your) half drawn arrow, (I have already) lost (broken pieces of my) heart
Collect and save the left-over stones, (my) injured or wounded body is (already) wasted

But Urdu, lovely Urdu, borrows heavily from Farsi and the Farsi term rezi is from the verb rekhtan, which means ‘to pour’, ‘to make something flow’. Dimagh-rezi would then suggest using the mind for hard or fine work – as one reader on the forum elaborated it could stand for “fine, intricate work requiring mental exertion”. (See the dictionary meaning – ‘mental exertion’ – here.)

My own contribution was to point to some terms that are commonly encountered in Urdu – rang-rez/rang-rezii for dyer/dyeing [of cloth] – (note the usage in this film song from Pakeezah: hamri na maano rangrejwa se poochho…). Similarly sang-rezii is working with stone, and the metaphorical usage arq-rezii for burning the midnight oil. While arq-rezii and dimagh-rezii are quite analogous, rang-rezii and sang-rezii rely on the sense of pouring – pouring color or stone without the extension to fine or elaborate work.

As soon as I made the suggestion, the term Angrez or Ingrez (for the English) popped into my mind leading to a curiosity as to its origin. Is this some different rez here fulfilling some other function or is it analogous to rang-rez and sang-rez in the sense of someone associated with rang and sang? In that usage, Ingrez would be someone associated with Inglistaan which is the Urdu for England – Ing being used here as the short form of Inglistaan. Alternatively, a reader on the Urdu forum has suggested the following evolution via Portuguese to Hindostani: English (E) –> Inglês (P) –> angrez (H). If this is correct than the term valandezi would come from the Portuguese holandês for the Dutch.  Since the Portuguese were the first Europeans in India, their pronunciations most influenced local adaptations – wallahu alam bisawab.

Having ventured into this territory I noted that the –ez ending is quite rare for nationality and I couldn’t think of any other than the archaic valandezi for Dutch/Portuguese. The default is of course the suffix -ii added to the name of the country as in hindustanii, pakistanii, cheenii, japanii, etc. with some significant variations as in german, fransiisii, itaalvii, haspanvii, etc.

From there, it was but natural to move on to language which is where we had started. In general, Urdu, like English, uses the same word for nationality and language as in german/german or itaalvi/itaalvi except when it comes to English where we have angrez/angrezii.

Urdu is indeed a mixed-up language which is why it was known as rekhta at one time:

reḳhte ke tumhīñ ustād nahīñ ho ġhālib
kahte haiñ agle zamāne meñ koʾī mīr bhī thā

you are not the only ustad of rekhta, Ghalib
it is said, there was a Mir in earlier times

(For explication see here where rekhta is defined as follows: Rekhtah: the Urdu language. The dictionary meaning is cement for a building. The way a house is built from lime, gravel, bricks, stones, brick-dust, etc., in the same way the Urdu language has developed from the mingling of Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and various Prakrits. For this reason they call the Urdu language ‘Rekhtah’.)

Generous thanks to the contributors to this discussion on UrduList.

Mir Anjum Altaf is provost at Habib University.

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One Response to “The Lovely Peculiarities of Urdu”

  1. cstfun Says:

    urdu, like all other languages, has deep roots. and it’s amazing to find out those root words and get new insights into words we think we know well :)

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