Saturday, August 27, 2005

Can Urdu be saved?

The Prime Minister delivered his Independence Day speech in Hindi but it was written in Urdu, not in the Devanagri script. Puzzled? Any person born in undivided Hindustan will solve the puzzle. For, between 1930 and 1947, Urdu was the language of education and administration and even those who learnt Hindi or Punjabi wrote in the Arabic-Persian script of Urdu. It was only much later that the differences between Hindi and Urdu were magnified for extra-linguistic reasons. The situation in pre-Partition India was much like the linguistic reality of China, where mutually intelligible Chinese languages use a common writing system. Even today, the boundary between the spoken varieties of Hindi and Urdu is quite flexible, especially where vocabulary is concerned and the Prime minister’s speech shows this in many places, e.g. the use of the word mohaiyya, in a Hindi speech; an Urdu word that means ‘making available’.

The word Urdu is derived from the Turkish word Ordu, which meant ‘a military camp’. A product of the dialect used by the Muslims who ruled over Deccan and South India from the 14th century onwards; perhaps its name comes from its first use on Indian soil, ‘within the conqueror’s camp’. The language follows the rules of Hindi grammar. In the pre-Partition era, it was very much a part of the fabric of Hindustan and was known as Hindustani, a hybrid language that was half Hindi and half Urdu.

The use of Urdu is shrinking every day and this is an alarm bell for concerned linguists. In a world that had approximately 6,000 languages to be proud of, present trends indicate that every two weeks, one language dies. A language is ‘dead’ when the people who use it are wiped out or it goes through a process of cultural assimilation once its users stop using it for various reasons. Only the 65-plus age group uses Urdu today, so the ball is in the court of the younger group: can they save a language? They just need to use it.