December 31, 2007

Camp language

A few days ago, I described some of the linguistic and ethnic background of the current situation in Pakistan ("Language in Pakistan", 12/28/2007). The key point: the national language of Pakistan, Urdu, is now the native language of only about 7% of the population. It was imposed at the time of the 1947 partition of British India, by the leaders of the All-India Muslim League who established the new country of Pakistan. At the time, Urdu was mainly spoken by Muslims living in what is now India, several million of whom moved to Pakistan during the upheavals that displayed some 20 million people in both directions across the new borders. The decision to impose Urdu led directly to the secession of East Pakistan (as Bangladesh) in 1971, and caused almost as much unrest in Sindh.

This post gives some historical background on the development of Urdu during the previous four centuries.

The OED on Urdu:

A. n. Formerly, = HINDUSTANI n. 2; in recent use distinguished from Hindustani (the lingua franca) and designated as the official language of Pakistan.

1813 J. SHAKESPEAR Gram. Hindustani Lang. 1 The dialect most generally used in India, especially among the Muhammadan inhabitants, called Urdū (camp) or Urdū zabān (camp-language). 1847 W. YATES Hindustani Dict. Pref., The Hindustaní or Urdú is peculiarly the language of the Muhammadan population of Hindústán. 1872 BEAMES Comp. Gram. Aryan Lang. I. 39 By a curious caprice, Hindi, when it uses Arabic words, is assumed to become a new language, and is called by a new name -- Urdu.

The entry for Hindustani:

2. The language of the Muslim conquerors of Hindustan, being a form of Hindi with a large admixture of Arabic, Persian, and other foreign elements; also called Urdū , i.e. zabān-i-urdū language of the camp, sc. of the Mogul conquerors. It later became a kind of lingua franca over all India, varying greatly in its vocabulary according to the locality and local language.
Formerly called Indostan, Indostans (cf. Scots). By earlier writers sometimes applied to Hindi itself.

Under whatever name, Urdu came into existence in the 16th and 17th centuries, as a lingua franca spoken in the polyglot armies, courts and administrations of the Mughal conquerors, who (though nominally derived from earlier Mongol invaders) were basically persianized Turks from Central Asia. The name Urdu comes from a Turkic word meaning "tent" or "army", which is also the source of English horde. The OED's etymology for horde:

[Ultimately ad. Turkī ordā, also ordī, ordū, urdū camp (see URDU), whence Russ. ordá horde, clan, crowd, troop, Pol. horda, Ger., Da. horde, Sw. hord, It. orda, Sp., Pr. horda, F. horde (1559 in Hatz.-Darm.). The initial h appears in Polish, and thence in the Western European languages. The various forms horda, horde, hord were due to the various channels through which the word came into Eng.]

And for Urdu:

[a. Hindustani (Pers.) urdū camp (ad. Turkī ordu, etc.: see HORDE n.), ellipt. for zabān-i-urdū ‘language of the camp’.]

The official language of the Mughal court and administration was Persian, with Arabic as the language of the conquerors' religion. However, the native language of the region was a dialect whose standard forms came to be known as Urdu or Hindi, depending on whether it was written with characters derived from Arabic or Sanskritic models. As Bob King puts it ("The poisonous potency of script: Hindi and Urdu", International Journal of the Sociology of Language 150:43-49, 2001):

Sanskrit diversified regionally into the languages known as the Prakrits, from which the major languages of northern and central India derive: Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, and Oriya, as well as Hindi and Urdu. Both Hindi and Urdu evolved from Khari Boli, a branch of Western Hindi (Madhyadeshi) spoken in the region of northern India known as Haryana, which includes the present-day capital of India, Delhi.

King describes the early historical and social context of Urdu:

Arab traders began traveling to India as early as the seventh century C.E. The riches and stories they returned with whetted the appetites of the more adventurous of their coreligionists, and by the tenth century Turko-Afghan Muslims were regularly invading northwest India in search of plunder and converts. By the thirteenth century Muslims were in control of most of northern India, and three centuries later the (Muslim) Mughal dynasty ruled with an iron hand all of north India down well into the Deccan (the Deccan plateau cuts a swath from west to east through central India). The impact of Mughal rule, its greatest emperor Akbar (1542-1605) in particular, on the course of Indian history and on all aspects of Indian culture was enormous -- and fateful.

Part of the historic legacy of that impact was linguistic and graphemic. Urdu arose as the everyday language of the Mughal Empire, whose official and administrative language was Persian. Urdu was the language of the princely courts such as Delhi and Lucknow. The designation "Urdu'' is not found until 1752, when the poet Mir gave it the name Urdu-e-Mu'alla 'courtly language' (Dittmer 1972: 48). The word "Urdu'' is of Turkish origin (ordu) and originally meant 'camp'. Thus Urdu arose essentially as "the language of the (army) camp.'' Because of its Mughal and therefore Islamic provenance Urdu had by 1600 C.E. diverged from its Hindi origins through extensive absorption of Persian and Arabic linguistic material: loan words, syntactic turns of phrase, a handful of phonemes borrowed from Persian, a certain precious "courtly style,'' a Persian cast to poetry and song. The ghazal, for example, a genre of song much admired in India by Hindus and Muslims alike, is Persian in origin.

It must be remembered that from roughly 1400 C.E. onward Persia was to those countries in its cultural orbit what France was to Europe during the reign of Louis XIV, and for a long time afterward. Persian ways set the tone in the ruling courts of Turkey, Afghanistan, and northern India. Persian culture and cuisine were highly valued. The Persian language was the language of diplomacy, of treaties, of art and beauty, of song, of love. Even after the British had assumed control of most of India, moving into a political vacuum created by the shrinking of the Mughal dynasty, they continued the use of Persian as the language of administrative records until the 1830s, when English became the official language of the Raj. The Persian language maintained a "high'' function in Indian Muslim life long after it had ceased to be anybody's first spoken language there. A favorite diversion -- opium was another -- of the last Nizam of Hyderabad, a Muslim-ruled enclave in the Deccan, whose reign was ended in 1948, was composing quatrains in the Persian language. His native language was of course Urdu.

In this context, an important Urdu literary tradition, based on Persian and Arabic models, developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. This took place at the same time as the British take-over of the subcontinent, and there came to be a significant connection between the British administration and the cultural development and spread of Urdu. King explains that

The British had introduced Urdu in the Perso-Arabic script as the language of the courts and administration in the Northwestern Provinces after the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, and Urdu was mandated as the language of the Indian army in 1864. British officials were in agreement that Urdu or, as they had begun to call it, Hindustani should become the lingua franca of all India, at least of north India.

This seems to have led to a paradoxical situation, in which the Muslim elites were simultaneously more pro-British and more anti-English (language) than their Hindu counterparts. According to R. Powell, "Language Planning and the British Empire"

In the early 19th century the Hindu elites, who had been something of an under-class in the Mughal Empire, favoured English more than the Muslims, but wanted Hindi recognised to the extent that Urdu was. While Shah Abdul Aziz was describing English education as something 'abhorrent’ and 'improper’ for Muslims, the Calcutta bourgeoisie were organising the Hindu College (opened 1816) so that their own elite could acquire English language and literature and European science.

Later in the 19th century, Syed Ahmed Khan founded the Muhammedan Anglo-Oriental College, which became Aligarh Muslim University. According to his wikipedia entry,

... Sir Syed was suspicious of the Indian independence movement and called upon Muslims to loyally serve the British Raj. He denounced nationalist organisations such as the Indian National Congress, instead forming organisations to promote Muslim unity and pro-British attitudes and activities. Sir Syed promoted the adoption of Urdu as the lingua franca of all Indian Muslims, and mentored a rising generation of Muslim politicians and intellectuals.

One of his protégés was Maulvi Abdul Haq, known as Baba-i-Urdu ("father of Urdu"). From wikipedia:

Following the establishment of the Osmania University by the Nizam Osman Ali Khan, Asif Jah VII of the Hyderabad State in 1917, Haq moved to Hyderabad to teach and help build the university. All subjects at the university were taught in Urdu, and under Haq's influence the institution became a patron of Urdu and Persian literature and linguistic heritage. ... in 1930 Haq led the group in protest against a campaign by Indian nationalists to promote the use of Hindi as the national language of India. Haq became a fierce critic of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, the largest political party in the nation. Suspicious and averse to the Congress and the Indian independence movement, in which Hindus composed a majority of leaders and participants, Haq joined the All India Muslim League led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

After partition in 1947, Haq moved to Karachi as one of the millions of Urdu-speaking muhajirs ("settlers"), and

... re-organised the Anjuman Taraqqi-e-Urdu ..., launching journals, establishing libraries and schools, publishing a large number of books and promoting Urdu education and linguistic research. ... Haq also used his organisation for political activism, promoting the adoption of Urdu as the lingua franca and sole official language of Pakistan. He criticised the popular movement that had arisen in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to demand the recognition of Bengali, stressing his belief that only Urdu represented Muslim heritage and should be promoted exclusively in national life. Condemning the 1952 Language movement agitations in East Pakistan, Haq was infuriated by the decision of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan to make Bengali a second official language.

More later, on the differences between Hindi and Urdu, and on the problems that Urdu apparently poses for literacy in Pakistan.

[For an interesting analysis of the political background,(before Benazir Bhutto's assassination) from the perspective of one of "the Urdu-speaking descendents of immigrants from India", see Salim Chauhan, "With or Without Musharraf -- A Mohajir's Perspective", 4/11/2007. His bitter comments about the "sons of the soil" are (I guess) directed at the feudal landowners who are still a dominant power in Pakistan -- as William Dalrymple wrote recently ("Pakistan's flawed and feudal princess", 12/30/2007):

Real democracy has never thrived in Pakistan, in part because landowning remains the principal social base from which politicians emerge.

The educated middle class is in Pakistan still largely excluded from the political process. As a result, in many of the more backward parts of Pakistan, the feudal landowner expects his people to vote for his chosen candidate. As writer Ahmed Rashid put it: 'In some constituencies, if the feudals put up their dog as a candidate, that dog would get elected with 99 per cent of the vote.'

And Chahan's mention of "[t]he Urdu-speaking collaborators, left at the mercy of the victorious Mukhti Bahini, ... 'stranded' in a hostile country and shamelessly abandoned by the very country which they supported" is a reference to the 600,000 or so Urdu-speaking ethnic Biharis who have been stranded as officially stateless refugees in Bangladesh since 1971, one of the many deeply depressing aspects of this region's recent history.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 31, 2007 02:32 PM