March 20, 2006
Urdu, the national language of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, is quite an interesting language to learn, for linguists or anybody else who is curious about the culture of the Sub-continent. You are forgiven if you don’t know that the language is closely related to the national language of its biggest neighbor enemy, Hindi from Hindustan (India). Indeed, the physical form of both languages are completely different, Hindi is written in Sanskrit Devnagari script while Urdu is written in Perso-Arabic script, or Arabic script written in nashtaliq style which was developed in Persia. But the sound of Urdu and Hindi are more and less the same. In fact, in most conversations it was difficult to detect whether someone is a Pakistani speaking Urdu or a Northern Indian speaking Hindi, except when the Pakistani use more Arabic borrowed words and the Indian use the Sanskrit ancient words. The relation between the two languages is even closer than Malaysian and Indonesian, where the accents of the two dialects are quite obviously different. In other side, Urdu and Hindi relation is also comparable to Malaysian and Indonesian, as Malaysian derived more words from Arabic and Indonesian from Sanskrit, due to strong connection of the Indonesian civilization to the Hindu Indian one (even the name of the country bear ‘Ind’, from ‘Indian ocean’). An example for this, ‘culture’ in Malaysian is ‘tamadun’, which is the same word in Urdu, an Arabic derived one. In Indonesian ‘culture’ is ‘kebudayaan’ with root word ‘budaya’, derived from Sanskrit ‘budhi’ and ‘daya’. As an Indonesian speaker, grown with Indonesian Indic culture, who grabbed a little bit Urdu comprehension, sometimes I still can do guessing when having conversation in India.
Hindi and Urdu is similar, not many people know this fact. Even the locals. When I was in India some people claimed that they didn’t know Urdu but they know the language was beautiful. In fact they were speaking Hindi, which completely sounds like Urdu. In Pathika, today, a boy asked me to teach him Hindi. I chant lyrics from a Bollywood song, he screamed, “It’s Urdu. Not Hindi!” Linguistically, Hindi and Urdu are a single language, or at most, two dialects, despite of its completely different appearance. The difference was emphasized by the political hatred between the two nations. Similar theories might apply to Indonesian and Malaysian (but nobody regard Bahasa Brunei, from Brunei Darussalam, as the third language of the same root).
Urdu, surprise, is quite similar to European language. It’s an Indo-European language. Many of European languages’ characteristics appear in Urdu, like gender, tenses, and cases. Indeed, Urdu is not an easy language to master. Even many Pakistanis, especially from the border area of NWFP province and Northern Areas don’t speak Urdu properly. Mistakes are common, that other Pakistanis ridiculed them by calling all of the people from the areas as ‘Khan’. ‘Khan’ is a common name for Pathans people from NWFP. The people from Northern Areas (Gojali, Gilgiti, Hunzakot, etc) are resentful when the Pakistanis address them as Khan. Back to the mistakes, the people from these areas don’t use Urdu as mother tongue, and their native language is indeed very different from Urdu, in vocabulary and even grammatically.
The concepts of Urdu might be completely different and unacceptable for Indonesian speakers. Despite of saying, “I know Urdu”, in Urdu people say as “To me, Urdu comes (mujhe Urdu ati hai)”. In this sentence, in our mind, ‘I’ is the subject, but in Urdu, ‘I’ changed to be complement. The subject is ‘Urdu’. And to add the complicity, the verb follows the subject, that ‘comes’ should agree with ‘Urdu’ and not ‘I’. This makes more sense when we come to a language with genders, masculine and feminine. ‘Urdu’ is feminine. ‘I’ might be feminine and masculine, depend on who is speaking. In that sentence, as ‘Urdu’ is the subject, the verb is always feminine (‘ati’ is feminine form and ‘ata’ is masculine for ‘come’). But this concept is too difficult for both Pathans and people from Northern Areas, where different grammar and gender division apply. A guy in Karimabad was very sure about his Urdu, saying that a male speaker should say only “Mujhe Urdu ata hai”. He was confused by the confusing concept of subject and object in Urdu.
What in our languages were verb, in Urdu might turned to be, surprise, nouns. In English we say “I look for you,” in Indonesian, “Saya mencari kamu”, but in Urdu it was “aap ki talash karta hun”, “I do your searching”, “Saya melakukan pencarianmu”.
To add more of the difficulties, Urdu also exchanged the subject and object when it comes to sentences in past tense. An object in present tense is the subject in past tense, to which the verb must agree. In English we say, “I saw a car.” In Urdu it is, “To me car was seen”. This is a very, very difficult concept for the non-native speakers. A Pathan driver said confidently “Ham ko filam dekhta hai (the film sees me)” when he wanted to say, “Let’s see the movie”. Even his mistake contains another mistake. First, it was not a past tense. Second, ‘filam (film)’ is femine, and ‘dekhta (see)’is masculine verb.
Despite of the complication of grammar, it is quite interesting to observe the cultural side of the language. The language is sexist, and sexual segregation feeling is so strong. A simple example, to respect a male, in Urdu the plural form of verb is used, but the politeness with plural form cannot be used to respect a female listener. Some people use this phenomenon of the language, like to play jokes with the masculine and feminine forms, by addressing a male listener with female verbs. Another example about the sexist part of the language, when a group of people consists of only females, then the female form of verbs might be used to refer them. But when males, even a single boy is enough, exist in their group, then the male form of verbs MUST be used. The logic cannot be reversed. A hundred females are not enough to change the gender of a single male. But a single male is enough to make a group of a hundred females to follow the male gender system of words.
OK, enough with grammar explanation. Urdu is a beautiful language, nobody argued. It had borrowed many, many words from Farsi, the Persian. The Persian words then also enriched Hindi. Urdu and Hindi were rooted in Northern India. It was said that the people from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, Northern India, spoke the most beautiful Urdu. I adored the flowery words in Urdu, which came from Farsi. Instead of saying, “Come in!”, the Urdu speaker speaks “Please bring your honor in! (tashrif laie!)”, “sit down!” is “please place your honour (tashrif rakhie)”, and “go away!” is “please take away your honour (tashirf le jaie!)”. You notice that the use of the word ‘tashrif‘, ‘honour’, was very beautiful here. But some people said that the real meaning of ‘tashrif‘ was not ‘honour’; it was ‘butt’, ‘bottom’. It sound quite fit, didn’t it?
One of my curiosities about Urdu is that it was a sexist language, while Farsi didn’t have any gender in the language. But when a noun is imported from Farsi to Urdu, it would be automatically assigned its gender. I didn’t know how these imported words could find their fate to be masculine or feminine, or it was indeed just merely depending on their luck?