Tag Archives: Urdu

India’s new leader favors the Hindi language, which is a problem for the country’s 50 million Urdu speakers

Indian street sign in four languages: Hindi, English, Punjabi and Urdu. (baklavabaklava via Flickr)

Indian street sign in four languages: Hindi, English, Punjabi and Urdu. (baklavabaklava via Flickr)

Here’s a post from California-based reporter Sonia Paul.

I spent several months in Lucknow, India, studying Urdu.

I knew that it would be a daunting task. But I had a leg up — it wasn’t going to be completely new. Several years ago, I’d studied Hindi, which the native tongue of about 25 percent of Indians. The country’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, appears to favor Hindi, which has alarmed speakers of India’s many other languages.

To the untrained ear, Hindi and Urdu sound similar. They share a lot of the same vocabulary. But they use different scripts. And they have different connotations.

In India, Urdu is generally associated with the Muslim population.

“I come from a Muslim family, and since we were kids, we were supposed to read Urdu,” said 21-year-old Nusrat Ansari.

Nusrat Ansari practices her Urdu writing skills. (Courtesy Nusrat Ansari)

Nusrat Ansari practices her Urdu writing skills. (Courtesy Nusrat Ansari)

I met her in Lucknow, when she was auditioning to perform Dastangoi, an ancient Urdu storytelling art that’s being revived. She said that as a child, she spoke mostly Hindi.

“At that point in time I wasn’t that interested in Urdu, so I didn’t take it up properly. But once I went to college and I had a bit of cultural thing,” said Ansari. “I thought, okay, I should learn Urdu,” Nusrat said.

“What do you mean by ‘cultural thing?’”I asked her.

“I started engaging in all sorts of … cultural revivalism activities.”

Hindi and Urdu are so similar that when Ansari was listening to the lines she had to memorize — which were in Urdu — she wrote them down in the Hindi script. Similarly, when I started learning Urdu, I also started out by writing in Hindi.

Writer and performer Mahmood Farooqui, who has been reviving Urdu storytelling, says reciting Urdu is a sign of prestige in India.

“Our radio anchors like to use Urdu, our television anchors like to use Urdu, parliamentarians like to use Urdu poetry, political leaders — even Modi recites a couplet or two,” he said.

But you won’t find India’s new prime minister giving a speech in Urdu. Because he’s such a staunch advocate of Hindi, many people are wondering whether his new language policies are part of a larger plan to wean out languages like Urdu.

Urdu’s origins are different from that of Hindi’s: Hindi’s script stems from Sanskrit, while Urdu traces its roots to Persian. It came into being in India around the 15th century, when Persian began to mix with local north Indian dialects. And by the 18th century, Urdu was an important literary language in India.

“It’s like English is now, in the sense that it was the language of prestige,” said Mehr Farooqi, a South Asian languages scholar at the University of Virginia. “It was considered to be the language of educated people. So everybody studied Urdu, and therefore they spoke Urdu.”

But about a 100 years ago, Urdu started to decline in India. The British wanted a common language for the country, and more and more people wanted Hindi to be that language. Hindi and Urdu — even though they were so similar in spoken form — became symbols of religious difference.

“It became like Urdu equals Muslim, Hindi equals Hindu,” said Mehr Farooqi.

This is why the new government’s promotion of Hindi is so controversial. It puts a spotlight on India’s postcolonial division into India and Pakistan. And it was another setback for Urdu, said storytelling artist Mahmood Farooqui.

“You had a lot of Hindu nationalists and Hindu fundamentalists saying Urdu created Pakistan, so let’s ban it, said Farooqui. “There was a lot of discrimination against it in schools, the government did nothing to propagate it, or to help its cause. And that continues to be the state of affairs today.”

And while some people, like Nusrat Ansari, are motivated to learn Urdu, she admits the language is struggling.

“I have met a lot of people who are really interested in this language and who would like to learn it,” she said. “But I wouldn’t say that it’s very popular and everybody understands it. Most people haven’t been that exposed to it.”

This exposure will be harder to come by if the new Hindu nationalist government keeps favoring Hindi over India’s other languages. That would only compound the problems Urdu’s already facing. But there are about 50 million native Urdu speakers in India — and others, like Ansari, who are rediscovering the language through its cultural heritage. So while Urdu may not have the same dominance in India it once did, it looks like there might still be a place for it in the country.


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The staying power of English, and Shakespeare in Shona

Top five language stories this month with Patrick and cartoon queen Carol Hills:

5. Multi-lingual Shakespeare. All of Shakespeare’s 38 plays will be performed next year in London, each in a different language. Hosting this 6-week season — part of London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad —  is the reconstructed Globe Theater. The environs may be authentically Elizabethan, but no-one back in the 16th century would have seen Titus Andronicus in Cantonese, The Tempest in Arabic, Love’s Labour’s Lost in British Sign Language, or The Taming of the Shrew in Urdu.

Given the diversity of languages and, presumably, styles of stagecraft, it’s surprising the Globe isn’t presenting these plays at a diversity of venues. Putting on plays at the Globe is all about conjuring up a specific time and place in English history. This season of plays seems designed to do the opposite. Think of all Shakespeare-inspired foreign language movies, like Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood — based on Macbeth — that transport you worlds away. That’s when you get a sense of the universality of Shakespeare. I’m not sure if the setting of Globe for all these plays will convey that.

4. Texting surprises. Two new studies on texting are out. The first focusses on literacy acquisition, and the scond on the texting habits of Australians. In the first, a group of children in the UK were given mobile phones to text to their hearts’ content. Their literacy acquisition skills — reading and spelling — did not suffer as a result. In the second,  Austalians, and men in particular, expressed disatisfaction with texting shorthand (even the Aussie-specific stuff like totes (totally) and redic (ridiculous). Also — this is really surprising — more than 75% of  Australians age 65 years and older send at least one text a day. Those elderly Australians are totes techno. Redic!

3. Eliminating an unwanted language. In these times of language disappearance,  it’s not often you hear of an effort to willfully eliminate a language. That, though, it what’s happening in South African. The language in question is more like pidgin. It’s called Fanagalo, and it’s like a simplified version of Zulu, with some Xhosa, Afrikaans and English thrown in.  During colonial times, it was used as a language of instruction in the mines. Colonial bosses would issue orders to workers in Fanagalo. Over the years, it acquired quite a few technical mining phrases and so it is still used today. Now, there’s a debate in South Africa over its usefulness, even as there’s widely-held distaste for the way in which it came into being. The National Union of Mineworkers is pushing to have Fanagalo abolished — which has set South Africa’s Chamber of Mines thinking about how exactly to do that.

2. Keeping Russian and Chinese pure. Efforts are underway to keep Russian and Chinese free of English words and acronyms. Here are two languages that developed largely in isolation during large parts of the 20th century.  Now that Russia and China are more connected,  Russian and Chinese are having trouble incorporating (or resisting) Anglicisms. Some new Russian words include steyk-kholdery (stakeholders), autsorsing (outsourcing), riteyl (retail) and franchayz (franchise). New Chinese words often derive from English-language acronyms: NBA, CPI, WTO, GDP.

Both countries are taking ham-fisted approaches: Russia’s anti-monopoly service penalized a Japanese sushi chain which displayed a billboard saying Happy New Menu. It also took action against a sportswear store  using the expression new collection. China’s General Administration of Press and Publication issued an edict barring Chinese newspapers, books and websites from using English words and phrases. Neither approach seems likely to work.

1. New book sparks a debate about the staying power of English. Nicholas Ostler’s The Last Lingua Franca makes the argument that one day in the distant future English will cease to be a global language, that most English speakers will be native speakers (right now, an estimated 30% of English speakers are native speakers).  Not only that, but it won’t be replaced by any other lingua francas. The world won’t need a common tongue, says Ostler, because we’ll all be able to speak in our own native tongues, and communicate via translation devices. Not surprisingly, Ostler’s theory/prediction has been roundly criticized, by champions of English as well as by techno-skeptics. Still, one of Ostler’s main points, that history has not stopped, and that language evolution has not played itself out, is well taken. And just look at Aramaic, Greek and Latin, all in their days lingua francas.

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