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Urdu – The Origin and History of the Language

The term ‘Urdu’ and its origin

The term Urdu derives from a Turkish word ordu meaning camp or army. The Urdu language developed between the Muslim soldiers of the Mughals armies who belonged to various ethnicities like Turks, Arabs, Persians, Pathans, Balochis, Rajputs, Jats and Afghans. These soldiers lived in close contact with each other and communicated in different dialects, which slowly and gradually evolved into present day Urdu. It is for this reason that Urdu is also referred to as Lashkari Zaban or language of the army.

During its development Urdu language also assumed various names like the term Urdu-e-Maullah meaning the exalted army which was given by Emperor Shah Jahan and the term Rekhta meaning scattered (with Persian words) which was coined by the scholars for Urdu poetry.

History and Evolution of Urdu Language

Evolution and development of any language is dependent on the evolution and development of a society where that language is spoken. Various invasions and conquests on a place affect the development of its language. Urdu is no exception as it also underwent various stages of development.

Urdu belongs to the Indo-Aryan family of languages. Urdu by origin is considered to be a descendent of Saur Senic Prakrit. The term Prakrriti means root or basis. It is a later version of Sanskrit. As Prakrit language began to develop, it was influenced by Western Hindi dialects of Khari Boli, Brij Bhasa and Haryanvi.

With the coming of Insha’s Darya-e-Latafat*, a need was felt to differentiate Urdu with other languages especially Hindi. It became a Hindi-Urdu controversy and as a result Khari Boli and Devanagari became the identity of Indians while Urdu and Persian of Muslims. In this context, Persian and Arabic words replaced with Sanskrit served the purpose of differentiating Hindi from Urdu.

Urdu emerged as a distinct language after 1193 AD – the time of the Muslims conquest. When the Muslims conquered this part of the continent, they made Persian the official and cultural language of India. As a result of the amalgamation of local dialects and the language of the invaders – which was either Persian, Arabic and Turkish, a new language evolved which later became Urdu. During the Mughals reign, Urdu was spoken in palaces and court and till the end of the Mughal rule; Urdu was the official language of most of Mughal states. This was the time when Urdu had become Persianized and enriched with Persian words, phrases and even script and grammar. With the coming of the British, new English words also became part of the Urdu language. Many English words were accepted in their real form while others were accepted after some modifications.

Currently, Urdu vocabulary contains approximately 70% of Persian words and the rest are a mixture of Arabic and Turkish words. However, there are also traces of the French, Portuguese and Dutch language in Urdu. But these influences are little.

Urdu was taken to other parts of the country by soldiers, saints and sufis and by the common people. As a result of the political, social and cultural contacts amongst the people of different speech and dialects, a mixed form of language formed called ‘Rekhta’ (Urdu and Persian in mixed form). Soon people started to use the new language in their speech and in literature which resulted in the enrichment of Urdu language and literature.

Urdu Literature

The origin of Urdu literature dates back to the 13th century in India during the Mughal rule. One of the most eminent earliest poets who made usage of Urdu in his poetry is Amir Khusro who can be called the father of Urdu language. In literature, Urdu was usually used along side Persian. Mughal kings were the great patrons of art and literature and it was under their rule that Urdu language reached its zenith. There used to be a tradition of ‘Sheri Mehfils’ (poetic gatherings) in the kings’ courts. Abul Fazal Faizi and Abdul Rahim Khankhana were the famous Urdu poets of Mughal court. Likewise, Mirza Ghalib, Allama Iqbal, Hakim Momin, Ibrahim Zauq, Mir Taqi Mir, Sauda, Ibn-e-Insha and Faiz Ahmed Faiz have contributed to the evolution of Urdu language through their literary works.

It is indeed true that Hindi and Urdu are descendents of the same language i.e. Prakrit, but where the Hindi took influence from Sanskrit and adopted Devanagri script of writing, Urdu absorbed words from Persian, Turkish and Arabic languages and adopted Persian-Arabic script and Nastaliq calligraphic style of writing and emerged as a separate language. But beside common ancestry, the two languages are as different as can be. There are marked grammatical, phonological and lexical differences in both languages.

Urdu was also used as a tool by the Muslims for freedom struggle and for creating awareness among Muslim communities in South Asia to unite under the banner of Independence from British Raj. For this, services of Maulana Hali, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Allama Iqbal are notable, who through their poetry and prose provoked the necessary spark in the lives of the Muslims. Urdu was chosen to become the national language of Pakistan at the time of Independence from British. Urdu is now the national language of Pakistan, spoken and understood thoroughly by majority of the population.


* A book by Ibn-e-Insha, dealing with phonetic and linguistic characteristics of Urdu and a variety of work formations and rhetorical expressions.


1. George Cardona & Dhanesh Jain (eds). The Indo Aryan languages. Routledge Publishers. London. 2003.

2. Ram Babu Saksena. A History of Urdu Literature. Sind Sagar Academy. Lahore. 1975.

3. Dr. Tariq Rehman. Peoples and Languages in Pre-Islamic Indus Valley. [Online] [Cited 2009 April 4]. Available from:

4. Mirza Khalil Ahmad Beg. Urdu Grammer: History and Structure. Bahri Publications. New Delhi. 1988.

5. Zoya Zaidi. Urdu: The language and Poetry. [Online] 2006 [Cited 2009 April 4]. Available from:

Source by Ameera Kamal

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