A Guide to Urdu - 10 facts about the Urdu language

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1. Where is Urdu spoken?

Urdu is a living language which, according to estimates, is spoken by close to 100 million people around the world. It is the official language of Pakistan, a status which it shares with English. It is also spoken and understood in parts of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Middle East, and many other countries around the world where Pakistani communities have settled.

In India, Urdu is spoken in places with large Muslim communities or cities that were once power centres of Muslim Empires. They include parts of Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Kashmir, Bhopal and Hyderabad. Some Indian schools teach Urdu as a first language and have their own syllabus and exams.

The Urdu community in the UK numbers about four hundred thousand speakers.

2. What you already know about Urdu

Many English words are commonly used in spoken and written Urdu.

سائنس [science], science
گلاس [glass], glass
کرپٹ [corrupt], corrupt
مائنڈ [mind], mind
کورٹ [court], court
جیل [jail], jail
فائل [file], file
کاپی [copy], copy
فوٹو [photo], photo
لائبریری [library] library
کار [car], car
بس [bus], bus
ریلوے [railway], railway
ائرپورٹ [airport], airport

Similarly, Urdu has also contributed a few words to the English language.

cushy from  خوشی [khushi], ease, happiness
pukka from  پکّا [pakka], solid
cummerbund from  کمر بند [kamarband], waist binding
chutney from  چٹنی [chatni], to crush
jungle from  جنگل [jangal], jungle
thug from  ٹھگ [thhug], cheat, swindler
verandah from  برآمدہ [bar’aamdah], verandah
garam masala from  گرم مصالحہ [garam masaalah], hot mix

3. How hard is it to learn?

Urdu grammar, word construction and sentence structure are very systematic, however, Urdu presents some challenges.

Urdu uses formal and informal verb forms and each noun has either masculine or feminine gender. Don’t worry if you mix things up at the beginning – as a learner you will be forgiven.

For those whose mother tongue is written from left to right, one of the challenges of learning Urdu is getting used to reading right to left.

Urdu pronunciation is not always regular. For example, the word exactly is written  بالکل [bal kul], but pronounced “bil kul”, so it’s advisable to memorise vocabulary with the exact pronunciation. In this respect it’s similar to English which has plenty of irregular spellings.

4. The most difficult words and tongue twisters

If you say any of these tongue twisters repeatedly, you’re bound to stumble!

سمجھ سمجھ کے سمجھ کو سمجھو
سمجھ سمجھنا بھی اک سمجھ ہے
سمجھ سمجھ کے بھی جو نہ سمجھے
میری سمجھ میں وہ ناسمجھ ہے

[Samajh samajh ke samajh ko samjho
Samjh samjhana bhee ek samajh hai
Samajh samjh ke bhee jo na samjhe
Meri samjh mein wo naasamajh hai.]

In an understanding way, understand the understanding. Understanding the understanding is an understanding in itself.
He who doesn't understand the understanding, in my understanding, is a 'non-understanding'.

چنو کے چاچا نے
چنو کی چاچی کو
چاندنی رات میں
چاندی کی چمچ سے
چٹنی چٹائی

[Chunnu kay chacha ne,
chunnu ki chachi ko,
chandni raat mein,
chandi ki chamach se,
chatni chatai.]

The little boy's uncle made the little boy's auntie lick the sauce with a silver spoon on a moonlit night.

کچا پاپڑ پکا پاپڑ
[Katcha papad pakka papad.]
Uncooked poppadum, cooked poppadum.

5. Know any good Urdu jokes?

ایک موٹا آدمی اپنے دبلے پتلے دوست سے کہتا ہے: ’’جب میں تمھیں دیکھتا ہوں تو لگتا ہے کہ دنیا میں قحط پڑگیا ہے۔،،
دبلا فوراً جواب دیتا ہے: ’’اور تمھیں دیکھ کر کوئی بھی آسانی سے یہ سمجھ سکتا ہے کہ یہ قحط کیوں پڑا ہے۔،،

[Aik mota aadmi apney dubley dost sey kehta hey: “jab bhi mey tumhey dekhta hoon, lagta hey dunya mey qehet par gaya hey.’’
Dubla foran jawab deta hey: “Aur tumhey dekh key koi bhi asaani sey ye samajh sakta hey key ye qehet kioon para hey.”]

A chubby man says to a thin friend: “When I look at you, I feel the world is hit by a famine.”
The thin man replies: “And looking at you I feel it is you who has caused this famine.”

بچہ باپ سے: ’’ابو لگتا ہے کہ آپ کا قد بڑھ رہا ہے۔،،
باپ: ’’تمھیں کیسے پتہ چلا؟،،
بچہ: ’’آپ کا سر بالوں سے باہر آرہا ہے۔،،

[Bacha baap sey: “Abbu lagta hey key aap ka qad barh raha hey.”
Baap: “tumhey kesey pata chala?”
Beta: “aap ka sar balon sey bahar aaraha hey.”]

A little boy says to his father: “Dad! You look like you’re getting taller.”
Dad: “How do you know this?”
Boy: “Your scalp is coming out of your hair.”

6. If I learn Urdu, will it help me with any other languages?

The closest relation of Urdu is Hindi. Spoken Urdu and Hindi are almost identical at the day-to-day functional level, apart from certain words. After learning Urdu, you’ll find it much easier to speak and understand Hindi but written Hindi will remain a mystery as it’s written in a different script.

Other languages written in the same script as Urdu include Pashto, Kashmiri and Panjabi, although Panjabi is also written in a script called Gurumukhi. The Urdu script is over 90% similar to the Persian and Arabic scripts as well, so learning Urdu will help you to read the Arabic and Persian alphabets. Urdu vocabulary also borrows about 40% from Arabic and Persian.

7. What not to say and do

In Urdu there are three commonly used verbs which are very similar:
 کہنا [kehna], to say
 کھانا [khana], to eat
 کرنا [karna], to do
Learners often mix these up, so pay careful attention to them.

The informal Urdu word for hey or hello is  اوئے [oey] but don’t use this with anyone in the street or any other public place because it is an extremely informal, almost intimate, word. You may only use the word with a respectful suffix like  بھائی [bhai] brother or  دوست [dost] friend.

To attract someone’s attention in a polite way, you may use a variety of different words like  سنئے [sunye], similar to excuse me in English -  بھائی جان [bhai jaan] elder brother or  جناب [Janab] mister, sir. To get the attention of a woman you may use polite words like  باجی [baaji], older sister or  بہن جی [behen jee], a respectful word for sister. With older women you can use  بی بی [bibi] lady or  اماں جی [amma jee] dear mother.

8. Famous quotations

ثبات ایک تغیر کو ہے زمانے میں

[Sabaat aik taghayyur ko hey zamaney mey.]
Only change is permanent.
Famous Urdu poet Allama Iqbal (1877-1938)

عدالت کی ناانصافیوں کی فہرست بڑی طولانی ہے، تاریخ آج تک اسکے ماتم سے فارغ نہ ہوسکی۔

[Adaalat ki na-insafion ki fehrist bari toolani hey. Tareekh aaj tak iskey maatam sey farigh na hosaki.]
The list of injustices of judiciary is so long that history still could not end its mourning.
Indian congress leader and famous Urdu writer, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958).

9. First written records

The first book in Urdu is known to be  سب رس [Sabras], written in 1635-36 by Mullah Asadullah Wajhi. It’s an allegorical mystical romance translated from the Persian Masnavi Dastur-e-Ushshaq and Husn-o-dil by Mohammad Yahya Ibn-e-Saibak, written about two centuries earlier. The copies of Sabras were handwritten as the printing press had not yet reached India at that time.

The first Urdu book printed by a printing press brought to India by the Portuguese, was  باغ و بہار [Bagh-o-bahar] by Mir Amman, published in 1801.

10. How to be polite and show respect

Urdu is a delicate and sophisticated language and many of its words are used to show respect and civility. This emphasis on politeness in vocabulary is known as  ادب [adab], respect or  تکلف [takalluf], politeness. This polite vocabulary is generally used when talking to seniors or people you’re not familiar with.

For example, the English pronoun you can be translated into three words in Urdu:
 تو [tu] informal, extremely intimate or offensive
 تم [tum] informal and showing closeness
 آپ [aap] (the plural form) formal and respectful

Similarly, different request forms of verbs can be used to give degrees of formality in three ways. For example, when telling someone 'to go', using the verb  جانا [jaanaa] to go, there are three forms you could choose from:
 جا [jaa] extremely informal, very intimate, but also derogatory depending on who it is addressed to
 جاؤ [jaao] informal
 جا‏ئیے [jaaiye] formal and respectful

Some small things are considered very bad manners in an Urdu speaking society – even in the family circle. For example, smoking, sitting cross-legged or shouting in the presence of elders, not standing up and paying regards when an elder appears or talking while eating.

AP Photo © Shakil Adil

Urdu key phrases

Get started with a few important phrases

Fotolia © YellowCrest Thomas, palmstone.com

The Urdu alphabet

Learn the 52 characters in the Urdu alphabet

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