Urdu ki tareekh - history of Urdu language

Urdu is Persianised Hindi

Last updated: 5 October 2017 From the section 1952 Bhasha Andolon


Modern Urdu has taken almost 900 years to develop to its present form. The old Urdu was a mixture of Turkish, Persian (Farsi) and Arabic and was the language of the most powerful warrior tribes of Central and Southern Asia. Persian was the official language of these Muslim tribes between 1000 CE and 1700 CE, while Turkic was the mother tongue of many of their rulers, and Arabic language was used for religious needs and scholarly purposes.

These tribes would invade, conquer and occupy areas within easy reach for their wealth, gold, silver and precious stones. Wherever these tribes went, they took their language which had an amazing mingling and absorbing local words and proverbs.


Scholars, learned men and tribesmen from Central Asia brought 'Old Urdu', called 'Reekhta, to the Indian Subcontinent early in the 12th century . Modern version of Urdu evolved during the last days of Mughal rule in India ( late 1400 - early 1500) as it was used in poetry, prose and plays.

At that time, Northern part of India was the centre of rule and knowledge, particularly Delhi and its surrounding areas. Due to the interaction of local population and the ruling Persian-Turkic-speaking Muslim elite, a new language evolved and was known as ‘Hindustani’. Its Persianized form was called ‘Urdu’ - a Turkish word which means "an army or legion". In time this language became popular but remained limited to Northern India and never became the official language by Mughal rulers . Other local languages such as Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Kashmiri, Seraiki and Baluchi were also in use.

Unlike Bengali, Urdu and Hindi languages are very similar to each other, mostly composed of native North Indian linguistic elements. Having a common origin, both languages are intelligible to each other.

South Asian Studies

Urdu is made up of 70% Persian words and has almost all the 'sounds' available in any other language spoken in the world. It’s written from right to left just like Arabic and Persian and contains 39 basic letters and 13 extra characters – most of these letters are from Arabic and a small quantity from Persian. In contrast, Bengali and Hindi is written left to right, has Sanskrit words and is written in ancient Hindu scripts.

Privileging of Urdu

Regardless of script, spoken Urdu and Hindi are very similar to each other.

Since North India was the base of Muslim rulers and British empires, Urdu-speaking Indians Muslims from North had an environmental advantage in getting better education and jobs as compared to other areas. This benefit brought domination of Urdu-speaking Indian Muslims of North in South Asia and they took advantage of the opportunity and succeeded in bringing some other non-Urdu-speaking Muslims towards Urdu, who sought better education and status.

During Pakistan movement, it was further promoted due to majority of Urdu-speaking North Indian leaders. After the independence of 1947 Urdu-speaking Pakistanis, who were not more than 3% of the total population, were mostly immigrants from India. They were mainly concentrated in the city of Karachi, the newly-formed capital city of Pakistan. The West Pakistani languages, such as Punjabi, Sindhi, and Pashtu were written in Urdu or Arabic script like that of Persian. In contrast, Bangla had its own script different from that of Arabic script.

Less than 8% of the Pakistan’s population speaks Urdu and even less speaks English. However, Urdu and English are official languages. This circumstances has its roots in the context of pre-partitioned India, when the British still ruled the subcontinent. As Muslim nationalist aspirations grew in contradistinction to the British rulers and Hindu majority, Urdu became a symbol of Muslim identity.

When the country became independent in 1947, Urdu continued to be vested with emotional symbolism. Urdu was seen as a unifier for a very disparatate population. People spoke Punjabi, Pashtu, Siraiki, Sindhi, and Balochi and they had stronger connections to their ethnicities and languages than to the nascent notion of a Pakistani identity. As a result ethno-linguistic differences threatened to unravel the new state. In response, the ruling elites, mostly English speakers, tried to unify the population by empahsizing Islam and Urdu through language policies. Urdu became the official language of the country and the media and was taught in public schools. The elite, though, continued to prefer English for themselves.

Nadia Farrah Shoeb, Analyst

To Muslims, the message of Islam is universal, and transcends the barriers of class, caste, race, language, national boundaries and even of time. It is thus absurd to seek a correlation between a good Muslim on the one hand, and the knowledge of Urdu on the other.

The Daily Star (Bangladesh)

World language ranking

There are over 6,900 living languages in the world and Bangla is the 6th most spoken language with nearly 300 million speakers in the Indian subcontinent alone. It's spoken by three times more people than Urdu. Bengali is the 2nd most spoken language in India which has the second highest world population after China.

In contrast, Urdu is ranked 20th.

Regional dialect of Bangla, such as Rangpuri (north-west), Chittagonian (south-east), and Sylheti (north-east) are also in the top 100 most spoken languages in the world. Though these dialects an vary from the formal version of Bengali, they still contain Standard Bengali words.

Table: Most spoken languages in the world (2012)
RankingLanguageSpeakers (millions)
1 Chinese 1,213
2 Spanish 329
3 English 328
4 Arabic 221
5 Hindi 182
6 Bengali 181
7 Portuguese 178
8 Russian 144
9 Japanese 122
10 German 90.3
20 Urdu 60.6
59 Rangpuri (dialect, Bangladesh) 15
69 Chittagonian (dialect, Bangladesh) 13
78 Sylheti (dialect, Bangladesh) 10.3

Source: Ethnologue - Languages of the World

Bangladesh is considered to be a monolingual country in which more than 98% of the population is speakers of Bangla language. However, there are more than ten languages in such a small country like Bangladesh. Urdu, Monipuri, Chakma, Santali, Garo, Rakhain, Tipra are just some of the other languages present in Bangladesh.

S. M. Mehdi Hasan, Analyst