Asian Languages
Urdu script on box containing mix for Ras Malai - A sweet dish made from milk

Why Pakistan’s Urdu language is similar to India’s Hindi language

Urdu script on box containing mix for Ras Malai - A sweet dish made from milk
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"Why Pakistan's Urdu language is similar to India's Hindi language"
Caption: Urdu script on box containing mix for Ras Malai - A sweet dish made from milk
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Urdu is the official language of Pakistan. It is closely related to, and inter-intelligible with, Hindi, the main official language of India. Both languages are based on the Hindustani dialect spoken around the city of Delhi in northern India. Hindustani is a group of closely related languages and dialects spoken in northern India.

The main difference between Urdu and Hindi is that Urdu has been heavily influenced by Persian (also known as Iranian or Farsi), Arabic and Turkic languages. These influences are due to invasions of the Indian subcontinent by Turkic and Persian speaking Muslims from Central Asia after the twelfth century. Another difference is that Urdu is written in the Arabic alphabet instead of in the Indian Devanagari alphabet.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Central Asian invaders established a series of short-lived dynasties in northern India known as the Delhi sultanates. During this period of time, the Urdu language may have begun to develop as the Persian, Turkic and Arabic of the invaders influenced the local Hindustani dialect, according to John Roberts in "The Penguin History of the World."

The main period for the development of Urdu, however, came under the rule of the Mughals. The Mughals were the longest-lasting and most powerful of the Central Asian Muslim dynasties in northern India. Roberts explains that the Mughal Empire was founded in the sixteenth century and persisted up to the eve of British conquest in the eighteenth century.

As their name suggests, the Mughal rulers were partially descended from the Mongols. [Mughal, or Moghul, is a Persian word for “Mongol”.] Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India, claimed descent from both Genghis Khan and Timur Lane. Babur also had Turkic ancestors. His first language was Chagatai, a now extinct Central Asian Turkic language. The Chagatai language was a close relative of the modern Uzbek language. It was also related to other Turkic languages such as modern Turkish, Azerbaijani and Turkmen.

Babur’s original homeland was in Central Asia, in what are now Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. During Babur’s time, much like today, this region was home to a variety of different ethnolinguistic groups who spoke a variety of different languages. The lingua franca and the language of learning and culture, however, was Persian. Even in modern times many educated and upper class Afghans have spoken Persian in addition to their first language - perhaps the way many cultured Europeans used to speak Latin or French in addition to their native languages.

For several years Babur competed with other Central Asian rulers for control of various local towns and regions. Babur’s followers came from a variety of ethnic groups and spoke a variety of languages. Because of this, Persian was the main language for communication between the different groups.

After several years of ruling and fighting rivals in Central Asia, Babur invaded northern India. Babur made Delhi his capital, thereby establishing the Mughal dynasty. Many of Babur’s Turkic-speaking Central Asian soldiers came with him to northern India. Persian was used in an official capacity in Mughal India. Persian continued to be used for administrative purposes after India became a British colony.

The arrival of these invaders helped to facilitate the development of Urdu. The word “Urdu” means “camp” in Turkish, a reference to its use in military camps. Urdu was structurally similar to Delhi’s Hindustani dialect, but it contained a great deal of Persian and Turkic vocabulary, along with some words of Arabic origin.

Standardization of the Urdu language took place during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. During this period the formal forms of Urdu and Hindi began to diverge. Hindi was considered the language of Hindus. Words of Persian, Turkic or Arabic origin were deliberately removed from the language.  Words from Sanskrit, the language of ancient Hindu religious texts, were added. Urdu, on the other hand, came to be considered a Muslim language. Urdu borrowed more heavily on Persian and Arabic, and attempts were made to minimize Sanskrit influences.

In 1947 the British colony of India was partitioned into between Muslims and Hindus. The Muslim country of Pakistan adopted Urdu as its official language. Majority Hindu India adopted Hindi. The political division between the two countries helped to facilitate further divergence between formal and literary Urdu and Hindi. Everyday spoken Urdu and Hindi, however, are intelligible with one another. Many linguists consider them to be a single language.

Urdu developed through Turkic, Persian and Arabic influences on the Hindustani language of northern India. The development of formal Urdu and Hindi as separate languages was carried out deliberately in the nineteenth century as part of attempts by Muslims and Hindus to emphasize their distinct identities. The architects of formal Urdu deliberately adopted more Persian and Arabic words. The architects of Hindi, on the other hand, tried to purge the Persian, Turkic and Arabic words that had entered everyday Hindustani speech as a result of centuries of contact with people who spoke these languages. The political division of Pakistan and India has helped to facilitate the development of separate literature and formal linguistic rules for Urdu and Hindi. In everyday speech, however, Urdu and Hindi still resemble each other so closely that some argue that they are a single language.


“Urdu” in Keith Brown and Sarah Ogilvie (editors). "Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World." Oxford, UK: Elsevier Ltd, 2009., p. 1134-1138.

Ethnologue: Languages of the world

Abdul Jamil Khan. "Urdu/Hindi: An Artificial Divide: African Heritage, Mesopotamian Roots, Indian Culture & British Colonialism." New York: Algora Publishing, 2006.

J.M. Roberts. "The Penguin History of the World." New York: Penguin Books, 1990.

More about this author: Jerome Carter

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