Language of the armies, Urdu: A Derivative of Persian and Avestan
By: Dr. Samar Abbas, June 11, 2002
Most Iranians are aware of the fact that Pashto and Tajik are members of the Iranian family of languages. Few, however, are aware of the likelihood of Urdu also being a member of the Iranic branch of tongues.
The purpose of this article is to prove that Urdu is derived from Ghaznavid Persian, which is in turn derived from Avestan via Sassanid Pahlavi. It shall thence be evident that the ultimate ancestor of Urdu is Avestan, making it a member of the Iranian family of languages.
The first and most basic evidence which strikes an observer is the Persian-Islamic script of Urdu, as well as the extremely high percentage of Persian words in Urdu vocabulary. In fact, even in Musalmani (Muslim Bengali) an eastern dialect of Urdu spoken mainly Bangladesh and influenced by Bengali, one finds a significant proportion of Persian words. At least 60% of the vocabulary of Punjabi, a rustic western dialect of Urdu, is of also Persian origin:
"If more than 60% of the words are common in Punjabi and Urdu (Shriram 1928:67) it is due to the influence of Persian."
More detailed investigations only confirm the precurosry impressions. Indeed, several researchers have traced the origin of Urdu to the camps of Mahmud-e-Ghazni. Thus, K.K.Khullar notes:
"The birth of Urdu language was the direct result of the synthesis between the invading armies of Mahmud of Ghazni with the civilian population of the Indian cities. The word Urdu itself means Lashkar, derived from the Turkish language meaning armies."
Indeed, the Ghaznavid origin of Urdu follows from the very name of the language - Zaban-e-Urdu, or "Language of the Armies". The word "Urdu" is derived from the Turkic "Oordou", meaning "camps" or, as Khullar notes above, "armies".
Urdu was thus self-evidently the language of the soldiers of the armies of Mahmud-e-Ghazni, the only militarist sovereign of the era who maintained a large enough army for a considerable period to provide sufficient time for a new language to develop. It is for this same reason that the earliest surviving Urdu literature is that of Sufi saints who accompanied the Ghaznavids during their expeditions.
Noted Iranologist Dr.E.C.Sachau, translator of al-Beruni's India, further elucidates the Ghaznavid origin of Urdu:
"Tilak, the son of Jai Sen ... studied in Kashmir, [then worked as an] interpreter first to Kadi Shirazi Bulhasan Ali, a high civil officer under Mahumd and Masud (Elliott ii.117,123), then to Ahmad Ibn Hasan of Maimand, who was grand vizier, 1007 AD-25 ... and then 1030-1033 under Mahmud and Masud, and rose afterwards to be a commanding officer in the army (Elliott ii.125-127). This class of men spoke and wrote Hindi (of course with Arabic characters) and Persian (perhaps also Turkish, as this language prevailed in the army), and it is probably in these circles that we must look for the origin of Urdu or Hindustani."
Dr.E.C.Sachau also notes the existence in the 1850s of remarkable Urdu manuscripts surviving from the Ghaznavid era:
"The first author who wrote in this language, the Dante of Muhammedan India, is one Masud, who died a little more than a century after the death of King Mahmud (525AH=1131 AD), cf A.Springer, Catalogue of the Arabic, Persian and Hindustany manuscripts of the libraries of the King of Oudh, Calcutta, 1854 pp.407,485. If we had any of the Hindi writings of those times, they would probably exhibit the same kind of Indian speech as found in Alberuni's book."
Having traced the origin of Urdu to the camps of Mahmud-e-Ghazni, the identification of the "mother language" becomes the next necessity. The question of the origin of Urdu thus becomes linked to the language spoken by the soldiers of Mahmud. It is proposed that this source language for Urdu was Ghaznavid Dari.
Several facts support this view:
His genealogy is as follows: Subooktugeen, the son of Jookan, the son of Kuzil Hukum, the son of Kuzil Arslan, the son of Ferooz, the son of Yezdejird, the King of Persia."
- Ghazni is geographically located within the traditional Dari-speaking area of Afghanistan. Hence Dari was likely to have been spoken by many of Mahmud's soldiers.
- The "Ghaznavi" dialect of Dari is still spoken.
- Mahmud-e-Ghazni was a patron of Dari literature, hence he would have encouraged its usage amongst his soldiers.
- Most soldiers in the Ghaznavid armies were of East Iranic stock, consisting of the local population of eastern Eranshahr, along with a substantial Turkic contribution.
- Mahmud traced his descent to the Sassanids and Achaemenids:
"Subooktugeen [Ameer Nasir-Ood-Deen Subooktugeen Ghiznivy] is said to be lineally descended from Yezdijerd (the last of the Persian monarchs) who, when flying from his enemies during the Caliphate of Uthman, was murdered at a water-mill near the town of Merv. His family being left in Toorkistan formed connections among the people, and his decsndants became Toorks.
Mahmud was thus proud of his Iranian heritage - the blood of Cyrus the Great which flowed in his veins - and deliberately fashioned his empire in the mould of his Achaemenid and Sassanid ancestors. The Later Timurid Mughal Empire of Akbar and Aurangzeb was in turn the direct successor state of the Ghaznavid Empire, implying a direct historical parallel for the derivation of Urdu from Dari. For the lay Urdu speaker of today, the traditional descent of the Mughal Empire from the Ghaznavid Dynasty and thence from the Achaemenid Empire is the simplest historical proof of the Iranic origin of his language.
According to Ibn al-Muqaffa (translator of the Book of Kalila and Dimna) towards the end of the Sassanian Empire, three Iranic languages had developed in Eranshahr: "Parsi" (Avestan), "Pahlavi" and "Dari".
Dari is generally viewed as "Vulgar Pahlavi", the vernacular spoken by the masses which developed as an offshoot of Sassanid Pahlavi. Dari is thus analogous to the "Vulgar Latin" stage in the development of Romance languages. Old East Iranic languages such as Bactrian (Bahlika of the Prakrit grammarians), Sogdian, Sakan (the Sacara of the Prakrit writers) and Tokharian (perhaps the ancestor of the Takki Apabhramsa of the Punjab) provided a substratum for Dari (a West Iranic language), while Turkic and Altaic provided a later superstratum.
Urdu, like all Iranic languages, is thus linguistically and historically derived from Avestan, which is for Iranian languages what Latin is for Romance languages. It should be considered a member of the Iranian branch of languages. A short language tree would be:
Avestan -> Pahlavi -> Dari -> Urdu.
This article should remove all doubts about the real origin of Urdu.
- Studies in Urdu Linguistics by S.Zaidi, Bahri Publishers New Delhi 1989, pp.103,116.
- The Essentials of Indian Culture by K.K.Khullar, Employment News,
New Delhi, 21-27 Jan. 1995, p.1
- Alberuni's India, ed Dr. E.C.Sachau, vol.II, p.258, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. London 1888.
- Dr. E.C.Sachau, ibid., vol.II, p.258.
- Ethnologue: Languages of the World, ed. Barbara F. Grimes, Summer Institute of Linguistics,
14th Edition 2002.
- History of the Rise of the Mahomedan Power in India, M.K.Ferishta, transl. Col. John Briggs,
first pub. 1829, R.Cambray and Co, Calcutta 1908, reprrt. 1997 Low Price Publications,
Delhi Vol. I. p.8.
- The Origins of Literary Persian, by Gilbert Lazard, Noruz Lecture by a Distinguished Scholar of Iranian Studies, Foundation for Iranian Studies, 1993, Bethesda (fis-iran.org/lazar.htm); cf. G.Lazard, "Pahlavi, parsi, dari: les langues de l'Iran d'apres Ibn al-Muqaffa", in Iran and Islam, ed. C. E. Bosworth, Edinburg, 1971, pp. 361-391.