English and Urdu: An etymological and historical look at the similarities between the two languages

To the majority of us, English and Urdu are two completely different languages with almost no correlation with one another. In Pakistan, aside from being the de facto and de jure languages of the state, there is absolutely nothing in common between the two languages in the eyes of the layman.

However, this is not entirely true. Aside from the 200 years of British colonialism which subsequently led Pakistan to adopt English as the official language of the state, the relationship between the two languages stretches back hundreds of years and upon close inspection using etymology juxtapositioning we can see a lot of lexical and historic similarities between the two languages and how they emerged. This article is meant to be taken with a pinch of salt and not as a guide to comparative linguistics. Additionally, this will be an objective piece looking at the correlation between the two languages from a Pakistani perspective.

To start things off, let’s look at the word Urdu. The term itself, as commonly known in Pakistan, came from the Persian/Turkic Muslim conquerors of the Indian subcontinent who created a language called Urdu which meant “The language of the army” in their native tongue. This, however, isn’t entirely true. The name Urdu came from the Persian (Farsi) word Ordu which means “Army” or “Camp”. Historically, this term was not used for the language until the reign of the Mughal Emperor Shahjehan (1628-1658). The Army encampment and marketplace outside the Red Fort in Delhi came to be known as the Urdu Bazaar. In fact, all Urdu Bazaars scattered across cities throughout the Indian Subcontinent have militaristic roots and not linguistic ones.

During this time, Urdu and Hindi were considered a single language known as Hindustani with many dialects scattered across the Mughal Empire. The lingua franca of the Empire was Hindustani whilst the official language used behind the walls of the Imperial forts was Farsi. This began to change when some Farsi loanwords began to seep through the walls of the Imperial courts and subsequently made their way into the Urdu Bazaar which subsequently developed into a unique dialect for the Hindustani language. The dialect was adopted by the people of Delhi and soon replaced Farsi as the lingua franca of the Empire. Over the course of the next few centuries, it developed into a unique language widely adopted by the Muslims of Hindustan.

In Britain, around the 10th century, the widely spoken language was the Anglo-Saxon (Old English) language. This language had roots in modern day Germany and The Netherlands. In the 11th Century, Anglo-Norman (Middle English) was brought to Britain from what is now known as Normandy in France by the Normans. Just as Hindustani was spoken by the commoners and Farsi by the Elites in Hindustan, Anglo-Saxon was spoken by the commoners and Anglo-Norman by the Elites in modern day England. Just as the invaders from Normandy had brought Franco-Norman loanwords to the land in Britain, so had the Persio-Arab-Turkic invaders brought Farsi, Turkic and Arabic to Hindustan. Over the course of the next few centuries, both subsequently led to the marriage of different dialects and lexicons to form unique languages. Both languages are the product of foreign invaders to a land around the same time in history.

Now just to give you a taste of how Urdu is correlated to English lexically, we look at Europe around the same time the Urdu dialect began to develop. Farsi, Turkish and Arabic have a lot of lexical similarities due to geographic, historic and religious reasons as is the case with most Western European languages. We come back to the Farsi word Ordu which was borrowed from Turkic. On the other side of the world in modern day France, the word Horde existed in the Middle French vocabulary. It meant “A wandering troop”. This was borrowed from German (Horde) which borrowed it from Polish (Horda) which borrowed it from Russian (orda) which borrowed it from Turkic (Ordu). Throughout this journey, dialects bent the pronunciation and slightly altered the meaning of the word but ultimately it may very well have been mutually intelligible to anyone who spoke any of the aforementioned languages. By the time Urdu was beginning to develop into a dialect from an Army encampment, the English language had adopted Horde from French which more or less meant the same thing as it did in a largely unrelated language halfway across the globe. And this is only the start of our etymological journey between Urdu and English.

To understand the relationship between the two languages, we have to look at the factors that play a part in it.

To start off, Both English and Urdu belong to the Indo-European language family. Whilst Farsi and Turkic languages also belong to this language family, Arabic, however, does not. Until the rise of Islam, Arabic and Persian weren’t really related due to the differences in religion and culture between the people who spoke these languages. This changed when Islam quickly spread from the Gulf of Aden in the Middle-East to the Iberian Peninsula in South-Western Europe. With this rapid expansion, there was only one court language in the Islamic Caliphate. Arabic.

As Islam gave precedence to Arabic above all languages, it was no surprise that all languages under the influence of the religion began to adopt the language itself or at least loanwords for their native languages. In the Iberian Peninsula, home to modern day Spain and Portugal, the Arabs had conquered a majority of the peninsula and stayed there for around 700 years. This led to the Portuguese and Spaniards adopting a great many words from the Arabic language just as the Persians and Turks had done so in the east. In fact, between 10 to 20% of modern day Castilian Spanish (dominant Spanish dialect in Spain) consists of loanwords directly from Arabic. By the time the Arabs had left Iberia, the Normans were already in Britain. And this was a time when dialects were merging and languages were rapidly developing across Western Europe and South Asia. This was a time when word got around fast.

The old Sanskrit word sharkara (something sweet) made its way into Farsi as shakkar (Which made its way back into Urdu just as). Arabic adopted this as sukkar. Spanish adopted it as azúcar. French adopted it as sucre. From there, almost all European languages adopted it in various forms. English, with the Norman invasion, subsequently ended up with sugar. And that’s just one example. Below is a table of phonetically similar English and Urdu words used in daily life which share the same root and/or similar definitions in their respective languages.

ENGLISH Origin URDU
Coffee Qahwa (Arabic) Kahwah
Giraffe Zarafa (Arabic) Ziraafa
Sofa Saffa (Arabic) Sofa
Caravan Karvan (Persian) Karavaan
Guitar Kithara (Greek), Sehtar (Persian) Sitar
Lemon Limu (Persian), Nimbu (Sanskrit) Leemu, Neembu
Orange Naranga (Sanskrit) Naranj
Typhoon Taifeng (Chinese) Toofaan
Safari Saparu (Akkadian) Safar
Saffron Zarparan (Persian) Zafraan
Sorbet Sharba (Arabic) Sherbet
Tobacco Taabaq (Arabic) Tambaaku
Jungle Jangala (Sanskrit) Jangal
Pajama Pehjaama (Persian) Pajama
Loot Lunt (Sanskrit) Lut
Brother Bhratr (Sanskrit) Bhai
Door Dwar (Sanskrit) Darwaza
Ignite Agni (Sanskrit) Aag

In other cases, Some of the words may slightly differ in meaning. For example, in English, Syrup is “Any thick liquid that is added to or poured over food as a flavouring and has a high sugar content”. In Urdu, sharaab means “wine” or “liquor”. This is because in Arabic, where both words came from, sharaab can be used to refer to anything which can be drunk, alcoholic or otherwise. Some languages loaned the word with one meaning and some with another. Similarly, some languages may borrow a certain word that may be so phonetically different from its parent language that variants of the same word with the same definition belonging to the same etymological tree may appear entirely different or they may sound the same and have different definitions entirely. Below is a list of examples.

English Word Definition Origin Urdu Word Definition
Macabre Representing death Maqabir (Arabic) Qabar Grave
Tariff A schedule of rates, fees or prices (T)arrafa (Arabic) Taaruf To Introduce

 

Zero Denotes no quantity or amount Cipher (Arabic),

Zephirum (Latin)

Sifar Denotes no quantity or amount
Bandana A piece of cloth used as a headgear Baandhna (Sanskrit) Baandhna To Tie
Musk A powerful odor produced by a male musk deer Muska (Sanskrit) Maskaa To swindle
Tiara An ornamental crown Tieres (Ancient Greek) Taara Star
Lilac A pale purple color Nilak (Persian) Neela Blue
Checkmate Called out by the victor in chess Shah mat (Persian) Shamat Disaster or misfortune

As seen in the table above, many words with a common parent word lose meaning in translation as they are adopted by different languages throughout different ages. In the case of checkmate, it was loaned from the French equivalent eschec mat, a phonetic equivalent to its Persian counterpart Shah mat which translates to “The Shah (King) is stumped”. However, the same sentence, when repeated in Urdu, is translated to something entirely different. The Irony in the matter is that Chess was invented in Urdu’s backyard. Similarly, the word maska in Sanskrit translates to “A Musk’s testicles”.

While it may be outrageous to even suggest that English and Urdu are similar, it is not outrageous to suggest that they do have some similarities, especially in regards to Pakistan.

I have purposely disregarded colonialism and the effects it had or may have had on the relationship between and the development of the two languages. Historically, Urdu was never a native tongue to Pakistan. Only 8% of Pakistanis recognize Urdu as their first language. Similarly, despite being the 9th largest English speaking country in the world, a very minute population would recognize Urdu as their first language. Both essentially serve the purpose of lingua franca. Urdu makes an effort to bind the nation together linguistically and English serves the purpose of bringing an educated class into the globalized world. Both languages developed as a result of a marriage between pre-existing languages after militaristic conquest by foreign invaders and both languages are now home to a nation built on an ideology that differs from linguistic and ethnic divide. Both languages are beautiful. Both languages have a purpose in Pakistan.

I have two reasons for writing this piece. The first is the fascinating relationship that English and Urdu share and the second is to relay the message that English may not be as foreign as one may think. Sure, colonialism left its mark in what is now Pakistan but we have adopted the language as our official language for the last 70 years. Many people have suggested that we should rid English of its official status altogether but I don’t think that’s a wise step. It has become a part of our contemporary identity and we have shared a relationship with the language for hundreds of years. I think it’s just as much as ours as Urdu.

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