Who speaks “proper” Urdu?

Although Urdu is Pakistan’s national language, an interesting debate that often resurfaces is that the native speakers of Urdu hardly constitute 10 per cent of Pakistan’s population.

(Dr. Rauf Parekh, Professor of Urdu at Karachi University – DAWN NewsArticle August 19,2013)

Pakistan is a country with myriads of cultures and languages and yet Urdu has somehow managed to become the “official” language. So it is obvious that foreigners living, working or studying in Pakistan would study Urdu – rather than any other regional language like Sindhi, Punjabi, Balochi or Pashto.

So why is this important and how does it affect foreigners learning Urdu? Here come just a few personal observations and thoughts. I’d love to hear your experiences – do you agree with me? What has your experience been? Please leave a comment below!

1.It is hard to learn “pure” Urdu

It is up for debate if there is such a thing as “pure” Urdu, but most will agree that it is challenging to find speakers of “pure” Urdu. In Karachi, which is the home of the largest amoung of “Urdu-speakers” this is not as apparent as in other provinces and of course smaller cities in Sindh.

….Dr Atash Durrani, a research scholar and an educationist, ……believes that Urdu cannot be called anybody’s ‘mother tongue’ in true sense of the word as it is very difficult to determine ‘Urdu’s native speakers’. Most of the speakers of Urdu in fact speak ‘Pakistani Urdu’ and they know or speak another language — an indigenous or local language or a regional dialect of Urdu — and the statistics showing the numbers and ratio of native speakers of Urdu are misleading, says Dr Durrani in his new book Ilm-i-tadrees-i-Urdu. He says that by the number of people, who ‘speak’ Urdu, Urdu is ranked third amongst the languages of the world after English and Chinese. He admits that Unesco has dubbed it as “Hindustani”, which includes both Urdu and Hindi, but if Urdu and Hindi are put together, Urdu or Hindustani would be world’s second largest language by the number of speakers…….

(from DAWN Newspaper; Dr. Rauf Parekh, https://www.dawn.com/news/1036733)

So – simply put: if it is hard to find “pure Urdu-speakers” it is hard to find good Urdu teachers, i.e. people who are models of good spoken and written Urdu, and who have a large repartoire of Urdu vocabulary.

Especially as I moved from beginning to intermediate level, I experienced challenges with my language teachers, who are not “Urdu-speaking”. E.g. they would not know some words and had to look them up in the dictionary themselves. At times they included Punjabi or Pashto words, without being aware that this was not Urdu. Most frequently I noticed that they misspelled words and pronunciated certain sounds differently.

2. Not everyone understands “proper” Urdu

So, let’s say you managed to master “proper” Urdu – then the question arises who can understand you?

Since many Pakistanis speak other regional languages, too:

  1. Simple Urdu that is concerned with daily life and the immediate surroundings is used. This is in particular true of sabzi wallahs (“vegetable sellers”) or darsis (“tailors”) who frequently come from the Norther Areas to the large cities such as Karachi for work. They know how to do their job in Urdu, although a strong accent is visible, but if you would try to have an in depth conversation, they’d be at a loss.
  2. If they don’t know the Urdu word they will either use the word from their regional language or revert to English. A typical example are Urdu numbers, which – for some weird reason – are pretty complicated.
  3. They sometimes don’t understand the “proper” Urdu word or are surprised when they hear it. I recently had this experience when I used an Urdu word and Pakistani asked me what it meant and where i had learnt it. It was a quite amusing situation 🙂 At another occasion, I was attending a wedding and used the word “mansuba” instead of the word “plan” and “fahrist” instead of the English word “list”. The rest of the evening my hosts went around telling their friends how amazing my Urdu is and that I used words they don’t commonly use.

Does this mean there is no point in trying to learn “proper” Urdu?

Not at all! The above observations are actually not uncommon issues that lingua franca’s and multi-lingual societies face. Language is a living thing and always in flux. Don’t get too hung up on what is correct and “proper”, and focus on understanding others and getting your point across.

My advice: learn the language of the people you usually interact with. After all -the purpose of langauge is to communicate with others. This will be different whether you are a business man interacting with highly educated speakers in Karachi, an international student in Turkey learning Urdu, or a housewife in a small Punjabi neighborhood in Multan.

(By the way: for the language-geeks among you I can highly recommend the following short TED-ED Video that explains the differences between a descriptive and prescreptive approach to language:

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