On Some Peculiarities of King’s Urdu

By Anjum Altaf

A native Urdu speaker took a class in Portuguese and earned the following evaluation: “You were among the best students in the class but you speak like a robot.” Was it the student or was it Urdu? It is an intriguing thread to follow. The ensuing speculations, by one with no training in linguistics, are recorded in the hope that something of interest about the language might fall out as a result.

There is little doubt that the delivery of what may be termed King’s Urdu (of which, more later) is flat in terms of stresses, inflections and intonations of speech. If tonal languages like Chinese, which rely on variations in pitch to convey meaning, are at one end of the spectrum, then Urdu, which seemingly does away with tonality altogether, must certainly be at the other.

That in itself is not an issue as long as a language conveys all the meanings needed for human interaction, which Urdu does quite adequately. What is intriguing is why Urdu has this characteristic given that none of its root languages (Old Punjabi, Khari Boli) or the languages from which it has borrowed (Farsi, Arabic) are anywhere as flat? [In general, Indo-European languages are not tonal but use accents and stresses to varying degrees. The Wikipedia article linked above makes a special mention of the fact that “Punjabi is unusual among modern Indo-European languages for being a tonal language.”]

Daud Rahbar in his book Baatein Kuchh Sureelii Sii highlights variations in the enunciation of the word ‘bhai’ in Punjabi and Urdu. Leaving aside the detail that the initial sound in Punjabi is a ‘pa’ and not a ‘ba’, a key difference is that it is not aspirated in Punjabi; the word is comprised of two sounds, ‘pa’ and a long ‘ii’. The second key difference is the variation of pitch connecting the two sounds: the ‘p’ is enunciated at a higher pitch that drops with the expression of the ‘aa’ (very much like a meend or glide in music) and then the ‘ii’ is enunciated at the same frequency as the initial ‘p’.

This variation of pitch is done away with in Urdu – the word is rendered flat with equal weight on its constituent parts. This is achieved by aspirating the initial sound making it ‘bha’ instead of ‘ba’ and then by stressing ‘bha’ and ‘ii’ equally keeping the pitch constant. The words ‘dhol’, ‘ghol’, etc. follow the same pattern in the two languages. These variations contribute to what Rahbar terms the relative ‘looseness’ of Punjabi compared to the ‘tautness’ of Urdu. [Rahbar reflects on this elsewhere in connection with the stylistic differences of the Patiala and Delhi gharanas of Hindustani vocal music.]

This example is just by way of providing a concrete illustration; Khari Boli is also marked by variations of stress. The question thus remains: Why were the tonal and stress variations of its root languages muted so markedly in Urdu?

Could it be that Urdu, a ‘derived’ language, found its most prestigious use as a means of interaction in the later Mughal courts? Courtiers addressing the king or the aristocracy may have wished to avoid conveying any emotions with their words lest they be misinterpreted as expressing, for example, annoyance, irritation, disrespect, or contempt; the flatness of the diction could have emerged from the desire to avoid any possible misunderstanding of intent. This could be analogous to the way official documents are worded carefully even today to avoid unintended offense.

The wounded sensibility of the nobility could well have exaggerated this phenomenon. Justice Markandey Katju (What is Urdu) describes Urdu as “the language of aristocrats who had become pauperized, but who retained their dignity, pride and respect.” This is part of an intriguing explanation of why the court language changed from Persian during the reign of the Great Mughals to Urdu in the time of the later Mughals. According to Justice Katju, as the Mughals became pauperized remaining Emperors only in name, they had to resort to a language closer to that of commoners. It did not revert all the way to the latter, which was Khari Boli, because the nobility retained its airs, its pride, and its sense of distinction of which the heritage of Persian was a part. Hence, its language evolved into a Khari Boli that was “coupled with the graceful features, sophistication and some vocabulary of Persian,” an amalgam that could be labeled as the King’s Urdu.

According to Justice Katju, Khari Boli itself was an urban language which evolved in towns to facilitate the interaction of traders who otherwise spoke rural languages like Avadhi, Brijbhasha, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Mewari and Marwari. In this context, King’s Urdu was a supra-urban language, the language of a city inside a city.  While many people speak an Urdu that is much less flat our focus in this discussion is on the King’s Urdu, the language of the Delhi Durbar as reflected in the appellation zubaan-e-Urdu-mu’alla (the language of the exalted camp). From its perch, other variants (e.g., khari boli, hindavi, rekhta, dakini) are looked down upon. The urban dismissal of rural forms as unsophisticated has a well known history. Punjabi, by contrast, is rural in origin and it is not without interest that many upwardly mobile Punjabis themselves began to consider Punjabi as ‘unrefined’ or even a corruption of Urdu reversing completely the causal relationship of the two languages.

It is not that variations of pitch were entirely absent in the Mughal courts; they had their place in well-defined settings that ruled out possibilities of misinterpretation. Thus music was an integral part of courtly life and Indian vocal music relies extensively on pitch variations, much more so than Western music. Variations in stress and accent were equally acceptable in theater and continue to be so today on TV and in movies. But such intonations in everyday conversation would immediately be labeled ‘melodramatic.’

Another characteristic of Urdu can be adduced in support of this, admittedly speculative, hypothesis. In general, speech is greatly embellished by accompanying facial or hand gestures in languages that do not rely structurally on pitch in the way Chinese does; English and other European non-tonal languages can serve as examples – the eye-rolling American and the hand-waving Italian provide familiar stereotypes. But such gestures strike a native Urdu speaker as very odd and disconcerting. King’s Urdu is not just devoid of tonal, accent and stress variations; it tends to minimize all accompanying gestures as well. Could this stem from the same courtly need to be as minimally suggestive as possible in order to avoid possible misinterpretation in a sensitive and hierarchical social environment without the right of appeal?

If true, these social dynamics might explain why an otherwise intelligent native Urdu speaker would come across as a robot to one born to Portuguese. But this also leaves me with an intriguing thought: What would Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court have been like? What kind of Punjabi would have been spoken there and how different would it have been from the Punjabi that existed beyond the court?

Continued: The Rise and Decline of King’s Urdu


  • Aakar
    Posted at 06:30h, 29 July Reply

    Fascinating. A couple of questions.
    Who is a native speaker of Urdu? Does the Muhajir speak Urdu or a sort of Laloo Yadav dialect (aawat rahin jaawat rahin etc) at home and is ALSO a speaker of Urdu?
    Does the upper class Lahori speak Urdu differently (less physically) than he does Punjabi?
    Note to Indians on this thread: Sang e Meel is not delivering to India. Daud Rahbar’s books may be ordered through Bahri Sons in Delhi’s Khan market (ask for Mithilesh).

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 07:33h, 29 July Reply

      Aakar: I don’t have a clue about linguistics so I am really sticking my neck out here. For my own curiosity, I will forward your question to people who know more than I do and hope for better answers.

      1. A native speaker of Urdu, by definition, is someone whose mother tongue is Urdu. But a ‘native’ speaker of the King’s Urdu I referred to is a more complex set. First, it includes all those whose mother tongue is Urdu AND whose parents were urban and/or attended school or college where King’s Urdu was taught (I suppose one can add a cutoff date here since it is not being taught as well for quite some time now). This would exclude the Laloo Yadav dialects or include those who speak a dialect at home but know King’s Urdu as well. Second, it includes all those whose mother tongue was not Urdu but who or whose parents went to institutions of learning where Persian and KIng’s Urdu was taught with seriousness. This would include Aligarh, Government College Lahore, MAO College Amritsar, etc. Luminaries of Urdu like Iqbal, Faiz, Rashid, Meeraji, Patras would fall in this group.
      2. The upper class Lahori speaks Urdu and Punjabi very differently. I suppose this is because one is a tonal language and the other is not. It is not possible to speak both in the same way. Try saying ‘bhai’ and ‘paa-eee’ one after the other a few times and you would sense the difference.

      • Moazzam Siddiqi
        Posted at 18:12h, 29 July Reply

        I agree with what you have said in your answer to Aakar. Also, your observation about the way Urdu is spoken is correct. It has largely to do with the sentence structure of the language (both Urdu and Hindi, and for that matter, many other South Asian languages) where there may be points of stress spread throughout the sentence (depending upon the length of the sentence, because that would determine the syllables where stress would be applied). In all these languages, which are verb final the speaker maintains the same tone till the end of the sentence, dropping off on reaching the verb. The stresses are accomodated by raising or dropping the tone/voice as demanded but not exaggerating too much. That is the reason why these stresses are hardly noticed by non-native speakers to whom the tone sounds very flat. What I am saying is drops and falls are maintained in a very moderate range, unlike tonal or even non-tonal languages, such as Arabic, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, etc. Hope what I have written makes sense.

        Moazzam Siddiqi

  • Vinod
    Posted at 02:53h, 30 July Reply

    Anjum, your speculations match what I see in the way language is spoken in English courts. I am taught that I should deliver my opening and closing statements (in judge-only trials) with my hands tied behind. No hand gestures allowed. I am told that cross-examination is not cross (angry) examination. I must keep my pitch flat and unemotional. It is possible that officiousness in the use of language leads to a greater vocabulary (more words will be needed to say the same thing that can be said with eye movement or hand gestures) but flatness in tone.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 03:07h, 30 July Reply

      Vinod: This is what I find interesting. Of course, I am speculating but it seems to me that Urdu developed in the Mughal courts and then spread beyond it. English, on the other hand, developed outside (like most other languages) and then was adapted in the court for a special purpose. That is why when the English speak their language it is not as if they are in the court. This is unlike Urdu. And Urdu speakers also speak other languages in a flat, unemotional manner. I didn’t think of the right analogy when I was writing the post but Urdu can be termed a poker-faced language. Speakers of other languages would speak like Urdu speakers when playing poker, i.e., when they would want to give nothing away by tone or gesture.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 02:57h, 30 July Reply

    On a lighter note, the pa-eee thing is a subject of mockery in my house. I call my pakistani housemate, a non-Punjabi, with pa-ii-eee deliberately mimicking the Punjabi speaker in tone for comic effect. So I know exactly how Punjabis say it.

  • Kabir
    Posted at 01:52h, 03 August Reply

    Perhaps the differences between how Urdu and Punjabi are spoken have more to do with the culture than the language. The culture of Urdu-speaking areas (Uttar Pradesh) seems in general to be much more sedate and courtly while Punjabi culture seems more free and casual. This difference is seen in all the art forms besides the language. The most-famous Punjabi dance form is bhangra while the most famous dance form of Urdu-speaking North India is kathak.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:28h, 03 August Reply

      Kabir: I have several thoughts offered once again with the caveat that these are speculations that have no grounding in empirical evidence or even theoretical research. The first observation is that Punjabi belongs to a rural culture while Urdu belongs to a supra-urban culture. One would expect all rural cultures to be more free and casual than urban cultures. Second, the culture of rural UP is not that of Urdu; it is of Braj Bhasha (in which many of the Radha-Krishna songs are set), Avadhi and perhaps others. I don’t recollect much of the movie Ganga-Jamna except a couple of songs but that might offer a clue to how free and casual UP culture is. Third, in general a culture is reflected in its language. In the case of Urdu, the process seems reversed – a culture has been born out of the language. It is almost as if one were looking for the culture of Esperanto. Fourth, bhangra is a folk dance of the Punjab while kathak is a highly evolved court dance that was the product of Wajid Ali Shah’s reign in Oudh. Look at the mathematical precision that is required in the rhythmic movement of the feet. We know little of the folk dances of UP. Bhangra has become ubiquitous because it has caught the fancy of Bollywood. What we really need here is input from someone who knows the rural culture of UP first hand.

      • Aakar Patel
        Posted at 11:23h, 04 August Reply

        I put this to my friend Mahmood Farooqui, who sent this reply:

        “No real thoughts on this at all, we are stymied by history man, so our ideas sadly are constrained by what historians have to say on a subject…this blog seems to be unencumbered by the afflictions of history (generally a tendency of engineers and scientists). SR Faruqi would not agree that Urdu arose in courts, and it did not actually, it arose with the Sufis and commoners. Also, Khari Boli and Urdu are the same thing, the rest is Avadhi, which is Urdu folk (rural!!)

        –if you go to kafila.org you will be able to read other comparions between Urdu and Punjabi, one of my recent book reviews (abt how Urdu is a colonial imposition in Punjab) and search type Panini Pothoharvi, a brilliant critic of Urduwallas…”

        • Anjum Altaf
          Posted at 17:04h, 04 August Reply

          Aakar: Perhaps Mahmood Farooqui did not realize the orientation of the blog which does not present expert opinion. It is a forum where those who know very little about a subject try and learn from those who know more. To reproduce from the objectives of the blog again:

          The South Asian Idea is a resource for learning, not a source of expert opinion. The posts on the blog are intended as starting points for classroom discussions and the position at the end of the discussion could be completely at odds with the starting point. Thus the blog simulates a learning process and does not offer a final product. The reader is invited to join the process to help improve our understanding of important contemporary issues.

          In this framework, Mahmood’s inputs are very valuable and exactly what we are looking for. Just by way of clarification, I did not say that Urdu arose in the courts. Rather, I speculated that King’s Urdu flourished and reached its zenith in the courts. In that context, with that patronage gone, would Urdu revert to Khari Boli? And indeed there are rural Urdus, Avadhi being one, that King’s Urdu considers lesser in some ways. Of course, these speculations could just be as misplaced as the others. For us, they serve the purpose of a conversation oriented to learning.

  • ubayd mir (@mir_ubayd)
    Posted at 14:32h, 07 September Reply

    Patel Sb i m sure Javed Ghamidi can offer valuable insights here. He is as big a genius as u are. luvv uuu

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