Learning Urdu

By Hannah Green

Everything starts to look like Urdu if you spend enough time staring at Urdu words trying to get them into your head. The script is fluid. Some letters can squiggle tightly or stretch long, sometimes letters stack on top of one another and sometimes they go side by side. It is this fluidity that makes Urdu so enthralling to look at, but also very difficult to learn to read. I’ll find myself squinting at a word in one of the more artistic fonts, wondering if a dot should attach to the loop on its right or the notch on its left.

Of course, the reason that I have these difficulties is that, for me, the language learning process is backward. Someone whose mother tongue is Urdu would have learned the vocabulary before trying to learn to read it, so they’ll know which interpretation of a dot makes a real word and which makes one that doesn’t exist or doesn’t make sense. Urdu writing also only includes about half of vowel sounds, and I ache for the native speaker’s instinct to know what these missing sounds are just by looking at the text.

At the same time, Urdu’s capacity for multiple interpretations, visually as well as semantically, makes it all the more compelling to me. I sometimes wonder at my motivation for learning this language. I had been interested in Urdu since I started to learn about the history of Islam in South Asia, and I also started to learn Hindi while studying abroad in India. (In everyday speech, Hindi and Urdu are nearly the same. The main difference is the script.) However, I don’t think I picked up an Urdu textbook until I saw the movie Dil Se and heard the following lines in a song. I would try to translate them, but I couldn’t do it succinctly and keep the ambiguity that they contain about an unidentified beloved.

Yaar hai jo khushbu ki taruh
Jis kii zubaan Urdu ki taruh
Meri shaamraat, meri kaynaat
Voh yaar hai mera sayyaa sayyaa

The song is Chaiyyaa Chaiyyaa, with lyrics by Gulzar and music by A.R. Rahman. It was a career maker for both artists, and is one of the most popular songs ever written, although I didn’t know this when I first saw the video. The video is a dance sequence shot on top of a real moving train in Tamil Nadu, India. The rhythm of the train gives a soulfulness to the dancers’ movements like nothing I’d ever seen. I still love this song and associate it with Urdu, but I sometimes think that I’m over-romanticizing the language.

I had this thought again last week when I took the long train and bus ride from Northwestern campus to the University of Chicago’s library, in search of the original text of the following Urdu poem by Azra Abbas. (Translation by C.M. Naim)

A dot might appear

A dot might appear from somewhere That could not be put
on any word
and the dot

off by itself
would stand there
sustained by some illusion
for a word to come
on which it could be put

It could also happen
that after centuries had passed
all the words would decay
and rot away
and be absorbed
and nothing would be left

Only the dot
would be left

Before I could find the book I was looking for, I wandered through many shelves of books in scripts familiar and unfamiliar. Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Gujarati. No one else was around. The florescent lights directly above the Urdu shelves had blown out, so I had to use the light of my phone to look at the titles, standing on a stool to get my eyes right level with the books. All of this only intensified the mystique that I associate with Urdu. There was even something cryptic in the binding of the poetry books. The pages moved away from one another with difficulty. The writing sometimes threatened to run all the way off the page.

Some people study languages so that they’ll be able to study history. Sometimes I think I study history because it gives me a concrete reason why I study language. When I started to learn Hindi/Urdu beyond the basics, I was compelled by the symmetry of many of the grammatical structures, and by the ability of one word to color another by sacrificing its own meaning, a trait that has no parallel in English. (I’m talking about the word baithe in the sentence “Yeh tum kya kar baithe ho”, for example. Again, I would try to translate the effect of this word, but to do it properly would require a somewhat technical and graceless paragraph.) I can go on and on about qualities like these in Urdu, but have nothing to say about the quality of English. I don’t think I could describe it if I tried. It seems neutral to me, and I wonder if other people have this sense of neutrality about their mother tongue.

The desire to really own a foreign language the way you own your mother tongue might be impossible to fulfill. Before I could understand it at all, I would listen to Urdu speech or look at the writing and wonder what meaning could belong to such pretty sounds and letters. But native speakers probably wouldn’t think about this unless they were reciting poetry. The beauty of the language might have some effect on them, but it would usually be subconscious. That deep incorporation of the language into the psyche is the unattainable wish, but it makes the pursuit all the more alluring.

This post appeared first on 3 Quarks Daily and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

Hannah Green is from Madison, Wisconsin. She studies the history, literature and languages of South Asia, with a particular interest in Urdu and Pakistan. She is currently an undergraduate at Northwestern University, but not for long. As she waits in suspense to find out what will happen after graduation, she likes to do things like listen to podcasts about Pakistan and find pictures of graffiti in Iran.


  • Shreekant Gupta
    Posted at 05:18h, 21 February Reply

    Very nice article. Urdu is indeed a wonderful language! Thanks for posting this piece.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 05:45h, 21 February Reply

    As a complement, there is interesting article by Aravind Adiga that sees the same charm in English that Hannah Green sees in Urdu:

    Why I’ve Learned Many Languages



    Sooner or later, I miss Mumbai and fly back. And here I switch to English. It is revealing, what you long for, after going without English for a few days. I want to read Keats and Wordsworth, Hemingway, George Orwell. For days I’ve been thinking of all the Kannada phrases I could never say in English. And now I wonder, can you really translate G.K. Chesterton into Kannada? Can you translate A.E. Housman? I find so much that seems counter, original, spare, and strange in this language that I have spoken for 37 years. And this is the best reason for a writer to become bilingual: to discover what English can do that no other language on earth can.

  • sabihaashraf
    Posted at 19:03h, 21 February Reply

    Dear Hannah,

    It was wonderful to read your feel for Urdu. I can relate to some of your observations although unlike you, Urdu is my mother tongue. Just recently, I went to India and it was such a gratifying experience to hear Urdu being spoken the same way as I had heard my parents speak it by almost everyone in Delhi, unmixed by regional languages as often happens in other places in India and Pakistan.

    I feel that a language is best learned if you love it. As a child I learned to love English – even more in many ways than Urdu. I could read and understand English enough to dream in it and it was decades later that I began to understand even Urdu poetry enough to appreciate it. A brief stint at teaching Urdu to a dyslexic child reinforced my theory that a language is best learned if you love it. The mother of that child had brought her to me with the observation that she could not get her to read books in Urdu or English. What I did was to make the tuition time as pleasant as possible and make it an audio-visual experience somewhat in a manner similar to what my own experience of learning to read had been. In a remarkably short time my student started to love to read.

    Maybe you have already made learning an audio-visual experience but if you haven’t you should try to watch films made in India based on the life of Ghalib and get CDs and videos of singers and dancers from India and Pakistan based on poems by Ghalib, Josh, Faiz and other poets and combine it with reading those poems.

    I recall what a sensuous world, hitherto inaccessible had opened up for me when I chanced on a translation plus transliteration of Faiz by Victor Kiernan. Do get a copy of that book published by OUP.

    It is strange that you mentioned the song that you did because I love that song too and one of the reasons for my liking it is it’s Sufi like message of love and likening the language of the beloved to Urdu. Talking of which reminds me of an article written by a daughter of a friend which I can forward to you if you wish.

    Wishing you many pleasant experiences as you get to love and learn Urdu more and more.

  • mazHur
    Posted at 20:15h, 21 February Reply

    All languages are interesting provided you know them!
    It appears that the OP is impressed more by the calligraphic contour of the Urdu script rather than the language itself?
    Learning idiom is of utmost importance in every language and the best way to learn a language is to spend some time with its speakers.

    Good luck!!

  • Hasan Abdullah
    Posted at 00:56h, 22 February Reply

    I prefer to think that every developed language has its own charm; and, the reason to learn a language can be to savour its literature and culture. To me, an important reason to learn Urdu could be to enjoy Ghalib’s Urdu poetry.

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