The Changing World of Urdu

By Anjum Altaf

‘Urdu has changed from the Urdu of Mir and Ghalib but that simply proves it is a living language.’

That was one of the comments I received on earlier posts (here and here) about the past and future of the language. At one level, it is a statement of the obvious – nothing ever stays the same. At another, it invites a host of questions: What is the nature of the change? Who owns the language now? What functions is it serving?

Such questions could be answered by survey of Urdu speakers. A canvassing of urban centers would suffice in Pakistan since Urdu is not a regional language and hence not spoken widely in rural areas. (The situation might differ in India.) An organization like the National Language Authority could design the exercise but is unlikely to do so for any number of reasons. The best we can do for the moment is to rely on personal knowledge to generate longitudinal case studies going back almost a hundred years.

Longitudinal case studies do have some advantages since one can control for variations of class, ethnicity, education, etc. They can show how the engagement with language has changed for a typical family over an extended period of time. Based on further interaction with other families one can suggest plausible hypotheses for discussion. In the process it might become possible to generate a rich conversation that could lead us in unexpected directions.

The first case study, a story narrated by a person born in the 1940s, spans the lives of his grandfather (born 1880s), his mother (born 1920s) and his daughter (born 1970s). The genesis of the story was accidental – it just so happened that for a summer the narrator and a friend, a leading literary critic, had lunch every day at the former’s home where they were joined by the rest of the narrator’s family – his mother, wife and daughter.

A few days into the summer, the critic brought to the attention of the daughter the fact that her great-grandfather was a noted Urdu poet in UP; her grandmother knew thousands of couplets by heart; her father knew hundreds including the bahr-e taweel that probably only a handful of Urdu speakers can claim to know now. She, however, could not recite a single couplet.

Much handwringing ensued at this precipitous decline in familiarity with the heritage of Urdu literature and the critic proposed a remedial program: Every day he would discuss one couplet so that by the end of the summer the daughter would have a repertoire of the best of Urdu verse and be motivated and able to continue on her own. The proposal met with all round approval. It was agreed that the critic would recite a couplet, the daughter would clarify the meaning of any words unfamiliar to her, and the explication and commentary would follow.

The exercise was launched with the critic reciting the following couplet:

Mir in neem-baaz aankhon meN
saari mastii sharaab kii sii hai

It was the daughter’s turn to ask for the meaning of any of the words she had not understood. She thought for a while and said: “I understand all the words but what is the meaning of Mir?”

The critic, in turn, thought for a considerable time before deciding it would be wise to abandon the project. The foundation on which the edifice of knowledge was to be built had crumbled beyond repair. The lunch however was excellent UP cuisine that had lost none of its delicacy.

The second story evolved from a passing remark. A grandmother (born 1920s) at the dinner table asked whatever had happened to bayt baazi. The son (born 1940s) ventured that since few young people knew any Urdu poetry, it had gone out of fashion. Not surprisingly, attention was drawn to the granddaughter (born 1980s). Surely, she knew one couplet at least. Many minutes passed in attempts at memory recall before the following line was offered:

mujh se pehlii sii mohabbat merey mahbuub na maang

No one had the heart to mention that this was not a line from a ghazal.  That, no doubt, yielded the granddaughter a great deal of confidence. At this point the grandfather, whose memory had faded to the extent that he did not know who was sitting around the table, said:

Ghalib-e khasta ke baghair kaun se kaam band haiN
roiiye zaar zaar kyaa kiijiiye haay haay kyuuN

The granddaughter, unbidden, attributed the couplet to Faiz. Attention shifted, once again, to the excellence of the dinner on the table.

The point of these stories is not that the generation born in the 1970s and 1980s is bereft of culture. Many of them are writing poetry themselves but that poetry is in English or in a reincarnation of rekhta having a few Urdu words thrown into a composition in a foreign language. Interaction with families belonging to the ahle-zabaan, those who claim Urdu as their mother tongue, suggests that these stories reflect a widespread phenomenon. The new generation of upwardly-mobile native Urdu speakers has little connection with Urdu as a literary language. They use it to communicate with their grandmothers or with others unfamiliar with English; they know a large number of Bollywood film songs (Antakshari has replaced bayt baazi) and are quite familiar with the language of StarPlus soap operas. The birthday cake of the granddaughter of the second story, served up a few days later, had the following inscription in English, iced under the chocolate face of Shahrukh Khan:

Janam din kii shubhkamna Munni

The point is not to lament this change, just to record it and reflect on its implications. The old cultural elite for whom Urdu was the medium of literary exchange has over the better part of a hundred years transitioned to English with Urdu serving to communicate with mothers-in-law and servants or to add local color to conversations in a foreign language. Other cultural functions are being filled by Bollywood and StarPlus Hindi.

The research we need is to determine if there is another segment in society, perhaps unrelated to the ahle-zabaan, emerging to claim Urdu as a literary language. My guess, admittedly without hard evidence, is there is not. When I look at Hafiz Mahmood Shirani’s Sarmaaya-e Urdu that was a text for high school students till the 1950s, I have serious doubts if present-day college students could fathom either its language or its allusions.

Urdu is indeed a living language and it is unlikely to disappear anytime soon but its functions could be radically at odds with what it had become famous for:

Urdu hai jis ka naam hamiiN jante haiN Dagh
saare jahaN maiN dhuum hamaarii zabaaN kii hai

Literature continues to be produced in Urdu as well but is it the manifestation of a dwindling legacy? Without new generations acquiring the familiarity needed to sustain a literary language, is classical Urdu living on borrowed time? Urdu emerged as the language of the bazaar and flourished as a literary language when it was adopted by a declining elite sandwiched between the demise of Persian and the rise of English. Was this just a peculiar interregnum? Is it headed back to being a language of the bazaar, a medium of interaction for those whose native languages are mutually incomprehensible?

It can justifiably be said without exaggeration that Urdu to the Subcontinent is not what Persian is to Iran or what English is to England. Does that have a bearing on the evolution of the language?

I would appreciate if readers can contribute their personal experiences as comments either in support or contradiction of those narrated above.


  • Hasan Abdullah
    Posted at 16:37h, 20 November Reply

    In this era of globalisation, where secession of the powerful is the norm, all languages of the ‘non-powerful’ – and that includes Urdu – prima facie, do not appear to have a bright future; unless, the agenda for the struggle of progressive humanity is broadened and made all-inclusive, and until the balance of power shifts decisively in favour of the Have-nots.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 18:28h, 20 November

      Hasan: This is too general a statement. England is much less powerful than when it was the home of the British Empire; yet literary output from England has not suffered a commensurate decline. For years China was a very weak country but this was not reflected in the decline of its literature. Also, note the Nobel literature prizes being won by writers in minor European languages. Even if it is true, all languages are not affected equally and exploring the relative trajectories of different languages is of interest. Urdu has this peculiarity that it does not have geographical home base any more. That gives its evolution a particular twist.

  • Arpita
    Posted at 17:27h, 20 November Reply

    This is a phenomenon that will probably apply to almost all the languages!
    I am reminded of a conversation I had with Bengali teachers (school and college level) at a seminar on changes in the Bengali language. (I wonder whether the spelling of words has also been transformed in Urdu as has happened in Bengali – I am told we are ‘simplifying’!)
    The Bengali seems to have lost the pride he had in his mother tongue. The language heard at public places is generously sprinkled with words and phrases in Hindi as well as English. Most FM radio stations also use a mixed language – again I am told that one can reach out to younger people easily if one uses a mixed language.
    Earlier there were many literary magazines with special puja editions that were furiously sought after, but these are now just about surviving as skeletal remains of their former selves.
    Reading has definitely gone out from people’s lives and reading storybooks written in the vernacular is not likely to be popular in the near future!

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:50h, 23 November

      Arpita: The phenomenon of change has been and is common to all languages. The French keep fretting about the invasion of English words (le weekend, for example) but can do very little about it. But the position of Urdu, in my opinion, goes beyond this shared experience. Unlike, say, Bengali, it does not have a regional base and the question I wish to explore is the extent to which such an absence impacts the evolution of the language. Bengali literature might decline in quality but is unlikely to disappear. In Urdu, it could well do so. Could Urdu become like Esperanto, i.e., simply a common medium for reading and writing but without a living literary tradition? I really don’t know for sure and would like to hear other opinions.

    • Fatima
      Posted at 04:43h, 14 April

      “Urdu does not have a regional base” Really? I thought Urdu is the regional language of Awadh (present Central UP). No?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 16:06h, 14 April

      The point made in the article was that Urdu is the national language of Pakistan but does not have a regional base in the country. In India, it is an orphaned language.

    • Fatima
      Posted at 22:35h, 24 April

      True that. In India both Hindi and Urdu share the same misfortune.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:25h, 25 April

      Fatima: I am not sure why you have put Hindi and Urdu in the same category in India? What is Hindi’s misfortune?

  • Narmeen
    Posted at 15:35h, 23 November Reply

    I can share the experience of a personal ‘controlled experiment’ to this debate. I have an interesting family in the sense that we are three siblings each from a different decade, the forties, fifties and sixties. We therefore shared the same parents, the same steady diet of poetry at the breakfast table, lots of books and Urdu music in our home, but our interest and ability to read and write Urdu steadily declined, with me, the ‘sixties’ sibling, turning out the weakest. So obviously the external environment had an impact. Nevertheless we still shared a love and pride in Urdu and thinking about it, it seems it was not due to anything we read as children (Urdu children’s literature for me being limited to tot batot , a few Iqbal poems and the magazine ‘bachon ki dunya’) but more to the home environment and the verbal story telling tradition. My mother told stories that I loved.
    In our turn as parents, the external environment continues to deteriorate but the home environment has changed too. I didn’t tell my children stories, I read to them and I read them English books because they were so much more attractive and fun and of course time saving and convenient. The children’s consciousness therefore was invaded by those characters and words. Nani aman’s ‘chira and chiria’ can simply not compete with ‘Big Bird’ which is big and yellow and on TV too. Thus the common vocabulary between the generations kept shrinking.
    In my opinion, part of the decline in Urdu is the failure to convert the verbal story telling tradition to the written book form. Once the foundation interest in Urdu is lost in those early years, it is hopeless to expect our children to understand Ghalib or Faiz as adults.

  • Aiman Suroor
    Posted at 23:35h, 12 December Reply

    Its not just one thing that can be blamed for the decline of Urdu.Its our education system as a whole,where there is such a vast gap between those who are in the Matric system and the ones doing their O levels.Back when I was a student in the 70s,we were taught proper Urdu and English literature books by knowledgeable teachers,I can say with conviction that those who studied then were equally good in both English and Urdu,and never had any problem expressing themselves.
    Now the O level students can barely write their names in Urdu,and look down upon those who are doing their matric.Those who were considered the elite,chose to speak English at home,so their children would be fluent in it by the time they were ready to go to school and would be able to get into good schools.How can a teenager or someone in their 20s know about Mir or any other Urdu poet when they have never even heard about them.Besides what good is Mir or Ghalib when the main aim of most (I’m not saying all,because there are exceptions)of the young people is to get out of Pakistan.
    My father was an Urdu poet,quite famous in the 60s and 70s,we spoke only Urdu at home.By the time I graduated my Urdu was laced with English words,and now out of mashaAllah 12 nieces and nephews only 5 or 6 speak Urdu at home,some understand but will not talk in Urdu and there are at least two who don’t even understand it.Its sad but true,and everyone is to blame.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:03h, 13 December

      Aiman: It is my sense that till the late 1960’s the language divide between the social classes in Pakistan was being reduced. Students in the Cambridge system were taught fairly rigorous Urdu and, at least the upper end of the Matriculation system (e.g., Central Model school in Lahore) had a high standard with good enough teaching in English. Part of the contribution was the relatively high quality of teaching you have mentioned. This narrowing gap could be concretely sampled in colleges like Government College and FC College in Lahore where there was a fair amount of intermingling between students from the two streams. In terms of social evolution, this was the most promising period in Pakistan. Things went rapidly downhill after Bhutto’s nationalization of schools and colleges as the Matriculation system was allowed to deteriorate, the higher-fee Cambridge system proliferated. Also, after 1971, getting out of Pakistan became the primary focus as domestic job employment crashed after the 1971 fiasco. English and vocational skills became the passports, languages, humanities and social sciences began to be considered a waste of time and money and useless for getting jobs, and, simultaneously. the quality of teaching itself declined. Those who would have otherwise gone into teaching themselves began to leave the country. The last nails in the coffin were driven by Zia ul Haq who infused all education with religion and a barely understood Arabic took away class time from other subjects including Urdu and English. Emphasis shifted to correctness of pronunciation rather than depth of knowledge. In these conditions, as you rightly note, Mir and Ghalib disappeared from the radar of the younger generation.

      The two famous poets I recall from the 1960s and 1970s were Aal-e Ahmed Suroor Sahib and Suroor Barabankavi Sahib. Both were famous but for different accomplishments. You confirm the point I was trying to highlight that even in families in which Urdu was a source of pride, it has begun to disappear in its classical form.

  • Arpita
    Posted at 06:38h, 13 December Reply

    I couldn’t help reacting to this. Let’s not start blaming ourselves. I think it happened without our realising it. As I’ve said earlier, while this post is about Urdu, I think it is applicable to all regional languages. Mine is Bengali & I think most people are aware of its lyrical beauty . Yet if you walk down the streets of Kolkata, because of the changing times, you are likely to hear a very diluted version of the language laced with many English words. I suspect television also has played its part. Perhaps now that we have become conscious, we need to do something to make sure that things improve.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:30h, 13 December

      Arpita: While all languages are changing and evolving, I still feel there is a critical difference between a regional language like Bengali and Urdu which is not a regional language, at least in Pakistan. At some point in the future, there can be a renaissance of Bengali but the Urdu that is being talked about in these posts could become a language of historical interest like Sanskrit, i.e, one that is not commonly spoken any more or spoken in a form that is very far removed from the Urdu that we know.

  • Rajat
    Posted at 03:12h, 18 February Reply

    Anjum…I find your blog to be very interesting.

    Regarding Urdu…I see many pakistani programs on Youtube just to hear Urdu, but I am sad to say that they do not speak urdu anymore. I remember the days when grandparents of my friend who came to India after partition used to show us Pakistani drams. The urdu in those was really exotic.

    To what I feel is Pakistani TV is coming under heavy influence of “Mumbaiya Hindi”. The pakistani dramas have lost the charm of the 80s and 90s. I remember when I was young I tried to learn to read urdu just to read Mirza Galib in Urdu script, that was and still is my passion for Urdu. I still can read some Urdu, but I think I am out of touch now.

    This is also the same case with Hindi. Pure Hindi these days is so rare to hear. I think we can call this as the decline or maybe evolution of the language.

    On finishing note, last time I heard really beautiful urdu was when I attended a shayari program in Lucknow in 2007.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:18h, 18 February

      Rajat: Thanks for the appreciative words. My personal opinion is that classical Urdu as it was spoken is dying. It was one of the casualties of Partition. Now, unlike most other languages, it has no home base and no native speakers. Perhaps there are few grandmothers left who can speak chaste Urdu. To remind us of what it was like you should listen to as much of Zia Mohiuddin as you can on YouTube. His is perhaps the best diction you will find and in the future people will listen to him to recall Urdu as it was spoken in its heyday. Here are two links to start with: and The advantage is that you get acquainted with the classics of Urdu literature at the same time.

      There are some brave attempts to revive the old syncretic Hindustani that was neither Urdu nor Hindi: Let us wish them luck and give them our support.

  • Raik
    Posted at 19:43h, 20 February Reply

    Hi Anjum,
    This is a very interesting blog of yours. As a non-native Urdu-lover I can only say that it is a shame what is happening to Urdu. And in my opinion part of the problem is that Urdu is seen by many only as a beautiful language of poetry, not as a communication tool. Many Urdu native speakers can understand the language, speaking proving to be more difficult already due to the influence of English in the Middle class, and writing has been almost forgotten. I think the only way back to Urdu is not via poetry, but journalism and novel writing in Urdu that makes people want to read it, because it gives them something they can’t get from English media.
    Also, non-native speakers have a hard time learning the language, because in everyday situations they are not forced to speak and read the language, at least not in India. While a foreigner living in France will have no difficulty learning French with ease, the foreigner in India (and Pakistan?) will always be the angrez people want to speak English too, and all official papers given to him will be in English.
    So it is up to our own efforts to learn the language and to keep Urdu alive.

  • Hamari Boli (@HamariBoli)
    Posted at 17:35h, 24 February Reply

    “It can justifiably be said without exaggeration that Urdu to the Subcontinent is not what Persian is to Iran or what English is to England. Does that have a bearing on the evolution of the language?”

    well not Urdu obviously, but Hindi-Urdu indeed is the Lingua Franca of the Sub-continent, and that’s where lies its value and significance..

  • sree
    Posted at 04:59h, 25 February Reply

    well not Urdu obviously, but Hindi-Urdu indeed is the Lingua Franca of the Sub-continent, and that’s where lies its value and significance..

    It is definitely not the language of the whole sub-continent. Just the Northern part of the sub-continent, including parts of (or whole) Pakistan and parts of North India, which are also culturally alike.

  • Hamari Boli (@HamariBoli)
    Posted at 17:54h, 27 February Reply

    Hindi-Urdu fits the definition for South Asia;

  • sree
    Posted at 07:18h, 28 February Reply


    I disagree. It might be used for communication in North India, including Maharashtra, Gujarat, Bengal etc. But you will not be able to use it in South India except probably in Hyderabad and Bangalore. It is hardly like Persian in Persia or English in UK, though there are people who would prefer it to be.

  • Zachary Latif
    Posted at 17:42h, 29 February Reply

    No is Persian for “Persia” or English in the UK (Gaelic, Scots).

    I think Urdu’s fate will bounce back with integration and peace in the Subcontinent.

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