Language Profile: Urdu

I. History & Distribution: Very interestingly, Urdu was created less than 500 years ago and comes from the Turkish word ‘ordo’ meaning ‘army’ or ‘camp’. During a conquest of ancient India in the 17th century, soldiers of Persian, Turkish, and Arab descent concocted the language as a lingua franca. The vast majority of the conquering army was Persian, however, and so Urdu shares about 70% of its lexicon with Farsi. The language gained steam thanks to the proliferation of Dakani literature, which utilized Urdu, in the 18th century, and the fact that Urdu replaced Persian as an official language of British India during the nineteenth century. Today, Urdu is spoken by over 60 million people worldwide, 48 million of whom reside in India (Urdu is the predominant language among India’s Muslims), another 10 million in Pakistan, and significant populations in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Botswana, Fiji, Germany, Guyana, Malawi, Nepal, Norway, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Zambia, Mauritius, and South Africa. Urdu is also mutually intelligible with Hindi, and many linguists consider them subdialects of the same Indic dialect, the Khari boli dialect of Delhi.

II. Orthography: Urdu is written with a modified form of the Perso-Arabic script. Urdu adds seven graphemes to the 28-letter Arabic alphabet. Like Arabic, Urdu’s alphabet conveys only consonants with vowels noted as diacritics.

III. Phonology: Urdu contains several dialects with varying phonological subtleties, but the most complex sound system represents 11 vowels and 33 consonants. For those who know the lingo, it is interesting to note that Urdu divides plosives into four categories (tenius, voiced, aspirated, and murmured) compared to English’s two (voiced and aspirated). Furthermore, final stops are never released, and Urdu dental plosives are purely dental, not alveo-dental. Suprasegmental elements such as stress and intonation convey meaning similarly to English. These factors, as well as some other unique phonological rules, give Urdu a dynamic, rich but crisp sound similar to Hindi. To listen to some samples of Urdu speech, click here.

IV. Morphology: Much inflection in Urdu is achieved primarily through stress and nasalization of certain sounds rather than by affixation as in English or Hindi. However, derivation and some inflection is achieved through suffixation and some prefixation, as is also the case in Farsi. Verbs are marked for mood, tense/aspect, number, and person using a split-ergative system (ergative-absolutive casing for the perfective tense, and nominative-absolutive for all other tenses; crazy, right?). Nouns are marked for number and gender, if animate.

V. Syntax: Urdu is an SOV (subject-object-verb) language. Furthermore, the grammatical structure is remarkably similar to Hindi, one of the reasons that the two languages are mutually intelligible. Differing syntactic rules, along with six levels of honorific register, may be employed to convey varying shades of politeness or status.

If you know an 11 to 14-year-old in the Seattle area who would like to learn Urdu for FREE from 9 to 3 PM, July 13th to the 24th, please call A.C.E. at (206) 217-9644 or e-mail

To learn more about Urdu, refer to the sources below.

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