Coppola on Hakala, 'Negotiating Languages: Urdu, Hindi, and the Definition of Modern South Asia'

Walter N. Hakala
Carlo Coppola

Walter N. Hakala. Negotiating Languages: Urdu, Hindi, and the Definition of Modern South Asia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. 320 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-17830-3.

Reviewed by Carlo Coppola Published on H-Asia (April, 2018) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

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Urdu and Hindi

Usually when people pick up a dictionary of any language to look up the meaning of a word, it is likely that they do so without considering what went into making that work available. The task might even cause a bit of irritation, as it probably causes a break in one’s train of thought or interrupts the flow of a text. Most people would probably not consider the time spent in gathering up all the words to be defined (years? lifetimes?), the number of people involved in such a task (one? hundreds?), or the consequences of the final product (rise in literacy? the quality and quantity of literary products?).

In his Negotiating Languages: Urdu, Hindi, and the Definition of Modern South Asia, Walter N. Hakala offers cogent, in-depth answers to these questions as well as others he raises in his discussion of how Urdu lexicological works, especially dictionaries, have been used in the past and continue to be used today for the literary and scientific advancement of the language, but, in the case of South Asia, for religious and political ends as well.

The volume is divided into five chapters and a conclusion. Each chapter presents a close description and discussion of an important lexicographic work and the lexicographer(s) who prepared it, dating back to the late eighteenth century. The detailed, six-page “Chronology” at the start of the book lists major dictionaries, phrase books, vocabulary lists, collections of proverbs and folktales, and other lexicological productions and is very helpful in tracking the various major works in the development of the Urdu language, starting in 1220 CE with Niṣāb al-Ṣibyān (Capital-stock of children) by Abu Nasar Farahi in Afghanistan, down to 2010, with the publication of the twenty-second final volume of the Urdū Luġhāt: Tāriḳhī Uṣūl Par (Urdu dictionary: On historical principles) in Karachi.

In his “Scope of the Study,” a part of the first chapter, entitled “A Plot Discovered,” the author, drawing on the “foundational work” of historian/literary critic Gustave Lanson (1857-1934) and sociologist/philosopher Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), encapsulates the purpose of this volume: to document “the role that dictionaries and other lexicographic genres have played in educating and defining the bureaucratic and literary classes of the Moghul and colonials periods and [to show] how these groups have contributed to the creation and standardization of the languages of North India,” more specifically, Urdu and Hindi, and the role these standardized languages have played in established nation-states (p. 28).

The first chapter introduces two distinctively different lexicographers whose major works are carefully analyzed. The first, Munshi Ziya al-Din Ahmad Barni (1890-1969), is the author of Aḳhbārī Luġhāt (ma‘rūf bĕh Kalīd-i Aḳhbār-Bīnī (A newspaper dictionary [also known as the key to newspaper viewing]), published in 1915, at the height of World War I. In it, the munshi translates English words—many of them political in nature—into Urdu, words commonly found in newspapers and other print media of the day. An example is the lengthy definition of the word dīmākraisī (democracy): “This is a form of government in which all decisions (iḳhtiyārāt: elections, powers) are universally in the hands of the aggregate population (majmū‘ī jumhūr) or in the hands of their appointed officers” (pp. 1-2; Hakala’s translation from the Urdu). The definition continues for another eight lines in such a way that it could easily be read as a veiled call for India’s independence from Great Britain. Others of his definitions—for example, impīri’yalizam (imperialism), nau-abādiyāṅ (colonists), and ḳhẉud muḳhtār (independent)—carry a similar semantic load. In short, these definitions could be construed in those wartime circumstances as, at the very least, disloyalty, and at most, perhaps treason.

Whereas the munshi used a standard Urdu alphabetical order for his work, the second lexicographer did not use that method. The young Scottish poet John Leyden (1775-1811), who came to India where he served as a judge and possessed an almost preternatural capacity to learn languages. It is said that at the time of his untimely and tragic death at the age of thirty-five, he had a “command of some forty-five languages” (p. 15), including over a dozen South Asian and Middle Eastern classical and vernacular ones. His A Vocabulary Persian and Hindoostanee (1808) is set up according to a method of using a thematic, or onomasiological, arrangement of words, where the user goes from concept to word. For example, the first entry in the volume includes the Persian and Hindi words for “god”: ḳhudā and īsar; the next set of words is for the abstract noun “divinity”: ḳhudā’ī and iśvaratā; and the third entry the word for “creator”: Arabic ḳhāliq and Sanskrit-derived sirjanhār,” reversing the standard arrangement of most dictionaries which allow the user to go from word to concept, what Hakala calls a cosmological approach.

Subsequent chapters center on a key word and author and treats what Hakala calls “particular moments in the development of the Urdu language” during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries (p. 28). In the second chapter, “1700: Between Microhistory and Macrostructures,” the reader is introduced to two distinctly different personalities: Abdul Wase Hanswi, a schoolteacher in the provincial town of Hansi, some eighty miles northwest of Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi), the urdū-i mu‘allā, the “Exalted Court” (p. 85), where not only the speech of the court, of aristocrats, and of others fortunate enough to have been born and raised in this exceptional city enjoys high repute, but where courtly manners and social refinement (ādāb) do as well. Despite his distance from such a prestigious and rarified milieu, Wase prepared what is essentially the first dictionary with “significant coverage of the Urdu language,” Ġharā’ib al-Luġhāt (Marvel of words; p. 29).

By contrast, Khan-i Arzu (1687/8-1756), author of the Nawādir al-Alfāẕ (Wonders of words), while borrowing features of Wase’s earlier work, at the same time condescendingly derides the former’s work as provincial and lacking any kind of literary authority. Hakala demonstrates the power Arzu wielded in this and later periods in the development of Urdu as a medium through which poets used the language as the basis for employment at various courts, notably Murshidabad in Bengal. This court accommodated poets and other essential personnel who were moving eastward as the central political and cultural power of the Moghul court in Old Delhi was in decline. Here one also gets glimmerings of the influence of the East India Company on the development of Urdu prose, which would be used for both commercial and colonial needs.

In chapter 3, “1800: Through the Veil of Poetry,” Hakala shows how new sets of items were added to Urdu vocabulary, which assisted in the development of Urdu prose style: folk songs, proverbs, women’s speech, and the technical vocabulary of various professions and occupational groups. Here, too, the reader is introduced to perhaps the book’s most charismatic and complex poet-cum-lexicographer, Mirza Jan Tapish (c. 1768-1816), a Delhi native who composed his Shams al-Bayān fī Muṣt̤alaḥāt al-Hindūstān (The sun of speech, on the idioms of Hindustan; c. 1794) at the court of the Shams al-Daulah, Nawab of Murshidabad.

Tapish was also involved in political intrigue—an alleged conspiracy to seek assistance in thwarting British growing political power in India. He was imprisoned in 1799 until “signs of repentance become evident” (p. 108). Released in 1806 or 1807, he eventually ended up rehabilitated and providing important assistance to the lexicographic work being done Fort William College, where East India Company British employees were taught Indian languages. His major contributions were data related not only  to the speech of the upper classes, but also to that of intermediate and lower levels of society with whom these company agents would interact on a daily basis.

It is also in this chapter that Hakala takes serious issue with the Hindi writer Amrit Rai (1921-96), whose controversial A House Divided: The Origin and Development of Hindi/Hindavi (1984) often makes biased and, to the thinking of some scholars, baseless claims about Urdu. Referring to Rai as a polemicist (p. 93), Hakala dismisses Rai’s assertion that “Urdu is no more than an elite ‘class dialect’” (p. 184).

The fourth chapter, “1900: Lexicography and the Self,” deals with Sayyid Ahmad Dihlawi (1846-1918), author of various lexicographic works, the most ambitious and most important of which is his Hindūstānī Urdū Luġhāt, described by Hakala as a work which “would eventually become for many scholars the single most useful dictionary of the Urdu language” (p. 115) and in many respects financially successful. The first two volumes appeared in 1888 printed in octavo. This latter part of the nineteenth century, Hakala notes, was also a period in which severe “contentious Hindi-Urdu debates” (p. 115) were raging. These would, of course, continued on throughout the twentieth century to the present day.

Sayyid Ahmad indicates in his preface that he served a seven-year apprenticeship with the distinguished British folklorist and pedagogue, Dr. Samuel William Fallon (1817-80). This may or may not have been the case. The author of Hindustani-English Dictionary (1879), Fallon is described by Hakala as “one of the two great British lexicographers of the Urdu language in the latter half of the nineteenth century” (p. 155). The other was John Thompson Platts (1830-1904), author of A Dictionary of Urdū, Classical Hindī, and English (1884).

That Sayyid Ahmad was an impassioned lover of the Urdu language and its literature is amply demonstrated by his expressions of such sentiments frequently in his writing and in his definitions. He was criticized for this by those who believe that it inappropriate to include “extralinguistic or otherwise ‘encyclopedic’ information in dictionary entries” (p. 152). Sayyid Ahmad also includes terms judged “abusive, indelicate or obscene” (p. 152). For this he was reprimanded by lexicographer Dr. Abdul Haq (1870-1961; aka “Baba-i-Urdu,” Father of Urdu). This chapter also includes a discussion of the term ṭopī-wālā (one who wears a hat) from its earlier, eighteenth-century meaning with pederastic associations to the later shift and modification in meaning in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Chapter 5, ”1900: Grasping at Straws,” addresses the dictionaries of S. W. Fallon and Ciranji Lal. Fallon, like Platts, served as inspector of schools in the Central Provinces. His major work is his New Hindustani-English Dictionary, with Illustrations from Hindustani Literature and Folk-lore (1879). It must be noted that Fallon calls the language of his dictionary “Hindustani,” not Urdu. Hakala indicates that, as its title suggests, this work “is notable today for having included for the first time a new range of lexicographical material such as folksongs, proverbs, conversational terms, and the speech of women” (pp. 155-56), a major departure from previous criteria for inclusion. In the introduction, Fallon complains about the resistance he felt from his Indian assistants, who seemed to feel that the everyday language, “‘the language of vulgar, illiterate people’” (p. 157), was not worthy of inclusion in the dictionary. But, by including these elements from the non-elite public sphere, Fallon was “fashioning the public sphere [of language] that he saw as necessary for the foundation of a truly common and national language” (p. 167). Fallon, Hakala states, depicts Hindustani as a potential “‘national speech’” (p. 167).

Little is known about Ciranji Lal. Delhi-born, he was well grounded in Sanskrit, as a result of which he was assigned by Fallon, for whom he served as an assistant, the task of researching the Sanskrit etymologies of Hindi terms in the dictionary. The setup of Lal’s Hindūstānī Maḳhzan al-Muḥāwarāt (Treasury of Idioms, 1886) reflects Fallon’s work in various respects. It was intended to serve a class of people interested in operating within a largely distinct sphere of political participation—namely, "Indian aspirants to posts in the colonial administration” (p. 170). Such aspirants would use the language in their dictionary “as a means to take advantage of the new sites of political discourse—courts, schools, newsprint, and volunteer associations—introduced and regulated by the colonial state. ‘Hindustani’ (and quite pointedly not Urdu) was both a product of and a vehicle for what Ćiraṇjī perceived as, in essence, modernity” (p. 172). While the exposition of Ciranji’s dictionary, which separates out the Hindi register of Hindustani, is detailed and nuanced, Halkala brings up various powerful historical points to show that, even with Hindi and other Sanskrit-derived words in it, Hindustani is, indeed, Urdu. This final chapter makes for arresting reading.

This is a work of considerable complexity and vision by a notable young scholar who has provided linguists, lexicographers, litterateurs, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians of South Asia with a powerful historical study of a remarkable language that has had a rocky time of it due to mostly political and religious polemics. The bibliography is the most up-to-date and is most likely the most definitive one in English. This book should be required reading—in fact, careful study—for all of the language apparatchiks in both New Delhi and Islamabad whose work may one day, sadly, force Urdu and Hindi into becoming two entirely separate, mutually unintelligible languages.



Citation: Carlo Coppola. Review of Hakala, Walter N., Negotiating Languages: Urdu, Hindi, and the Definition of Modern South Asia. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. April, 2018. URL:

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