Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Some observations on Perso-Arabic word choice in Urdu and Punjabi news broadcasts on All India Radio Delhi

14th July 2010 – AIR 666 MHz AM
Today in the morning I heard the news on the radio and discovered something interesting.  The radio channel AIR FM channel 666 MHz broadcasts the news in all of the 4 official languages of Delhi: English, Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi. Usually I just listen to the Hindi broadcast which runs for 15 minutes, and then the English broadcast of the same stories in the same words as the Hindi one, again runs for 15 minutes.

However sometimes I listen to the Punjabi and the Urdu news broadcasts as well, again 15 minutes each. The same stories, in the same order, with the same news matter, the same words just different languages .

Now what I noticed in today’s news broadcasts was that although often the Punjabi and the Urdu broadcasts use the same Perso-Arabic words for the same meaning in the same stories, in some places they use different words as well for the same stories.

Urdu and Spoken Punjabi have both developed in medieval India and both have been influenced by a common set of factors such as the Perso-Arabic lexicon of the ruling class, the Sufi tradition, the use of Persian as a court language in Medieval India and major cultural and literary overlaps. Although Urdu has taken on many more Perso-Arabic words than has Punjabi, there are still thousands of identical words shared by the two languages. My personal opinion is that upwards of 50% of the  Perso-Arabic words in Urdu are shared by many dialects of Punjabi as well. Coupled with the facts that the grammars of both Urdu and Punjabi are based on Prakarit, hence nearly identical, and that Hindustaani as a language is a common ground between both means that there is a high degree of mutual understanding between speakers of these languages.

Common Words
Both Punjabi and Urdu broadcasts used many common words and the list would be too long to mention here but I shall provide a few examples of special words to illustrate what I wrote above on the same stock of Perso-Arabic words being employed in these two languages:
Gawaahi (testimony), Hukoomat (governement), Tajweez (to suggest), Iqtasaadi (economic), Muhaiyya (make available), Intazaam (arrange), Qaanooni (legal), Dehshat Gard (terrorist) etcetera.
Here I have not mentioned any of the Perso-Arabic words used in regular parlance.

Different Words
On the day in question the choice of which Perso-Arabic to use in the same stories differed in the Punjabi and Urdu broadcast for the following words:
To Die A Martyr (verb) شھید Shaheed ھلاک Halaak
Counterpart (noun) ھم عھدھ Hum Auhdah ھم منصب Hum Mansab
Workers (noun) ملازم Mulaazim ارکان Arkaan
To be sure, all 6 of the words mentioned above are Perso-Arabic in origin as well as in their presently used forms. The respective news readers read out near identical sentences for the same stories; the only difference being the choice between which Perso-Arabic word to use from the two words given in the table above for a single meaning. The words from the Punjabi column are very close substitutes of the words from the Urdu column and vice-versa. The import remains the same regardless of which Perso-Arabic word has been used.
It is a case of so near and yet so far.

Let us look at these words in a bit more detail.

Same Words
1. The first word in the table, Shaheed is an Arabic word often used to denote an honourable death fighting for a cause, in other words it means to be martyred. It also stands for witness. Check out my earlier post on the relationship between the words Martyr and Witness.

2. The second word, Halaak is a Arabic word which is used to indicate total annihilation and destruction. In the sense of the totality of destruction Halak is close to the word Fanaa فناء though in India the former has a negative connotation and the latter is a Sufi term used for a positive annihilation of the self into the Creator.

3. The third word in the table, Hum Mansab is a hybrid Perso-Arabic construction. It is made up of a Persian word, Hum (means together/us) and an Arabic word Mansab (means rank). Hum Mansab means counterpart, another of the same rank/position.

4. The fourth word, Hum Auhdah, is a parallel to Hum Mansab and again, it is a hybrid Perso-Arabic construction. Auhdah is an Arabic word which means position//rank/social standing. Hence Hum Auhdah means of an equivalent position or standing.

From a lexicographical point of view both of these hybrid Perso-Arabic words are exact substitutes of each other when one want to use them in the sense of position in a hierarchy. Both Mansab and Auhdah can and do mean rank/position. The choice of which one to use should be germane to most speakers. However the second words of these hybrids help provide an explanation for the differing choice. Most speakers of Urdu, with a minimalistic level of Urdu education, would feel equally at home with both Mansab and Audah. On the other hand, nowadays the word Mansab has almost completely disappeared from the vocabulary of Hindustaani (or bazaar Urdu or filmy Urdu or call it what you will). Most speakers of Hindustaani would be uncomfortable with the word Mansab and would ponder over the import of this word. Most of these speakers would prefer the word Auhdah. As observed earlier, Punjabi is closer to Hindustaani that to Urdu. Hence the use of this word in the Punjabi broadcast. Now this explains why the Punjabi broadcast chooses to use Hum Audah. But then if these words are almost exact substitutes, why does the Urdu broadcast choose to use Hum Mansab?

Well it turns out these words are not exact substitutes all the times. Perhaps the preference for Mansab over Auhdah lies in the historical use of the word Mansab. Throughout Islamic history, in the various Islamic armies, Mansab has been the preferred word for rank. It was always used in the Medieval and Pre-Modern royal courts in the Sub Continent for official and military rank . In fact, the East India Company whole heartedly adopted this word for rank in its muster rolls and even incorporated the Pre-Mughal and Mughal rank of Mansabdaar as a rank of substance in its official military hierarchy. Some, or perhaps many, Urdu speakers would associate Auhdah more with social hierarchy and Mansab specifically with official hierarchy. I have always heard the Urdu broadcast choose Mansab over Auhdah when talking of the rank of a government official . Hence somewhere the more appropriate construction, Hum Mansab, is preferred over the almost there but not quite, Hum-Auhdah, while talking about officials of equivalent rank.
As a side, I would like to mention that speakers of Urdu and Hindustaani use many such hybrid Perso-Arabic words in everyday speech. Some common examples are Bey Shak (=certainly, Bey - Persian, Shak – Arabic), Naa Mumkin (=impossible, Na – Persian, Mumkin – Arabic), Bad Zaat (=bad character, Bad – Persian, Zaat – Arabic), Dast-e-Khatt (=signature, Dast-e – Persian with ezaafe, Khatt - Arabic), Bad Tameez (=unmannered, Bad – Persian, Tameez – Arabic), Hum Safar (=co-traveller, Hum – Persian, Safar – Arabic) etcetera. This feature of Urdu/Hindustaani wherein hybrid Perso-Arabic words are employed, is one of the reasons why some people draw parallels between Urdu and Ottoman Turkish and Urdu and Chughtai Turkic.

5. The fifth word Mulaazim comes from the Arabic triliteral root LZM and means a lieutenant, an indispensable person, an employee. Many of us in India are unacquainted with this “indispensable” origin of Mulaazim and think of it to connote only  a servant / an empolyee.

6. The sixth word is Arkaan. It is the plural form of the Arabic Rukun. Rukun means a pillar, basis, bolster, the foundation. It is a very close substitute of the original meaning of the previous word Mulaazim, used during the Urdu broadcast. For clarity on this I would like to thank Jamshed Saahab who guided me towards the right word, Arkaan.

It is still not very clear as to why there is a difference between the choice of word for the same meaning between the two broadcasts. The difference could be due to a form of diglossia. However this is not to suggest that one of these is a more classical or “higher” language than the other and this is why I shy away from associating the Urdu-Hindustaani phenomenon with diglossia. And of course, I am completely incompetent to speak on matters of linguistic and language theory anyway. Perhaps this has nothing to do with diglossia at all. However the choice of which Perso-Arabic words to use could be the result of perceived diglosia amongst the speakers of Urdu and Hindustaani in the sub-conscious of those who frame the sentences for the respective broadcasts. One need not be a linguistic to believe that different people use slightly different vocabulary sets for the same / similar languages.

The difference in choice of words could also be due to politics, due to dialectical differences, due to differences in the educational environment of those who frame the news broadcasts, due to the different books the news framers read, etcetera.

Nevertheless there is a difference, and this difference between choice of Perso-Arabic words for the Urdu and the Punjabi broadcast excites me. This difference points out the commonality, the unity. Vive le difference.

PS – There is another difference between the Punjabi and Urdu news broadcasts on AIR FM which comes to my mind. Just like the English and the Hindi news broadcasts, the Urdu news broadcast too has a short section at the end which gives a round up of the headlines in the day’s major newspapers in the concerned language. Hence in the last section of the day’s Urdu news broadcast, the news reader reads out the headlines from 4 or 5 of the major Urdu dailies published in Delhi on that morning.
However this headlines’ round up section is absent in the Punjabi news broadcast as although Punjabi is one of the four official languages of Delhi, there are not many Punjabi newspapers of note published in Delhi (perhaps there are none).

Monday, September 6, 2010

Martyr and Witness (and why a common root in Arabic?)

It seems that the words Martyr and Witness are inextricably intertwined. At least in some cultures and languages they are. I first realised they are related when I noticed that words in Arabic (and Persian as well as in Urdu) are from the same root: Sh-H-D شهد

Witness : شاهِد (shaahid)

Martyr : شهِيد (shaheed)


Further research reveals that this is also the case in Greek, Church Latin and Syriac. It seems that in the Classical Mediterranean world the concepts of martyr and witness were not related to each other linguistically. However during the Age of the Apostles of Christ the first instances of the relationship between these two words came to light. From this time onwards till the issue of the Edict of Milan by Constantine in 313AD, with varying degrees of persecution, the Christian believers (starting with Stephen Martyr in 33AD) were tried by various Roman courts for apostasy and were found guilty of this crime, usually punishable by death. 

Why for apostasy? Throughout the history of the Roman empire, the Romans had been highly tolerant of other religions and gods. The Roman emperors / senate went so far as to identify the new gods they came across amongst the theology of their newly acquired subjects with those of their own Roman pantheon, as long as these subjects sacrificed to the Roman gods as well. But this was not all, the Romans were even more accommodating. Jewish theology clearly forbade sacrifice to the Roman or any other pagan gods. The Romans accepted Judaism as an ancient and venerable religious tradition from remote antiquity and did not construe this prohibition against sacrifice as Jewish disrespect against Roman gods. Christian theology, nascent though it was during the Age of the Apostles, too forbade sacrifices to pagan gods. At the same time the Christians, the Hellenistic Christians at any rate, maintained that though they too followed the same God of the Scripture as the Jews, they were not a sect of Judaism and were not bound by the Hebrew Bible. They had the New Testament, the Gospel which replaced the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. Hence to the Romans these Christians were neither pagans nor Jews and as the Romans only knew of Jesus Christ as a minor mischief maker in a far-flung-edge-of-the-empire-garrison town and not the Son of God, the Christians could only be apostates. Apostasy was considered to be a heresy of the highest order by the Romans and was thought of as the primary reason for the Roman gods’ anger with the Roman people. Ergo the Roman zeal to eliminate apostasy in all forms from within the vast expanse of their empire. Zeal ;) :), nice word to describe the Zealots’ greatest enemy.

Now, back to the Christian martyrs in the Age of Apostles and thereafter. It seems that it was believed by the Early Christians that those amongst them who were being called to trial by the Romans on charges of apostasy were actually being called by God to bear witness to His truth. They were providing testimony of God, of the Gospel and of Jesus Christ; and they were ready to “seal” their testimony with their own blood by submitting to capital punishment for their belief. The Christians also believed that in doing this they were following the example of Jesus Christ, Martyr Kat’ Exochen, martyr par excellence, who bore witness to the truth of God before Pontus Pilate and then gave up his life on the cross for this testimony.

Some of the languages which share this association between the words Martyr and Witness are given below:




(Church and Modern, not Ancient)





Syriac ܣܗܕܐ


(hence Persian, Turki, Urdu etc by extension)




There could be other languages as well which share common roots for Martyr and Witness but I have not been able to uncover the  relationship.
It seems that relationship between Martyr and Witness is a fundamental Early Christian concept. Perhaps that is why this connection is not evident in Hebrew, Ancient Greek, Old Latin, Aramaic (unsure), Old Persian, Uzbek, Sanskrit, Welsh, Gaelic, High / Low German etcetera.

This learning has been fascinating for me but now it brings me to the threshold of a new question. Why do the words Martyr and Witness share the same root in Arabic?

It seems that a common root for Martyr – Witness is not a Semitic concept.  Most Semitic languages do not share the root Sh-H-D for Martyr-Witness; they have different roots for these two words. Hebrew, Aramaic and Geez do not show any signs of a common ground between Martyr and Witness (perhaps they do but I am inept at a thorough analysis in these languages). Syriac, a Semitic language, is a variant of Aramaic and is an exception. Syriac developed into its classical form during the Age of Apostles and thereafter. Further it has always been used as a liturgical language of one of the oldest churches in the world. Hence a common root Martyr-Witness in Syriac is perfectly natural.

But why the same root for Martyr-Witness in Arabic? Why this second exception from amongst the group of Semitic languages?

It seems to me that Classical Arabic did not receive this Martyr-Witness concept from a linguistic Semitic sources but rather from a religious source, namely Christianity. The more I think about it the more Gunter Luling’s assertions of a Christian Pre-Islamic Mecca and a Christian Ur-Koran spin faster and faster around my head. Prof Luling’s work is extremely good and extremely erudite and I do not claim to understand most of it. Hence I will desist from writing about his work or about any other Higher Criticism.

A further study of Pre-Islamic Arabic poetry should shed some more light on whether the same root for Martry-Witness was used during times of “Jahiliyya” (Ignác Goldziher rolls his eyes). Again there could surface some more words for either Martyr, Witness or for both. And finally in which sense have these words been used in Pre-Islamic poetry?

It could be that Arabic has a common root / word for Martry and Witness because of a natural linguistic evolution akin to the same phenomenon seen in Greek and Syriac but independent of these. Perhaps the reason is something else entirely but I would certainly like to know about it and am wiling to do more thorough research on this enigma. Anybody got Hazrat Sibawayhi’s email ID?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Microsoft Surface: finally a Microsoft technology that made me go "wow"

After a decade long love-hate-hater-hatest relationship with Microsoft, finally Microsoft has made me go "wow".

Check out these links on Microsoft's innovative (not new) technology called Microsoft Surface: table top multi-touch

If MS plays its cards right and if this technology is cheap then it could be the next big thing at MS for the next 5 years or so. Like all touch devices the potential of this technology is limitless.

Live art and television on walls, weather information and calendars on windows, texts and homework on school desks, security information and messages on doors, recipes and cooking videos on kitchen counters, interactive board games and magazines on table tops etcetera...there is no limit.

Of course I would like to wait for the opensource / android / chrome version but MS Surface is a great innovative application nevertheless.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Living with High Urban Population Density: Domestic Transformer - Create a fully equipped house out of 300 square feet

An architect in Hong Kong has invented a system of house-space management called 'Domestic Transformer'. This system essentially allows for very efficient utilization of a very small space with the help of a series of hollow partition walls which slide in an out of each other over channels on the floor and on the roof to reveal, conceal, expand, reduce and "create" space. Bed rooms change in to sofas, libraries into kitchens, CD racks make way for bath tubs so on and so forth. Hence the term 'Transformer'.


 Here is a video of the Hong Kong architect Gary Chang demonstrating the use of his concept 'Domestic Transformer'.

To be sure the Domestic Transformer house is not a dream house for most people and it could loose the "cool" appeal for many people after their having lived in it for some time. However it is a great idea for those who have to manage in very small and tight space due to reasons of affordability, legal restrictions, space scarcity, just lesser need for living space or any other reasons. Many people just don’t have a choice; they have to spend a majority part of their lives in tight-choc-a-block houses.

Although architect Gary Chang was inspired to come up with this space management concept as a result of his entire family (of 5 or more people) having to live in a crammed Hong Kong apartment, Domestic Transformer type houses could become a hit with bachelors and those who live alone as well. In the over-burgeoning, always-hard pressed for living space, metros such as Mumbai, Singapore, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, New York City , Mexico City, Hong Kong space management is top priority. It is for such urban areas that Domestic Transformer type of houses are a boon. Of course the economic viability and pricing of such projects would have to be looked into and in order to be successful the model would have to be customized according to the different environmental and cultural conditions and preferences for each metro. But the concept is inherently good and useful.

A cursory search for houses for sale in Hong Kong (keeping in mind the surface area and location) does seem to indicate that the Domestic Transformer house is not overly priced, but this is not an accurate or final judgement.


domestic transformer schema

image courtesy

I personally prefer a reduction in the population density in the metros as I am sure do many others, but this reduction is not going to happen within the next three or four decades. On the contrary the growth in urban population is increasing faster than ever.

Some of the reasons for the ever-increasing importance of better urban space management are:

  • What I refer to as actual human population density (ie total population / total landmass baring Antarctica) is already close to 50 people per square kilometre. If one was to use only "habitable land"  in the denominator the figure of 50 could rise to well above 70 people per square kilometre.
  • On a global level more humans now live in urban areas than in rural areas. In Asia and in South America this figure is much above the 50% mark (higher than 705 for South America). This trend is still rising.
  • A third of all people living in cities live in slums or areas which can be classified as slums.
  • Beyond a point urban infrastructure is unable to provide


Ideas such as Domestic Transformer are much needed and even though they may not be perfect but they are a step in the right direction.

If you have some ideas and know of some similar concepts do mention them in the comments field below. I would love to explore this further.

Some related links

National Geographic’s website on populations. Make sure you check the “population trends” topics on the right hand side of the map on the opening page.


Wikipedia page on population density