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Literary Notes: Some loanwords of European origin in pre-1857 Urdu poetry

Literary Notes: Some loanwords of European origin in pre-1857 Urdu poetry

IT is generally assumed that words borrowed from the English language or other European languages entered the Urdu language post-1857, the year in which the British completely took over and the last Mughal ruler of India was deposed.

But the fact is the loanwords from English, French and Portuguese origin had begun assimilating into Urdu much earlier as Europeans had begun arriving in the subcontinent in the 15th century. Poetry of some classical Urdu poets such as Insha Allah Khan Insha (died 1817) and Mushafi (died 1824) has ample proofs that certain words of European origin had been borrowed by the Urdu language much earlier than 1857.

Aside from the English vocabulary, many words of Portuguese origin were in use in the Urdu, Hindi and Gujarati languages in the pre-1857 era. Unlike French words that were borrowed by Urdu through the English language, most of the Portuguese words had arrived directly as the Portuguese had taken over the southern and western parts of India, especially Goa and adjoining areas. The Portuguese influence was on the rise ever since Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India in 1498. With the rise of the Portuguese colonialists, their language too began influencing the local linguistic scene.

Here are a few of the loanwords from European origin that found their way into the Urdu language and its poetry before 1857.


Pronounced ‘botal’ (without the retroflex ‘t’) in Urdu, ‘bottle’ is originally a Latin word. According to Concise Oxford English Dictionary (COED), it entered the French language and then was borrowed by the English language. Urdu borrowed it from English and it is perhaps the first European word that was ever used by a writer of our language. ‘Bottle’ first appeared in Urdu prose in 1714 when Lala Hari Prashad Sambhli used it in his book Bada’e-ul-funoon. Then Raja Ram Narain Mauzoon (died 1763) used it in one of his couplets in plural form. Later, Insha Allah Khan Insha, Mushafi, Naasikh (died 1838) and Shah Naseer (died 1839) used it in their Urdu verses.


Coming from a Germanic origin, the word ‘breeches’, wrote Glynnis Chantrell in his essential dictionary of word histories, “was a garment covering the loins and thighs.” According to COED, breeches means “short trousers fastened just below the knees”. Though never popular in the subcontinent’s culture, the attire entered our lexicon through English with a slightly different pronunciation: ‘barjes’. Mushafi has used the word in his poetry.


‘Kaptaan’, an Urdu word, is in fact ‘captain’. Originating in Old French, captain entered the English lexicon and from there appeared in Urdu. Sa’adat Yar Khan Rangeen (died 1835) used the word in his Urdu poetry.


Forget K-Electric and Wapda, electricity has been around for quite long (though may be not as bad). The word has its roots in Greek from where it was borrowed by Latin and it meant, literally, ‘amber’, “because rubbing amber causes electrostatic phenomena”, as put by COED. Urdu received ‘electricity’ through English and was used earliest by Insha Allah Khan Insha.


Pronounced ‘gilaas’ or ‘galaas’ in Urdu (as it is often difficult for Urdu-wallas to pronounce a consonantal cluster in the beginning of a word), the origin of the word ‘glass’ is Germanic and similar words are found both in German and Dutch, though Urdu borrowed it from English. Insha, Mushafi and Zauq (died 1854) have used the word ‘glass’ in their Urdu poetry.


The word ‘neelaam’ is used in Urdu and it means ‘auction’. But it is derived from the Portuguese word leilão. Bahadur Shah Zafar (deposed in 1857 and died in 1862) used the word in his Urdu poetry.


Aside from the adjective, orderly is a noun and means an attendant; or a soldier who carries orders or performs minor tasks for an officer, according to COED. In Urdu, we call it ‘ardali’. A French word, ‘orderly’ entered into the Urdu lexicon through English and Rangeen and Insha used the word in their verses.


The word ‘paltan’, in Urdu means either ‘platoon’ or ‘crowd’. But ‘platoon’ is an English word derived from a French word. In pre-1857 period, Mir Amman, Insha and Aatish (died 1846) used it in their verses.


Powder has its roots in Latin. From there it arrived in Old French and English borrowed it. Handed down to Urdu, it changed its pronunciation slightly and is often pronounced ‘poder’ in Urdu. Earliest used is recorded in Insha’s Urdu poetry.

These are just a few of the words from the European languages, especially English, which had assimilated into Urdu much before 1857.

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Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2017

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