Urdu lexicography: principles and practice | Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

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Urdu lexicography: principles and practice

Rauf Parekh

A negative thing about Urdu dictionaries is that the writer of an Urdu dictionary has rarely been spared by critics as most of the Urdu dictionaries have been found lacking in one area or another. That is why I think compiling an Urdu dictionary is a thankless job and one can only pray to be saved from facing the music after having compiled a dictionary. But this phenomenon is probably universal as Samuel Johnson, one of the greatest English lexicographers, defined the word ‘lexicography’ as ‘harmless drudgery’. One of the compilers of ‘Lughaat-i-Saeedi’, a Persian-Urdu dictionary, too seemed to agree with him in a way when he wrote in the preface to his work: “It is not difficult but impossible for a lexicographer to avoid the reproving comments of the blamers”.

One feels that some works on the principles of lexicography may help understand the views of critics and, therefore, any work on the topic should be warmly welcomed. But before I say anything about two Urdu books on lexicography recently published from India, let me give a brief account of early history of Urdu lexicography.

Lexicography, or the art and science of dictionary-making, is not new to Urdu. But Urdu lexicography has a rather unusual and interesting beginning: the earliest Urdu dictionaries were in the form of poems and it was expected of children to memorise them. These versified early dictionaries were in fact wordbooks or lists giving Persian or Arabic words and their Urdu equivalents in the form of a poem. Known as ‘nisaab nama’, such a poem usually had 200 couplets. Inspired by Persian nisaab namas, the earliest Urdu nisaab nama was named ‘Qaseeda dar lughaat-i-Hindi’ and was composed by Hakeem Yousufi in the first half of the 16th century.

But the most famous of these early versified bilingual dictionaries is, of course, ‘Khaaliq baari’. It was believed that ‘Khaaliq baari’ was a creation of Ameer Khusrau but Hafiz Mahmood Sherani dispelled this impression and tried to prove that it was not written by Ameer Khusrau (died in 1325). According to Sherani, its real author was Ziauddin Khusrau, otherwise little known. Sherani said it was composed during the Mughal era in 1621-22, almost 300 years after Khusrau’s death. But some scholars, including such big names as Afsar Amrohvi, Mumtaz Husain and Jameel Jalibi, disagree with Sherani. The jury may be still out on who the real author was, however, what is equally important is the fact that ‘Khaaliq baari’ did inspire a large number of similar works and some Urdu nisaab namas were compiled as late as in the early 20th century.

Despite nisaab namas, the earliest Urdu dictionary is ‘Gharaaeb-ul-lughaat’. Compiled by Mir Abdul Vaas‘e Haansvi, ‘Gharaaeb-ul-lughaat’, according to Dr Syed Abdullah, was intended for students of higher classes. Although compiled during the reign of emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir, the earliest of its manuscripts so far discovered were committed to writing in 1159-60 H/1746-47AD. For explaining the Urdu words listed in it, this earliest Urdu dictionary used Persian, the most favoured language of academics of the subcontinent in those days. So in fact it was an Urdu-Persian dictionary.

In a way, this was the second phase of Urdu lexicography. But even in the third phase we do not find any Urdu-Urdu dictionaries as the British had taken over and they began compiling Urdu-English dictionaries. It was not until 1868 that the compilation of an Urdu-Urdu dictionary began. Named ‘Mustalahat-i-Urdu’ and compiled by none other than Moulvi Syed Ahmed Dehlvi, it was an early version of what was to be compiled later in four volumes and to be known as ‘Farhang-i-Aasifya’.

Thus began the tradition of compiling Urdu-Urdu dictionaries, most remarkable manifestation of which is the 22-volume Urdu dictionary compiled and published by the Urdu Dictionary Board.

During this long journey, a large number of Urdu dictionaries, big and small, were compiled, including ‘Ameer-ul-lughaat’, ‘Noor-ul-lughaat’, ‘Jaam‘e-ul-lughaat’ and ‘Muhazzab-ul-lughaat’, which can truly be called the milestones.

From then on we have had a steady flow of all kinds of Urdu dictionaries. There are some articles that give a brief history of Urdu lexicography. Dr Masood Hashmi wrote a doctoral thesis on Urdu lexicography, which critically evaluated a few select Urdu dictionaries. The National Language Authority has published in seven volumes a series, which evaluates and analyses Urdu dictionaries. These works mostly pinpoint weak or strong points of Urdu dictionaries. What we lack in Urdu is the books or articles that describe the principles and guidelines of lexicography. In English one finds a good number of works not only on the history of lexicography, but also on how to plan and write a dictionary. These works define and explain basic principles and flag dos and don’ts of lexicography. There are quite a few lexicography journals published regularly, in English, of course, and some are available online as well.

In Urdu we do not find much material on the principles and practice of lexicography. Now Dr Nazir Azad has come up with two books that discuss issues related to the principles of lexicography.

Prof Azad lives in Pulwama, in Indian-held Kashmir. Aside from his other works on literary issues, he has published a book on the development of Urdu lexicography. The first of his two new books is titled ‘Lughat nigari: usool-o-qavaed’ (lexicography: principles and rules). Published by Delhi’s Educational Publishing House, the book describes the definition of a word, lexical entry and the criteria that determines the inclusion of a word or phrase in a dictionary. It also discusses issues related to orthography and pronunciation. A dictionary has to tell what word class an entry belongs to and what origin a word can be traced to. So the book elaborates on the grammatical aspects and etymology as well. Most of the discussions are of general nature, though they take into account the examples taken from Urdu dictionaries considered authentic.

The other work by Prof Nazir Azad, published by the same publishers, is ‘Urdu lughat nigari ka tanqeedi jaeza’ (a critical survey of Urdu lexicography). The book points out several discrepancies in many authentic Urdu dictionaries. Many of his points are valid. One can learn a lot about lexicography and Urdu lexicography from these two books.

But the problem is, this writer, too, is a lexicographer and feels, frankly speaking, compiling a dictionary is much more difficult than commenting on one. Both books provide the reader with invaluable information on lexicography.


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