ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Strategies for Survival of Formerly Dominant Languages

Urdu in India

Like other languages once spoken by former dominant elites the world over, Urdu has suffered a decline in India since independence. But Urdu can draw lessons from those languages that have not only survived but even flourished. The primary onus for Urdu's rejuvenation, however, lies on Urdu speakers themselves.

The declining status of Urdu in north India since partition in 19471  is not unique, for it is only one of a number of languages of formerly dominant ‘elites’2 which have lost their power through the overthrow of multi-ethnic dynastic states and/or the dissolution of colonial regimes. I shall analyse a dozen cases for comparison with Urdu: six which have declined or died out (Manchu in China, Coptic in Egypt, Gaelic and Latin in the British Isles, Quechua in Peru, Arabic in Spain, and German in Eastern Europe) and six which have not only survived but flourished and even dominated in post-imperial eras (Anglo-Saxon over Norman French, Spanish and Portuguese over Amerindian languages, Afrikaans in South Africa and French in Canada achieving bilingual status with English, Hebrew over Yiddish and Arabic in Palestine/Israel and Catalan in Spain). In general, those that have survived or even flourished were brought by large-scale colonisation and/or religious conversion and were not just the languages of a conquering military elite. For instance, Urdu is both the official language and the lingua franca of Pakistan (and Kashmir) where many Arabs, Persians, Afghans and Turks settled and a majority of the pre-existing population was converted to Islam but not in north India and Bangladesh where, in the former area the majority of Hindus failed to be converted to Islam and in the latter where a majority accepted Islam but not the Urdu language which remained an elite medium until 1971.3 

Clearly, the varying characteristics of these cases affect the outcomes and the lessons to be drawn for the survival of Urdu.

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