Urdu Dictionary Project is Under Threat

Posted on July 23, 2009
Filed Under >Dr. Rauf Parekh, Art & Literature, Culture & Heritage, Urdu
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Dr. Rauf Parekh

Among his other cherished dreams, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan had a dream that Urdu had a comprehensive dictionary. There was none that could truly be called so. Some European scholars had compiled Urdu dictionaries, but they were bilingual ones and lacked the depth and scope Sir Syed dreamed of.

The visionary himself had begun compiling an Urdu dictionary, but left it unfinished apparently because of his preoccupation with other pressing tasks. He, however, attached great importance to a dictionary that enlisted each and every word of the Urdu language. According to Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali, the Scientific Society, Aligarh, had published a sample of Sir Syed’s Urdu dictionary. Renowned French scholar Garcin De Tassy had reviewed the sample quite favourably.

Though Farhang-i-Asifiya, a four-volume dictionary published between 1888 and 1901, had somewhat satisfied the need for a good dictionary, Sir Syed’s dream of an all-encompassing dictionary remained unrealised, and it seemed that after his death the dream had been forgotten till a man stood up and began following it.

Sir Syed’s dream was pursued by none other than Baba-i-Urdu Moulvi Abdul Haq, who embarked upon compiling the most comprehensive dictionary of Urdu single-handedly, though the gigantic task demanded a special institution staffed with linguists and lexicographers and stocked with a library of rare and modern books.

In 1928, the world famous Oxford English Dictionary — the mother of all modern dictionaries — had been published and was considered a rare feat of lexicography as it contained, or so it claimed, each and every word of English with its different shades of meaning and illustrative citations from English writers and poets. Then named A New English Dictionary on historical principles, the Oxford English Dictionary took some 70 years to be completed and published. After revision, it now has 20 volumes and is referred to as OED.

Abdul Haq named his dictionary Lughat-i-Kabeer and began working on it in 1930. As an erudite scholar who kept himself abreast with new developments, he had planned that his dictionary would incorporate each and every word of Urdu, be it a term or idiom, whether archaic or obsolete, vulgar or poetic. Abdul Haq had compiled, on the pattern of the OED, several thousand pages before he had to move to Karachi when Pakistan came into being. Here he picked up its threads, but had to face several difficulties and Sir Syed’s dream, shared by many visionaries and scholars such as Abdul Haq, remained elusive.

Finally, in 1958, the federal ministry of education decided that it was time to compile such a dictionary in a more organised manner, and established in Karachi the Taraqqi-i-Urdu Board, or Urdu Development Board, (later Urdu Dictionary Board, UDB) appointing Abdul Haq as its chief editor. With Abdul Haq’s death in 1961, the board began working afresh under the guidance of Shan-ul-Haq Haqqi, modeling its dictionary on historical principles just as Oxford had done.

Each headword was to have illustrative citations from three different periods, beginning with the classical period and culminating at the modern. This principle of citing from different historical periods of language and literature, known as philological principle or historical principle, was first applied by Samuel Johnson in his A dictionary of the English language — the great-grandfather of all modern dictionaries — which he published in 1755.

Haqqi Sahib, the then secretary of the board, was of the view that until the last volume was compiled, the first should not go to press. On the contrary, Oxford, after publishing its first volume in 1884, had to resort to print unbound fascicles making it easier for readers to buy them and get them bound later when a part was completed. But it had a drawback: while compiling the next volumes some rarely used or new words that belonged to the previous volumes were recorded, and Oxford had to publish supplements once it was done with the publishing of the main dictionary.

To avoid that problem, Haqqi Sahib did not go for the printing despite having compiled a few volumes, though they needed finishing touches. But succumbing to the mounting pressure from the government and the public, the board began printing the first volume after necessary amendments and it was published in 1977, though Haqqi Sahib had resigned and Dr Abul-Lais Siddiqui had taken over as the chief editor.

In 1982, the board was renamed as the Urdu Dictionary Board and was asked by the ministry to concentrate only on its flagship dictionary and leave other responsibilities, such as promotion of Urdu, to other institutions. After Dr Siddiqui, from time to time many scholars took over as chief editors, including Dr Farman Fatehpuri, and volume after volume began to come out, contributing to the realisation of a great dream that had by now become a national pride.

A similar scheme was launched in India and several scholars were hired by the Indian government to compile a greater Urdu dictionary. But the project in India could not take off and it was abandoned probably due to lack of political will and Urdu’s comparatively lesser status in India. By now the Indian scholars, too, had begun to look to the UDB for an authentic dictionary despite the fact that many scholars not only from India but also from Pakistan had criticised certain volumes of the dictionary for certain shortcomings.

Even then they waited and still wait for its newer volumes as there had developed a consensus in the Urdu world that in spite of its shortcomings and certain lapses, the UDB’s dictionary was unprecedented. It is the most comprehensive and the most authentic dictionary written in Urdu.

Even Rasheed Hasan Khan, the renowned Indian scholar known for his meticulousness and his criticism of the UDB’s dictionary for some scholarly lapses, especially in the first volume, had acknowledged in an interview after the publication of the dictionary’s 20th volume that it was a great scholarly work.

The UDB has so far published 21 volumes and only the last volume remains. But the government, as is reported in the media, wishes to merge the UDB with some other institutions, jeopardising the future of the dictionary and the UDB itself. It would really be unfortunate if the UDB is merged with any other government institution as it would render it ineffective and inefficient as other government departments are.

The UDB has a great past. It has done an extremely wonderful job by compiling 21 volumes of Urdu’s most comprehensive and authentic dictionary. Sources in the board informed this writer that 448 pages of the 22nd volume — the last one — have already been printed and work on the remaining 300 or so pages is in full swing. The UDB is soon going to achieve the rarest of feats that only English and German can boast of: a dictionary enlisting each and every word of the language on historical principles with citations from thousands of classical and modern sources.

Perhaps somebody is eyeing the precious piece of land the UDB is situated on. Or some unscrupulous, short-sighted section officers have decided to save the government’s few millions that are spent on the UDB every year, not understanding that the job of compiling a dictionary never ends. Some experts go to the extent of saying that a dictionary is obsolete a soon as it leaves the press.

I feel it is an extreme view, but even a conservative estimate shows that a dictionary becomes outdated 10 years after its publication as it needs to record the changes that a language usually goes through over a decade. And revising a dictionary compiled on historical principles and having 22 volumes is no joke. It needs trained, technical hands with vast experience of lexicography, which no institution has in the country other than the UDB.

Moreover, after the publication of the last volume, there still remains to be published an index and a bibliography enlisting the works cited. It would definitely take another volume. Then there is the project of shorter versions of the dictionary and many other spin-offs such as dictionaries of synonyms, antonyms, idioms, proverbs and technical terms.

One sincerely hopes that the UDB will be allowed to work unhindered so that this great project of national importance and a source of national pride is completed befittingly, and Sir Syed’s and Baba-i-Urdu’s dream does not end in a nightmare.

This post also appeared at the Daily Dawn on July 13, 2009.

21 Comments on “Urdu Dictionary Project is Under Threat”

  1. ASAD says:
    July 23rd, 2009 10:50 pm

    Amazing post. Very detailed and informative.

    I do hope that this project will not be shelved now that it is so near completion.

    Also, I think getting a ‘Consise’ Urdu dictionary is even more important than getting a comprehensive one.

  2. jumma says:
    July 23rd, 2009 10:57 pm


    Read this news. just another murder

    No, its just not another murder. This is a murder of Pakistan. Slowly but surely, Pakistan is murdered every day in parts of Baluchistan by so called freedom fighters.

    Be it Baluchistan or Karachi, the target killing is going unchecked and poor Pakistanis are being targetted by murderous ethnic parties….but who cares, we will not get any aid to get rid of this menace.

  3. Owais Mughal says:
    July 23rd, 2009 11:31 pm

    ‘Urdu dictionary board’ used to be on my way to University. I always smiled at the bill board with words written ‘Urdu dictionary board’ in nastaleeq Urdu. I know many other people noticed it too that shouldn’t they write at least these words in Urdu :) I am myelf not sure what is the translation of word ‘board’ . anjuman/mehakma etc ? Then may be they should’ve written Urdu lughat anjuman or daftar Urdu lughat or mehakma-e-Urdu lughat etc

    Dr. Rauf, This is very informative post. I never knew that National Urdu dictionary already has 21 volumes published and only 300 pages of the last vol are left to be printed. It will be interesting to actually visit the place and see the volumes for oneself. I am hoping they are on display (or available) for referece in UDB.

  4. Gardezi says:
    July 24th, 2009 12:11 am

    Excellent post. Learnt much from here. Glad that the dictionary is already at this stage and I certainly think that the Board should continue to next phase.

    But the real test of the dictionary will be on whether it includes the word “ganderi” and how it defines it :-)

  5. Schajee says:
    July 24th, 2009 12:47 am

    They should re-format the UDB along the principles of Wikimedia and setup a Wiktionary much along the lines of ur.wictionary.org.

    Hire a bunch of people to do data entry (I’m sure NADRA will be more than helpful in this regard) and there you have it. Within a few years you’ll have all the words online and then they won’t have to worry about printing and outdated publishing.

    The board of UDB can serve as editors, maintaining quality control over the project. Later they can let the general public have a go at it as language is an ever evolving entity and without evolution it will decay and wither away.

  6. Atif says:
    July 24th, 2009 12:57 am

    Center for Research in Urdu Language processing (CRULP) at National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences (FAST-NU) has developed a comprehensive online dictionary which is freely accessible at http://crulp.org/oud

  7. adeel says:
    July 24th, 2009 4:15 am

    This was indeed informative and I have too learned a lot from the post.

    Internet is the future and as Schajee said we should build on this monumental piece of work and bring it to the web. And it would make sense to keep UDB an independent organization, providing it with additional resources to carry on its examplary work. In our dilapidated country, there aren’t a lot of things left to take pride in… we should try keep the few that are still functioning despite the chaos.

    On a side note, one of the best online Urdu dictionaries that I know of is at http://tinyurl.com/kke68y

    There isn’t a lot of information on its ‘about us’ page but it appears to be hosted under the Ministry of Information Technology but doesn’t seem to be linked with UDB in any way (doesn’t say so in any obvious manner). It would be nice to know if these guys have been collaborating with UDB for their content.

    By the way, it doesn’t say anything about the word

  8. Humaira says:
    July 24th, 2009 8:21 am

    I think Schajee’s Wiki idea is great. That is really the only way to go for the future and I hope the UDB will get in on the act.

    Although I wonder if the Urdu-savvy people are also wiki-savvy?

  9. Owais Mughal says:
    July 24th, 2009 9:40 pm

    More on Urdu Dictionary Board can be read here

  10. Usman says:
    July 26th, 2009 6:35 am

    We need good dictionaries for Urdu. Not just comprehensive ones but usable ones for students etc.

  11. Tariq Rauf says:
    July 27th, 2009 10:22 pm

    Very informative aricle and commendable project indeed. I am amazed and wonder how much resolve it would have required to stick to and see this project through after so many years.

    Looking towards the future, though, I think this work needs to move to a more crowdsourcing model. I think that – quality / scholarly concerns aside – setting up a “lughatpedia” is the need of the day. There are plenty of people that like urdu and would want to contribute.

    This should also be viewed as a service provided by the state that can be consumed from the web / mobile phones, etc.

  12. Owais Mughal says:
    August 18th, 2009 10:34 am

    Last weekend I visited this place called ‘kitab ghar’ in Chicago and was happily surprised to see several volumes of this Urdu dictionary there.

    Growing up in Karachi, i never had ‘taufeeq’ to visit “Urdu Dictionary Board”, eventhough it used to be on my daily route to University for several years, but finding such treasure in Chicago was an ultimate happy surprise.

    I spent several minutes going through these volumes. A very impressive work indeed.

    I also want to take this opportunity to recommend ‘kitab ghar’ in Chicago for Urdu lovers. They have a very nice collection of Urdu literature. I saw several Urdu books here which I never saw in Pakistan. This place is located off Devon St. I forgot the exact street name but anyone on Devon can guide you there.

  13. xyz says:
    August 26th, 2009 5:29 pm

    I want oxford enlish to urdu dictionary free downloads

  14. Kaka mastana says:
    December 8th, 2009 12:10 pm

    yaar idiom nai mil rehe kahan per press karon
    koi option front per rakh do . Thanx to all

  15. Fareedi says:
    February 25th, 2010 8:28 pm

    Mr. Mughal, You are right this is a great place to visit and find good urdu books, credit goes to Janab Naseem Sarwar (Rooh – E – Rawan of Kitab Ghar)
    Here is the address and fone # of Kitab Ghar Devon Ave/Oakley Ave.
    6403 N. Oakley Ave. Chicago, IL 60645 Phone: 773-743-6005 …

  16. Owais Mughal says:
    February 25th, 2010 10:14 pm

    Freedi, thanks for sharing the address of kitab ghar. I had a good chat with Naseem Sarwar saheb last time I was there.

  17. Owais Mughal says:
    April 16th, 2010 10:26 am

    The last volume of Urdu Dictionary was completed two days ago. This project finally got completed in 51 years.

  18. Owais Mughal says:
    April 16th, 2010 11:20 am

    Here is the news cutting on completion of last volume of official Urdu Dictionary.

  19. Watan Aziz says:
    April 17th, 2010 12:57 pm

    First, congratulations to the good folks who made extensive efforts to get a dictionary completed. Really, any effort towards good education is effort good. And in case of Pakistan, where funding for anything good is hard to come, this truly is laudable effort. Remarkable effort.

    And now, much to the relief of our Bengali brothers and sisters, they will not have to suffer it. Even if most people 80 miles outside of Karachi will have to endure it.

    Why endure you ask?

    Well, the Urdu’dann who published this news byline is exhibit #1 on what is wrong with this Urdu business.

    First, the news byline has no date. A typical of the Urdu print media in particular and Pakistani media in general. For them the standardization and minimum requirements are mere formalities that need not be followed. After all, who is to tell them that they do not know “Urdu”? Moi?

    Second, the irony of ironies, an Urdu newspaper publishes a news about Urdu dictionary but laden with Roman numerals and loan words from English.

    Finally, it seems, the reporter himself and his editor, both do not know how to spell and are excellent candidates for this dictionary. The graphic on top of the blog has Oxford spelled with “alif wow kaf”. This “shusta Urdu’dann” has it spelled as “alif kaf”. Need I say more?

    And this last issue has really made me ponder. The innovators and inventors of spelling on the fly have managed to mangle both the Urdu and the English of several generations of Pakistanis. Words pronounced as “gormint”, “birday”, etc. did not have to be. I have seen “Jercey” spelled right back in English after getting it’s mangled spelling base from some Urdu’dann.

    Urdu, is truly one of few languages that permits each sound to be pronounced correctly. Really, if you know Urdu, you can learn to phonetically pronounce any word from any language because there is a sound and an alphabet base for it. However, due to efforts of these ignorant Urdu’danns, we have manage to destroy even this advantage.

    If the nascent nation did not need a conflict, the proponents of Urdu created language riots and spawned a process, that continues and continues. Every conflict in Pakistan has roots in language associated problems and all of them stem from demands of Urdu. Top down. Imposed.

    And this, my friends, is truly the real “Ignominy We Ignore”.

    So, I ask yet one more time, were the language riots worth it?

  20. fahad says:
    July 18th, 2010 12:41 pm

    It is a very spectacular event for me that the publication of the 22 volumes urdu dictionary has been completed with the hardworking people of this country. Allah bless them all because the accomplish a tremendious task and i used to think when i consult the English dictionary that the english people are doing their utmost to spread their language and i used to feel depressed when i witnessed the miseries of Urdu speaking people but now i am confident and feel proud of the work done by the men of letter. I also think the media can play its pivotal rule to increase the awarness among people that tough they should know different language of the world but along with them they should also be able to speak their own language without feeling any inferiority complex. May Allah say us from all those who are unhappy with the great event.
    thanks fahad

  21. Watan Aziz says:
    July 23rd, 2010 10:02 am

    We have Urdlish.

    We also speak Pinglish, BaloochDu, PunjDu, SindU, PushtDu, SarikDu and HindkDu.

    But when it comes to the Urdu media, they only prefer to write in Urdlish. (As is clearly shown in the press release, press report.). Further, most of the time when you hear some of the people, they really speak Pinglish.

    So, how can we encourage our Urdu media to start supporting BaloochDu, PunjDu, SindU, PushtDu, SarikDu and HindkDu?

    After all, if Urdu can have loan words from English, what is stopping Urdu from acquiring and mainstreaming the local languages of Pakistan?

    Why the resistance?

    The “Rickshaw Wisdom” guy in his latest rendition has amply shown that Punjabi thrown in with Urdu has a nice balance and a good rhyme. A richer delivery, if you will.

    Besides, it can turn into massive movement towards better literacy in Pakistan as the local languages will get support from the massive Urdu literature and print capabilities. And really, when I say literacy, I actually mean amongst the so call “educated” with Pakistani passports but who are least informed about a nation call Pakistan. (Besides the new developments of grandstanding and sloganeering!)

    And what other language can do what “Lashkari” has already accomplished? It has already unified Hindi, Persian and Arabic into one. Then went on to add English. It is Urdu’s organic nature to acquire other languages to broaden it’s scope. It is natural to Urdu!

    So why stop there?

    I wish it had acquired Bengali. But that is past and another story.

    And so, finally, it will be the best and most unifying process as all local languages will gradually move to harmonize the written and the spoken language.

    And with Google Translate already in the mix, it will an amazing process to transform the local languages of Pakistan as part of Urdu as it will continue to expand and acquire new expressions, translations and knowledge base from other languages, cultures and traditions. On other words, no stopping now.

    Go, Pinglish, BaloochDu, PunjDu, SindU, PushtDu, SarikDu and HindkDu!

    I call is “UrdKo” (beause it will acquire the smallest language base of Hindko), but does anyone have a better name?

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