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  • Negotiating Languages: Urdu, Hindi, and the Definition of Modern South Asia by Walter Hakala
  • Sungok Hong (bio)
Negotiating Languages: Urdu, Hindi, and the Definition of Modern South Asia by Walter Hakala. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. Pp. xxiv + 287. $65.00. ISBN: 978-0-231-17830-3.

One of twenty-four books in the South Asia Across the Disciplines series, Walter Hakala’s Negotiating Languages is a brief historical survey of several Urdu dictionaries that were written across three centuries. The book is a meaningful achievement, as this is a relatively underexplored area, and some of the authors discussed in the book, and their lexicographic works, have long lain buried in history. The author’s primary object is “to explode the belief that any lexicographic work, be it a children’s glossary or a multi-volume dictionary, is merely a mimetic representation of an underlying linguistic reality and not a carefully constructed product of human labor” (27). He illustrates this through the story of Hindustani, which later divided into two national languages—Hindi and Urdu—due to affiliations with two different scripts. The divide came about as a result of the politicization of the language, which occurred when religious and cultural differences were inserted into the discussion.

In emphasizing the importance of lexicographic genres as “cogent material sources” for the history of South Asia, the author states, “A dictionary is the most concrete modern material artifact of a community that shares a common language,” and he asserts that lexicography can “construct and reflect a reality” (4). His chapters investigate representative lexicographers and their important works at various moments in history, using distinctive “historiographical methods” in recounting the developmental history of the Urdu language from late in the seventeenth century up to the early twentieth century. The book investigates the origin of each work and each author in relation to contemporary social, economic, and political developments and explains the work’s reception and reappearance in later lexicographical works.

Chapter 2 deals with the pioneering first Urdu dictionary, Ġharāʾib al-Luġhāt ‘Marvels of Words,’1 written by ʿAbdul Wāsĕʿ of Hansi in the [End Page 142] late seventeenth century. This is the oldest Urdu dictionary (although it is not a monolingual dictionary but an Urdu-Persian dictionary) according to Sayyid Abdullah, a historian and scholar of literature in Urdu, Arabic, and Persian and a chief editor of the Urdu Encyclopedia of Islam. Wāsĕʿ collected data from the speech of common people and employed linguistic material from a range of mutually intelligible dialects. His use of these sources was criticized by the poet and lexicographer Khān-i Ārzū, but the dictionary nevertheless influenced the producers of later works.

Chapter 3 examines Shams al-Bayān fī Muṣt̤alaḥāt al-Hindūstān ‘The Sun of Speech, on the Idioms of Hindustan’ (1792) and its author, Mirzā Jān ‘T̤apish,’ who believed in the system of usatad-shagird silsilah ‘chain of authority.’ It documents new linguistic material from the colloquial speech of both the noble and the common people of Delhi, such as proverbs, jargons, and folksongs compiled toward the end of the eighteenth century. The use of such sources points to a shift from the register of poetry to one of prose in terms of lexicographic materials. Hakala draws an engaging comparison between T̤apish and Inshāʾallāh Ḳhān, a contemporary of T̤apish who wrote Daryā-i Lat̤āfat ‘Ocean of Subtlety’ (1807) and was an important figure in Hindi literature in his own right. Inshā’s ideas were revolutionary, in that he argues that in identifying a true Dihlawi, or resident of Delhi (which was the cultural and political center at the time), social distinction comes not from birth but from education.

Chapter 4 discusses the lexicographer Sayyid Aḥmad Dihlawi and his compiled dictionary, Hindūstānī Urdū Luġhāt ‘Hindustani with Urdu definitions’ (1888), which Hakala regards as “the single most useful dictionary of the Urdu language” for many scholars (115). This dictionary was later enlarged and retitled Farhang-i Āṣafiyah ‘Dictionary of the Aṣaf Jāhī Dynasty’ (1918) to recognize a generous...


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