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The Dhaka dialect of Urdu

A few years ago, I heard two brothers managing a shoe shop in a city shopping mall speaking a language that sounded markedly Urdu. One was asking the other about what to say in reply to enquiries that a customer made. When I asked the one close by if he was speaking Urdu, he appeared perplexed. He said that there was no difference between how he was speaking to his brother and how he was speaking to the customer.

I knew it was Urdu but with a different colour. A friend of mine in my first year in the university in 1989 who lived in a house close to the Sadarghat launch terminal used to speak to his father in English, to his brother in Bangla and to his mother in Urdu.

It is a dialect of Urdu native to Old Town of Dhaka, coming down from the Mughal times, which has been extant in the merchant community, popularly known as Khoshbas. The dialect of Urdu that they speak is also known as Khoshbas Dhakaiya in addition to being called Dhakaiya Urdu or Sobbasi. The Sobbasi dialect of Urdu larded with Bangla accent and intersparsed with words heavily borrowed from Bangla is markedly different from what the Urdu-speaking community, popularly known as the Biharis, although not all of them have been from Bihar, speak in the other part of the capital city and outside.

Although speakers of both the dialects of Urdu in use in Bangladesh used to, and still do, employ the standard dialect in literary writing, the Urdu that the Biharis speak is closer to the standard dialect, as in use in India and Pakistan. But 50 years’ isolation has left this dialect to somehow grow on its own, with local bells and trinkets often thrown in.

The Sobbasi speakers often use the word ‘bujhna’ as the verb for ‘to understand’, while in the standard Urdu dialect the word would mean ‘to extinguish’ as in a fire or a lamp, the Biriharis do certainly use the word ‘samajhna’ in this case. I have heard people living in camps say that ‘jab desh shadhin hua…’ (when the country became independent…), not even the could-be Hindustani version of ‘swadhin’ in place of ‘azad.’

Urdu-speaking merchants from north India are said to have started migrating to the city of Jahangirnagar, which now largely constitutes part of Dhaka, during the Mughal era, when Subah-e-Bangal was famed for being industrially developed. Having happily settled here, they came to be known as Khushbas, which appears to have changed into Khoshbas, then into Sokhbash, through an event of metathesis, a reorder of syllables within the word that is a common linguistic feature in any language, and then, finally, into Sobbas, giving rise to Sobbasi as the name of the dialect.

The language is thought to have been heavily influenced by the other dialect of Old Town, Dhakaiya kutti, which was the dialect of the cultivators coming to have settled in the urban space. The interaction of both the communities had given rise to the dialect of Urdu over ages although noted poets such as Mirza Jan ‘Tapish’ coming to live in Dhaka at the invitation of Shams ad-Daulah, the nayeb-e-nizam of Dhaka, in the 18th century and some others have enriched the literary exercise of Urdu, in its standard form, in Old Town.

Mirza Jan Tapish, Mahmud Azad, Ghaffar Akhtar, Agha Ahmad Ali, Ubaidullah Al Ubaidi Suhrawardy, Munshi Rahman Ali Tayesh, Nawab Syed Muhammad Azad, Hakim Habibur Rahman, Syed Sharfuddin Sharif Al Hussaini and Reza Ali Wahshat are some of the noted poets of Old Town who wrote in the standard Urdu dialect.

Hakim Habibur Rahman, a physician by profession, wrote some books worth reading which included Asudegan-e-Dhaka and Dhaka Panchas Baras Pahle. He was also the editor of Bengal’s first Urdu magazine, Al-Mashriq, which came out in 1906. He later, along with Khwaja Adil, founded another monthly magazine, Jadu, in 1924.

The practice of Urdu in the literary circle in Old Town declined after the language movement of 1952, with many consciously avoiding any chance to land in controversy. But the holding of mushaira, or symposiums of poems, continued on a limited scale. The Sobbasi dialect has also made it to the media through its use in a song in the film Jiban Niye Juya (Life is a gamble), released in 1975, in which Sabina Yasmin and Md Khurshid Alam sang ‘Hare, Matiya Hamar Nam’, as stand-in singers. Composer Ali Hossain put to tune the song written by Qazi Abu Zafar Siddiqui.

As the dialect has so far come to be used in oral communication, with some people who are more serious using the Perso-Arabic script to write the standard dialect, there has been no script associated with it. It could be written in the Bangla script, the Urdu script or even in the Roman script. But the employment of either the Urdu or the Roman script could give rise to some issues, giving rise to reversals that could negate a few characteristics of the dialect.

The prime among such issues is that Sobbasi hardly makes any distinction between the j-sound and the z-sound. ‘Dhakaiya Urdu jaban’ or ‘Dhakaiya Urdu zaban’, the Dhaka Urdu dialect, which should be ‘zaban-e urdu-e Dhaka’ in the standard form, is pronounced with either a j-sound or a z-sound in Sobbasi. This is an example of unconscious interchangeability.

There has been a tendency for reduction in diphthongs and syllables, especially in pronouns such as ‘yeh’ (this) and ‘woh’ (that), which become ‘e’ and ‘o’ in the Dhaka dialect. Syllable reduction has also come up as a feature of the dialect. The standard ‘ke liye’ becomes ‘keli’ in Sobbasi.

Consonant aspiration is mostly lost, as the standard ‘bhi’ (too) is pronounced ‘bi.’ ‘Khub’, an adjective in the standard Urdu that pronounces with a velar fricative, pronounces with an aspirated velar plosive to act as an adverb the way it acts in Bangla. The dropping of nasalisation, which is also a marked feature of Bangla dialects in Bangladesh, is regularly noticed.

The first person singular pronoun ‘main’ is often replaced with ‘ham’ (in fact, ‘we’), with the vowel sounding more like the Bangla ‘a’ rather than like a schwa as in Hindustani. Adjectives do not change keeping to the number of the subject, noun or pronoun. In ‘jab ham chhota the…’ (when I was young…), the adjective ‘chhota’ (young) does not change to “chhote’ as it would in the standard dialect of Urdu.

When the first-person pronoun in the singular form is used, ‘main’, it sounds like ‘mai[n]’, with the ending nasal dropped and often with the verbal ending in the plural — ‘jab mai chhota the…’ and not ‘jab main chhota tha…’.

As the oblique form of pronouns, when they take following prepositions, older forms such as hamo[n] and ‘tumo[n], with the nasal sounds dropped, are used. ‘Hamoka ghar’ means ‘mera ghar’ (my house) and ‘tomoka dawat’ means, literally, ‘your invitation’; ‘hamoka ghar tumoka dawat’ means ‘you are invited to my house.’ The grammatical gender of nouns that Hindustani is famous for is not maintained, adjectives remain in their singular form even when they are applied to plural nouns, but verbs in many cases are used in the plural form even when the nouns or pronouns are in the singular.

Words or phrases the way they are used in the standard Urdu have changed apparently under a strong influence of Bangla. ‘Akhbar’, which means newspaper in the standard form of Urdu, has changed into ‘khabar ka kagej’ or ‘kagez’ in Sobbasi. The dialect also employs a definite particle which is non-existent in standard Urdu. There are two sounds of ‘a’ in Sobbasi — ‘ektho zor deke, arektho aste naram karke’ (one with a force and the other being softened); the ‘tho’ particle to define noun or pronoun is not there in Urdu.

There has recently been a fresh impetus to the revival of the dialect, especially with the publication of a dictionary — Bangla-Dhakaiya Sobbasi Diksenari, (Bangla-Dhakaiya Sobbasi dictionary), compiled and edited mainly by Md Shahabuddin Sabu. A house named Taqiya Mohammad Publications brought out the book in January 2021. Sobbasi enthusiasts have also conducted several seminars and started running a few groups on social media. There has also been a debate of a sort on the ‘rasm-ul khat’, or the script, that could be used to write Sobbasi. While some have proposed that the dialect should be written in the Bangla script, in which the dictionary at hand has been published, some others prefer the Perso-Arabic script, as is used in Urdu.

What appears striking in the debate is that people giving postings on the Facebook pages of the groups write Sobbasi in the Bangla script as it is spoken, but when they write the same sentences in the same postings in the Perso-Arabic script, they invariably get back to the standard Urdu spelling, leaving a difference between how they write the sentences in the Bangla or the Urdu script. Sentences written in the Bangla script hardly deviate from how the dialect is spoken and the same sentences written in the Perso-Arabic script hardly deviate from how the sentences should be spelt in standard Urdu. Here lies the crux that Sobbasi users need to resolve in the first place for the preservation and development of the dialect.


Akkas, Abu Jar M (2022 Feb. 21). The Dhaka dialect of Urdy. New Age s4


Rev.: vii·xi·mmxxii