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About Urdu

Official language of: Pakistan, India
Regulated by: ”not regulated by a language academy

Urdu is an Indo-European language which originated in South Asia. Most probably in the neighbourhood of Delhi from where it spread to the rest of South Asia. It developed from the interaction between local South Asian languages and the languages of the Middle East. This process took place mostly in the military camps and the word urdu itself means army, horde or tent in Turkish.

It soon became the prized language of the Mughals, distinguished linguistically from local languages by its large and extensive Arabic-Persian vocabulary superimposed on a native Hindi base of grammar, usages and vocabulary. The result was what has been termed by many as one of the world’s most beautiful languages, the “Kohinoor” (“Mountain of Light,” a famed native, large and brilliant diamond) of India. It is widely spoken today in both India and Pakistan and all countries having a sizeable South Asian Diaspora.

Urdu along with Hindi forming the Hindustani Language is the second most popular ‘first’ language and second most popular ‘first or second’ language in the world. Urdu by itself is the twentieth most popular ‘first’ language in the world.


There are many different views on the origins of Urdu. These views differ on both the time and the location.

It has been said that Urdu may have originated in the Deccan, in the Punjab, in Maharashtra, in Bengal, in Sindh or in the neighbourhood of Delhi. These hypothesis are generally backed by evidence of works in Urdu having been found in these areas as far back as the period of the Delhi Sultanate. Keeping in the view the linguistic character of the areas around Delhi it is usually said that Urdu originated in or around Delhi over a period of a few centuries.

Although it is seen that there is continuous progression in linguistic development from Sanskrit down to the modern languages of Northern India. Similarly there is a very strong link between the language ‘Hindvi’ of the middle ages and Urdu of today. The works of Amir Khusrau are intelligible to the speakers of Urdu/Hindi despite their having been written in the 14th century. It is hypothesized that Urdu is the language developed when a regular and slow stream of Arabic, Persian and Turkish words got infused into the language Hindvi. This is a plausible explanation since Urdu is grammatically very similar to the local languages while at the same time it used a very Persianized vocabulary.

Urdu has been called a host of names during this seven century long interval. Hindvi, Hindi(not to be confused with the modern language), Rekhta, Shahjahani, Deccani, Urdu e Mualla and Urdu. There is some debate if all these names represent the same language, but a majority of experts agree that these are names of the same language that today we see as Urdu.

The language orginiated in the neighbourhood of Delhi but it was in the Deccan that it first got its acceptance. The rulers of the Deccan were much more supportive to the development of local languages as opposed to the Persian influence in northern South Asia. In the Deccan the court became the centre for the development of Urdu and the initial Poetry and Literature in Urdu is usually from the Deccan from where the idea of using Urdu rather than Persian as the media of poetry and literature spread to the northern parts of South Asia.

After the mainstream acceptance of Urdu as a poetic language in North India a very large number of poets started using this language. Great poets such as Mir, Sauda, Ghalib and Zauq made the language acceptable as the medium of thought. The increasing quantity of poetry and literature caused the languge to become more uniform and less changeable as it had been in the past.

Classification and Related Languages:

Urdu is a member of the Hindustani group of languages which is a subgroup of the Indo Aryan group of languages which is in turn part of the Indo European family of languages.

Urdu is related to most of the languages of northern South Asia. This is due to the fact that they all have similar sentence structures and grammatical structures. They even have a certain common vocabulary which makes them similar in many cases.

The language Punjabi is very similar to Urdu. Written Punjabi can be understood by speakers of Urdu albeit with a little difficulty but spoken Punjabi has a very different pronunciation system and cannot be understood that easily by speakers of Urdu.

Urdu – Hindi – Hindustani
Urdu, Hindi and Hindustani have a very strange and complex relationship with each other. Urdu and Hindi have been called different languages on the one hand and dialects of the same language on the other. Hindustani is generally thought of as the language that encompasses both Urdu and Hindi and forms the mother language of these two languages.

The most major difference between Urdu and Hindi is that Urdu is written in the Nastaliq font of the modified Arabic script while Hindi is written in the Devnagari script.

Urdu, Hindi and Hindustani are all segments on a long lingusitic chain. At one end is a heavily Persianized language which is written in the Nastaliq font and in a modified Arabic script. At the other end is a heavily Sanskritized language which is written in the Devanagari form. The progression from one to the other is continuous and slow. The basic grammatic structure is the same. The words are replaced either by more Sanskritized or more Persianized forms. Urdu forms the segment of the chain more towards the Persian side and Hindi forms the segment of the chain more towards the Sanskrit side. The langugage generally spoken in northern South Asia is basically half way between the two extremes and represents Hindustani.

Despite this the casual spoken language is similar an in some cases not distinguishable. For example it is said that Indian movies are made in Hindi. But the language used in many of these movies is exactly the language used by Urdu speakers in Pakistan. On the other hand Pakistani TV Dramas are said to be made in Urdu. But the language used in many of these dramas is exactly the language used by Hindi speakers in India.

As the language gets more formal the difference between these two languages starts to become clearer. In more serious speech and writing the Sanskritization or Persianization will become more pronounced. The languages used in newscasts, encyclopaedia articles and courtrooms become very heavily Sanskritized or Persianized and may be nearly unintelligible to speakers from the other languages.

So Urdu speakers in will find their own language in the Hindi cinema but they will not be able to understand newscasts from Hindi channels. On the other hand Indian Hindi speakers will find their own language in Urdu TV dramas but will not be able to understand newscasts from Urdu channels.

Geographic Distribution:

As mother tongue : In Pakistan Urdu is spoken as a mother tongue by a majority of the people in the cities of Karachi and Hyderabad in the southern province of Sindh. Apart from this most cities in Sindh and most large cities in the rest of Pakistan have a large number of people whose mother tongue is Urdu. In India Urdu is spoken as a mother tongue by Muslims in the northern and central states but not in the south, east, far west and far north of the country. A large number of people use Urdu as their mother tongue in cities with large South Asian diasporas throughout the world particularly New York City, London, Dubai, Jeddah and Kuwait City.

As spoken language : Urdu is the lingua franca of Pakistan. It is spoken by nearly all the Pakistanis except some people living in rural or remote areas. In India (except in the south) Hindi is the lingua franca. Due to the similarity between Hindi and Urdu it can be said that Urdu is spoken in nearly all of India as well. Apart from South Asia Urdu is also spoken in urban Afghanistan. It is also spoken to some extent in the major urban centres in the Persian Gulf countries and in Saudi Arabia. Urdu is also spoken by a large number of people in the major urban centres of the UK, the USA, Canada and Australia.

Coutries with large numbers of Urdu speakers:



India (48 Million)
Mauritius (64,000)

Pakistan (10 Million)
Saudi Arabia
South Africa (170,000)
United Arab Emirates
United Kingdom (1 Million)
United States (1 Million)

Official Status:

Urdu is the sole official language of Pakistan. Although English is used in most official circles but Urdu is the official language and English is used as an intermediate language until Urdu replaces it. Urdu is one of the official languages of India where it is the official language of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.