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Unlocking Urdu

Posted 2:46 p.m. Friday, April 12, 2024

Andrew Howard, a lecturer in UWL's History Department, has developed a passion for studying the Indo-Aryan language of Urdu in recent years. Here, he's pictured at the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque in Delhi, India.

For history instructor, language inspires new ways to see the world 

Like traversing the desert and finding an oasis.  

That’s how Andrew Howard, a lecturer in UWL’s History Department, describes meeting someone who shares his passion for Urdu — an Indo-Aryan language that makes frequent use of metaphors and figurative speech to convey emotion.  

Howard, who became interested in Urdu while studying the history of the Indian subcontinent, is now conducting research in the language. He plans to incorporate original Urdu sources in his forthcoming book exploring British imperialism in Kashmir, India. 

“It has always struck me as a beautiful, poetic language, both when written and spoken, and I think there is a universal human desire to understand beauty better,” Howard explains. “But I was also interested in learning Urdu to help unlock evidence from the subcontinent’s past that would otherwise be inaccessible to me in my work as a historian.” 

Howard specializes in the history of the British Empire in South Asia. When researching the history of non-English speakers, he says, language study is essential.

Howard visiting the Taj Mahal.

This is especially true when traveling the world and meeting with locals. 

Howard’s grasp of the Urdu language and culture has allowed him to make personal connections that are not just useful to his research, but transformative to his understanding of human relationships. 

“Once I met my friend’s family and had a conversation with them in Urdu. They were so excited to meet an American who had taken the time to understand their language and culture,” Howard says. “They even asked me to talk to their younger son to help him consider his career options and what was available to him.  

“These are important moments, and not just for me. I recognize that these experiences build bridges and connections across the world and help forge a closer global community. I am always so pleased when someone realizes that I can communicate with them in their own language. It instantly builds trust and bonding that couldn’t be replicated in any other way.” 

Learning Urdu has also shaped the way Howard sees and describes the world. 

Urdu, he explains, is a deeply poetic language. Speakers often weave metaphors into everyday conversations, adding color and richness to even the more mundane moments in life. 

“Such figurative speech is challenging to translate but feels so much more rewarding when successfully done compared to translating more literal language,” Howards says. “As a result, studying Urdu has expanded my emotional understanding of myself and others by forcing me to inhabit this metaphoric mental space. It has helped me understand better what it means to be human.” 

Howard has taken several trips to South Asia, including research work at the National Archives of India in New Delhi and at the Jammu & Kashmir State Archives in Jammu. 

He plans to make a final visit to Srinagar, where he hopes to review Urdu notes taken by Indian spies assigned to monitor the affairs of British officials in Kashmir. 

But an interest in the history of South Asia is not necessary to benefit from the lessons found through exploring the Urdu language and culture, Howard believes. 

“I think exploring Urdu language and culture can help people at UWL have a better understanding of the vast range of human emotions and experience,” he says. “Sometimes we can be forgiven for thinking that our problems are only our own and unique to our experience. But by breaking out of our own cultural traditions and exploring new ones, such as Urdu language and culture, we can both inhabit a different plane of human emotion and experience while also finding common ground with our own lives and perspectives.” 


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