The First Dictionary of Urdu

A dictionary, English and Hindoostanee, in which the words are marked with their distinguishing initials: as Hinduwee, Arabic, and Persian. Whence the Hindoostanee, or what is vulgarly, but improperly, called the Moor language, is evidently formed.

John Borthwick Gilchrist’s study of language in Northern India began as an attempt to better communicate with Indian soldiers and other local employees. When he landed in Bombay as an assistant surgeon with the East India Company in 1782, he was told that Persian was India’s main language. He soon realized, however, that few people actually spoke it very well and that Urdu, also known as Hindustani, was more common. He requested leave to undertake his studies and never returned to medical service. While living in Faizabad, Lucknow, Delhi and Ghazipur, he gathered material and collaborated with writers who helped him produce a simple style that was assembled in the first dictionary of Urdu.

Gilchrist went to great lengths to get to know the lingua franca, even growing a beard and dressing in eastern clothes to walk among the people. “… In April 1785, I fairly broke ground, and retired to Fyzabad, that I might at so considerable a distance from all my own countrymen, faithfully dedicate, without the possibility of interruption, every moment I could safely snatch from the devouring jaws of Indian slumbers, to my projected work … To supply the want of more auspicious credentials, and recommendations, as far as lay in my power, I gradually acquired in my retreat a long black beard, and at the same time assumed for a certain period the dress of the natives. I laboured night and day for the first month of my retirement, surrounded by several learned Hindoostanees, supported of course at a very considerable expence, and from them I endeavoured to extract viva voce every known word in their voluminous tongue …”

The dictionary was almost certainly the first work to be printed using the Nastaliq types cast at the foundry of the Chronicle Press established by Daniel Stuart and Joseph Cooper in 1786. Aaron Upjohn became Cooper’s partner when Stuart returned to Britain on account of ill health. Unusually, this work was printed on paper produced locally, but we are unable to ascertain whether it was the traditional Indian “Patna” paper or paper from the new mills established by Europeans in Calcutta at this time.

The proofreading and production of this pioneering dictionary seem to have driven Gilchrist almost to despair. The preface is one long litany of complaints about “typographical quicksands, and whirlpools, on the siren shores of oriental literature”, where the printers were the chief villains. He was bemused that “one day the press would bound with the agility of an antelope, and for weeks afterwards assume almost the retrograde gait of a crab, just as an influx of cash, and spirits, roused or benumbed its conductors”.

A dictionary, English and Hindoostanee evolved over several years and was published in installments beginning in 1787. It is the culmination of a prolonged effort to discover the practical language already in use by millions, but never formalized. Gilchrist’s work ultimately led to Urdu replacing Persian as the language used by Britain to administer its Indian territories.[1]

Gilchrist was later given the role of teaching Urdu to East India Company servants, forming the basis for what would become Fort William College in 1800. Four years later, he returned to Scotland in ill health. In 1806 he was appointed professor at the newly established East India College in Hertford, and from 1818 to 1826 he was professor at the Oriental Institution and the first professor of Hindustani at University College, London.


[1] Masood, Ehsan. Science and Islam: A History. London: Icon, 2009. Web.