Urdu - اردو
Urdu is is the 8th or 9th most popular language in the world, spoken by over 104 Million people as a first language. It is an Indo-European language which originated in the 13th century and is closely related to Hindi. As languages are classified, it falls under the class of Hindi and Hindustani. Grammatically, Urdu and Hindi are considered dialects of a single language which differ mainly in vocabulary where Urdu has borrowed from Persian and Arabic and Hindi has borrowed from Sanskrit. Actually, Urdu has its base in upper Turkic languages, making it similar to Uzbek for example.
Simply put, Urdu is very similar to Hindi, so much that one fluent in Urdu could understand a movie in Hindi. The vocabulary is different in some respects, (like Americans say 'Soda' but others say 'Pop'), but one can make oneself understood well enough. The Urdu language is dominated by words from Hindi, Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian. One count placed the number of Hindi-Indian words in the vocabulary at about 60% with the remaining 40% comprising Arabo-Persian words. There are also a number of borrowings from Turkish, Portuguese and English. Many of the Arabic words that have found a place in the Urdu language, often through the conduit of Persian, have different nuances of meaning and usage.
The Urdu alphabet is derived from the Persian (aka Farsi) alphabet which is itself an evolution of the Arabic alphabet. Like the others, it is also read right-to-left. Urdu has a few more letters than Arabic, notably a 'P' and 'ch' for starters. (Arabic speakers usually pronounce the country of Pakistan as 'Bakistan' for lack of a letter.) Urdu looks slightly different than Arabic, however, in that it uses a more complex (and arguably beautiful) Nastaleeq script (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Farsi.png) whereas Arabic tends to the more ubiquitous Naskh script (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Naskh.png). The Nastaleeq script is notoriously difficult to typeset so Urdu newspapers are made from hand-written masters. There are efforts underway to develop decent Urdu support on computers, some web sites use the Naskh script, making it look like Arabic handwriting and Urdu words. Hindi has almost the same words, but it is written in the completely different-looking Devanagari alphabet.
In other words, Urdu uses a similar alphabet to Arabic, Farsi, and Pashto the same way that English uses the same alphabet as Spanish, French, and Italian. People who can read Urdu can usually read Arabic, at least basic forms. (Arabic has a few less letters.) To put it real simply, it looks like Arabic and has a vocabulary of Hindi.
Urdu is a Turkish word meaning "army". As the language evolved amongst the armymen in the army camps of the Muslim rulers it was so named. Following the invasion of Muslims into India, Muslims and Indians and began socialising with each other gradually a new language begin to take shape. In the army (known as lashkar) of Muslim rulers, kings and emperors, the soldiers hailed from various backgrounds, regions and tribes. They all had very different lifestyles, cultures and mother tongues. Gradually a new language began to emerge so the army soldiers spoke an amalgamation of all the various languages. This language became known as ‘lashkari’ which when translated meant ‘spoken in the army camp’. This language later became known as Urdu.
Urdu became very popular very soon due to its unique character and style. Urdu has a vocabulary of words that have origin in various different languages but is predominated by Arabic and Persian words. As the official language of Muslim emperors and rulers was Persian, Urdu flourished during their reign. Later due to its vocabulary made up of words from a diverse range of languages, more and more people began to use it as a medium of their expression. In its current form, almost every part of the world has a population that speaks and understands Urdu.
Statistics are a bit peculiar as Urdu goes, it is sort of a lingua franca among many people, but not everyone's first language. It is the state language of Pakistan and India, along with English. However, only 8% of Pakistanis (as of 2000) speak Urdu as their primary language. Pakistan itself is divided into different provinces with different languages, like Punjabi and Sindhi. Just about everyone there can understand Urdu. As a result, Urdu is used as a more formal language, while people will talk casually in another tongue, like Punjabi.
10 Million Pakistanis speak Urdu (as a primary language), 48 Million in India, 1 Million in the UK, and 1 Million in North America. Many people in Iran, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh also speak or can understand it. It can be found in many Islamic countries, as the South Asian population has diffused. It is also spoken in Guyana, in South America. Also, some scholarly Islamic works, like the writings of Maulana Maududi were originally written in Urdu. Urdu is also well-known for its beautiful poetry.
Transliterations of Urdu into English usually is a bit difficult if you dont know either language too well. English transliterations omit many subtle announciations which have no equivalent in English, such as a sharp exhale at the end of certain words. Some books try to remedy it by accenting letters like H and A, but they are confusing to most english speakers. If you are unfamiliar with Urdu, your pronunciation will be bad, but probably understandable.
The BBC also broadcasts in Urdu: http://www.bbc.co.uk/urdu/
A book on Introductory Urdu was scanned and published online (2 volumes) at:
Personally, I've stuck with online lessons at: http://www.ukindia.com/zurdu1.htm
Audio, however, is a must, as you need to learn good pronunciation.
Useful urdu phrases:
Hello = Assalaamu alaikum (basically a Muslim greeting, very common)
Hello = Adaab (secular)
Good Bye = Khuda Haafiz (literally means God protect you)
yes = haan
no = nahi (sounds more like nay)
please = Meherbani
thank you = shukriya
it is nice to meet you = Aap se mil kar khushi hui
How are you? = Aapka Kya hal hey?
Do you speak English? = Kya aap angrezi boltay heyn?
My name is ... = Mera nam ... heh.
Which way to Lahore = Lahore kiss taraf heyh
Where are you from? = Kahan sai ho?
Daal may kuch kala hey - Literally "there's something black in the lentils" ie. Something's fishy
Main pagaal hoon (pronounced more like "who" with the n silent) - I am crazy, but since Urdu has different grammar, it's literally "I crazy am"
Tumto byale pagaal ho - You're completely crazy
Note: I definitely recommend learning a phrase and slipping it in when talking to an Urdu-speaking friend. It usually gets some sort of smile, or their eyes will widen in suprise and they will begin conversing rapidly in a torrent of excited Urdu, or they will just go "wow, you are cool."
Google search of "Useful Urdu Phrases"
http://ms.essortment.com/urdulanguage_rguo.htm The Origins of the Urdu language