December 2, 2011

English language gives birth to Roman Urdu

By Habib R. Sulemani

IN this era of information technology, for successive governments, politicians and scholars, it's not that easy to impose a language of their own choice on the masses against their will! It's the people and the environment, especially the economic conditions around, which choose a language, dialect or script for the masses to communicate at large. But, if an elected governments and scholars are enough intelligent, they can influence the masses and give them a correct direction, which can benefit all of them and their coming generations.

I read Dr. Rauf Parekh’s article: "Roman Urdu? No!" published in the daily Dawn on January 19, 2003. The learned author has adopted a judgmental way of expression... and has strongly opposed a Roman script for Urdu, which is being developed in the "cyber world." He has presented his critique in a very emotional way! I can’t question his scholarly ability, sincerity and love for the cultural ethos and the traditional script of the national language of Pakistan. I agree with him on the merits of the original Arabic script, which is the essence of Urdu language. It should be continued, but looking at the current global situation, I think, besides Arabic and Devanagari (Hindi), Urdu language needs a Roman script as well. We can’t ignore the ground realities of the 21st century. Therefore, I want to raise some points totally on practical grounds in an objective way.

Urdu and Pakistan: Although Urdu is the first language of just 7.57 percent Pakistanis but rest of the population uses it as a second language. With its Hindi dialect, Urdu is considered as the third major language of the world after Chinese and English. Besides Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal, Urdu is also spoken in many other countries as South Asians, seeking greener pastures, have spread everywhere in the world. Thus it can be said that Urdu (together with Hindi) is a widely spoken language which has a global appeal for many people in different parts of the world.

Let me speak a bit historically. Urdu language vocabulary consists of borrowed or loanwords from Persian, Sanskrit, Arabic, Turkish, English and regional languages of South Asia. Grammatically, its script is Arabic in Nastaliq style with some extra characters. It came into existence during the Moghul rule over India. Urdu is a Turkish word, which means 'foreign' or 'horde' as it was formulated by the interaction of foreign armies, merchants and immigrants to India. Therefore, Urdu is also known as the ‘language of troops.’ This thing politically suits our military-dominated country very well! 

Once Deccan, Delhi and Lucknow used to be literary centers of Urdu but now even the Urdu classics are not known in their cities of birth or burial... I mean in India! Before the partition of the Subcontinent, this poor language became a victim of communal politics! The Hindus tailed it with Sanskrit and adopted the Devanagari script while the Muslims flooded it with Arabic and Persian words, carrying it with the traditional Arabic script. The Hindus tried to evolve a language that carried the cultural ethos of Hinduism faith of the majority of Indians thus they named it as 'Hindi.' In a typical attempted revenge, the Muslims further bombarded the language with Arabic and Persian themes so that it looks a purely Islamic language... thus they called it Urdu!

In Pakistan, successive governments promised to make Urdu the official language but they couldn’t do so in the presence of almighty English: the global lingua franca! Despite public announcements, the ruling class continued to side itself with English silently. This hypocritical behavior created a gape between the ruling class and the masses that couldn't be bridged even this day. The duel behavior of the ruling class didn't damage Urdu and other vernacular languages only but also corrupted the people intellectually!

Today, poets and writers like Amir Khusraw, Mir, Dr. Iqbal, Premchand, Bedi and Faiz are just stories of the past! There is lack of original thinking and creation in the vernacular languages of the whole South Asian region that is why the translations don't work globally. Urdu literary magazines are dying day by day. The authorities of government-run organizations (responsible for promotion of art and literature) are just doing file-work, and drawing their salaries. Literary books in Urdu have almost stopped publishing as there is no more demand of Urdu literature in the society! 

Nowadays, literary books of great repute publish in just one thousand as the first and last edition, and even this small number is not sold at all. Some publishers are lucky enough to take advantage of the few remaining popular writers as they publish their works and sell them to the government that dumps the books in the stores of public libraries. Some wealthy people including Pakistani expats, retired generals and civil  bureaucrats are spending money or using their influence to publish their books often poetry or memoirs to be known as a poet, writer, intellectual or power-broker in the society or history. Their concept of a book is just like a business-card (with a slight cost difference as a visiting card costs Rs. 1 while a book Rs. 10).

Serious writes are silent. Either they have stopped writing or are thinking to change their medium of expression from Urdu to English. Famous writers like Abdullah Hussain feel that they have wasted their precious time and youth in writing novels in Urdu! Many others say: "Better write in English rather than Urdu or any other vernacular language." The same is the position of the tiny group of readers in the country. They prefer to read famous Urdu 'fictionist' Manto in English. 

Great Urdu language writers and journalists have started vanishing. Besides Urdu books, just look at the Urdu language newspapers and their deteriorating quality! The people who are now in journalism are not by choice there... they have either come for a typical passionless job (nokari) or have some political or other ambitions in the field of journalism! Thus the new generation is under complete darkness intellectually! This deteriorating situation of the vernacular languages, journalism and literature is evident in other parts of the region as well.

TV and internet in South Asia: In the early 1990's, the boom of satellite TV channels in South Asia and then in the late 1990s emergence of the internet changed the linguistic and literary scenario completely. A good thing: Indian TV channels in the private sector started using simple words which were acceptable for both the hardliner Hindi and Urdu language advocates. The language with minimum Sanskrit and Arabic words was a source of mental relief for millions of people in the entire region. This was a good approach of the electronic media to bridge the gaps between India and Pakistan. This opened a new liberal way for mass communication in the region.

The internet demolished borders and is developing a language of its own with a universal scriptRoman Urdu! The governments in Islamabad and Delhi may be busy in rhetorical debates but the citizens of the two rival countries may be discussing their mutual problems seriously on the internet in typing Roman Urdu. Thus the internet is accelerating the people-to-people (P2P) contact not only between the neighbouring people of India and Pakistan but in all over the world too. After, science, now technology is doing miracles!

Urdu under the shadows of English: I've heard many people saying that Urdu is dying in India and abroad especially in the west where the new generation of South Asian diaspora is under the strong influence of English language. To some extent, it's true because English is being evolved as a universal language, and it's engulfing many minor languages of the world. 

Today, Urdu is under the shadows of English (language not people!). So, it's necessary to make both languages friends rather than enemies! English is the official language of both Pakistan and India besides being the working language of South Asian Association for Regional Corporation (SAARC) and Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Parents overwhelmingly want to send their children to English medium schools not only in South Asian countries but in other regions of the world as well. 

According to UNESCO, half of the about 6,000 languages of the world are endangered to some degree or dying out. And I think English will replace most of the dying languages! True, the Japanese people have played a vital part in the development of technology, and they didn't change their script in favour of Roman script/alphabets. But, experts say, there is a violent flow of English words in Japanese language like many other languages of the world. A newspaper report says that 80 percent adult Japanese consider that their language is in disarray. Similar worrisome people are found in other technology-rich nations including Russia, China and South Korea. The internet has made the traditionalists anxious about their languages and cultures! They fear English language the most!

However, Malaysia and Indonesia have adopted the Roman script. Iranis chat in Roman Persian on the internet especially in Yahoo and MSN chat-rooms. The dialect of Persian, which is spoken in Tajikistan, is written in the Cyrillic (Russian) script, which is closer to the Roman script. An Arab cyber-friend told me that serious efforts are being made to make the Holy Quran available in Roman script as well so that new converts and all those who are taking interest in Islam get spiritual delight by reading the original Arabic text of the Holy Book of Islam. It means Roman script is not the favourite of the youth only, but it's also getting attention of the powerful clergy! 

Many people think that their history, culture, literature, religious and intellectual assets need some extra measures for a better future. For these people, the 21st-century-version modernism adoption of English language or Roman script is the only solid answer to achieve their desired goal.

Yes, Mustafa Kamal Ata Turk changed the script of Turkish language from Arabic to Roman but still is not being accepted as a 'part' of the European Union (EU). But keep one thing in mind that Ata Turk acted in a dictatorial way! The Roman script has no fault for Turkey’s being out of the EU. The country’s militarized and faked secular system is responsible for that as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan's forced "jihadist systems" are being held responsible for the so-called Islamic extremism and terrorism. It means the typical bigotry of the ruling class has left Turkey in isolation or out of the mainstream Europe. 

Without the collective intellectual growth of a society, if a government tries to make the people liberal, secular or religious at gunpoint, that will never work in the long run. Democracy opposes this kind of totalitarianism. Such an approach gives birth to social, political and economic turmoil in a country like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Roman script and cyberspace: New mediums and techniques say that traditional scripts and languages are no more the only means of communication in the world. New words and symbols are being invented and they are gaining roots in cyberspace rapidly. Experts say that in the past a script usually used to take centuries to develop to meet linguistic intricacies, phonetic needs and calligraphic necessities. That is true. But now information technology has increased the speed beyond the imagination of linguists and philologists.

In fact, Urdu's inherited script can produce and display its sounds properly and Urdu can be proud of having the richest variety of alphabets 44 compared to English’s 26 that can pronounce and produce most of the sounds. Urdu's own script is far more superior to the Roman script, no doubt! Yet the younger generation of Urdu speakers around the world uses Roman Urdu, which has become a necessity for the youth no matter what the self-styled protectors of Urdu ethos and the government-run National Language Authority say!

Today, a guy from Islamabad chats with another in Delhi in the cyberspace in Roman Urdu. Even though, both speak (almost) the same language but with different scripts. They can't read what they type in Arabic and Devanagari scripts. The Urdu messenger is alien to the Indian guy similarly Devanagari is Greek to the Pakistani! Moreover, those who are from the English medium schools or settled in the west, their younger generation can speak Urdu/Hindi but can’t write in the traditional Arabic/Devanagari script. Thus the Roman script is a blessing for such a growing population. 

Roman script bridges the gaps and gives new life to Urdu/Hindi – the dying language! Still Roman Urdu is strongly opposed by the traditional Arabic script lovers in Pakistan. Despite this opposition, it's being used by most on the internet. As the Roman script is being developed gradually the net-surfers use it in their own way freely. A language without roles of grammar is a blessing in the cyber age! Popular Urdu websites, like daily Jang, have devised their own schemes to write Roman Urdu in the absence of formal alphabets and grammar rules. Policymakers should realize the fact that the Roman script is very helpful for those who are not able to read the Arabic script. MSN, Yahoo and some desi chat-rooms are working as linguistic laboratories for the rapidly evolving new  language.

Confusions and the script: Forget the electronic media, mistakes of using Urdu words, spelling and accent are now common among the educated lot who have been cut off from Arabic and Persian, the roots of Urdu language and culture. The new generation prefers to use English in whatever way and that is good for survival in the changed world. Even those who consider themselves "people of the language" proudly, can't speak or write Urdu properly forget about their knowledge of Arabic or Persian languages. It's a dilemma and a major reason for the 'fall' of Urdu language and literature. But who is responsible for it? May be the rapidly changing time!

I've observed that some guys who are well-versed in Urdu, make major mistakes with the traditional script.  I've seen a press release issued by a mainstream political party in which the Urdu word 'eisal' (eisal-e-sawab, prayer for the dead) was written with 'say' the Urdu letter with three-dots not with 'suaad.' However, in Roman Urdu seen, suaad and say are written with 's' so there is no confusion as it is in the traditional Arabic script. Therefore, to avoid mistakes and embarrassment, many people use Roman script. Among others, a very talented finance minister of Pakistan used to read his annual budget speech in Roman Urdu in the Parliament. 

The Urdu language that people speak today, is alien to the classic poets if they come to Pakistan from the heavens or vice versa! Even those younger people who can read a book of Lahore-educated humorist Dr. Younis Butt can't get the depth of Aligarh-trained Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi! There is a generation gap! The next generation may read the entire Urdu classics only in English translation if they wanted to read really. But don't panic! Time keeps changing!

Currently, English loanwords are flooding Urdu language. Translations of terminologies by the government-run organizations are nothing but futile bureaucratic exercise to waste public money. The new generation ignores the tasteless and difficult Arabic and Persianized terms/words which seem to the youth non-scientific and sometimes very funny! English words like benefit, notification, exchange, lieutenant, senate etc are commonly used in Urdu writings in the traditional script without any alternative or translation. It would be easier in Roman script to write such words without changing spelling or script. And thus starts the next stage of evolution of the language!

There are some Urdu words which are complicate and people are unable to pronounce them correctly. I’ve heard a Pakistani information minister saying: aatshi instead of aashti (amno-o-aashti, peace). Not only politically, 'America' is a puzzle-word in Pakistan linguistically too! Urdu language newspapers write it Amrika and Amrikah. The word 'desk' is often pronounced as 'dex.' Similar problems can be avoided by using the Roman script. To be frank. there are some problems alongside facilities in Roman script as well but they can be removed evolutionary not emotionally.

Urdu in the Cyber Age: No doubt, Urdu software is available in the market and are being used by all and sundry. Urdu email and cyber chat-rooms are also being used by many. Some government and commercial organizations are working very hard for a 'cyber Urdu' language in their own way concentrating on the traditional script. They are doing it like missionaries. 

But, again, it's the duty of scholars, officials, technical experts and investors to give people the right choice to choose! I think in this era of "free market economy" and "merging" of business firms, it's the people who decide their medium of communication and ways of trade. 

Publication of a newspaper in Roman Urdu is not possible currently but it can be successful on the World Wide Web, and certain Roman Urdu websites are gaining deeper roots in the cyber world. Globalisation is a state of mind rather than a physical object! The physical distance between Islamabad and Washington has never changed but the psyche at both ends is different due to globalisation of humanistic intelligence and sensibility!

Ray of hope: The internet is speeding up the disappearance of weaker languages from the human brain. No matter what you do, extinction of weaker languages and species can't be stopped in any sanctuary of the world! If we ignored the ground realities, then Urdu language may not remain the same even what is at hand today! We should be rational to make Urdu a language of literature, science, technology, trade and business not mere traditional poetry!

We should analyse the situation with a cool mind, and let the people chosse the language and script of their choice for communication at large. There should not be any 'scholarly' dictation or 'officials' orders to chose a means of communication publicly! Let the mind free to decide for itself! It's very important to save Urdu language as a whole not in bits! Time is going hard day by day, but still the picture is not that much gloomy! There is light at the end of the tunnel! 

(This article, according to the author, was written in 2003. A version of it had appeared in daily Dawn another in The News International.)


  1. FB comments on this post:

    Dev Kum Agnish: Actually this Religion-alization may not be deliberate or intentional, every language gets adapted and acquainted with changes due to the usage pattern of people using it; and in case of pre-partition languages(Like Urdu), the aftermath was that they got centered in regions with low diversity as to living, religion, status etc. and hence they got molded accordingly; so in my opinion there is nothing like Urdu being killed by Hindus or Muslims, they( infact We) are just the users and languages are and have always been influenced by users.

    Avinash Shukla: Urdu was born in Delhi, India..... we still cherish the richness of this beautiful language .....

    ZaiNub Khan: Hindus in Pakistan speak Urdu n Muslims in India use Hindi.. Languages are not bounded by religions.

    Amin Saluji: Ye muaamlah sirf Urdu- hindi
    ke saath hi nahi hai, cyber world me Arbi Farsi aur duniya ki bahut si zubaano ka bhi yahi
    haal hai. Ab jab ke cyber world me Urdu- hindi ki ye haalat hai to ye koshish honi chaahiye ke Urdu-hindi alfaaz ko Roman me kaise likha jaae uske kuchh qaaide-qanoon banaane chaahiye,
    kiyunke isme bahut araajakta chal rahi hai.

    Fozia Anma: Muslim language is only Arabic not Urdu. Is mein jo tajwiz di gai hai ye tajwiz angrezon ne bhi di thi lakin hindu aur Musalman donun ne Roman Urdu ko reject kr dia tha. ab to Urdu dunia se khatam hone wali hai. facebook ki 77 zabon mein urdu shamil nahin hai jabke punjabi aur pashtu facebook ki official languages mein shamil hai. Is se ziada urdu ki ahmiat nahin bian ki jasakti hai. Hindi ab Urdu se bohot mukhalif ho kar apni jaga bana chuki hai.

  2. @Dev Kum Agnish

    That's great and all but the writer is speaking truth. Division of Urdu/Hindi was quite deliberate as history paints it

  3. From FB

    Rehman: Is Urdu is a Muslim and Hindi a Hindu language?? "Once Deccan, Delhi and Lucknow used to be literary centers of Urdu but now even the Urdu classics are not known in their cities of birth or burial... I mean in India! Before the partition of the Subcontinent, this poor language became a victim of communal politics! The Hindus tailed it with Sanskrit and adopted the Devanagari script while the Muslims flooded it with Arabic and Persian words, carrying it with the traditional Arabic script. The Hindus tried to evolve a language that carried the cultural ethos of Hinduism – faith of the majority of Indians – thus they named it as 'Hindi.' In a typical attempted revenge, the Muslims further bombarded the language with Arabic and Persian themes so that it looks a purely Islamic language... thus they called it Urdu! " [Habib R. Sulemani, English language gives birth to Roman Urdu]:

    Harris Khalique: Rehman Sahib, While I agree with the political argument embedded in Sulemani Sahib's assertions, he is putting out historical facts with a bit of recklessness and simplicity. There are some factual errors here.