The News International Pakistan  
Monday September 08, 2003-- Rajab 10, 1424 A.H.
ISSN 1563-9479


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Roman Urdu

Habib R Sulemani

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

According to linguists more than 300 languages have become extinct and thousands more are dying out. Ninety per cent of the languages are expected to disappear with the current generation. Today 6,809 languages are spoken in the world, of which 357 have fewer than 50 speakers. English, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, Swahili, Chinese and Indonesia-Malay are killing other languages. Urdu, the national language of Pakistan is getting a new shape, especially in the cyber world, where people are communicating with each other in Urdu or Hindi but the script is neither Arabic nor Devanagari, instead it is Roman. Therefore, some people call it "Roman Urdu."

Roman Urdu is strongly opposed by the traditional Arabic script lovers. Despite this opposition it is gaining popularity especially among the youth, who are using the Internet or are "cyber-citizens." Although, this script is under development and thus the net users are using the Roman script in their own ways. Popular websites like Jang Group has made a special portion for Roman Urdu. This is of great advantage for those who are not able to read the Arabic script. MSN, Yahoo and some desi-chat-rooms are working as laboratories for the evolving new script and language (Roman Urdu). I do not question the scholarly abilities, sincerity and love for the cultural ethos of the Arabic script of those who oppose the Roman script. I agree with them on the merits of the original Arabic script, which is the essence of Urdu and it should be continued, but looking at the present situation, I think, despite Arabic and Devanagari (Hindi) scripts, Urdu language needs a Roman script as well. To make this point crystal clear, I would like to analyse the present situation and raise some points mainly from a practical angle in an objective manner.

Although, Urdu is the mother tongue of just 7.57 percent of Pakistanis but rest of the population uses it as a second language. With its Hindi dialect, Urdu is thought to be the third major language of the world after Chinese and English. Besides Pakistan and India, Urdu is also spoken in many other countries of the world and is reaching new green pastures. Thus it is a widely spoken international language, which has a global appeal. Primarily Urdu has a formal vocabulary borrowed from Arabic and Persian. Sanskrit, Turkish, English and many local languages of South Asia have also enriched it and this process is going on. Grammatically its script is Arabic in nastaliq style with several extra characters used. Urdu came into existence during the Moghul rule in India. "Urdu" is a Turkish word, which means foreign or horde. It was formulated by the interaction of foreign army, merchants and immigrants to India. Urdu is thus also called as the "language of the troops." Once Deccan, Delhi and Lucknow used to be the literary centres of Urdu language, but, unfortunately, during the partition of India in 1947, this poor language started becoming a victim of politics — the Hindus tailed it to Sanskrit and adopted the Devanagari script while the Muslims flooded it with Arabic and Persian words and carried it with the traditional Arabic script.

The Hindus renamed it as "Hindi," which carried the cultural ethos of the Hindu majority of India while the Muslims tried to give it a purely "Muslim look."

In Pakistan successive governments tried to make Urdu the official language but they did not do so practically. The ruling class continued to align itself with English — thus a gap never to be bridged came into existence. The dual behaviour of the ruling class not only damaged the language and literature but the people as well. Today, Urdu language and literature are in a strange situation — literary magazines are dying by the day, government owned organisations are wandering in the dark without any vision! High quality books in Urdu have almost ceased being published for many reasons while serious Urdu writers remain silent. Some are changing their medium of expression and are adopting English, language of the Internet and the global village. Thus the new generation is in a great dilemma, groping through complete darkness and trying to find a new way for itself!

In the early 1990s the satellite TV channels boom in South Asia and then in the late 1990s, emergence of the Internet has changed the scenario. Unlike the 1940s, today there is a conscious approach to bridge the gap of decades in the South Asian region. The world is going to become borderless. A global language with a global script is being shaped. People to people (P2P) contact is becoming a phenomenon. Like many other languages, Urdu is under the shadow of English. English is the language in which parents in Pakistan overwhelmingly wish their children to be educated. Even the people of China, Japan and Korea, who are well equipped with technology, are also using the Roman script besides their own national script. Muslim countries like Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia have already adopted the Roman script. I have seen Iranians chatting in "Roman Persian" in many chat rooms. Pakistani net users are not using Roman script only for the national language Urdu, which has a centuries-old recognised script, but for the script-less regional languages as well — I have seen people chatting in Balti and Wakhi, the remote languages of Gilgit-Baltistan.

In fact, Urdu’s inherited script can produce and display its sounds properly. 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, yet the younger generation of Urdu speaking people around the world are using it on the Internet and it has become essential for them, because they use the Internet and English is its language. A person from Islamabad chats with another in Delhi on the Internet only in Roman Urdu. They both speak (almost) the same language but with different scripts, The Urdu message is alien for an Indian and similarly the Devanagari message is alien for a Pakistani. Moreover, the younger generation of those who are from the English medium schools or settled in the west, can speak Urdu but can’t write it in the traditional Arabic script and thus Roman Urdu is a blessing for such a population. It is the need of the time to recognise and properly shape the Roman Urdu officially. We can’t deny the ground realities of 21st century.

The writer is a freelance journalist

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