Is the Urdu script on the verge of dying?

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Hindi-Urdu, also referred to as Hindustani, is the classic case of a digraphia, so much so that there has been a long-standing controversy over whether they are one language or two.  Their colloquial spoken forms are nearly identical, but when written down, the one in the Devanāgarī script, the other in the Nastaʿlīq script, they have a very different look and "feel".

The question of whether Hindi-Urdu is one language or two may soon become passé, since — as the writer Ali Eteraz argues — the Urdu script is dying.

See "The Death of the Urdu Script", in which Eteraz asks, "Can Microsoft and Twitter save the dying Urdu nastaliq script from the hegemony of the Western alphabet and an overbearing Arab cousin?"  Extensive comments and discussion on this article may be found here.

If, indeed, the Urdu script is dying out as Eteraz worries, it is ironic that it is not succumbing to or being swallowed up by Devanāgarī, but by the Arabic script known as Naskh or, worse yet, by Roman letters:

…[W]hen rendered on the web and on smartphones and the entire gamut of digital devices at our disposal, Urdu is getting depicted in naskh, an angular and rather stodgy script that comes from Arabic. And those that don’t like it can go write in Western letters.

This raises the question of the impact of the internet and of electronic information technology on the preservation and modification of scripts in general.  Can all the scripts of the world be accommodated by digital media?  To what extent do they have to be transformed in order to function with facility on the world wide web?  Already we have seen handwriting in many languages deteriorate under the impact of widespread reliance on writing with electronic devices such as cell phones and computers.  Perhaps now certain scripts that are much better suited for handwriting than for digital devices will have to make major adjustments in order to survive, while others may disappear altogether.

Language Log posts on Urdu language and script:

"Language in Pakistan", (12/28/2007)

"Camp language" (12/31/2007)

"Scripts, scriptures and scribes" (1/2/2008)

"A cricket writer enlightens us on the Urdu tense system" (8/31/2010)

"Diglossia and digraphia in Guoyu-Putonghua and in Hindi-Urdu" (1/1/2012)

"No word for rape" (11/20/2013)

"Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil?" (2/9/2014) (see the first comment)

"Mutual intelligibility" (5/28/2014)



56 Comments

  1. Levantine said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 5:08 am

    This distinction made here between nasta'liq and naskh is curious and misleading. Both are styles of writing rather than separate alphabets. Granted, nasta'liq has strong Urdu associations (in the same way that Gothic font was used until relatively recently for the writing of German), but the idea that Arabic is somehow replacing the local script is misleading. One can write Arabic using nasta'liq, and one can write Urdu using naskh. The visual effect of doing so may be unfamiliar and even alienating, but the change is really one of font.

  2. Keith said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 5:09 am

    There's a typo in the first paragraph of the article entitled "Camp language" (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005276.html).

    s/that displayed some/that displaced some/

    K.

  3. Levantine said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 5:09 am

    Oops, I meant to write "The distinction".

  4. James said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 5:48 am

    @Levantine

    There's nothing misleading about the distiction; "script" (in the usual technical usage) refers to a style of writing, and not a writing system. We forget, in the age of fairly homogenous Latin scripts, how divergent some could be historically–Merivongian Chancery, Old Roman Cursive, and Insular Miniscule hardly look like the same alphabet–but just because two scripts theoretically are subsets of the same writing system doesn't mean that substituting one for the other is as trivial as substituting Helvetica for Times New Roman.

  5. Michael Watts said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 8:14 am

    The question of whether Hindi-Urdu is one language or two may soon become passé, since — as the writer Ali Eteraz argues — the Urdu script is dying.

    I have difficulty making any sense of this, since the complaint is that Urdu is shifting from being written in one Arabic font to another Arabic font. How would the Hindi/Urdu situation change?

  6. languagehat said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 9:29 am

    How would the Hindi/Urdu situation change?

    It doesn't actually have anything to do with the Hindi/Urdu situation (the post is misleadingly framed): it's a matter of the traditional Urdu script being disfavored by electronic communication. It will indeed be a pity if the lovely nasta'liq script dies out, but Hindi is neither here nor there.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 10:07 am

    @Michael Watts and languagehat:

    I wrote: "as the writer Ali Eteraz argues". Because of its cultural and historical associations, he believes that Nastaʿlīq is a separate script. In his opinion, Urdu written in Naskh leaves an enormous amount to be desired emotionally and esthetically. In any event, as I thought I had pointed out in my post, the distinction between Hindi and Urdu is usually conceived of as that of a digraphia, a difference in written form. If Urdu comes to be written in a manner that departs from its canonical form, a form that has been used for hundreds of years to write outstanding works of literature, then it will have lost the most salient trait that distinguishes it from Hindi, especially if it is written in the Roman script, which is as much a concern of Eteraz as is writing Urdu in Naskh instead of in Nastaʿlīq.

    I am particularly sensitive to the concerns raised by Eteraz since I participated in a series of workshops on the scribal tradition in the Persianate world organized by Brian Spooner and William Hanaway that stretched over two decades and culminated in this outstanding book edited by them:

    Literacy in the Persianate World: Writing and the Social Order

    http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/1243.html

    If you are interested in learning more about the issues discussed in this post, I highly recommend that you take a look at this collection of scholarly papers.

    BTW, for at least a decade I have been aware of the tendency for many people to write bits and pieces (and sometimes even whole chunks) of Urdu in Roman script on the internet.

    Just as I was about to post this comment, I received from Brian Spooner the following comment:

    =====

    What is interesting about this, which I don't see mentioned in the comments (though I had not explored all the links you provide) is that the change is the result of changing from handwriting first to printing and now to digitization.

    =====

  8. Imran Ahmed said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 12:45 pm

    Some more discussion of the article here: http://www.metafilter.com/132817/The-Death-of-the-Urdu-Script

  9. Levantine said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 12:46 pm

    The comparison I made to German earlier is pertinent here. Are Goethe's works any less German now that they are not printed in blackletter? Urdu speakers may prefer nasta'liq on a visual and cultural level, but Urdu texts written in naskh still use the same alphabet.

    Moreover, even if Urdu were to lose its own writing system, it would still remain easily distinguishable from Hindi at literary and higher registers. Indeed, some Urdu speakers in India who don't know the Urdu script use Devanagari to write in a characteristically Urdu form of Hindustani.

  10. Levantine said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 1:21 pm

    James, I never said that the substitution of naskh for nasta'liq is trivial — that's a matter for Urdu speakers to decide. I merely stated that the distinction drawn in the post is misleading in that it doesn't make clear the fact that nasta'liq and naskh are essentially different hands of the same writing system. Urdu written in naskh is still Urdu written in its own alphabet; whether it still "feels" Urdu is another question.

  11. albaregia said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 2:18 pm

    I've heard that there a lot of problems with Mongolian traditional script. It's written vertically and this causes troubles with software. Of course there no such problems with Mongolian Cyriliic script.

  12. cameron said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 2:49 pm

    This is a really weird complaint to me. It's like complaining that books aren't printed in a cursive hand.

    Nasta'liq is also the preferred style in Persian calligraphy. I've never heard an Iranian complain about printed or digital fonts based on naskh.

  13. Michael Watts said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

    @Victor Mair:

    If the most salient trait distinguishing Urdu from Hindi is that they're written differently, and Urdu shifts from one script Hindi doesn't use to a different script Hindi doesn't use, it hasn't lost the trait that distinguished it from Hindi. They were digraphic before and they'll be digraphic after. From that perspective, nothing will have changed.

    And shifting to Roman characters certainly isn't "as much a concern of Eteraz" as shifting to Naskh is; he states in the HN comment thread and in the essay itself that he doesn't like the shift to Naskh because he's against Pakistani cultural Arabization. He identifies use of Naskh with Arabization, which seems fair in so far as, according to him, Pakistanis broadly feel the same way. It's also much more plausible than the idea that a script which is viewed as a cultural insult might displace one viewed as essential to the culture purely because the native script is difficult to implement on a computer — a difficulty Eteraz chooses to exemplify not by the lack of nastaliq fonts, but by the fact that an arm of the government of India released only a single nastaliq font to twelve naskh ones.

  14. Michael Watts said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 3:16 pm

    I reread the comment thread. Only the essay really states that he doesn't like the shift to naskh because he identifies it with Arabization (though it does so quite explicitly). In the comment thread he states that writing the essay made him less anxious about the "issue" generally.

  15. Ellen K. said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 4:53 pm

    @Michael Watts

    It seems to me (from what I understand of what's been written above) that there's the possibility of Urdu itself becoming digraphic. And if that happens differentiating it from Hindi based on writing system becomes rather questionable.

  16. languagehat said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 4:58 pm

    And if that happens differentiating it from Hindi based on writing system becomes rather questionable.

    I don't understand this. There is zero probability of either Urdu adopting Devanāgarī or Hindi adopting Arabic script.

  17. Ellen K. said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 5:17 pm

    It's pretty simple. It doesn't make sense to differentiate two "languages" based on writing system if one of those "languages" itself has more than one writing system. It doesn't make sense to say Urdu is one language regardless of how it's written, and yet to differentiate it from Hindi based on the two being written differently.

  18. Levantine said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

    To clarify things a little, the differences between Urdu and Hindi go further than script. Most would agree that the two are standardised variants of the same language, but it is easy enough to tell which variant you're dealing with, particularly as you get into more formal or literary registers. In other words, Urdu and Hindi could be written in any or the same script and still remain recognisably different from one another.

  19. Barry Ross said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 6:48 pm

    Can one substitutes the word "font" for "script" in this post? Is there some difference? Certainly nastaliq is ubiquitous in the Persianate world, and in no danger of dying out, but I fail to see, as a commenter above claimed, that this is any different than substituting calibri, say, for garamond. In either case it is the same alphabet, merely a different font.

  20. Chris said,

    June 29, 2014 @ 11:22 pm

    Hindi and Urdu are two different languages. I dont know much about Urdu. However, as per the books, Hindi language is originated from Devanagari script (language spoken by Gods).

  21. YankeeTranslator said,

    June 30, 2014 @ 12:22 am

    @Levantine:

    As a professional Arabist who once tried to learn some Urdu, I would strongly argue that they are essentially two different writing systems. Although I can make out some words, I simply cannot differentiate many combinations of letters even with the help of accompanying romanization. For a rough analogy, think of the Gothic script and the normal Latin script.

  22. Levantine said,

    June 30, 2014 @ 2:49 am

    YankeeTranslator, I made that analogy myself in earlier comments above — twice in fact. And if you accept the analogy, I really don't see how you can maintain that we are dealing with two different writing systems. The fact that you found/find nasta'liq difficult to read is anecdotal; others don't struggle with it once they learn its conventions. As I mentioned above, nasta'liq can be used (and has been used) for writing Arabic too: see, for example, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nasta'liq_script_2.jpg.

  23. Levantine said,

    June 30, 2014 @ 3:00 am

    Chris, if you don't know much about Urdu, how can you make such an assertion? Most linguists consider Hindi and Urdu to be standardised registers of the same language.

  24. tpr said,

    June 30, 2014 @ 3:05 am

    What amount to changes of tradition are often described as 'losses' without mentioning what is gained, but a new script may well bring a vibrant literary tradition with all kinds of benefits, especially if it's one that breaks down cultural barriers or makes certain technology easier to use.

    The metaphor of 'dying out' encourages what I think is an inappropriate comparison with species extinction. When a species of plant or animal goes extinct, it sends ripples through an ecological system, which pose a threat to the survival of other organisms. No such issues arise when a language or script 'dies out'. If anything, loss of linguistic diversity removes obstacles to communication, which potentially helps groups relate to each other's concerns, avoiding some of the dehumanization that enables war and oppression. If the scientific community loses the opportunity to study native speakers of a language and if no further works are added to the literary tradition of that language, these costs are probably more than offset by what is gained.

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 30, 2014 @ 5:28 am

    The proliferation of scripts seems an important feature of the language situation in South Asia. In English-language sources it seems most common to describe e.g. Devanagari as contrasted with the Gujarati and Bengali scripts as being different "alphabets" rather than different fonts/styles/hands of the same "alphabet," even though the scripts are all historically related and not obviously much more dramatically different from each other than Antiqua v. Fraktur. This context might color how people on the ground conceptualize the nature and extent of the difference between what we would more naturally conceptualize as merely two stylistic variants of the same "alphabet" for Urdu.

  26. tuncay said,

    June 30, 2014 @ 7:03 am

    I am on the exact same page with Levantine here.

    @YankeeTranslator, can you read anything on this image http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/77/English_chancery_hand_1418.png

    I would think that the chances of you figuring out even a single word in the body text is close to 0, unless you are trained in this; yet I don't think there is a single person that would claim this is a different "writing system", it's merely a hand for writing the Latin script.

    @Chris, you are on the wrong blog. :-)

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 30, 2014 @ 8:20 am

    There are at least two other major South Asian languages with notable digraphia: Punjabi and Sindhi, each of which is typically written in an Arabic-derived script on the Pakistani side of the border and in a more conventionally indigenous (i.e. Brahmic) script on the Indian side of the border. Maybe because the users of the rival scripts are geographically segregated, they don't seem as notable as the classic Hindustani/Serbo-Croatian examples, even though they show the same pattern of writing-system-preference tracking religious affiliation?

  28. Lazar said,

    June 30, 2014 @ 8:37 am

    @J.W. Brewer: Kashmiri too.

  29. Anubhav Chattoraj said,

    June 30, 2014 @ 9:55 am

    Putting aside the digraphia between Hindi and Urdu, each of these lects is now itself digraphic, using its traditional script as well as Roman letters.

    One can expect to see both of these lects written in Roman on informal online conversations and in text messages. In Hindi's case, one also occasionally sees it in printed materials: Hindi quotes in otherwise English texts are almost universally written in Roman.

    Besides this, Hindi corporate slogans without any surrounding context seem to always be written in Roman. Off the top of my head, I can think of ICICI Bank's "khayaal aapka", Aviva Life Insurance's "kal par control", and Domino's Pizza's "hungry kya?" (Googling these phrases turns up quite a few hits, but none of them seem to be used on the respective companies' official websites. I'm certain this is because those slogans aren't used on those websites at all, and not because they're on the website but written in Devanagari.)

    I have also heard that Bollywood scripts are written entirely in Roman. While this strikes me as believable, I haven't been able to confirm it.

    ====

    What has the use of Roman for both these lects done to people's perception of the Hindi-Urdu divide?

    Nothing much.

    People generally see the use of Roman for these lects as an effort-saving hack; Devanagari and Nastaleeq are still considered the "real" scripts of the respective languages. The digraphia between Hindi and Urdu is still very much alive, and with it, so is the perception of these lects as different languages.

    (Of course, the situation is more complex than that: As others have pointed out above, Hindi and Urdu differ in more than script. That, however, is a discussion for a different time IMO.)

  30. Brian Spooner said,

    June 30, 2014 @ 10:24 am

    I would add that, although the Hindi-Urdu relationship used to be basically a case of digraphia (two written forms of spoken Hindustani), since Partition in 1947 when they became the national languages of two separate countries, Pakistani Urdu and Indian Hindi have been diverging to a significant extent because they draw on different classical languages for new coinages and for word-building. I do not remember when Urdu was first printed in naskh in Pakistan, but I think it was as early as the 1980s. The switch has more to do with the change in the modern control of the written language, from the scribe class writing for illiterates to publishers printing for a literate public. Handwriting will continue to be in nastal'liq, but with digitisation people are writing by hand less and less, even in Pakistan. Urdu in India is of course a different story, because fewer and fewer people are becoming literate in Urdu there.

  31. hanmeng said,

    June 30, 2014 @ 11:22 am

    Reminds me of the Comic Sans backlash. Or the answers one gets when suggesting the Chinese give up their 漢字.

  32. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 30, 2014 @ 12:51 pm

    In the original piece linked, fwiw, Eteraz himself seems comfortable with the metaphor of the two scripts at issue being like different fonts for the Latin alphabet — just two very divergent fonts where (from his subjective POV) the one he likes is of course awesome and the one that is gaining marketshare totally sucks.

  33. minus273 said,

    June 30, 2014 @ 2:19 pm

    Thomas Milo would tell you that the computer "Naskh" ain't no real Naskh at all.
    Anyway, I think word processors, at least on Linux, already do passable Nastaʕlīq since 2008 or something.

  34. Ellen K. said,

    June 30, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

    Reading Anubhav Chattoraj's comment, and thinking back to Chris's comment, it seems to me part of the issue is the tendency, which we also see in English, to see the written form of the language as the "real" language, rather than the spoken language.

    Someone who has that perspective will see Hindi and Urdu as two languages, since their written forms differ. And while most of us who comment on Language Log don't have that perspective, it's still out there.

    If one or the other of these languages loses the particular written form that's perceived as the "real" language by many, what does that do to the perception that they are two separate languages?

  35. Levantine said,

    June 30, 2014 @ 6:50 pm

    Ellen K., to answer your question (and reiterating a point I made earlier), one can write Hindi and/or Urdu in whatever script one wants and still make clear which of the two Hindustani registers (read "language" if you prefer) one is using. Just as the choice of writing system is largely determined by religious affiliation, so too are the lexical differences that distinguish Hindi and Urdu from one another, and these differences can be made apparent in speech as much as in writing, and in the Klingon alphabet as much as in nasta'liq vs. Devanagari. (Of course, it is possible to use a fairly neutral form of Hindustani, as tends to be the case in Bollywood.) Those who consider Urdu and Hindi to be separate languages would, then, retain this perception regardless of what happens to the writing system of each.

  36. Ellen K. said,

    June 30, 2014 @ 9:50 pm

    I think you are missing my point, Levantine. And you don't really answer the question. (Which, by the way, wasn't a question I'm personally looking for an answer to. Just a point of discussion.) You don't even address the issue of the perception that the written form is the "real" language.

    By the way, I don't think "registers" is the right word, since we are talking about versions spoken by different people, not different versions spoken by the same people.

  37. Levantine said,

    June 30, 2014 @ 10:35 pm

    Ellen K., you shouldn't be surprised if someone answers a question you raise, especially if it's a point of discussion. And I did address that issue (particularly in my last sentence) by making clear my position that Urdu and Hindi can exist (and on occasion do exist) independently of their traditional writing systems. Those who see them as separate languages in their written form see them as separate languages in their spoken form too.

    Regarding "registers", it's how the two varieties of Hindustani are often described in the literature. People who are comfortable in both can move between them depending on context (a Muslim in India, for example, is likely to greet a coreligionist with "salaam" and a Hindu with "namaste").

  38. Shanth said,

    July 1, 2014 @ 1:53 am

    @Ellen, reiterating what Levantine just said, registers is the correct term for Hindi and Urdu, and most people familiar with both can easily (and do in fact) switch from one to the other depending on situation and context. Most famously Premchand, one of the most influential writers switched from Urdu to Hindi and actually "translated" his earlier Urdu novels to Hindi. Even today there are many Hindustani poets who attend both Kavi Sammelans and Mushairas and they do switch from a Hindi to Urdu register when speaking to audiences at these gatherings.

  39. GH said,

    July 1, 2014 @ 10:42 am

    If both Hindi and Urdu speakers are becoming digraphic in romanization, it seems like the interesting question to ask is whether they are using the same romanization (or substantially similar ones). Such a development could potentially erode the writing-based distinction, if the Latin alphabet eventually displaced both writing systems.

    @tuncay: I have no training in reading English Chancery hand (though I'm familiar with some of the archaic letter forms, like the long s and thorn), but can fairly easily make out about a quarter of the words, starting with "and [Best?] Beloved brother. We [greet?] [...] And as we suppose" in the first line.

    @Barry Ross: As for whether "font" can be substituted for "script", I would guess that a font specifically implies a printed form, while a "script" can be either handwritten or printed.

  40. Piyush said,

    July 1, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

    @GH:

    If both Hindi and Urdu speakers are becoming digraphic in romanization, it seems like the interesting question to ask is whether they are using the same romanization (or substantially similar ones).

    While the Indian government, the ISO, and several libraries have standardized romanization schemes for Hindi and Urdu, the romanizations referred to above are mostly ad hoc ones used mostly in online communication. As such, the romanizations used typically differ even from person to person, so it would be hard to wean out any large scale differences between Urdu and Hindi romanizations (except possibly things like the more frequent occurrence of 'z' sounds in standard Urdu vocubulary as compared to a standard Hindi vocabulary).

    Such a development could potentially erode the writing-based distinction, if the Latin alphabet eventually displaced both writing systems.

    This is highly unlikely. As other commentors have pointed out the romanizations are mostly a staple of informal online communication, and the scripts remain so widely popular that they are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. No serious literature in Hindi or Urdu is produced in the Latin script, and at least in India, the readership of newspapers in Hindi in the Devanagari script (as well as other Indian languages in their native scripts) far outstrips the readership of English language newspapers.

  41. cameron said,

    July 1, 2014 @ 4:07 pm

    I think "register" really is the correct word in this discussion. There is a sort of street-level register of Hindi that overlaps almost entirely with street-level Urdu. This is the language register consciously used in the scripts of Bollywood films – to maximize audience. It is at the more elevated, educated, abstract registers of the languages where there is notable divergence, with Urdu maintaining all the Persian and Arabic-via-Persian borrowings that crept into the language during the long period when Persian was the language of the Moghul court, and modern Hindi having replaced all of these with terms borrowed from sister languages such as Bengali or Marathi, or borrowed directly from classical Sanskrit.

  42. Shanth said,

    July 1, 2014 @ 6:38 pm

    @GH, Piyush:

    > If both Hindi and Urdu speakers are becoming digraphic in romanization, it seems like the interesting question to ask is whether they are using the same romanization (or substantially similar ones).

    While it's true that the romanizations people use are a bit idiosyncratic, I think there are a few clear markers which tell you if the person typically writes Hindi or Urdu. For instance the vowel [eː] is typically written as 'e' by Hindi speaker while it's 'ay' for Urdu speakers in word terminal positions (eg.: mere vs meray). Also, I think informal Urdu romanizations more often omit short vowels which aren't marked in written Urdu whereas Hindi writers are a bit less likely to do so, though with txtspeak, it's pretty common for Hindi only writers to also omit vowels sometimes.

  43. Lazar said,

    July 2, 2014 @ 12:48 am

    @cameron: Is this same degree of differentiation (Persianate vs. Sanskritic) present in the other big cross-border languages, Punjabi and Bengali? I'm curious, because people often refer to Hindi and Urdu as distinct languages in a South Asian context (being explicitly co-official in some states), but Punjabi and Bengali never seem to receive the same treatment.

  44. Mark F. said,

    July 2, 2014 @ 2:36 pm

    I imagine nationalist feeling is strong enough that speakers would recognize Urdu and Hindi as different languages even if they both used exactly the same alphabet.

  45. Piyush said,

    July 2, 2014 @ 2:52 pm

    @Mark F.

    I am not sure any nationalistic competition between India and Pakistan is behind the languages being thought of as different. Urdu is also one of the 22 official languages of India (separately from Hindi), and also an official language in several states. Even politicians that several European and American media outlets describe as "Hindu nationalist" use Urdu couplets with relish in parliamentary debates.

  46. MikeA said,

    July 2, 2014 @ 9:00 pm

    Though ignorant of almost all the facts involved, I did actually read the referenced article, then the comments above, which left me wondering why despite the author's plain language:

    " [...] why Urdu speakers were forced to use the Arabic keyboard, given that Urdu has 39 letters in their alphabet and Arabic has 28. (Try writing English without a letter as ubiquitous as the E)."

    So many comments maintain that these are simply two different scripts, or "fonts", rather than something so serious as two different alphabets supporting two (or more) different sound systems. Where to draw the line? Does Cyrillic differ from ASCII merely by some aesthetic frippery?
    Or did the commenters neglect to read the article?

  47. Shanth said,

    July 2, 2014 @ 9:42 pm

    So many comments maintain that these are simply two different scripts, or "fonts", rather than something so serious as two different alphabets supporting two (or more) different sound systems. Where to draw the line? Does Cyrillic differ from ASCII merely by some aesthetic frippery?

    @MikeA At the level of the alphabet, the Urdu alphabet (or abjad) is an extension of the Persian one, which itself is an extension of the Arabic script. These additions are more like the difference between the German or French alphabets and the English one (ie. you have a few extra characters with the addition of umlauts or accents and cedillas). It's nowhere near the comparison between Cyrillic and the Latin alphabets.

    Now on top of the new characters, there's also a stylistically different hand that has been historically associated with Urdu. This is sort of like the Fraktur or Blackletter scripts for German.

    The author of the article mainly talks of the latter problem, ie. the ubiquitous use of the arabic Naskh font (with the additional Urdu characters) being used for Urdu as oppoed to traditional Nastaliq. This is like a German used to Blackletter complaining about use of Times New Roman or Arial in online comments, even though the Latin character has been extended to include letters with umlauts, it is not the traditional style/font associated with the language.

    The other point about the Urdu vs Arabic keyboard for iPhone that he was complaining about: "why Urdu speakers were forced to use the Arabic keyboard, given that Urdu has 39 letters in their alphabet and Arabic has 28. (Try writing English without a letter as ubiquitous as the E)", is sort of like trying to type in German/French/Norwegian with a standard American keyboard, which makes it hard to input the extra characters.

    Hope that clears it up. :)

  48. Levantine said,

    July 3, 2014 @ 2:47 am

    MikeA, here are some images to go with Shanth's excellent explanation:

    The Arabic alphabet: http://www.playandlearn.org/images/alpha.gif

    The Persian alphabet: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-cKzKBAuvLRA/UQiiltBK7fI/AAAAAAAAM2A/1v32CT_yi7w/s400/dari_alphabet.gif

    The Urdu alphabet (naskh): http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-055jOOAWMJk/UFB7z80VFYI/AAAAAAAAABU/_GJoUocVmjE/s1600/750px-Urdu-alphabet-en-hi-final.svg.png

    The Urdu alphabet (nata'liq): http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-87sPszZU9lU/U1u8N_H3w-I/AAAAAAAAA-U/pN2FrJ9j9e0/s1600/Urdu+Alphabets.jpg

  49. Victor Mair said,

    July 3, 2014 @ 2:47 pm

    The Persianate World

    "Iran And India: Two Countries Separated By A Common Language"

    http://kgou.org/post/iran-and-india-two-countries-separated-common-language

  50. Piyush said,

    July 3, 2014 @ 8:06 pm

    @Victor Mair:

    It is amusing that the fact that "There are a lot of Persian manuscripts left in libraries in India" is spoken of as a bolt-from-the-blue revelation in the interview. Perhaps this, and the whole tone of incredulity surrounding the popularity of Persian as a court and literary language in India and elsewhere, is due to the fact that the interview is pitched at an American audience, for such a thing would hardly be surprising to anyone from India (and presumably from the other countries listed in the interview), where it is well known that Persian enjoyed the status of court language in large parts of India up to the advent of English colonialism, when it was slowly replaced by English (it is hardly surprising that the language of the "rulers" would turn out to be the court language). To this day, court affidavits drafted in north Indian cities often contain formulaic Persian phrases and words. The "lot of Persian manuscripts in libraries in India" are also hardly surprising, given the long tradition of Persian poetry in India starting from Amir Khusro, and extending all the way to Ghalib.

  51. Daniel Waugh said,

    July 4, 2014 @ 8:14 am

    I might add a couple of somewhat anecdotal notes here. First, on the importance of Persian for the British Government of India officials. C. P. Skrine, who followed in his father's footsteps and joined the Raj, was diligently studying Persian when he first arrived in India ca. 1920. He went on to take up consular posts in what is now Pakistan, in Kashgar in Xinjiang (where he had to deal with British Indian subjects, who, presumably used Persian as a matter of course), and eventually in Mashhad, where he then got the diplomatic job of escorting the Shah into his exile.
    My second note. In 2001 I was in Ladakh ("little Tibet," if you wish), going up through a little village of Mughlub not far from the Tibetan border. There we visited the one-room village school, its mud-plastered walls largely bare, the teacher (who in her off hours helped family milk the yaks and goats) having to improvise in creating teaching aids. See the pdf with three photos which I have posted to , where you can see what she was doing in helping her students learn English, Ladakhi and (I assume) Urdu.

  52. Daniel Waugh said,

    July 4, 2014 @ 8:17 am

    The URL disappeared from my post for technical reasons. Perhaps this will give it to you: http://faculty.washington.edu/dwaugh/mughlubschool.pdf.

  53. Piyush said,

    July 4, 2014 @ 12:43 pm

    @Daniel Waugh:

    Given that this was taken in Ladakh, I would assume the third language is more likely to be Kashmiri than Urdu.

  54. Shanth said,

    July 4, 2014 @ 2:07 pm

    @Daniel, Piyush:

    It's difficult to tell because it's just a word list, which could quite likely be common to Kashmiri and Urdu, but all the words I can read are valid Urdu translations of the English word. I couldn't find خزان (the teacher seems to have a missing alif and it just says خزن on the board) in a Kashmiri dictionary (http://dsal.uchicago.edu/dictionaries/grierson/ ) which *is* the Urdu word for autumn, so I think it is much more likely to be Urdu, unless a Kashmiri-speaker can point out otherwise. However since it's pretty basic vocabulary there is a chance that these words are just common between Urdu and Kashmiri.

  55. Piyush said,

    July 4, 2014 @ 3:21 pm

    @Shanth

    Thanks. I cannot read the Urdu or Kashmiri scripts, but Wikipedia suggests that Kashmiri regularly includes the vowel signs that are usually omitted in Urdu. Perhaps that could be a way to figure out if the language is Urdu or Kashmiri? (I can make out what look like vowel signs in a few words—for example, in the "dried cheese" placard near the top left of the picture—but I don't know if they would be present in usual Urdu orthography as well).

  56. Shanth said,

    July 4, 2014 @ 3:56 pm

    @Piyush:

    That now convinces me that it is Urdu, the last two words on that sign say: "سوکھا پنیر" sūkhā panīr (which is dried cheese in Hindi-Urdu). The first word seems to be "مُعامی", which to the best of my knowledge seems to be a misspelling or regional variant of "مومی" (momī meaining waxy) refering to some sort of wax covered dry cheese perhaps? Urdu omits short vowels only when they are unambiguous, but does mark them when for example you need to differentiate between i/u or o/ū. There are no vowels marked here that wouldn't typically be marked in an Urdu text.

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