The Language Instinct For Urdu

Originally posted on in May 2013.

My mother tongue is Urdu, that’s what we always specified in all paperwork. We speak Urdu of the South Indian variety. As a child, I took some Urdu classes at home. But even now, if I try to read Urdu, I struggle and can’t get beyond a few words. This is problem number one. If someone speaks chaste Urdu, I go blank and don’t understand half of the words. This is problem number two.

I’m English medium educated. The alphabet has vowels, and in the written form there are spaces between words and punctuation marks like the comma and dot. I know where a word starts and ends, how to pronounce it and where the sentence ends. It’s not surprising that people educated in their vernacular language can pick up English easily.

Though knowing the Urdu alphabet, thanks to the childhood home Urdu classes, I face extreme difficulty in reading the text. In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker describes how the brain deconstructs a symbolic representation and gets to reasoning by processing like a copying-creeping-sensing machine. In my case with Urdu text, forget about getting the brain to work as a processor. It can’t even get past recognizing the representation stage — I just don’t where a word start, where it ends and many a time, how to pronounce a word.

There might be millions of people like me. The solution is pretty simple. Borrow what Arabic has done for proper pronunciation hundreds of years ago, or does even now for non-native readers of Arabic. Use diacritical marks in the printed texts. But don’t stop just there. Use word spaces and use the dot as full stop for the sentence. This will be a very useful step, a kind of paradigm printing shift towards increasing the adoption and popularity of Urdu.

The proposed printing shift will immediately bring thousands and thousands of people into active readership of Urdu. If newspapers and magazines are printed in Urdu with diacritics, word spaces and the full stop, and they start getting on to the Urdu readership bandwagon, the language will be on an immediate upswing.

Instead of just professing what should be done, it’s better to set an example. I wanted to print a small booklet or an article in my proposed way. But the matter of printing Urdu with diacritical remarks, word spaces and full stop was more easy conceptualising than getting done. The first obstacle was finding which document to print. Almost everything that I have in my home library was in English and Telugu. I searched and searched for something light and easy. Finally I could locate a pamphlet.


It was an 2009 election-eve distribution by the Jamaat-e-Islami, whose volunteer came in as I was lazing in my parents home at Vanasthalipuram, greeted me and left it in my hand. There was text on both sides, one in Urdu and the back in Telugu. Needless to say, reading the Telugu text was a breeze, and reading the Urdu text was filled with hurdles.

Anyways, a one-page flyer was enough and the subject of voting during elections was very topical to suffice as a proof of concept. I requested Bushra, the Arabic and Urdu tutor for my kids, to hand-write it in the way I wanted. That is, with diacritical marks, word spaces and full stop. She did a pretty good job. I then gave the pages to my colleague Mujeeb for getting it printed.

He had a relative who works in a printing press at Chatta Bazar near Charminar. He came back saying that they don’t have the software for doing the same. In popular word processing software you can select Arabic with diacritical remarks, but if you select Urdu as the language, the software doesn’t give you diacritical remarks. Kaput… went my plans.

I discussed a lot with Mujeeb on how to solve the problem. I suggested him to look at downloading different fonts or plugins to get the combination (Urdu characters with Arabic diacritics) I wanted. He went and tried, but nothing worked. I almost gave up on my initiative. Gone was my humble attempt at changing the world. As days went by, I totally forgot about it. But I didn’t know Mujeeb persisted.

After a few weeks, he came to me and told that he searched the web and chanced upon a software product that provided the option of using Urdu characters with Arabic diacritics. He’d downloaded the trial version and it did what I wanted, except for one of the diacritics. Thank God for his doggedness and serendipity. What a relief, it was!

The software is called Urdu Editor Pro, from a U.K. based company Summitsoft Limited. I purchased the license for $99, installed the key and Mujeeb completed the pamphlet in it. Given below is the image of the first page printed in in my version using diacritical marks, word spaces and full stop.


All pages are available on my picasa album. For quick reading, here’s a single paragraph.


“Aap se guzaarish hain ke aap apne vote ka isthamaal karen, bulke apne halke asar mein tamam dost ahbab aur rishtedaron ko bhi apne jamhoori haq ka isthamaal karne ki targheeb dein”. I can now read my version in Urdu effortlessly. That makes my case.

My second problem of reading Urdu is poor vocabulary. This is easily solved by looking up online dictionaries. For example, the two difficult words in the above extract are ahbab and targheeb. University of Chicago digital dictionaries of South Asia tell me ‘ahbab’ means ‘friends, lovers, dear ones’. tells me that ‘targheeb dena’ means ‘stimulate’.

See. Once I know how to read a word, knowing the meaning of a word whose meaning I don’t know, is normally a few clicks away. If any words are missing in online dictionaries they need to be added. With some volunteering and community action updating online dictionaries can be taken up easily.

However, the major problem facing any language is the lack of coining new words for the constant barrage of new words entering our daily vocab from English. These range from ‘bandwidth’ to ‘recharge’. But this is the third problem of Urdu, and can wait until there is widespread adoption for diacritical Urdu with word spaces and full stop and we have comprehensive online Urdu dictionaries.

In closing, the mainstream adoption of this idea of printing Urdu with diacritical remarks, word spaces and full stop requires a lot of work to be done. I will be sharing copies of this essay with educational institutes, academicians, and public figures on the need for this and its adoption. I hope my endeavors in this regard will result in positive outcomes.


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