Arts, Culture & Media

Will Pakistan's Urdu Script Be Lost in Texting Translation?

According to government figures, mobile phone users in Pakistan sent an average of 128 text messages each per month in 2009. That was the fifth highest figure among all countries in the world in 2009.

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In Pakistan, there has been a growing trend of using the Latin script to write Urdu, the national language of the country, instead of the official Urdu script.

This trend is still fairly limited, but it has left some Urdu purists concerned about what will happen if the trend continues.

While it may sound harmless enough, it's creating some unintended side effects. Because the first generations of mobile phones couldn't send text messages using Pakistan's Urdu script, Pakistanis improvised and started transliterating Urdu phrases into the Latin alphabet. Even though Urdu-capable phones are more common now, many people have become used to using the Latin script.

Shaista Parween, who teaches math and computer studies, said texting-mad students are just as comfortable writing Urdu in Latin as they are using the regular Urdu script. In fact, she said they sometimes even do their schoolwork using the Latin alphabet to write Urdu.

"I'm facing this a lot in my classes," Parween said. "Latin Urdu is being used so much, what can we do? We can't say it's wrong if they are trying. It's used so much in the media and television, that's why."

Not the First Time

Officially, and overwhelmingly, Urdu is written in a variation of the Arabic script. But while the use of Latin letters for Urdu has reached unprecedented levels, it isn't the first time it's been done.

European missionaries and administrators transliterated Urdu into the Latin script back in the 18th century. And in the 1950s, military ruler Ayub Khan proposed officially writing Urdu in Latin letters, just as Ataturk had done for Turkish decades earlier. But religious leaders thought the Arabic script to be an important marker of Pakistan's Islamic identity, so Ayub abandoned the idea.

Oddly enough, tech-savvy kids are inadvertently doing today what a military dictator couldn't achieve 40-years ago.

And many Pakistanis aren't happy about that.

"Trying to write a language in another script is like trying to drop off your skin and trying to have a new one," said Rauf Parekh, an assistant professor at the University of Karachi's Urdu Department. He's concerned about the impact this will make on society if people stop learning the Urdu script.

"They will be cut off from their culture, from their tradition, their history, their classical literature. How are they going to enjoy if they cannot read it in the original. So it's a kind of deprivation on cultural and educational side. They won't feel it perhaps now, but maybe hundred years from now they will realize what a great loss they have incurred," he said.

But while professor Parekh bemoans the loss of traditional Pakistani culture, a new kind of "text messaging culture" is emerging.

Pakistanis use text messages for just about anything, but especially for passing on political jokes, poetry, quotes and for flirting.

In Karachi's main marketplace for printed books — aptly named the Urdu Bazaar — there are hundreds of small book vendors. Many of the stalls sell booklets of bite-sized poems and jokes compiled specifically for the purpose of sending as text messages.

One book is titled "Cool SMS", another "Love & Love SMS". Their notable feature is that each joke or poem in the booklet has both the Urdu script and the Latin transliteration.

"It's been about 10 years that these books have been published now," Shop owner Basharat explained. "There was a lot of demand for them initially. This is because the majority of our population is not educated, so Latin Urdu books were made so that every person can read the books and send SMSs. It made it so much easier."

Nowadays, Basharat said, the SMS booklets don't sell as much, in part because cell phone companies have caught on. And are sending out the Latin-Urdu text messages themselves.

  • urdu.jpg

    Urdu Alphabet with Devanagari and Latin transliterations. (Photo: Goldsztajn/Wikipedia)
  • sms-Alex-Ragone.jpg

    (Photo: Alex Ragone/Flickr)

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