October 15, 2013

The uncertain fate of Urdu script in the digital age


The Urdu nastaliq script and the Arabic naskh that’s been replacing it in digital forms

Author Ali Eteraz has posted a great article on Medium.com about the recent demise of the nastaliq script used to write in Urdu, due to the comparative difficulty of reproducing it digitally. Because of its verticality and ornateness, nastaliq isn’t easy to code, so on digital devices, Urdu writing ends up being rendered in the more angular Arabic naskh, or simply transliterated into Western letters.

Eteraz writes that some 100-125 million people in Pakistan and India are Urdu-speakers, trained to write in and master the flowing nastaliq all their lives. It makes sense that they would be upset at the diminishing presence of their native writing, especially as naskh has been adopted by the Urdu Voice of America and BBC-Urdu for their web content, as well as Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. Particularly damaging, Etereaz says, was the decision by the Department of Electronics and Information Technology of the Government of India (DEITY, har har) to release a new keyboard with only one nastaliq font to its twelve naskh options.

When I read about that, I was thoroughly deflated. New Delhi, the seat of the Indian government, is one of the long-standing hearts of the Urdu language. It is where Ghalib, the Urdu Shakespeare, was from. And yet there in Delhi, naskh, this pretender font, was in ascension, all because it was easier to code.

Utility had defeated tradition.

But it’s not only nostalgia and tradition that cause people to cling to nastaliq; the decision to use it makes a political statement as well. Etereaz explains, “In short, naskh carries an ‘Arab’ connotation because it is the preferred script for the Arabic language (ironically invented by a Persian). Due to recent geo-politics, such as the enthronement of the Saudi backed Wahhabi dictator Zia ul Haq in 1980’s Pakistan, as well as the politicization of the history of Arab imperialism over India, Arab intrusion in South Asian matters is always contested.”

So how to get around the tyranny of Facebook? Many people resort to Roman Urdu, phonetically transliterated into our alphabet, convenient though not preferable because of the “hegemony of the Western alphabet.” Others go to the trouble of uploading images of nastaliq writing, which preserves the beauty of the script but is rather impractical for the speed at which most people live their online lives. After considerable investigation, Eterez found a potential solution from a wholly unlikely source: Microsoft. On the blog of a Microsoft developer, Michael S. Kaplan, he discovered that Windows 8, the company’s latest operating system, would offer a dedicated Urdu/nastaliq font, a big step in keeping it viable in the digital age.

Still, it seems to be an uphill battle for this traditional form of writing to find its place online and on smartphones. Without enough demand for nastaliq fonts, tech companies are unlikely to offer them, and with other somewhat viable options available, Urdu speakers won’t necessarily be clamoring to get them. Eteraz concludes with a plea for tech companies to make Urdu nataliq readily available even without high demand: “If even then we fail to make Urdu a popular online language,” he argues, “then the onus for its death will be upon us.”


Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.