Cracking Urdu: A Guide for Those Who Know Hindi

By Anjum Altaf

I am an Urdu speaker from Pakistan who wrote an account (From Urdu to Hindi, Farsi and Beyond) of an immensely rewarding experience of learning the Devanagari script very quickly. As a result, I have been asked to guide those wishing to cross the divide from the other side. Nothing could be more gratifying and I have decided to devote a separate post to the effort in order to have enough room to indulge myself.

For those who know Hindi, the news is all good. You already know Urdu so there is really nothing to learn. Hindi and Urdu share the same Khari Boli grammar and therefore are the same language from a linguistic perspective. The branches of this common trunk have been pruned and grafted such that we think we are looking at two different species of trees. But that is an illusion; beneath the bramble of new and unfamiliar words the roots are the same.

Hindi speakers really don’t have to learn Urdu because most anything of general value from the Urdu corpus would be available in India in Devanagari. A language does not change if written in a different script; Urdu Romanized or written in Devanagari is still Urdu. In this sense those across the border are more fortunate because the relationship is not symmetric. Almost nothing from the vast resource base of Hindi is available in Pakistan in Urdu script (which, by the way, is not as trivial a difference as it may seem). My own resolve to learn Devanagari stemmed from an interest in classical music – all the new and exciting work is in Hindi (and other Indian languages) and thus inaccessible to a Pakistani unfamiliar with its script.

The bottom line of the above is that there is no functional need for a Hindi speaker to learn the Urdu script. The only motivation can be an intellectual thrill, the mental challenge of deciphering a code, of going to the source and discovering what that might entail. And this provides the clue to how a Hindi speaker should go about the task. He/she should not consider it as learning a new language but as breaking a cypher – Urdu is Hindi written in code.

The adult Hindi speaker should not approach learning Urdu as a child would, starting from the primer, accumulating a vocabulary and then learning to write the words. Rather, the code-breaker’s approach would employ a phonetic strategy associating each distinct sound with the shape of a symbol. For example, when we verbalize the word ‘mother’ we know that its initial sound is represented by the symbol M in English and म in Devanagari. We now have to associate the same sound with the symbol م in Urdu. Of course we know that there is an upper case M and a lower case m and also that a lower case r doesn’t quite look the same when we write English in cursive longhand. Nor does म look like the half-म in Devanagari and the half-र can get stuck all over the place. But these are matters of detail that are unimportant at the outset.

The first step therefore is to put up the Urdu alphabet on a surface that you look at many times during the day (it is now also available as a phone app). Mark the equivalent Devanagari symbol below each Urdu symbol, and match the sound-symbol pairs. (This chart is not ideal but should work. Unlike Devanagari, Urdu letters have names and the chart gives the names of the Urdu letters in Devanagari. The initial sound of the name is close enough to the sound represented by the letter. I will replace the chart when I come across a more useful one or will make one myself. If you know someone familiar with Urdu you can get off to a fast start by asking him/her to verbalize the sounds of the Urdu letters so you can match them with their Devanagari equivalents.) For those with photographic memories the task of remembering the matched pairs is trivial. For the rest, it would take less than a month devoting a mere ten minutes a day to one sound-symbol pair, alternately thinking of the sound and writing down the symbol associated with it and thinking of the symbol and verbalizing the sound that it represents.

With the phonetic approach, that is just about the time it should take to break the code. You should be able to write your name in upper case Urdu. For example, if your name is Ashok, you can break it into its constituent sounds – A, SH, O, K – and recall the Urdu symbols that represent the same sounds. If you have done your job right you will come up with ک , و ,ش ,ا. Writing these symbols from right to left, which is the way Urdu is written, will give you your name in upper case Urdu –  ا ش و ک.

The first and most critical milestone is to get to the point where you can write any Hindi word in the equivalent upper case Urdu. As you can appreciate, this is a purely mechanical exercise – one could train a monkey to listen to a sound and pick the associated symbol out of a tray of symbols representing all sounds.

(You will make initial mistakes because unlike Devanagari there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between sounds and symbols in Urdu which is over-determined in this regard. For example, the sound of S in Urdu could be represented by the symbols س, ث, or ص. However, you will be reading and pronouncing the word right; all it means is that you will make a mistake in writing which is a second order problem. Just as familiarity has made us comfortable with odd English spellings, the same will happen with Urdu.)

The next step is to crack the transition from upper case to lower case Urdu and to master its shorthand which is what stumps most adult learners. Fortunately this task has been made relatively simple by modern technology. Use a phonetic keyboard with Urdu letters (which you would know by this point) and type the upper case letters on it (you can use this keyboard to start with). Then watch the screen to see how they connect together and you will begin to get a hang of the logic of the shorthand.  An ideal supplement would be a book of Ghalib that has the ghazals in Urdu, Devanagari and Roman scripts. Read a word in Devanagari, recall the upper case Urdu letters that represent its sounds and note how they are combined in Urdu. You will, at one go, enjoy Urdu poetry, enrich your vocabulary, and pick up the mechanics of the Urdu shorthand. (I would recommend Professor Frances Pritchett’s wonderful Ghalib website but for the fact that style used for the Urdu script is not the best for beginners. However, her general site for Hindi-Urdu resources would yield much of value to the interested reader.)

There is a complexity in Urdu writing that it would help to keep in mind. Unlike in Hindi, each Urdu word is not clearly separated from the next by the device of the bar or clothesline on top. One Urdu word in its written form can have two or more separate components. For the uninitiated this can create ambiguity about whether an element belongs to the preceding or the following word. I recall an incident where I had lent a book of Urdu poetry to a friend. A particular line started with the two words ‘Funkaar Khud’ (meaning artist and self, respectively). The Devanagari symbols representing the constituent sounds would be फ़ न क आ र and ख द and the two words would be distinctly identified. If you remember the equivalent symbols for Urdu, you would write these two words from right to left as follows:

ف ن ک ا ر   خ و د

Now when you type these into the phonetic keyboard, you will see that they would combine as follows:  فنکار خود

Note that both words are made up of two disconnected parts and there is no clothesline to clearly separate one word from the other especially if the writing is in longhand. The standalone ر in the middle could be mistakenly considered part of either word by one unfamiliar with the language. Thus it was that I got a long-distance call enquiring about the meaning of the word ‘Rkhud’ – my friend was decoding the text as ‘funkaa rkhud’; ‘fun ka’ can make sense in some contexts (speaking ‘of art’ for example) but ‘rkhud’ is meaningless. Such exciting errors will yield memorable anecdotes to be recalled with nostalgia; familiarity will take care of them.

There are a few tricks that help negotiate these difficulties. First, there are a number of Urdu letters that can be considered terminal, i.e., they don’t connect to subsequent letters – و , ر andا are among them. You will get to know them over time and that will be a big help in writing. Second, there is guide I find useful. Imagine a three line copy of the kind used to teach children to write. Use the middle line as the reference and always start writing from it. Keep connecting the subsequent letter to the one preceding it as long as you are on the middle line. If the shape of the letter takes you to the top or bottom line, that is a sign that you have arrived at a terminal letter. Look at فنکار خود again and see if this suggestion helps.

The essential message of this guide is that the task of learning Urdu has to be conceptualized by a Hindi speaking adult very differently from the norm. It is not akin to learning a language; it is more deciphering a code for which the phonetic strategy of matching a sound and a symbol is the most effective. In this frame it should be more like solving a puzzle and therefore the source of adventure, fun and pleasure. Working through the puzzle might also yield some learning which would serve as a bonus.

I should state here that I am not a linguist nor do I know related theories of linguistics. I stumbled upon this approach in my investigations into music thinking about its alphabet (sa, re, ga ma, pa, dha, ni). It occurred to me that while in a spoken language one associates letters of the alphabet with distinct sounds at the same pitch, in music one could associate every letter of the alphabet with the same sound but at a different frequency. In playing around with the idea, I figured I could apply it to learn Hindi and was pleasantly surprised that it worked. This guide is an attempt to generalize from that experience. I would be very much interested in finding out if it proved useful to others or of particular adaptations that proved more effective.

Apologies for the fonts of the Urdu and Devanagari letters in the text. WordPress did not allow me to increase the font size to make them more distinct and legible.

Play around with Google Translator from Hindi to Urdu. As you enter a word in Roman script, it would change into Devanagari and the Urdu equivalent would be displayed. From Hindi to Urdu the translator simply transliterates the shared words which is very helpful for our purposes.

Syed Mohsin Naquvi successfully taught Urdu using the phonetic method at Rutgers University last year. He has generously volunteered to guide readers to work with the multi-language facility of Windows 7, an Urdu script font, and a phonetic keyboard both available from the Center for Research in Urdu Language Processing (CRULP) website. He can be contacted at mnaquvi@yahoo.com.

As a result of the response to this post we have started an innovative Language Exchange learning initiative. Do take a look and contribute your suggestions.

 

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41 Responses to “Cracking Urdu: A Guide for Those Who Know Hindi”

  1. Manish Kumar Says:

    Nice approach to learn Urdu ! Thx for enlightening us.

  2. builder Says:

    a similar, memorable parsing error: kitaabcha -> kutta bachcha

    and one that always threw me off: ‘janaral (general) store’ -> jazal store

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Builder: کتابچہ is a good example of the traps for the unwary in Urdu. Kitaabcha is from the root word kitaab and refers to a small book or a magazine. In writing it gets broken in two since the Alif at the end of the Kitaa does not connect to the succeeding letter be. Hence it is quite possible to read it as two separate words kitaa and bacha. Since Urdu doesn’t bother to put the diacritical marks where they are required, it is not possible to say whether the first word is kitaa, kataa, kutaa ot Kuttaa. Similarly, it is not possible to tell whether the second word is bicha, bucha, bacha or bachcha. This should not scare anyone. Urdu relies on the context to solve most of such possible errors. If the text is about books and magazines their is little chance of a puppy popping into the narrative. After a while, these just become occasions for good laughs.

  3. kk Says:

    Loved both your articles.
    Very well written and extremely learner friendly.
    I have been trying to learn Farsi for a while now, watching their movies http://www.youtube.com/my_playlists?p=6064B7B4D6084C6E has helped me as much as hanging out with Iranians, http://www.easypersian.com/ is a good beginner’s site, so is http://iraniansongstranslations.blogspot.com/ but as rightly point out Urdu/Hindi is easier than jumping to Farsi, though in Iran I did manage to grasp the gist of what was being said quite effortlessly.
    Shukriya! Kavita

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      kk: Thanks. I think hanging out with Iranians is probably the fastest way of learning Farsi. To simulate the experience this blog is initiating a new experiment called the Language Exchange. I hope you will take a look and provide some feedback: http://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/language-exchange/

      My own experience with easypersian.com was not as positive for reasons described on the Persian Page in the Language Exchange. I have mentioned a resource that suited me more. Would like your feedback after you have looked at it.

  4. kothevala Says:

    I had never learned to read Urdu but at one time I started a course in Arabic. After a few weeks I realized I could also read Urdu: I just had to learn the additional letters. A further advantage was that those different signs representing the same sound in Urdu weren’t a problem simply because they did represent different sounds in Arabic. So for those who can only read Hindi I suggest you take a beginner’s course in Arabic and then try reading Urdu. The “Naskhi” script used on the Internet or on typewriters is much easier to read than the “Nastaliq” used in hand-writing and lino-cut printing. So start with texts on the Internet and then go on to books printed in the traditional manner.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      kothevala: The end requirement is a very simple one. All that is needed is to associate about 20 plus sounds with their corresponding visual representations in Urdu. Since Arabic, Farsi and Urdu share a common alphabet, it shouldn’t matter which path one chooses for this pattern recognition exercise. Personally, I would go directly to Urdu. Because Urdu and Hindi share the same working vocabulary and grammar, there is nothing more to be done. The last step is to learn the Urdu shorthand method of cursive writing. That is less than a week’s effort. For the motivated individual who knows Hindi, getting going in Urdu is less than a month of self-directed work.

  5. Vinod Says:

    I know how to read Arabic.

  6. Vinod Says:

    I almost learned how to read Bengali too. The Bengali alphabet has letters that vaguely match the hindi letters.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vinod: I looked at the Bengali alphabet. There is indeed a resemblance to Hindi letters but I had this feeling that whereas I could learn the latter very quickly, it would take me a lot longer to make the same progress with Bengali. It looks like the kind of script one has to grow up with. I have no clear idea what it is but the similarity of shapes seems intimidating. Go further east and look at the Thai script and you might sense my feeling.

    • Vinod Says:

      I think the influence of the Brahmi alphabet is more pronounced on Bengali and Thai than that of the Devanagiri. Hence the same-but-not-the-same feeling.

  7. Rajat Says:

    Anjum…
    Some years back I learned how to read gujrati. It will be easier if you know devnagri as it is almost same with a few differences.
    Regarding Bengali, Now I can understand some bengali because of my bengali friends. I cannot read it much. I will love to learn reading bengali because of the richness of literature in bengali. After I came to US, I became friends with some Nepalis and was surprised that Nepali is very close sounding to bengali plus it is written in devnagri.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Rajat: All these languages shade into each other. I wish we had devoted some time early in our life to take advantage of their similarities. I know Devnagri so I will take a look at Gujrati.

  8. pavanmehta Says:

    Anjum can you give me tips on how to learn to read hindi. I know Urdu and Sindhi.

  9. Ankur Sharma Says:

    The other issue, apart from script, is that of vocabulary. Good Devanagari editions of urdu poetry often have glossaries in them that explain urdu words which are less common in Hindi. There are some good Urdu Hindi dictionaries as well that help in that regard. I have often thought, idly of course, of memorising one such dictionary entirely.
    Urdu poetry is so beautiful that the effort would be worthwhile.
    You have better suggestions in this regard?

  10. amardeepsinghpuri Says:

    I m a found of nusrat Punjabi songs but there are some words which meaning is not understandable for me I don’t know to read Urdu but I know Punjabi Hindi and English if u can help me in this matter than i shall be thankful to you. By Amardeepsinghpuri

  11. Rohan Sharma Says:

    hi , i am a native hindi speaker and can read urdu as well but i am unable to read it very fast,so can you help me regarding this issue of mine.I am quite fluent with urdu vocabulary and can read tough persian /arabic words easily but my only problem is that i have to concentrate very hard while assembling urdu letters.For eg i can read an urdu newspaper if i have time but if i try to read dynamic headlines on a tv channel then i struggle a bit.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Rohan: The only way forward is familiarity and practice. I would recommend Ukindia’s Urdu page where the logic of Urdu letters is explained: http://www.ukindia.com/zurdu1.htm. Also, this volume from CM Naim’s celebrated course at the University of Chicago might be of help: http://dsal.uchicago.edu/digbooks/images/PK1983.N2_1999_V1/PK1983.N2_1999_V1.pdf. Let us know if these prove helpful.

      • Rohan Sharma Says:

        Hi,Anjum CM Naim’s book is exceptional , however I have been trying from my own side to improve reading speed and made a habit to read 2 pages daily.As a result reading speed has improved dramatically and i am able to read and understand simultaneously ,previously i could only read and understanding part for reserved for second reading.
        Its tragic that i was not taught urdu in school alongside hindi and sanskrit due to which i have to try so hard reading the language which i literally speak everyday,anyways time isn’t going to rewind back and its always hard when you try to learn a script on your own without a teacher.I cant imagine someone writing shudh hindi without having formal education, same goes with urdu too.
        I have decided to learn persian next month but this time i’ll make sure i’ll get myself enrolled in some institute rather than trying on my own with a book because it saves lot of time and energy as i saw with urdu that even after trying hard from last 10 months my proficiency is just intermediate level and i think i’ll need atleast 1 year to reach a decent level where i’ll be able to read kalaam of ghalib and meer fluently without cheating.

  12. Yar Khan Says:

    Hi Anjum
    I like your reason for learning Hindi script because you want to learn classical music…I learnt Urdu script beacuse I want to learn more of old bollywood music and ghazals. Your idea of cracking the code is exactly what I had thought about Urdu when I learnt reading Urdu :) Keep up the good work

  13. NNZ Says:

    Hi Can anybody let me know the best site to learn arabic (read, write, learn and able to pronounce).Thanks

  14. Taran Says:

    hi, what is the difference between Upper Case and Lower Case urdu??

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Taran: Urdu is not like English in having upper and lower case alphabets that can be used separately to write words. The Urdu alphabet (as depicted in primers) is not used in writing. Shortened forms of the letters are combined in the script. In some sense, the better analogy for Urdu writing would be shorthand. One can use the alphabet to spell out words (as they are in teaching) but not in writing texts.

  15. Akash Says:

    Hello, great article!

    Any advice on getting down the nastaleeq? I can read arabic pretty easily but it’s just that I’m having difficulty reading urdu, as it’s stylized and looks different. It takes a long time for me to parse out urdu even though I can read arabic pretty easily. Any advice?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Akash: I agree nastaleeq can pose problems but mostly the handwritten samples where the quirkiness of individuals creeps in. That is much like deciphering the prescriptions written in English by physicians. Do you have equal difficulty with textbooks? And most Urdu text on the Web is not in nastaleeq. Let me know how you do with the text in this link:

      http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00ghalib/020/index_020.html?urdu

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Akash: I received this email. You might want to touch base with the author.

      “I am working on Nastaleeq and am interested in knowing if there is possibly in English/Urdu a book dealing with the style which states how each character changes shape according to its environment (preceding/following). Thus noon in initial position has two shapes, a half cut bowl or a slant depending upon the character that follows.

      “Any help or pointer in this direction would be most helpful. Doc” (raymond.doctor@gmail.com)

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Akash: Here are some interesting and useful links for you:

      View story at Medium.com

      Here is a book for Urdu script exercises:

      Let’s Study Urdu: An Introduction to the Script (Yale Language) [Paperback] Ali S. Asani (Author), Syed Akbar Hyder (Author)
      Product Details: Series: Yale Language; Paperback: 104 pages; Publisher: Yale University Press (July 28, 2007): Language: English

      Spoken Urdu, Vol. 1 by Muhammad Abd-Al-Rahman Barker and H. J. Hamdani. This book has several chapters in Volume 1 on how each letter group connects or does not connect to the other with very specific notes on slight variations depending on the group.

  16. a shish kumar Says:

    i know hindi nd english well. i want to learn ‘speaking’ in urdu..canu suggest a spurce..on normal browsing i found mostly urdu for those who know obly enflish..13 min audio taught me ‘suniye mauhtarma kya aap urdu boltin hain’ :p

  17. Manoj Says:

    Dear Anjum Altaf, Luckily I could hit this page of yours wherein have made your sincere efforts to guide the persons intrested to learn Urdu and in time I could understand that I need to approach it differently rather than taking it up as a completly new language. You have certainly inspired me and boosted my interest. Now I will go ahead as per your suggestions and could probably move faster. Thanks and best regards.
    Manoj

  18. M.Rangraj Iyengar Says:

    I am in search of a dictionary, wherein URDU words are written in Devnagari script and provide meanings in HINDI and English. My issue is that I don’t know to read URDU but am very much interested in the language as it is well mixed with HINDI. I love languages in particular Hindi, can read Bengali, Punjabi, Telugu, assamese, Gujarati . I do have comparatively a little interference in other Indian languages e.g. Kannada, Tamil, Marathi.. Can you please suggest some…

  19. sujeet shokeen Says:

    I am interested to have this guide,,,as it sound good learning urdu through hindi script,,

  20. exerji Says:

    Dear Anjum Altaf.

    Wow, how I wish most discussions between Pakistani and Indian people would happen in such civility and genuine interest in learning from each other. Great effort. Thank you.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Dear exerji: It has taken us quite a while to overcome the initial doubts. I feel we have reached the point where people feel comfortable with disagreeing knowing that the discourse would be civil and based on logic. We try to critique ideas and not criticize people. We also are comfortable with the knowledge that we might be wrong. If that were not the case, there would be no learning.

      Thanks for the appreciative words. They make the hard work worthwhile.

  21. Harman Says:

    I have already lrnd urdu through the intrnet … it looks easy… but when you we really start listening urdu in its formal form it is WAY different from hindi… I struggle to understand it…….

  22. JDT Says:

    This is awesome! I tried a few years ago to learn urdu scripts (for the reasons you mention, an intellectual thrill) but I found it very hard to read the script for words I didn´t know (but hearing the same words, it was easy to figure out the context).
    Your breaking the code approach seems promising though, I will try it, and report back and maybe this time I will have more success!

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