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 email@example.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.