Sunday, September 04, 2016

Background post for my blog on Urdu Dictionaries

This is a disclaimer and a short background note to go with my other blog about Urdu dictionaries.

According to Ethnologue, a language reference website, Urdu is spoken (as a first or second language) by around 162.6 million people all over the world including Pakistan and India. It is also the national language of Pakistan. The number of native speakers of the language is around 70 million or so--14 million in Pakistan and 60 million in India. Moreover, the number of people who can understand the language is much larger due to its similarity with Hindi, which in spoken form is many a times indistinguishable from Urdu. Hence, based on this, there are more than 500 million people around the world who can communicate in Urdu/Hindi.

Urdu uses Perso-Arabic system writing that uses ABJAD (ابجد) script, or in other words this uses a consonant based system with only long vowels as part of the alphabets. To denote short vowels, Urdu uses various diacritics. However, in written Urdu the standard practice is to omit the diacritic marks. For the native speakers (called Ahl e Zubaan in Urdu) of the language this poses no problem, as they know the correct pronunciation of the words and in cases of words with similar spellings they can identify the correct one. This however, can be confusing and frustrating to non-native speakers. For example let's take the words "BUN" "BAN" "BIN." All three are written as BN (بن) in Urdu, in most cases without any diacritical mark, assuming that the reader would know the relevant short vowels (according to the context) and hence read it correctly. Similarly, I recently heard the word KNARA (کنارہ) --which means edge or border and commonly known as KINARA-- pronounced as KANARA by a poet, and upon exploration, I found that the prevailing pronunciation is a "vulgarized" version. This makes it harder to speak the language like an "Ahl e Zubaan." Non usage of diacritics makes it difficult for machine translation and text to speech recognition programs.

Urdu is not my first language nor is English. I had to learn both languages because I grew up in Pakistan and attended government schools and colleges, where the medium of instruction is Urdu. Most people around me were also not used to Urdu as their first language, including teachers in my educational institutions due to which I never got the opportunity to learn the language properly from Ahl-e-Zaban. Hence, I still make silly mistakes in pronunciation and grammar, which is the reason for writing this Blog in English and not Urdu.

To improve my (spoken) Urdu, all my life I have relied on listening to the diction of native speakers and television, radio and internet for renditions and readings by Zia Mohiyuddin and others like him. Despite all these efforts, I know I have serious deficiencies in the language in terms of vocabulary, choosing the correct gender of words and pronunciation etc. Plus it is difficult for me to translate anything which is beyond basic conversation, from English to Urdu and vice versa.

Here is the link to the blog post on Urdu Dictionaries.

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