Controversy over number of letters in Urdu alphabet
June 15: How many letters are there in the Urdu alphabet? I wish I could answer this
question in unambiguous terms. But the controversy over the total and correct
number of letters in Urdu alphabet has been raging for over 200 years now. The
reason why I am dredging it up today is that Muqtadira Qaumi Zaban or the
National Language Authority (NLA), the official authority responsible for
preparing Urdu for implementation as an official language, has declared that
Urdu has exactly 58 letters. Many may take exception to this declaration.
Insha Allah Khan Insha (1756/57-1818), a witty and intelligent poet and
prose writer of Urdu who was the first to use English words in Urdu ghazals,
wrote in 1808 'Darya-i-latafat'. It is the first book ever written by a native
speaker on the Urdu language and its grammar.
ingenious and a connoisseur of the language, he is a bit erratic when it comes
to the total number of Urdu letters and gives different figures: at one point he
writes that Urdu has 85 letters and then elsewhere he puts the figure at 86. In
the same book, on another occasion he has raised the number to 91 and even to
92. Earlier, Benjamin Schulz, a German missionary, had written 'A grammar of
Hindustani language' in Latin in 1741. He had listed only 32 Urdu letters and
excluded all letters denoting aspirant sounds as well as some other letters
because he wrongly believed that Urdu was just a dialect of Persian.
Till the first quarter of the last century, there was a kind of tacit
consensus on the total number of letters in Urdu alphabet and it was generally
believed that Urdu had 35 or at the most 36 letters. Most of the Urdu primers
and readers written with a view to teaching basic Urdu gave 36 'single' or
'un-compounded' letters that were followed by separately listed 'compound'
letters denoting aspirant sounds such as bh, ph, kh, chh, etc. It was
Baba-i-Urdu Moulvi Abdul Haq who for the first time announced that the symbols
denoting aspirant sounds ought to be given the full status of letters and,
therefore, the words beginning with them should be properly sequenced in Urdu
In 1930, Baba-e-Urdu began the gigantic task of compiling
'Lughat-i-kabeer', the most comprehensive Urdu-Urdu dictionary that was to have
each and every word of Urdu with illustrative citations. The project could not
go according to the plan and after 1947 it was merged with the Urdu Dictionary
Board (UDB), which was entrusted with an identical task of compiling a
monumental dictionary and Baba-i-Urdu was appointed its first Chief Editor. A
little earlier, Ghulam Rasool, a scholar and editor of Lahore's 'Inqelab', had
declared in an article on Urdu short-hand (that was published by 'Zamana',
Kanpur) that Urdu had 52 letters.
As Baba-i-Urdu had done the spadework
and had chalked out guidelines for such a huge dictionary – and it included
streamlining the sequence and number of letters in Urdu alphabet – when the
first volume of UDB's dictionary came out in 1977, it followed the basic scheme
of letters accommodating aspirant sounds as envisioned by Moulvi Abdul Haq. The
UDB also decided that Urdu had 53 letters.
Since then, the sequence and
number of Urdu letters decided by the UDB was generally followed. Though at
times unscrupulous publishers and writers of Urdu primers deviated from this,
perhaps because of their lack of knowledge, the pattern was generally followed
in Pakistan. In India, though, some scholars, especially Shams-ur-Rahman
Farooqi, objected to this and emphasised that the 'reformation' was uncalled-for
and that one should follow the vogue rather than linguistics. Prof Masood Hasan
Khan, an Indian linguist and scholar of repute, took exception to this and
supported the scheme followed by the UDB. Here I must mention an interesting
fact: a few years ago, Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqi wrote 'Lughaat-i-rozmarra', a
book on the correct usage of Urdu, and insisted that Urdu had 35 letters (p.47).
In the same book, he gave a list mentioning the number and correct sequence of
Urdu letters - expelling the aspirant sounds - and the list shows 38 of them
(p.46), quite conveniently forgetting the number mentioned on the next page.
For the last five years or so, Dr Atash Durrani of the NLA has been
promoting the idea that Urdu has 58 letters and even in some publications of the
Authority the claim has been repeated. The logic followed by him is that the
computerisation of Urdu requires certain letters that do not exist in Urdu
alphabet but are used in writing Urdu. Many scholars disagree with him.
Here I must first admit that Dr Durrani has been relentlessly working
for Urdu's computerisation for the last 10 years or so and has played a vital
role in it along with NUST, FAST, the NLA and other institutions and individuals
who have made it their life's goal to catapult Urdu into the cyberspace and into
the next century. But the question is: why does the English language has the
same 26 letters and yet the computerisation and cyber-age have not had any
effect on it? In his new book 'Urdu ittelaiyaat' Dr Atash Durrani, while making
out a case for 58 letters, has answered the question. He says that International
Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) has solved many problems for English as far as
pronunciation is concerned and since Urdu does not have such a system it will
have to have new letters to be able to correctly and fully show the sounds that
certain Urdu words have but Urdu letters do not represent them properly. Dr
Durrani has his own reasoning and sees everything from a technological point of
view, but in his enthusiasm for cyber Urdu he has perhaps gone a bit too far.
Since he is looking after the Centre of Excellence for Urdu Informatics
at the NLA, his word is from the horse's mouth. But he admits that scholars
disagree on the five letters that he has added to Urdu alphabet.
book is a collection of articles Dr Durrani has written from time to time on
Urdu Informatics. Published by the NLA, the book opens new vistas for techno
geeks who love Urdu. Prof Fateh Muhammad Malik in his preface says that "the NLA
has the credit of having taken the first step towards making Urdu the language
of computer and towards standardisation of Urdu characters for Urdu
software…With Dr Atash Durrani's hard work and vision Urdu has got a conspicuous
position in the domain of technology. As a result the technological use of Urdu
came in vogue at many universities, ISO, Microsoft, mobile companies and many
other institutions". He hopes that this beginning today provides a solid
foundation for Urdu's brighter tomorrow in a world that is steeped in
The lovers of Urdu are naturally rejoiced at the inception
of a new discipline named Urdu Informatics and no doubt Dr Durrani has played a
pioneering role in it but one feels that sensitive issues like the number of
letters in the Urdu alphabet need a consensus. Before heading forward, we must
remember that many authorities such as Moulvi Abdul Haq, Dr Abdus Sattat
Siddiqui, Dr Syed Abdullah, Shan-ul-Haq Haqqee, Syed Qudrat Naqvi, Suhail
Bukhari, Rasheed Hasan Khan, Jameel Jalibi, Farman Fatehpuri, Waheed Qureshi,
Gopi Chand Narang, Gian Chand Jain, Ab-ul-Lais Siddiqui, Shams-ur-Rahman
Farooqi, Prof Masood Hasan Khan and Moinuddin Aqeel etc. have had different and
at times even conflicting views over such issues.
The NLA must not be
oblivious of sensitivities such as Urdu script, Urdu orthography, Urdu alphabet
and number of letters that have caused bitter and prolonged controversies in the
past. Aside from that aspect, the book is a must for the students of Urdu,
informatics and, of course, Urdu Informatics. -By Rauf Parekh, firstname.lastname@example.org (Dawn)
Post your comments
"51 letters of URDU should be familiar and used. And sound ("a", "o" "e" and "a")Alif, wawo, choti ye and bari ye) to be recognized as vowel sound"
Name: Abdul Salam
City, Country: Turbat, Pakistan
"since urdu created its seems that urdu is symbol of literature language. no collective efforts done by any urdu school of thought. i appreciate dr. durrani he is alone continuously working hard to implement Urdu as a national language, as well as machine language and off course recognized as 2nd international language.and i go for dr durrani nmbr of alphabets until some other scholar will not come forward to logically literary challenge dr durrani efforts."
Name: ZAKIA SHOAIB
City, Country: islamabad, Pakistan