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The Death of the Urdu Script
October 13, 2013 8:35 AM   Subscribe

How the internet is killing the traditional nastaliq script form of Urdu, and how Windows 8 might save it.
posted by Chrysostom (19 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Something I didn't get from the article -- is there no tradition of typesetting in nastaliq? That should have solved some of the spacing problems that face the script.

Other than that, I found the discussion of cultural and political impact of the script pretty interesting.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:00 AM on October 13, 2013


is there no tradition of typesetting in nastaliq?

It appears not. Wikipedia says that all pre-digital efforts at typesetting Nastaʿlīq failed.
posted by RichardP at 9:13 AM on October 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Interesting! I'm familiar with the nastaliq and naskh styles from studying Persian, but I didn't know anything about it in regards to Urdu. In Persian, nastaliq (or the even more flowing shekasteh nastaliq) is used in calligraphy and handwriting, but like Urdu the printed and computer fonts are mainly naskh.

I find the nastaliq newspaper intriguing - to me it's like seeing a news article written out in longhand cursive. I wonder if there have ever been any studies on the readability of the two styles - besides the obvious typesetting advantages of naskh, it seems like nastaliq would be harder to skimread? Like how the Latin alphabet mostly uses sans-serif fonts for computer screens. Of course that's completely ignoring the cultural aspect of it.
posted by Gordafarin at 9:49 AM on October 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's interesting that the article is entirely framed around nasta'liq in digital contexts, since surely people must have been rendering Urdu in print for centuries now. It's odd that only now are nasta'liq's typesetting problems presenting a problem that can be hyperbolized as "killing" it.

In fact, if nasta'liq has hung on for so long despite being impossible to typeset, that's damn impressive. I'm pretty sure that if Anglophones had been writing in a script that was impossible to convert to the printed word, that script would be long dead.
posted by Sara C. at 9:50 AM on October 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Here is a video of an Urdu newspaper which is still handwritten by caligraphers. I can kind of speak Hindi, and have been trying to learn to read Urdu (which is very similar as a language, but with a totally different writing system, of course). On a Mac, it's not very difficult to find a nastaliq font, and I believe the unicode representation is identical, so with the correct font, you can view any Urdu website in Nastaliq. However, I seem to remember that it only worked in native OSX apps (TextEdit/Safari) and not in Chrome/Firefox. Perhaps things have changed.
posted by houshuang at 10:08 AM on October 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


I seem to recall that Naskh was specifically created for typesetting, but I can't remember the source.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:35 AM on October 13, 2013


There is one major upside to the trend of writing Urdu in Latin script, which is not touched on in Eteraz's article. Transliterated Urdu can be read by Hindi-speakers who don't read nastaliq, just as transliterated Hindi can be read by Urdu-speakers who don't read devanagari. The two dialects are very similar, and as someone who studied Hindi I find spoken Urdu perfectly intelligible. However, Urdu is the language of Pakistan and of Muslims in India, while Hindi is the language of India and Hindus. The separate scripts, while both beautiful and historically rich, serve to maintain that strict division. There is a lot to be gained when south Asian Hindus and Muslims can share in a digital conversation.
posted by bookish at 10:51 AM on October 13, 2013 [11 favorites]


How different are nasta'liq and naskh from each other, to the average reader of Urdu? Is it like the difference between zapfino and helvetica? Between hiragana and katakana? Between latin and cyrillic? Between cursive and print?
posted by Sara C. at 11:00 AM on October 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Bookish - similarly, my friend is a second generation American from India, who speaks Urdu but can't read or write. So he can read transliterated material (in Urdu or Hindi) but nothing in script.
posted by jacalata at 11:16 AM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


> I seem to recall that Naskh was specifically created for typesetting, but I can't remember the source.

Naskh is attributed to Ibn Muqla, an Abbasid calligrapher, well before the advent of the printing press.
posted by planetesimal at 11:48 AM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Resists being digitized and even being typeset? As Louis C.K. might say, "Of course . . . but maybe . . ."
posted by azaner at 12:04 PM on October 13, 2013


How different are nasta'liq and naskh from each other, to the average reader of Urdu? Is it like the difference between zapfino and helvetica? Between hiragana and katakana? Between latin and cyrillic? Between cursive and print?

I believe it's most comparable to the difference between cursive and print, or perhaps between the varieties of cursive handwriting and a specific print font, like Helvetica. The primary difference is that words rendered in nasta'liq slope (and the characters often look a bit curvier, reflecting the hand of a real, live calligrapher). The basic forms of the characters themselves are the same in either script.

The article hints at this when it mentions the takhti boards, but part of the reason that nasta'liq has persisted so long is that it's really the easiest mode in which to communicate person-to-person in Urdu in small, everyday ways that haven't been fully digitized just yet. It's what's used to teach beginning readers and writers (in classrooms with chalkboards, pens, and paper, but no computers), to write notes, grocery lists, comments on student work, etc. In my (admittedly limited) experience learning South Asian languages in the U.S. and India, beginning Urdu students still learn nasta'liq.
posted by Austenite at 2:10 PM on October 13, 2013


How different are nasta'liq and naskh from each other, to the average reader of Urdu? Is it like the difference between zapfino and helvetica? Between hiragana and katakana? Between latin and cyrillic? Between cursive and print?

I am not a native reader or speaker of Urdu, so I can't answer your question. But as a student of Urdu, I find naskh painfully hard to read in comparison to nastaliq. Nastaliq is so elegantly clear. And naskh just... gives me headaches, probably induced by how hard I have to squint to make it out. I'd liken the difference between these two scripts to the difference between your friend's beautiful yet enviably neat cursive, and your doctor's cramped, chicken-scratch scrawl.
posted by artemisia at 4:37 PM on October 13, 2013


Typeset or digital naskh and a calligrapher's written naskh are two different things. Naskh is lovely when handwritten; it's the most common font found in Arabic calligraphy.
posted by BinGregory at 5:35 PM on October 13, 2013


Android handles nastaliq text input, with some extra keyboard support. Unfortunately, he doesn't appear to have talked to Google, focusing only on Apple and Microsoft.
posted by honest knave at 5:47 PM on October 13, 2013


Whoops, he does mention Android support for nastaliq.
posted by honest knave at 5:48 PM on October 13, 2013


Also, Eteraz is pulling his punches a bit by using that wikipedia image, contrasting Nastaliq with the ugliest example of digital Naskh. A lot of what he writes was equally true of Arabic scripts in the move to digital. Naskh wasn't easy to digitize either and early versions were awful. Here's a contemporary digital Naskh font by comparison. I'm sure digital Nastaliq will get there.
posted by BinGregory at 5:54 PM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


So the perspective from Hyderabad's by-lanes and so on is that this is a historic inversion of how the scripts were perceived. Before outsourcing and transcriptions became a Thing, folks from Middle East used to send jobs for calligraphy for centuries; they'd send requests in Naskh, and presumably be given outputs in Nastaliq (although, truth be told, I'm not sure myself)

Then there's the little matter of how Bollywood has been moving away from Urdu. (I disagree slightly with the piece here; it may not be immediately apparent, but the reality is that Bollywood is moving away from Hindustani in general, and towards Hinglish in particular)

There is one major upside to the trend of writing Urdu in Latin script, which is not touched on in Eteraz's article. Transliterated Urdu can be read by Hindi-speakers who don't read nastaliq, just as transliterated Hindi can be read by Urdu-speakers who don't read devanagari.

I've long held the notion that if there could be one app that could positively impact Hindu-Muslim relations in India it would be a Naastaliq-to-Devnaagri transliterator, or at least, a Naastaliq-to-Roman transliterator. I know I've been searching for one such tool for long; I can speak Urdu (with a Deccani twang) quite well, but not having learnt the subject in school, I just can't read the script.

One reason I'd like to read the Persian Ramayanas in the original script.

(This is neither here nor there, but I've often noticed that Roman transliteration generally done by Urdu-speaking Pakistanis is quite different from that done by Urdu-speaking Indians; for instance, the Hindustani word for "big" is transliterated as "badaa" in India, but often as "buraah" in Pakistan)
posted by the cydonian at 9:26 PM on October 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


BinGregory: "Also, Eteraz is pulling his punches a bit by using that wikipedia image, contrasting Nastaliq with the ugliest example of digital Naskh."

Pedantry: that's the opposite of pulling your punches. If you're pulling your punches, you are deliberately underselling your arguments, or going easy intentionally. Here, you are contending that the author is overselling by using the harshest comparison.
posted by Chrysostom at 5:50 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


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