Urdu on the internet
It is often speculated that the internet is a new and efficient form of imperialism that controls people’s minds and perceptions without physically invading their homes. As a result, many people believe that the internet is, essentially, an attempt to Anglicise the world. However, it should be noted that linguistic globalisation is a curious phenomenon that, while spreading English as the lingua-franca of the digital age, it has also forced a move towards the cultural revival of marginalised languages, creating an environment of multilingualism. The last two decades have witnessed a rapidly increasing presence of other languages, including Urdu, on the World Wide Web.
The earliest of Urdu websites were dedicated mainly to news and literature. Although the majority of Urdu newspapers claim an online presence today, cyberspace is still relatively uncharted territory for them. Newspapers like Nawaiwaqt (www.nawaiwaqt.com.pk) and Roznama Express (www.express.com.pk) have image-based websites for uploading the daily paper in e-format. Jang (jang.com.pk), on the other hand, has developed a comparatively user-friendly website, offering search and comment features for better interaction.
Undoubtedly, BBC Urdu is the most dynamic website in the Urdu language to date. Urdu.Dawn.Com, the recently launched Urdu news website by Dawn.Com, aspires to offer BBC Urdu some tough competition.
Most Urdu websites seem to be of a general nature, covering areas as diverse as Urdu to English dictionaries, free content from Urdu entertainment channels, counselling for women, internet friendship forums, matchmaking, Urdu music, videos as well as job portals.
Whereas the decreasing demand for Urdu Journals and literature is nothing less than alarming, the popularity that Urdu poetry enjoys online is fascinating. The Annual of Urdu Studies (www.urdustudies.com) is the first scholarly journal to go digital, followed by magazines like Jadid Adab (www.jadeedadab.com), Tehreer e Nav (tehreerenav.com), Akhbar-e-Jahan (www.akhbar-e-jahan.com), Urdu Digest (www.urdudigest.com), Anchal (www.anchal.com), Mahnama Phool (phool.com.pk), and many more.
The Complex Language Situation in Pakistan
The survival of a marginalised language is yoked with the adaptation of new technology to the effect of incorporating contemporary knowledge into society. Unfortunately, the popular perception of the Urdu medium as a symbol of lower status has hindered efforts to translate Western knowledge into Urdu. Moreover, if the increasing use of English has been perceived as linguistic genocide by many zealous religious leaders, teaching through the Urdu medium remains divorced from secular and technological education.
A close observation of the pattern of web browsing by Pakistanis reveals that the majority of accessed websites require a basic knowledge of English, such as games, greeting cards, sports, shopping, etcetera. The language-rich websites for news, technology, information, etcetera, however, are utilised by a small class of people with a good command of the English language. The majority of internet users are opting for Romanised Urdu; Urdu written in Roman script, for communication over cyberspace and SMS.
The Future of Urdu?
The fear of a unilingual future is at the heart of every protest and effort for the preservation of indigenous languages and cultures. According to David Crystal, a writer and proponent of internet linguistics, “people have always had a tremendous fear about the impact of new technology on language”. He says that texting and emailing is the most recent source of anxiety for such people. For him the internet is a place for linguistic revolution, because ‘web language’ is neither spoken nor written in the strict sense of the word, but a new medium of communication.
According to Mirza Athar Baig, one of the best Urdu novelists today, all the languages of the world have been influenced by the communicative dimensions of the digital lingo of cyberspace. He says, “languages which have been conceptually, technologically and creatively engaged with the evolution of this ‘brave new world of binary logic’ have assimilated its impact more comfortably”. However, “languages of marginalised societies [such as Pakistan], with their underlying religio-historical inertias, have failed to deal with the unprecedented semantic dilemmas posed by information technology,” says Baig.
Mirza believes that Urdu or any other endangered language is not in jeopardy due to the domination of English, but by the mindset of its literary practitioners, who by and large, fail to evolve and remain trapped in their smug world of customary literary productions.
Whereas language used to be a tool of territorial identification in the hands of nation-states, the internet has allowed its users the freedom to take control of their language by constructing their own virtual space. The younger generation finds the use of their ‘personalised’ style of writing liberating and cool, as opposed to having to adhere strictly to standard language in exams and other formal situations.
As observed above, the internet is largely responsible for the development of Romanised Urdu. Dr Tariq Rahman, Dean of the school of education at Beaconhouse National University and writer of From Hindi to Urdu and many other books, says “shifts of scripts involve major decisions backed by a lot of money, and since the Perso-Arabic script is backed by educational institutions, madressahs and their examination boards, the Urdu press and the government of Pakistan, it is highly unlikely that Roman script will take away this market in Pakistan”.
Pakistanis should accept these changes and “allow the cultural forces to direct change,” says Dr Rahman. However, he believes “schools and colleges should keep teaching academic or scholarly Urdu” as this is only acceptable in informal language.
Priya Awais, the head of the Linguistics department at Kinnaird College for Women University, Lahore, says that she does not see Romanised Urdu replacing the Perso- Arabic script in the near future because such changes take a lot of time, as in the case of the Malay language. However, she believes change is inevitable as it is part of the process of linguistic evolution.
On the other hand, Mirza Athar Baig is of the view that Roman script does not pose any threat to the Urdu language and efforts should be made to develop a standardised version of the roman script for writing Urdu.
The best way to promote Urdu on the internet is by improving the quality of content offered by Urdu websites and the advancement of automatic translation. Moreover, there is a dire need to digitise Urdu literature. While efforts should be made to advance the technology appropriation process of writing in Perso-Arabic script easier, Audio books are the best option for those whose knowledge of Urdu is limited to speech.
This article first appeared in the August 2012 issue of Spider Magazine.