The Battle to Protect the Urdu Script within the Digital World

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By Calvin S. Nelson

Zeerak Ahmed has spent years within the U.S., working for a few of the world’s greatest tech corporations. However one factor he has grown pissed off with is how “computing treats non-Latin languages as second class residents.” One such language is his mom tongue, Urdu, the nationwide language and lingua franca of Pakistan, which can be broadly spoken in India. Ahmed, who’s from Lahore, has had many conversations together with his family and friends concerning the difficulties of making an attempt to make use of present Urdu keyboards or learn Urdu sort. And he has witnessed many younger individuals as a substitute resorting to English or so-called Roman Urdu, utilizing the Latin script to provide a phonetic transliteration, within the absence of a greater resolution. 

Whereas enterprise his Grasp’s diploma in engineering design at Harvard College, he got here up together with his personal resolution. After 5 years of engaged on the challenge, final 12 months he launched the Matnsaz iOs app. The app affords customers a extra refined Urdu keyboard that teams letters by form, autocorrects and even suggests subsequent phrases. It’s a stark enchancment on the usual Urdu keyboards obtainable on mainstream units. 

Regardless of being the tenth most generally spoken language on the earth, in line with reference publication Ethnologue, Urdu has fallen behind within the digital age on account of a number of limitations. Many Pakistanis exterior of the tech business imagine that Urdu textual content is incompatible with computing, says Ahmed. However he argues that’s a flaw on the a part of computing reasonably than the language. An effort is underway to vary the narrative.

The challenges of the Urdu script

“We reside in a text-saturated society, so the publicity the youthful generations should typographic complexity may be very excessive,” says graphic designer and internet developer Abeera Kamran. “They count on subtle outcomes.” What’s obtainable in Urdu typically doesn’t meet these expectations, as a result of writers have resisted digitization for a very long time as a result of complexity of its written type. (Urdu makes use of the Nastaliq font, an ornate and fluid variation of written Arabic that’s significantly complicated as a result of the form of every letter depends on the next letter.) That now means there’s little or no digital content material obtainable in Urdu that may compete with what customers are used to in Latin scripts. Roman Urdu is commonly used as a stand-in on-line. Earlier makes an attempt at digitizing the Urdu script relied on the Naskh Arabic font, which is straighter and subsequently simpler to code. However some have argued that the Naskh font is inferior to Nastaliq when used to specific the Urdu language in writing. As extra of our lives turn out to be depending on digital data and communication, some fear that the dearth of an accessible digital model of the true written type of the language would possibly result in Urdu turning into irrelevant for youthful generations, who spend extra time on-line than their elders.

“There’s this perception that you may’t use Urdu for contemporary functions, and so it makes it onerous for the language to evolve and keep related for younger individuals,” says Ahmed.

Ahmed and Kamran are amongst those that are main the push to stop that from taking place.  The Matnsaz app is a component of a bigger initiative by the identical identify, which goals to construct shopper and developer instruments for Urdu on-line. Presently Ahmed’s work consists of Makhzan, an open supply Urdu textual content corpus, and Naqqash, a string processing library for Arabic script. 

Ahmed says he’d been toying with the thought for years earlier than beginning the hassle in earnest in 2017. “In Europe most individuals are utilizing computer systems of their native languages, however in Pakistan we do not do this,” he says. “In the event you speak to Pakistanis exterior the tech business they imagine you’ll be able to’t do fashionable computing in Urdu.” Ahmed believes Urdu may simply be utilized in computing in the identical means if it was given the identical significance as Latin scripts and had instruments constructed to help it. That concept turned the idea for Matnsaz as a result of a lot progress in Urdu was being hindered just because the essential constructing blocks didn’t exist, he says. 

Urdu is spoken by roughly 230 million individuals globally—largely in Pakistan and India, in addition to amongst diaspora communities around the globe. Whereas there have been particular person makes an attempt to digitize the language, gaps must be bridged between completely different efforts to have a world impression, Kamran says. She notes that the adoption of typographic printing in Urdu didn’t occur till late within the twentieth century, due to the complexity of the Nastaliq font and a scarcity of curiosity amongst Pakistani society in Naskh in its place. Earlier than that, newspapers and books had been handwritten after which photocopied to make a number of copies as wanted. 

Cultural complexities

Pakistan has a longstanding cultural tie with Nastaliq, and Lahori Nastaliq particularly—the type by which Urdu is written—which may be complicated to code with present datasets, Kamran says. The cultural associations with the language are additionally necessary to know and contemplate within the effort to digitize Urdu, she provides. “I noticed we won’t do any of this and not using a cultural reckoning of how Urdu and Nastaliq are ideologically tied to one another.”

Pakistan’s socio-political struggles and the push to create a Muslim-Pakistani nationwide id, have resulted in resistance to sure modifications deemed to be western- or foreign-influenced developments, Kamran says. Urdu is entwined with Pakistani id, and is the nation’s official language, although plenty of different languages are spoken there. In pre-partition India, Urdu audio system used the language as a means of standing up towards British colonization. In the present day, it stays a degree of rigidity in India, the place it’s nonetheless spoken by hundreds of thousands of individuals, however is underneath menace. Though Urdu isn’t completely spoken by Muslims, it’s carefully related to the follow of the religion within the area. “Relating to Lahori Nastaliq, we consider each Pakistanis and Muslim id collectively, and due to that we resisted change,” Kamran says. 

This connection is what led Zeeshan Nasar and his father Nasrullah Mehr to begin MehrType, a digital sort foundry specializing in custom-made Urdu, Arabic, and Persian fonts. Mehr, an acclaimed calligrapher in Pakistan, works within the Lahori Nastaliq script. For him, the obtainable ligature-based keyboards—which permit for flexibility when typing scripts like Arabic and Nastaliq by adapting to altering letter kinds relying on what’s being typed—had been merely not sufficient. Nasar phrases ligature-based approaches to Urdu as a ‘jugad,’ an Urdu time period for a makeshift resolution. “With ligature-based fonts, in the event you enter a brand new phrase into the keyboard, and it doesn’t acknowledge it, it’s going to break it up and break the phrase and elegance of the letters,” Nasar says. 

That’s why MehrType centered on creating character-based light-weight fonts that may work nicely for internet embedding. Nasar says that if a file is just too massive, it takes too lengthy to work when embedded right into a hyperlink and may trigger web sites to decelerate. The group is at the moment testing a brand new setting software that won’t solely give their fonts higher on-line safety however will even embody typography options. Sooner or later, the corporate goals to protect completely different Urdu calligraphy kinds by turning them into typography. It additionally hopes to get extra individuals concerned in utilizing Urdu digitally, by offering providers to customise typography, providing quick programs to study Urdu typography, and changing present books and texts to Mehr fonts. 

Throughout the border in India, Sanjiv Saraf has curated the biggest on-line library of Urdu poetry underneath the banner Rekhta. The web platform, named after an early identify for the Urdu dialect, digitizes Urdu content material to make it extra accessible. The positioning began with work from 50 poets in 2013 and is now dwelling to greater than 5,000 writers’ work. Saraf’s aim is to deliver Urdu to a wider viewers, and the web site presents Urdu literature and poetry in numerous codecs. “Plenty of the content material we’ve on-line has additionally been recited so individuals get an thought of the diction, as a result of pronunciation can be crucial for the language,” Saraf says. Whereas the Rekhta group, which consists of 230 staff and 100 volunteers, is scanning large numbers of Urdu books to publish the contents on-line every day, they will’t really digitize the works till they’re capable of sort out Urdu textual content and literature. The present lack of optical character recognition (OCR)—which converts typed, written or printed textual content into machine-encoded textual content—for Urdu has restricted the accessibility of scanned supplies within the language. Kamran says there are a number of causes for this. 

“Firstly, textual content reads in a different way in print and on-line, in order that creates an accessibility subject. You possibly can’t search in photos and that implies that any kind of analysis and discovering [available] sources will get troublesome, since you would possibly by no means know they’re there. Roman Urdu additionally has no set spellings so there’s nobody approach to search up Urdu materials,” she says. 

Kamran began her Grasp’s diploma in typography after making an attempt to create an Urdu web site for Karachi City Lab, a company centered on analysis, educating and advocacy round growth and urbanization in Karachi via knowledge. She discovered the dearth of typographical sources obtainable to be a stumbling block. Her aim is to assist contribute to the work that builders and language specialists the world over are doing to digitize Urdu by reckoning with its cultural historical past. She says that the significance of Nastaliq can’t be understood till its hyperlinks to Muslim-Pakistani id constructing are equally understood. “Urdu and Nastaliq are ideologically tied to one another,” Kamran says. Due to the sensitivities round Urdu, she believes any modifications to its presentation should be accepted in society earlier than progress may be made. 

“The end result must be creating complicated sources that customers can use in paperwork to create detailed stylized paperwork in Urdu the identical means we see formatting in English,” she says.

The present stage of growth in Urdu digitization, with keyboards and primary fonts now obtainable, has been a very long time within the making and there may be rather more to be achieved. Nasar has been engaged on Urdu growth for 18 years. Lots of the fonts he desires to work on are nonetheless in progress just because font growth is such a expensive course of. However there has really been nice progress over the past decade. Builders have gone from beforehand counting on Inpage—a phrase processor and web page structure software program used for languages similar to Arabic, Urdu and Persian—for years, to now having a number of efforts underway on knowledge units and design. This fast progress in Urdu digitization efforts and useful resource growth over the previous few years affords hope that the inspiration will turn out to be simpler to construct upon. And now, with AI language fashions in focus, tech giants like Google would possibly assist contribute to that momentum. The corporate introduced in July that AI platform Google Bard now helps 9 Indian languages, together with Urdu.

Saraf has a front-row seat to the progress and is optimistic. “I do not suppose Urdu is struggling on-line, with the way in which our readership is rising. We’ve got 24 million followers on Rekhta for Urdu content material and each month it is rising,” he says. “So the bottom line is merely presenting the data in an easy-to-access method.” 

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