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URDU orthography, or imla, has long been a bone of contention. And the root cause is the lack of standardisation and unification.

For certain words Urdu lacks, let’s face it, orthographic standards that can be agreed upon by all and sundry. As a result one can find common words spelt differently in different publications and it can be confusing and frustrating for students. The main culprits, I am sorry to say, are Urdu newspapers and magazines. The editorial staff of most of the Urdu newspapers and magazines is generally indifferent to key issues relating to language, such as orthography and usage.

Orthography means, says the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, “the conventional spelling system of a language” and “the study of spelling and how letters combine to represent sounds and form words”.

Historically, orthography has always posed some problems in certain languages because of the spelling rules. The English language, notorious for its spelling rules, can pose frustrating hurdles for foreigners trying to learn the language as in English a phoneme (a distinct sound represented by a letter) can be spelt differently. As George Bernard Shaw put it, according to English spelling rules ‘fish’ can be spelt ‘ghoti’. Shaw argued that since ‘f’ can be spelt ‘gh’, as in ‘enough’, and ‘i’ can be written ‘o’, as in ‘women’, and ‘sh’ can be spelt ‘ti’, as in ‘nation’, ‘fish’ can be spelt ‘ghoti’ in English. He was ironical, of course, but Shaw wanted to highlight the erratic spelling rules of the English language.

Such issues surfaced in many languages but were resolved with the passage of time though some languages, such as English, posed certain difficulties since a word can be spelt in variant ways in such languages. The spelling of a word in Modern English can be much different from how it was spelt in Middle English (roughly from the 11th to 15th century). But English has achieved a certain degree of standardisation and apart from the American and British spelling variants the language is used with ease for communication globally because of a unified orthography.

Just like Middle English, the Urdu language had some different spellings of certain words in its early period. But with the arrival of the British, the spread of printing press and a phenomenal growth of Urdu literature in the latter half of the 19th and the early 20th centuries, the questions about orthography began to surface. It was Debi Prashad who pioneered discussing issues related to spellings in Urdu as he wrote Me’yaar-ul-Imla, a book on Urdu orthography.

Ghalib, one of Urdu’s most celebrated poets, too, had raised issues related to Persian and Urdu orthography, grammar and lexicography in his letters. Ameer Meenai, a poet and lexicographer from Lucknow, wrote on orthography and the correct usage. Then Ahsan Maraharvi, a disciple of Daagh Dehlvi, tried to establish some standardisation and unification through his magazine Faseeh-ul-Mulk and it caused much interest and controversy as well. Later, Dr Abdus Sattar Siddiqi, a well-known linguist and polymath, presented in 1944 his famous spelling rules, many of which were accepted while many were simply too unconventional for some to accept.

In the modern era it was Rasheed Hasan Khan, a scholar form Delhi, who wrote Urdu Imla, a book that raised many questions, jolted many conventional ideas and brought at least some standardisation to Urdu orthography. Though some scholars fiercely opposed his views, especially Hafeez-ur-Rahman Wasif and Abu Muhammad Sahar, much of what Rasheed Sahib wrote on orthography was accepted as logical and rational. Many adopted his spelling rules.

Gopi Chand Narang’s Imla Nama stirred some debates as he offered some new ideas, but it is Rasheed Hasan Khan who is still considered the greatest authority on Urdu orthography and his book Urdu Imla is quoted whenever some arguments on Urdu orthography begin.

Strange is the fact that almost all of such efforts to reform and standardise Urdu orthography took place in India, even after Independence. In Pakistan some institutions tried to address the issues related to orthography. For example, at Urdu Dictionary Board, Shanul Haq Haqqee decided that the Board’s dictionary must have a standard, modern and correct orthography when the board was established in 1958. The Board chalked out some rules which were strictly followed in the early volumes of the Board’s 22-volume Urdu dictionary but some spelling rules could not get acceptance and after Haqqee’s departure from the board, many of his suggestions were shelved.

Then Dr Syed Abdullah emphasised a standard orthography when he joined Punjab University’s Urdu Daira-i-Ma’arif-i- Islamia, a 23-volume Urdu encyclopedia of Islam.

When Dr Waheed Qureshi took over as the chairman of the National Language Authority, he organised a seminar on Urdu orthography, inviting scholars from all over Pakistan to submit suggestions for a unified and standardised Urdu orthography. The seminar’s recommendations were published in book form but the problem is different institutions working for the promotion of Urdu language and literature do not seem to agree on a standardised Urdu orthography and, as a result, newspapers, magazines and individual writers have an excuse for not following any one standard because there simply exists none.

Now Dr Rafi’uddin Hashmi has penned a slim volume on the issue. Titled Sehat-i-Imla ke Usool, the book is published by Idara-i-Yadgar-i-Ghalib, Karachi. It seems that Dr Hashmi agrees on many issues with Rasheed Hasan Khan, but not all of the rules that Rasheed Sahib suggested.

What we need is a huge conference on Urdu orthography where all the scholars working on the issue and all the government and non-government organisation working for the promotion of Urdu language and literature should huddle together and decide on certain issues haunting scholars for several decades. And yes, Urdu newspapers and magazines as well as TV channels and universities must be taken on board and with their feedback some unified code may be implemented.

Published in Dawn, January 9th, 2017