There are no words in Urdu for terms that have become essential to our language, like ‘website’, ‘mobile’, ‘charger’, ‘cigarettes’ or ‘circulation’ (of a newspaper) and the list goes on. Though such words are essential to spoken Urdu but for writing there is simply no clear substitute for them neither an official acceptance, making their use always doubtful.
But this shortcoming is problematic since Urdu is the fundamental language in Pakistan.
As Mr Iftikhar Arif, former chairman of NLA, admitted: “More than 90 per cent of media is in Urdu and all other languages account for 10 per cent of print and electronic media while English is even less than two-and-a-half per cent.”
He added that all the advertising and commercial activities also used Urdu to reach a wider audience. And the demand for Urdu literature and publications is also on the rise not only in Pakistan but also in India and various other counties where Pakistanis and Indian Muslims live.
In spite of this reality, today, one belief that has taken roots is that Urdu simply does not have the vocabulary to explain things and concepts at a level of density that English allows. The decline of Urdu is taken as a fact.
But institutes like the National Language Authority and the Pakistan Academy of Letters have been working for years on the development of the language. So why has Urdu fallen behind the times?
“Successive governments have failed to give Urdu the importance it deserves as envisaged in article 251 of the constitution which states that Urdu is the official language of the country,” said Iftikhar Arif, the former chairman of the National Language Authority (NLA).
Critics like Arif blame the government for failing to enforce Urdu as an official language. They believe that Urdu will stay secondary as long as English remains the language of the state making it difficult for students who obtain Urdu medium education to climb the career ladders.
However, the decline in use of Urdu might be in terms of grammar or vocabulary, but when we look at the number of its speakers it is growing because the number of people communicating in Urdu has increased rapidly for many decades. And as Pakistanis moved to other countries, the spread of this language has also increased over time.
“Languages continuously change and morph,” explained one bureaucrat. “The main problem with Urdu is that not much has been done to develop terminologies so that it could be implemented as an official language.”
The official pointed out that new English dictionaries become available after every three to four years so numerous new words become part of the English vocabulary every year. These are then publicised through different mediums and gradually incorporated in the common language.
One can also find English language dictionaries in technical fields like economics, mathematics, physics, medicine etc., but for Urdu not much can be found beyond the basic ‘lughat’ (dictionary).
“We are only concentrating on the literary side of Urdu but that is only one part of the language,” said Dr Atash Durrani, former senior official of the National Language Authority. “The use of language starts soon after a person is born and continues as long as the person is remembered even after their death - there are words for almost every action and event executed throughout one’s lifetime.”
Dr Durrani developed the codes and software to enable Urdu to be typed and used in computers after he met Microsoft officials at a software competition in Karachi. This led to the development of Urdu Unicode-4 (2003) which has been essential in building Urdu’s presence online.
However, the fact that Urdu vocabulary is not getting updated as per the needs of the time means that developing Urdu-based websites remains problematic.
“That is why even the official websites in Pakistan are in English,” says Dr Durrani.
He highlighted that mainly literary works are being highlighted by the concerned departments whereas there is a lot that needs to be done urgently to officially recognise and incorporate new words in Urdu.
“A new form of Urdu is being developed by the electronic media which is quickly getting adopted throughout the country as a result of media’s wide access,” he said. However, this significant development is getting completely ignored by the literary side of Urdu since there is no validation of the new form that Urdu is acquiring.
The NLA, PAL and the National Book Foundation might all be working but their focus is limited to the literary development of the language and its promotion leaving the functional development of it disorganised and uncontrolled and at a disadvantage.