How many letters are there in the Urdu alphabet? I wish I could answer this question in unambiguous terms. But the controversy over the total and correct number of letters in Urdu alphabet has been raging for over 200 years now. The reason why I am dredging it up today is that Muqtadira Qaumi Zaban or the National Language Authority (NLA), the official authority responsible for preparing Urdu for implementation as an official language, has declared that Urdu has exactly 58 letters. Many may take exception to this declaration.

Insha Allah Khan Insha (1756/57-1818), a witty and intelligent poet and prose writer of Urdu who was the first to use English words in Urdu ghazals, wrote in 1808 'Darya-i-latafat'. It is the first book ever written by a native speaker on the Urdu language and its grammar.

Though appreciably ingenious and a connoisseur of the language, he is a bit erratic when it comes to the total number of Urdu letters and gives different figures at one point he writes that Urdu has 85 letters and then elsewhere he puts the figure at 86. In the same book, on another occasion he has raised the number to 91 and even to 92. Earlier, Benjamin Schulz, a German missionary, had written 'A grammar of Hindustani language' in Latin in 1741. He had listed only 32 Urdu letters and excluded all letters denoting aspirant sounds as well as some other letters because he wrongly believed that Urdu was just a dialect of Persian.

Till the first quarter of the last century, there was a kind of tacit consensus on the total number of letters in Urdu alphabet and it was generally believed that Urdu had 35 or at the most 36 letters. Most of the Urdu primers and readers written with a view to teaching basic Urdu gave 36 'single' or 'un-compounded' letters that were followed by separately listed 'compound' letters denoting aspirant sounds such as bh, ph, kh, chh, etc. It was Baba-i-Urdu Moulvi Abdul Haq who for the first time announced that the symbols denoting aspirant sounds ought to be given the full status of letters and, therefore, the words beginning with them should be properly sequenced in Urdu dictionaries.

In 1930, Baba-e-Urdu began the gigantic task of compiling 'Lughat-i-kabeer', the most comprehensive Urdu-Urdu dictionary that was to have each and every word of Urdu with illustrative citations. The project could not go according to the plan and after 1947 it was merged with the Urdu Dictionary Board (UDB), which was entrusted with an identical task of compiling a monumental dictionary and Baba-i-Urdu was appointed its first Chief Editor. A little earlier, Ghulam Rasool, a scholar and editor of Lahore's 'Inqelab', had declared in an article on Urdu short-hand (that was published by 'Zamana', Kanpur) that Urdu had 52 letters.

As Baba-i-Urdu had done the spadework and had chalked out guidelines for such a huge dictionary - and it included streamlining the sequence and number of letters in Urdu alphabet - when the first volume of UDB's dictionary came out in 1977, it followed the basic scheme of letters accommodating aspirant sounds as envisioned by Moulvi Abdul Haq. The UDB also decided that Urdu had 53 letters.

Since then, the sequence and number of Urdu letters decided by the UDB was generally followed. Though at times unscrupulous publishers and writers of Urdu primers deviated from this, perhaps because of their lack of knowledge, the pattern was generally followed in Pakistan. In India, though, some scholars, especially Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqi, objected to this and emphasised that the 'reformation' was uncalled-for and that one should follow the vogue rather than linguistics. Prof Masood Hasan Khan, an Indian linguist and scholar of repute, took exception to this and supported the scheme followed by the UDB. Here I must mention an interesting fact a few years ago, Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqi wrote 'Lughaat-i-rozmarra', a book on the correct usage of Urdu, and insisted that Urdu had 35 letters (p.47). In the same book, he gave a list mentioning the number and correct sequence of Urdu letters — expelling the aspirant sounds — and the list shows 38 of them (p.46), quite conveniently forgetting the number mentioned on the next page.

For the last five years or so, Dr Atash Durrani of the NLA has been promoting the idea that Urdu has 58 letters and even in some publications of the Authority the claim has been repeated. The logic followed by him is that the computerisation of Urdu requires certain letters that do not exist in Urdu alphabet but are used in writing Urdu. Many scholars disagree with him.

Here I must first admit that Dr Durrani has been relentlessly working for Urdu's computerisation for the last 10 years or so and has played a vital role in it along with NUST, FAST, the NLA and other institutions and individuals who have made it their life's goal to catapult Urdu into the cyberspace and into the next century. But the question is why does the English language has the same 26 letters and yet the computerisation and cyber-age have not had any effect on it? In his new book 'Urdu ittelaiyaat' Dr Atash Durrani, while making out a case for 58 letters, has answered the question. He says that International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) has solved many problems for English as far as pronunciation is concerned and since Urdu does not have such a system it will have to have new letters to be able to correctly and fully show the sounds that certain Urdu words have but Urdu letters do not represent them properly. Dr Durrani has his own reasoning and sees everything from a technological point of view, but in his enthusiasm for cyber Urdu he has perhaps gone a bit too far.

Since he is looking after the Centre of Excellence for Urdu Informatics at the NLA, his word is from the horse's mouth. But he admits that scholars disagree on the five letters that he has added to Urdu alphabet.

The book is a collection of articles Dr Durrani has written from time to time on Urdu Informatics. Published by the NLA, the book opens new vistas for techno geeks who love Urdu. Prof Fateh Muhammad Malik in his preface says that “the NLA has the credit of having taken the first step towards making Urdu the language of computer and towards standardisation of Urdu characters for Urdu software...With Dr Atash Durrani's hard work and vision Urdu has got a conspicuous position in the domain of technology. As a result the technological use of Urdu came in vogue at many universities, ISO, Microsoft, mobile companies and many other institutions”. He hopes that this beginning today provides a solid foundation for Urdu's brighter tomorrow in a world that is steeped in technology.

The lovers of Urdu are naturally rejoiced at the inception of a new discipline named Urdu Informatics and no doubt Dr Durrani has played a pioneering role in it but one feels that sensitive issues like the number of letters in the Urdu alphabet need a consensus. Before heading forward, we must remember that many authorities such as Moulvi Abdul Haq, Dr Abdus Sattat Siddiqui, Dr Syed Abdullah, Shan-ul-Haq Haqqee, Syed Qudrat Naqvi, Suhail Bukhari, Rasheed Hasan Khan, Jameel Jalibi, Farman Fatehpuri, Waheed Qureshi, Gopi Chand Narang, Gian Chand Jain, Ab-ul-Lais Siddiqui, Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqi, Prof Masood Hasan Khan and Moinuddin Aqeel etc. have had different and at times even conflicting views over such issues.

The NLA must not be oblivious of sensitivities such as Urdu script, Urdu orthography, Urdu alphabet and number of letters that have caused bitter and prolonged controversies in the past. Aside from that aspect, the book is a must for the students of Urdu, informatics and, of course, Urdu Informatics.