George Bernard Shaw, a witty fellow as he was, had offered a large sum of money to anybody who would rationalise English spelling rules. Shaw quipped that according to English spelling rules the word 'ghoti' could be read as 'fish'. His argument was that in the English language 'gh' is sometimes pronounced as 'f', as in 'laugh' and 'enough'; 'o' can be pronounced as 'i' like in 'women'; one can read 'ti' as 'sh' as in 'nation'. So 'ghoti' is equal to 'fish' in English.
Reforming spelling rules, writes Mario Pei in his The story of language, especially of languages such as English and French, is often mentioned in order to bring the written form in line with the present-day pronunciation, but the matter becomes something like weather about which Mark Twain had once remarked “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.”
Pei goes on to say about the Roman alphabet that “it is far from perfect. The fact that it came into being to serve the linguistic needs of the Romans, but was later adopted by other nations with widely different speech habits, accounts for part of the problem.”
A letter in any alphabet, linguists believe, is in fact a symbol of a symbol, just like a cheque which is a symbol for paper money, which in turn is a symbol for purchasing power measurable in any commodity such as gold. In most primitive writing systems, a letter or ideogram stood not for a spoken sound but for a concept or an idea. With the passage of time, a letter began to symbolise a sound instead as writing systems progressed. Some languages, such as Chinese, still have a writing system where a symbol represents a thought rather than a sound.
And a letter is supposed to represent, ideally, one sound only. According to the traditional phonological theory, the smallest unit in the sound system of a language is called phoneme. In any alphabetic system of writing a language, therefore, there should be as many letters as the sounds or phonemes that language has, assigning a symbol to each sound. Ironically, no language in the world has a perfect symbol-for-sound system.
And of all the languages, our dearest English is perhaps the most lacking in this regard as it has 45 phonemes but only 26 letters to represent them. As a result, it uses two letters to represent one phoneme such as 'sh' and 'ch'. Secondly, at the time of adopting the Roman alphabet, according to Pei, English had sounds that did not fit well into the scheme of the Roman alphabet. What I am trying to establish here is that the Roman alphabet does not represent all sounds that occur in the English language. Therefore, how can one use the Roman alphabet for writing a language such as Urdu that has many more phonemes than English, knowing that it does not fully cater to the needs of English itself?
The reason why I am trying to make readers realise this is the growing trend of writing Romanised Urdu and that, too, quite unnecessarily. The billboards, commercials on TV, and advertisements in the print media all use this linguistic impurity, agonising people like me. Another reason for raising this point and protesting against this atrocity is that a large number of scholars feel as irritated as I do by it.
Prof Fateh Muhammad Malik has done a wonderful job by collecting valuable articles on the linguistic controversies in a well-produced book Urdu zaban aur Urdu rasm-ul-khat. Published by the National Language Authority, or Muqtadira Qaumi Zaban, the book basically defends the Urdu script and tries to ward off the ill effects of a trend that aims at replacing the Urdu script with either Roman or Nagri script.
The book has four sections. The first one deals with the controversy kicked up by Indian scholar Dr Gian Chand Jain's highly partisan book Aik bhasha, do likhawat, do adab, published in 2005. This section presents some very interesting articles written on the issue on both sides of the border. The second portion reproduces some important articles on the dichotomy known as the Hindi-Urdu controversy, highlighting the historical aspects of the controversy that has been raging for some 150 years.
The third section includes articles that shed light on the historical and technical background of Urdu's script, its development and its significance. Some articles also argue why Urdu's script should not be changed and why no other script can fully express the sounds that occur in the language.
During the sixth and seventh decade of the last century a malicious campaign was launched to change Urdu's script. Urdu scholars reacted sharply to this movement. The last portion records the arguments in favour of Urdu's present script, which basically is a modified form of the Semitic alphabet used to write Arabic.
The articles collected in this volume are written by renowned scholars such as Moulvi Abdul Haq, Dr Syed Abdullah, Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqi, Farman Fatehpuri, Jameel Jalibi, Mirza Khalil Beg, Shamim Hanfi, Hasan Askari, Rasheed Ahmed Siddiqui, Ehtesham Hussain, Salahuddin Ahmed and a score of others who have expressed their views on issues like Roman Urdu, Hindi-Urdu controversy, linguistic fascism, Hindi imperialism, Nagri etc.
In his introduction to the book, Prof Fateh Muhammad Malik has very succinctly described the mala-fide campaign against Urdu and the response that makes up the content of the book.