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Old Saturday, June 28, 2008
Usman Naseer's Avatar
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Post Can Urdu become the language of the internet?

Can Urdu become the language of the internet?

June 2008: Way back in the early 1990s when I became sick and tired of the question 'Are you computer literate?', I began to tinker with the dumb machine known as the computer. Back then I was told that in the 21st century people won't be asking that question any more and there would be only one kind of literacy. In the future, the computer buffs threatened, no one would be considered literate if he were not computer literate, even if he had a doctorate.

Since I had done a doctorate, albeit in Urdu, I took it on face value and in order that I was not considered illiterate, I began teaching myself how to or rather how not to use a computer. After 16 cheerless years and several crashed computers, I have taught myself to the extent that I have to call my son, hardly 10, for help only once or twice while composing these literary notes. For e-mailing them I need the help of only two or three persons that are computer savvy. Well, maybe I am not good at these electronic monsters after all, but what fascinates me most about computers and has hooked me since then is (apart from becoming literate again) that the computer does know Urdu.

I don't want to bore you with the long history of Urdu software and Urdu word processing development. But ever since I read that most of the world's languages save for a few were fast on their way to becoming extinct and the first ones to go would be the ones not used in computers, I felt as though Urdu's life and mine too hung by a thin chord connected to a computer.

And ever since I found out that some people who loved Urdu were working on Urdu software and Urdu word processing and trying to make it a language for internet usage as well, I knew Urdu would survive beyond the 21st century.

Now who are these people anyway? Don't they have other interesting things to do, like writing Urdu in Roman script and helping Urdu towards extinction? Well these Urdu 'deevane' have been hired to do exactly what they are doing: making Urdu survive in these maddening times. They are from the Muqtadira Qaumi Zuban or National Language Authority. Established in 1979 to promote Urdu and to enable it to take over as the official language of Pakistan, the National Language Authority has done tremendous work through all these years and enabled Urdu to take over as the official language, though no government has ever been willing to implement its recommendations. Aside from compiling and publishing books that have enriched Urdu, the NLA has been working hard for the development of Urdu software and making Urdu the language of computers.

Joining hands with Microsoft, the NLA developed the international standards for Urdu characters used for computers, known as UNICODE, not only making Urdu appear on the world computer map but also saving Urdu from unwarranted and unwanted interferences of Indian authorities who were trying to develop their own standards for Urdu.

With the introduction of UNICODE, standardization of many tables and plates was made possible, which are now being used by Nadra, Microsoft, Google and many other international firms, including mobile phone companies for Urdu messaging and other purposes.

The launching of Microsoft Urdu Office 2003, Microsoft Urdu Windows XP and Windows XP Starter Edition, in collaboration with the NLA, of course, has made it possible for the man in the street to use computers as a whopping majority of Pakistanis does not understand English. The language of the computer screen now can be converted into Urdu and Urdu e-mail is not something unheard of. The role of the NLA has been instrumental in this regard.

The introduction of the ghost character theory by the NLA for computerized orthographic representation of the languages written in Perso-Arabic script has given a new lease of life to the other Pakistani languages too (such as Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashto and Balochi etc) as the new theory gives the users numerous options to compose in the script of their own choice by just changing the preferences with a click.

Lately I had a chance to attend a workshop at the NLA's office at Islamabad and was thrilled to know that the authority was trying to make a dream come true: the creation of a truly huge Urdu database for research and development and using Urdu on the internet. Though this project is still in a take-off stage and still a lot of homework needs to be done before we are able to see this dream fulfilled, the experts coming from all over Pakistan to attend the workshop were of the view that the NLA was on the right path and congratulated its chairman Prof Fateh Mohammad Malik and the Head of the Urdu Informatics department Dr Atash Durrani for their vision and relentless work.

By Rauf Parekh (Dawn)
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