Translation 54.On Language Scripts and Transliteration. With special reference to Hindi and Urdu
The following three pages of my recent book on English Loanwords and Abbreviations in Hindi (English Loanwords, Abbreviations, and Acronyms in Hindi. A Romanised Guide to Hindi Media Usage) may help those who have not read the book to understand my position on the possible uses of roman transliteration for Hindi and Urdu. The effective transliteration scheme that I have developed for romanising Hindi for certain Hindi learning purposes is given to readers in Chapter 5 of that book. The copyright material reprinted here is taken from Chapter 2 of the Introduction to the Loanwords book (pp. 28-30).(To avoid misunderstandings, I also intend to add this essay to my original presentation of the book posted on this website on 21 February 2016.)
On Scripts and Transliteration
If we pause for a moment to consider the principal communication problems presented by the contemporary use of different scripts for languages and the related problems of transliteration, a few assertions will seem particularly relevant for multi-scripted South Asia.
1. The most used basic script type is roman. (Diacritics are a separate issue.)
2.Typewriters and, more recently, keyboards and mobile phones were designed to use written roman alphabets and numbers. (Some adaptations have been made.)
3.Anyone who is roman script literate can access and read any other roman alphabet on the Internet, and even submit passages for translation to Google Translate or Microsoft Translate.
4.Without special facilities, users of languages with non-roman scripts are at a disadvantage in global communications
5.Transliteration from non-roman into approximate roman equivalents is one possible step towards readability, but here too there may be different degrees of difficulty.
Consequently, speakers of many languages with non-roman scripts (Devanagari, Perso-Arabic Nasta’liq, Tamil, Telugu, etc.) may be in a position of disadvantage when it comes to cross-cultural contact or the use of modern technology, unless they resort to the transliteration option, if there is one. Incidentally, it is said by some that the Nasta’liq script for Urdu needs to be reformed. For example, in a posting on the Columbia University Urdulist Forum in August 2015, Kamal Abdali suggested that “Urdu needs a script reform” and offered some reasons.
Evidence of use of roman transliterations in Urdu and Hindi:
From colonial times, there is ample evidence of the use of transliterated Hindi / Urdu:
“Hindustani in the Roman script was primarily for the use of the Christian missionaries and the army.” For the missionaries, the main advantage was to produce cheaper and more accessible Bibles and hymn books. (Tariq Rahman, From Hindi to Urdu. A Social and Political History, 2011, p.222)
“Apart from the judiciary, police and the administration, the British Indian army also used Hindustani but in the Roman script.” (T.Rahman, p, 272) For the army, the practical purpose was to facilitate communication between officers and recruits from different linguistic regions of India. This continued after Independence. This assertion is supported on the Indian side of the border in the well-known Hanklyn-Janklyn compilation (2008, p. 268), where Nigel Hankin states that Urdu (or Hindustani) written in roman script was the successful invention of the British Indian Army: “the writing of the common language for troops from all parts of India – Hindustani […] in roman script”. Rahman adds, “It was one of the factors which helped spread the kind of Hindustani which is close to Urdu and Hindi as used on the streets of Pakistani and North Indian cities.” (T.Rahman, 224)
Advocacy of roman script for Hindi and other Indian languages has been proposed on several occasions in the last 100 years but it has met with much resistance and opposition. Under the title ‘The Tower of Babel. The Roman script could help save our literacy problems’, Vasantha Surya published an opinion piece for a Chennai newspaper in February 1996 (probably the 10th). Her major points were:
- “Few of us are bilingual in terms of true fluency and competency in both languages.”
- “A multiplicity of languages does not automatically mean we are a multilingual people.”
- The plethora of Indian scripts is “one of the most obvious hurdles”.
- Back in the ‘60s a ‘Bharati’ or phonetically adjusted Roman script was advocated for the Indian languages.”
- “Imagine the advantages: anyone could learn a couple of Indian languages plus English (which so many badly want to learn) without having to learn three separate scripts!”
Her final pragmatic and surely cogent point is that “Script, after all, is not identical with language, it is only a tool. Today, a script has to be easy to learn, and the easiest one available for general use is Roman.”
Twenty years later, there is ample evidence that the roman transliteration option, for special uses, is popular with many younger people in South Asia, for example on Internet forums and in mobile phone text messages. In the case of Urdu speakers and writers, who have a choice of transliteration from their Nasta’liq script to Devanagari, or roman, there seems to be little resistance to the transliteration option in the special areas of contemporary communications, providing a complete change of script is NOT advocated.. “[Urdu] is now used on the internet to write e-mail messages and chatting on Facebook or other chatrooms among both Indians and Pakistanis. Moreover, a number of personal writings on the internet (blogs) are in this script.” (T.Rahman, p. 224)
Rahman (p. 224) also offers interesting statistics from a Gallup Pakistan Poll of Urdu-speaking mobile phone users in 2009: “A nationally representative sample of men and women from across the country were asked ‘Usually which language do you use for sending SMS from your mobile phone?’ Thirty seven per cent (37%) said they send SMS in Urdu typed in English alphabet, 15% use Urdu typed in Urdu alphabet to send text messages whereas 17% said they type SMS in English. Twenty nine per cent (29%) do not send any SMS whereas 2% gave no response.” (Gallup 2009)
In the case of Hindi, recent evidence suggests that although younger generations of Indians do make use of the roman transliteration option in their communications – albeit with a bewildering variety of transliteration schemes – many Hindi speakers object to the practice on principle as unnecessary or demeaning and see it only as a fatal step to the replacement of the Devanagari script (rather than a convenient alternative in special circumstances).
Two well-reported incidents from India in 2015 showed overwhelming knee-jerk rejection of romanising and a great deal of nasty language on Internet forums and in media journalism or blogging.
A year ago, Chetan Bhagat, the bestselling novelist, hit some raw nerves with his strong suggestion on his ToI blog (Times of India 11 January 2015) that, in order to preserve Hindi, a changeover to roman script is advisable.
“English continues to grow like never before without any promotional drive. This is because it offers better career prospects, more respectability in society, a completely new world of information entertainment and access to technology. After all, you can’t even use a mobile phone or basic messaging apps today without a cursory understanding of English.
“Understandably, Hindi lovers and purists lament the new society where the youth shun their mother tongue and want to enter the English world as fast as possible. The more they impose Hindi, the more the youth rebel against it.”
He went on:
“Roman Hindi is already prevalent in Bollywood posters and in our advertising. Most Hindi movie screenplays are today written in Roman Hindi. Drive around any major city and you are bound to see a hoarding with a Hindi caption written in Roman script.”
Bhagat then took a big step further:
“We can save Hindi by legitimizing the Roman Hindi script. This will also have a unifying effect on the nation as it will bring English and Hindi speakers closer. It will also allow other regional languages to become more linked to each other and to English, by virtue of a common script.”
The fury and bad language of many respondents can easily be imagined.
Six months later, Congress politician Rahul Gandhi, another celebrity, aroused a similar roar of disapproval and denigration from the blogosphere for what reasonable people would count as either acceptable, or a comparatively minor, but closely related, offence. Since the prominent Congress politician is always pursued by a mob of photographers, one of the close-up video clips revealed a “scoop” that Mr Gandhi was holding the notes for a speech he was about to give. His Hindi notes were clearly seen to be written in capital roman letters. What many would surely see as a quite sensible preparation for a media event and maximum legibility in a confined space gave many trolls and cyber lynch mobs a field day. What made things worse, was that a journalist, Shoaib Daniyal, wrote this in his favour on Internet site scroll-in (14 August 2015): ‘For once Rahul Gandhi shows the way: Hindi needs to discard Devanagri and adopt the Roman script. Thanks to the internet, Roman Hindi is already rather popular, probably more so than Devanagri.’ Daniyal added: “With Hindi, while Devanagri is the official script designated by the government of India, Rahul Gandhi is actually not alone in using Roman to represent it. In fact, it could well be argued that more Hindi is written in Roman today than in Devanagri, thanks to the internet and the script’s association with English, the prestige language of India.” Which of course led to some journalistic ripostes and more furious Internet comment.
In my obviously biased opinion, the present book [English Loanwords in Hindi] is proof of a further advantage of roman transliteration from Hindi’s Devanagari or Nasta-liq. Outside the academic study of Hindi and Urdu, romanised presentations can present shortcuts to learning the two languages for those who do not have the time (or stamina!) to master writing the non-roman script. It is for such students of Hindi as a Second Language (HSL) that this book and my other amateur Hindi language investigations are intended. Fortuitously, they could also be of use as shortcuts to academic students, in the preliminary and intermediate phase of their learning of Hindi/Urdu, as long as their teachers do not place my work on an Index Librorum Prohibitorum! My Loanwords and Abbreviations Glossaries (Chapters 4 and 5 of the book) could even be profitably used as class exercises in spotting my amateur errors! If they were passed on to me, I would benefit from receiving the results. A win-win proposition?
(From Brian Steel, English Loanwords in Hindi, pp. 28-30.)