Thursday, June 4, 2015

Movies As Teachers For Learning The Urdu Language

I find movies to be fascinating tools for learning languages. Rarely are their dialogues cut from the same starched-stiff cloth as a Wren & Martin dinner jacket (unless the characterization requires it to be so). Far removed from the standard fare served in nearly every Learn-To-Converse-In book ever published movies talk about more interesting subjects like love, hurt, machinations, revenge, stillness, discovery, new experiences et al.  That is why movies are a great way to get a feel for the natural cadence and sounds of the language in question. They also serve as fantastic instructors for the appropriate use of idioms and phrases. Usually, they are also refulgent gateways to the culture of the peoples whose language one intends to learn, making the whole process of learning a language fun, real and memorable. Next to talking to native speakers of a language, this is one of my favourite ways of learning a new tongue.

To be sure, movie dialogues aren't the most kosher way of learning the grammar of a new language; they can be too quick, too softy whispered, too incomplete to always follow immaculately but then they more than make up by providing reference to context, diction and accent stress clues as aids to learning. Needless to say some very rudimentary vocabulary is essential to follow the dialogues but then grammar, especially syntax (word-order), can be picked up through the dialogues. One caveat here, if one's objective is to learn the 'Standard' register of a language (usually spotted in the newspapers, official reports and legal papers), then movies should not be one's primary source. They can at best only serve as an aid and should not be considered a substitute for a grammar compendium and formalized instructions.

Luckily, in this post-YouTube era most of us can easily access news, movies, talk shows, songs, regional language channels and even language instruction videos. Podcasts and internet streamed radio stations are also decent alternatives, though they come sans the visual experience. Another great feature one can make use of is 'subtitles'. While watching the movie online or through a software on your computer, simply turn on the subtitles in your target language for any movie and read the translations on the screen while listening to dialogues in the target language. YouTube even allows for slowing down the speed of the video playback (if this helps you).  However this may only work for those popular languages for which subtitles are commonly available. I often find myself turning on the subtitles in some language to English movies. In my books, this is a very special boon for language learners.

I think I first fell in love with this idea when as a kid, one lazy summer holiday afternoon, the VHS tape* of the Bollywood movie Amar Akbar Anthony I pushed into the VCR player turned out to be dubbed in Arabic.

Note to reader - a VHS tape is a magic device from a long gone era; often passed on with reverentially trembling hands from one generation to the next one, these antediluvian pen drives would be usually traded as if made of 18k gold on the local residential kids' exchanges.

Best Movies To Learn The Urdu Language

While earlier a majority of Bollywood movies had dialogues in the language called Hindustani (a slightly-shifted-towards-Urdu middle ground in the continuum between Urdu and Hindi) nowadays the dialogues are becoming more "street friendly". It is possible that Hindustani itself is changing rapidly and that these new dialogues merely reflect this change. Rather than as a chicken-egg problem, I see Hindustani and the language of Bollywood dialogues as part of a mutually enriching feedback mechanism.

Again, in order to extract the best from these Urdu movies, it is advisable for the learner to have a grasp of rudimentary Urdu/Hindustani vocabulary.

Click on the image for the trailer/song/movie snippet (if available). In no particular order of preference:

In Custody / Muhaafiz (1993)

 A movie by Merchant Ivory, based on a novel by Anita Desai, it is the story of a Hindi language professor's quest to keep alive his greatest love, Urdu, by recording for posterity the works of one of the last great, on his deathbed, poets of the Urdu language. The movie is beautifully shot and rife with visual metaphors of the demise of Urdu language. Brilliant ensemble cast of Shashi Kapoor, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Shushma Seth, Neena Gupta, Parikshit Sahni and Tinnu Anand, not one weak scene in this movie. Almost all of the ashaar featured in the movie are by Faiz Ahmed Faiz and some of the ghazals are by Behzad Lucknavi

This movie by Kamal Amrohi will be in nearly everyone's list of best romantic/tragic movies. Portraying the trials and tribulations of the life of a courtesan (very much on the same lines as Umrao Jaan), the tale ends with a heart wrenching twist of fate. Kamal Amrohi also wrote the dialogues for Mughal-E-Azam and wrote and directed Razai Sultana, two movies acclaimed for their scriptwriting amongst other things. The ghazals from Pakeezah are considered a part of modern Indian culture, especially the celebrated Chalte Chalte which was penned by Kaifi Azmi.

One of my favourite novels and movies. Rekha did an unbelievably masterful job with her Urdu diction for this movie; it was flawless. The second of courtesan stories in our list, the story is set in nearly decrepit Nawabi Awadh of the 1840s-1850s. Deeply touching and so memorable, the ghazals have been penned by Shahryar, a professor of Urdu at Aligarh muslim University. The only marginally light hearted melody in this movie, Zindagi Jab Bhi, which is about separation, gives you a sense of the tone of the rest of ghazals. And yet everyone, including me, loves them because they speak of the ever repeating story of our lives. Check out the novel by Mirza Ruswa, it's written in a very conversational and easy to access style. My English translation of the Urdu ghazal Yeh Kya Jagah Hai Doston from the movie is here. The entire script for the movie is in Nastaliq Urdu is available here.

This much vilified 2006 remake may be weak in terms of acting and song writing but it is absolutely top notch in terms of dialogues. Well researched, it is a must see for those who wish to take a detailed dekko into Luknavi Urdu, Adab and Tehezeb of the 1800s. Interestingly, Shabana Azmi played the role of Khanum Jaan (the brothel madam) in this 2006 version, while her mother, Shauqat Azmi played the same character in the 1981 version.

Satyajit Ray's film adaptation of Munishi Premchand's Urdu translation of Munshi Premchand's Hindi story on the abysmal decay of Indian elite society. Munishi Premchand often did self-translations of his works and he tells the story in very different ways in the two version: Hindi and Urdu, perhaps to give two slightly different messages to two segments of readers. Like Umrao Jaan, Shatranj Ke Khiladi too is set in Mutiny-era Lucknow. The movie follows two chess-mad nawaabs who, oblivious to all the political and personal tragedies around them, are obsessed with playing yet another game of chess. Superb thespian skills on display by Shabana Azmi, Saaed Jaffrey, Sanjeev Kumar, Amjad Khan and a cameo by some Jurassic-era chap called Richard Attenborough who keeps babbling about the Nawaab's Mutaa Wives :D  The entire script is available here in Nastaliq Urdu.

Probably a surprise addition to this list for most people. A nearly scene by scene copy of the 1957 hit, 12 Angry Men, this movie has no courtesans, no Mughal princes, no ghazals, no tehezeeb and no adab. But it does have loads and loads of very cleanly spoken simple Urdu dialogues, from amuman to maaqool shaks and everything in between. The dialogue does sound made up but then this isn't really a movie review. What works in favour of EkRuka Hua Faisla are a known plot, easy to follow dialogues and repeated use of many Urdu words and phrases. Most of the actors are seasoned theatre and film players which translates into good and measured Urdu diction.

I like Bobby Jasoos for its Deccani (Hyderabadi) Urdu. For a considerable time in its early history (fondly referred to as Nash-o-Numa) Urdu developed its own unique image as Rekhta in the courts and bazars of Deccan before taking on the Urdu glean we have come to know and love in Delhi and then in Lucknow. Up until the mid 1800s both the names Rekhta and Urdu were sometimes used interchangeably for the Urdu language; Mirza Ghalib in one of his shers observed رختے کے تم ھی نھیں ھو استاد غالب / کھتیں ھیں کھ اگلے زمانے میں یک میر تھا There is something very endearing and heart warming about Hyderabadi Urdu; I hope to gain a certain level of proficiency in speaking it. Bobby Jasoos is a fun film and makes for great dialogues.

A soul searching statement on the impact of partition on those who chose to stay back in India. Very few such movies have been made on the post-Independence era. The towering figure of Balraj Sahni leads a brilliant caste to deliver some of the most credible performances in India cinema. Kaifi Azmi and the great Ismat Chughtai wrote the screenplay and the story for Garm Hawa, which alone gives this a very high place in my echelon of Urdu movies. Great effort has been made to lend realism through the choice of different registers of Urdu speech (different vocabulary) for different characters based on their region, social class and age. The mesmerizing Sufi song Salim Chisti from Garm Hawa, along with Aaj Rang Hai from Junoon and Khawaja Mere Khawaja from Jodhaa Akbar, is my favourite BollywoodSufi piece.

Other movies which could have been part of this list but didn't make it (entirely due to my excellent skills in lethargy):

Two important points here: First, this is not an exhaustive list by any means. I keep discovering new and brilliant Urdu movies all the time. Second, I have extremely limited access to Pakistani movies and hence, sadly, that entire universe of Pakistani Urdu movies is untouched here. Hopefully, the latter problem will be addressed soon.

I fervently hope that people keep making such beautiful Urdu movies in the years to come.

If you have any doubts about any dialogues from any Urdu movie or want to learn / discuss more feel free to leave a comment and I shall get back to you.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Not On Memories

Not solely on memories as you say
But on memories and each other to fill our days
Not to grow old slow and alone until over is our stay
But to together see the seasons turn back to whence they came
Not by cursing the empty luck that takes us our separate ways
But by basking in the destiny that crises-crosses our paths again and again
Not for losing hope of seeing one another and just walking away
But for trusting in the magic that always ensures we meet each other half way

Friday, March 8, 2013

So it seems

So it seems it really isn't possible for some things to come about,
it suddenly seems that anything is possible could just be a slogan you shout,

So I ask do we get old because despite bleeding every time we fail to chain our dreams the next time around,
Or do we age because we've used fetters so heavy they cost us life but save us pain and self doubt,

So they wished me well by insisting I don't count the chickens before they come out,
but isn't half hearted love like the hat from which the rabbit is pulled out,

So I was asked why I was given a heart so stout,
Now I know it is so because it must last a lifetime of rout,

So I have decided that from this eternal test I will not bow out,
if God could make a beautiful flower once then surely he could make it again is my prayer devout.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Brief Guide To The Development Of The Arabic Script

Brief Guide To The Development Of The Arabic Script

This post is intended as a very brief guide to the development of the modern Arabic script and derived scripts (Persian /Urdu/Sindhi/Balochi/Afghani/Turkic and their friends). The history of the development of the Arabic script proper is to an extent a history of Quranic orthography ie the way the Quran is written out in the Arabic script. I have tried to steer clear of any historical and hagiographical controversies and presented only the bare minimum of information needed to get a clear grasp of the journey of the Arabic script from its embryonic stage to maturity. I hope this will serve as an introduction to my next post which will be on the different styles of Arabic calligraphy.

Super Short History of Arabic's Ancestors
Arabic is a Semitic language and all Semitic scripts (not languages) are based on the proto-Canaanite script. It is agreed that Proto-Canaanite is a child of Egyptian Hieroglyphs  with a hint of Akkadian DNA (completely different from Hieroglyphs). The pictographic Egyptian Hieroglyphs become proto-Canaanite Acrophones, symbols in which the symbol represents only the first sound of the word depicted by the same symbol in Egyptian Hieroglyphs rather than the whole word itself, eg. the hut Hieroglyph symbol depicted the word "beyt" (house) in totality but actually just stood for only the "b" sound of "beyt" in the Acrophonic proto-Canaanite script.

In the Semitic language, tree over time, the Proto-Canaanite script mothered the Phoenician script which begot the Aramaic script which birthed the Nabataean script which bore the Arabic script. It is very important to note that the Nabataean script used only 22 consonants and early Arabic had to make do with these 22 symbols for its own repertoire of 28 consonants. This 22 vs 28 difference will be significant later. Another feature of almost all of these Semitic scripts was that they did not depicts vowels (long or short), something of a family trait because the Egyptian Hieroglyphs omit vowels too; this also should be kept in mind for later on.
This would also be a good place to mention that the Greek, Roman and many Indian scripts (and their spawns) are also derivatives of the proto-Canaanite script. So Arabic and Devanagari are distant cousins and most of the things mentioned so far apply to the Indic/Greek/Roman scripts as well.


Earliest Arabic Script
Now let's come to the Arabic script itself. As of now, the first definitive example of what can be called as Arabic script is a rock engraving, an epitaph of a certain Mrs Raqush, found in Mada'in Saleh (Saudi Arabia) dated to about 267AD. Some scholars believe this script to be something in between Nabataean and Arabic and others unequivocally classify it as Arabic script. This inscription does have some words in the Thamud scripts as well. However do not assume that this is the oldest inscription in Arabic language. Many, much older, Arabic language samples have been found, albeit written/engraved in non-Arabic scripts such as pre-Islamic Arabic poetry written in Nabataean, Aramaic, Thamudic, Epigraphic South Arabian scripts etc.

The famous Raqush inscription to the left and modern Arabic copy/interpretation to the right. Can you make out any of the words in the original? Without the aid of the modern copy I can barely recognize the odd  عhere and the odd ل  there and one  حand a  فيsomewhere and that's all conjecture too. The second word in the second line is Raqoosh. Of course I have forgotten most of my Arabic anyway. But this must have been perfectly legible to the people it was meant for.

For a partial list of Nabataean and the very early Arabic script samples check out

Revelation Era
Jumping forward three and a half centuries after the demise of Mrs Raqush we come to the era of the Quranic revelations (610-632AD). By this time the Arabic script had been modified a lot more from the semi-Nabataen form and had come much closer to its final form. The initial Meccan utterances in the Quraishi dialect of Arabic by Prophet Muhammad were shorter and quickly committed to memory by the small but fast expanding group of Muslims. However by the time the Prophet emigrated to Medina the revealed verses became much longer as did the size of the Muslim community. Now secretaries started recording these longer Arabic verses on whatever medium was ready at hand at the moment of revelation, be it animal hide, parchment, rocks, leaves or bones etc. These written records were created purely as memory aids and not as written scripture. According to Kees Versteegh, this shift from an purely oral Meccan record of the divine words to a partially written Medinan record is attested to in the Quran itself, through the shift in the usage of the word Quran (recite this), referring to the sacred revelations in the earlier verses to the word Kitaab (book), referring to the sacred revelations in the later verses. However the key thing to remember here is that despite the growing importance of a written record, for the Quranic verses as well as the pre and post Islamic Arabic poetry these written records were still secondary to the primary method of preserving something which was to memorize it (except in the case of commercial transactions and war treaties). This tradition of oral recitation and transmission is quite well entrenched in most Semitic cultures and religions so much so that to this day those who commit the Quran to memory are bestowed the title of "Haafiz" which means the preserver/protector, one who preserves the sacred text in his/her heart. Hence even till the a few years after the death of Prophet Muhammad (632AD) the written records were considered secondary as there were thousands of "reciters" who knew the Quran by heart and had learnt it from the Prophet's own mouth.

Supposed letter dictated by Prophet Muhammad to a scribe and then dispatched to the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, circa 630AD. Regardless of the authenticity, if this text is indeed from around 630-650AD it clearly shows the strong departure of the Arabic script from its Nabataean sandbox-days as depicted in the Raqush engraving. I can easily make out quite a few letters (and words!) of this text.

Although the scripts used in the 5th-8th Centuries were very different from the one given below, this table gives an idea of what the shapes of the different Arabic letters were at this time, which sounds they represented and how common shapes were used for very different sounds. One can see that there are no dots, diacritical marks, above any of the letters.

As noted in the table given above:
The sounds b/t/th were represented by the same symbol.
The sounds j/H/kh were represented by the same symbol.
The sounds d/dh were represented by the same symbol.
The sounds s/sh were represented by the same symbol.
The sounds ṣ / ḓ were represented by the same symbol.
The sounds ṭ / ẓ were represented by the same symbol.
The sounds r/z were represented by the same symbol.
The sounds `/gh were represented by the same symbol.

Early Caliphate Era - The Rashidun
In less than 15 years of the death of the Prophet certain developments compelled his successors, the Caliphs, to take make changes in the written Quran and the Arabic script. First, many of the reciters died in battles against the apostates, the Romans and the Persians. A famous, oft quoted, example is of the half a thousand reciters who died at the Battle of Yamama in  632AD; an event which so perturbed the pious Uthman that he convinced the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, to overcome "the loss of much of the Quran" by having it compiled into a book. Second, the increasing number of non-Arab converts to Islam, who were new to the Arabic language and sounds, often incorrectly recited the Quranic verses. Finally, many of the Muslims started to disagree amongst each other on the pronunciation and meaning of some words as the Prophet had clearly declared that there were seven different, perfectly equal, readings of the Quran, based upon the different urban and Bedouin dialects of Arabic in his time. When Uthman became the third Caliph (644-652AD) he decided to bring an end to the worry of "forgetting the Quran" and also to the conflicts caused by the variant readings by undertaking a codification of the Quran. He collected all the written sheets of Quran from the Prophet's time, had them collated them into one definitive edition and then returned the sheets to Hafsa, the widow of the Prophet from whom he had taken them in the first place . For some reasons there are no extant samples of the original written records of the Quranic revelations made by the secretaries of Prophet Muhammad. This "final" version was sent to every province of the geometrically expanding Islamic empire as the authorized Quran and all non-compliant written variants were destroyed by state officials. Some variants were concealed but ultimately lost to the hands of man or of time.

Umayyad and Very Early Abbasid Caliphate Eras
However, soon two characteristics which the Arabic script had inherited from Nabataean and had not caused any problems before now returned to haunt the Arabic script's efficacy in a vast and diverse empire. Quranic orthography still employed 22 symbols to depict its 28 consonant sounds and it did still did not depict vowels in writing. This negated any real codification and unification efforts which the Caliph Umar had hoped to achieve with his authoritative final version of the Quran.

1.The first characteristic of using 22 symbols to depict 28 sounds caused a problem in identifying the correct letters. The examples below illustrates the problem. Without diacritical points to identify which of the phonemes (sounds) is being referred to, only reference to context or external guidance can help shed some light on the correct word which is implied by the author of the text.

The problems caused by misreading of Bs for Ts and Rs for Zs and so forth had reached an inflection point and something had to be done to correct the situation. Some accounts would have us believe that under the aegis of the Umayyad governor Hajjaj ibn Yusuf  (d.714AD), the diacritical points were innovated and adopted for use in the Quranic texts in order to remove the ambiguity in reading. However the actual historical evidence proves these accounts are largely apocryphal. As of now, the oldest usage of such diacritical points has been found on a papyrus called Perf No. 558, a billingual (Greek and Arabic) advance tax receipt which dates itself to 643 AD, a decade an a half before Hajjaj ibn Yusuf was even born. The Arabic text in this tax receipt has some letters dotted and others undotted and the dots appear to have been used in a very matter of fact way. Although Perf No. 558 has not been studied extensively, it is clear that at least 20 years after the Hejira of the Prophet, if not earlier, non-religious Arabic texts occasionally employed diacritical points to eliminate faulty reading of the text.

 Perf No 558, the oldest Arabic text which clearly shows the use of diacritical points, dated to 643AD. Source


Based on the evidence of Perf No. 558, it can be stated that Arabic script did have diacritical points used as a tool to proper understanding of the text. The Arabic letters with the diacritical points to differentiate them from each other would have looked almost exactly like the ones used today, as shown in the table given below. The dots help, as shown in the mountain/dementia/rope example above to read  However mere availability is not the same as active usage and we know for a fact that the Arabic Qurans did not employ the diacritical points, perhaps largely to avoid any inadvertent desecration of the base text. The arrangement in the table below was made by Arabic grammarians on the basis of similarity in the shapes of the letters. More on arrangements later.

 The final Arabic alphabet. Compare with the first table above which gives the same number of sounds but with fewer letters

 2.The second characteristic of the Arabic script of not marking vowels also caused confusions, especially between verb forms which often have the same shape and letters but different short vowels and sometimes between plurals and verb forms. The example below illustrates the latter confusion.

 This vowel problem was initially overcome by the pioneer grammarian Abul Aswad AdDuali (d.688AD) at the behest of the Umayyad Caliph AbdUl Malik (d.705AD), who was also instrumental in switching the administrative language of the entire Arabian empire from a patchwork of Greek, Aramaic and Pahlavi over to Arabic after he caught a Greek scribe urinating into the ink well used to write out the official records for lack of water to prepare the ink. The solution proposed by the grammarian Abul Aswad seems to have been partially inspired by similar solutions in other Semitic script traditions: place dots around each letter to indicate short vowel sounds for that letter. Abul Aswad is also credited with inventing the symbols for the Hamza and the Khafeef vowels and the Shadda. Before, the Khafeef (absence of any vowel) and the Shadda (doubling of a consonant) were not depicted at all, hence the Khafeef and the Shadda too had to be inferred from the context of the base text. This system of Abul Aswad was further refined by the 8th Century grammarian and author of the first Arabic dictionary, Al Khalil ibn AhmedFaraaheedi (d.791AD) who replaced the dots with smaller versions of the corresponding long vowel sounds. This has been illustrated in the table below. 

Vowel Name and Sound
Abul Aswad Ad-Duali's (d.688AD) Vowel Markers
Al Khalil ibn Ahmed's (d. 791AD) Vowel Markers
Fatha - Short "a" - "Ma"
Dhamma - Short "u" - "Mu"
Kasra - Short "i" - "Mi"
Tanwin - Short Nunation - "Dan, Dun, Din"
 ڍ , د.. , ڌ
 دٍ , دٌ,داً
Shadda - doubling of a consonant sound
Symbol unknown to me
Khafeef aka Sukoon - absence of any vowel sound
Symbol unknown to me
ْ , ۡ
Hamza - glottal stop
ء , ؤ , ئ , أ , إ

Middle Abbasid Caliphate Era onwards
These two changes were not accepted immediately by the religious members of the Muslim community largely as a result of fear of innovating the received text of the Quran. Similar fears also dissuaded the Jews from accepting any diacritical points or matres lectionis to identify letters or vowels over the base text of the standardized Hebrew Bible until well over a thousand years after the composition of the last book of the Hebrew Bible. It took close to 250-300 years after the revelation of the Quran for the vowel markers and diacritical points to become a common place feature in Qurans. Interestingly the Jewish initiative, called the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible, and the Muslim initiative for making these changes in the Quran were both finalised around the same time, being almost contemporaneous events, within 50-75 years of each other. Further both of these sacred texts with the diacritical marks and vowel points are now the standard texts for their respective religions (though only unmarked, base text Hebrew Bibles are used for liturgy).

 Very early Kufic Arabic Quranic calligraphy from Yemen.
Shows only the base text.
No vowel markers - No diacritical points to distinguish between phonemes

 Kufic Arabic calligraphy, Surah Hujjarat, 9th Century. Text on the obverse side is visible due of inadequate thickness of the parchment.
Shows base text. Coloured vowel markers added later in Abul Aswad's style over base text in an effort to standardize the sounds.
No diacritical points to distinguish between phonemes.


 Later Kufic Arabic Quranic calligraphy, perhaps 10th Century.
Shows base text, vowel markers in Abul Aswad's style and diacritical points to distinguish between phonemes.

 Naskh Arabic Quranic calligraphy, Surah Fatiha, representative of all Qurans post-11th Century.
Shows base text, vowel markers in the newer Al Khalil style and diacritical points all made as part of the writing at the same time.

However by the turn of 10th-11th Century Qurans employed both diacritical points and vowel markers and from then have been mandatorily written with diacritical points and vowel marks. By this time non-Quranic Arabic texts also used the diacritical points as standard usage, though they did not use vowel markers. In non-sacred and non-school texts, the ancient Semitic habit of not marking vowels has managed to keep its hold till today. As a result only the diacritical points are marked in the majority of Arabic texts and the short vowels are left unmarked, to be guessed by reference to context. Even religious commentaries on the Quran and Hadith do not carry the short vowel markers. All other scripts based on Arabic such as Persian/Urdu/Turkic have also continued with this same tradition. Though in certain rare cases vowels are marked to clear ambiguity. The following examples will make the partial usage of vowel marks more clear.

A textbook to teach Arabic from the 1950s, employs vowel markers in every word to remove ambiguity.

 Modern printed version of the first page of the celebrated Introduction or "Muqadimah" of Ibn Khaldun's 14th century Arabic treatise on history, politics, economics and sociology. Again, barely discernable use of vowel markers

 Modern printed version of the first page of the Persian translation of Mevlana Rumi's "Fi Hi Ma Fi Hi" ( In It Is What Is In It). Notice that although most of the sentences do not have vowel marks, some sentences do. These sentences are verses from the Quran which must always be written with vowel marks.

First page of the famous turn of 20th Century Urdu novel, Umrao Jaan Ada, bereft of vowel markers but for the short vowel u in the name Umrao

The Arabic Alphabet

The modern standard Arabic alphabet arranged according to similarilty in shapes of the letters

 Note that many letters have different slightly different stand-alone, initial, medial and final forms. This feature is common to many Semitic scripts and seems to be an ancient feature of these scripts.

Gematrical Values and Other Arrangement of the Alphabet
Along with the shapes and sounds of the Arabic letters, the numerical values of these letters are also fundamental. Many Semitic and non-Semitic alphabets assign numerological values to their letters.. Often in earlier times, the letters were used as numbers based on their numerical values in lieu of any special number symbols, until Hindu numerals (to the Arabs) were adopted by the Abbasid Caliphs in early 9th Century and then later on adopted by most of the West as Arab numerals. Hence the letter أ  was used for the value 1, the letter   ب was used for the value 2,   تfor 3, ج   for 4 and so on; these first four  letters, A-B-J-D, which correspond to values, 1-2-3-4 were together called the abjd and gave rise to the term abjd for the Arabic alphabet. The numerical arrangement of the Arabic alphabet is given below. Other Semitic scripts also follow this same numerical system. The numerical values of letters are used for various purposes such as religious symbolism, magic and divination, astrology and occult and even for seeking divine patterns. The table below shows the numerical values and arrangements of the letters.

 The arrangement of Arabic letters into numbers is called Taarikh  تاريخor Chronogram and the most famous chronogram in Arabic is undoubtedly the number 786 which is derived as follows:
بسم لله - bism illah - 2+60+40   +   1+30+30+5 = 168
الرّحمن - a(l) rrahman - 1+30+200+8+40+50 = 329
الرّحيم - a(l) rraheem - 1+30+200+8+10+40 = 289

168+329+289 = 786

The title of one of my favourite books, Bagh - o - Bahar is also a chronogram which gives the value 1217AH corresponding to 1802AD, the year in which the book was written. Chronograms have been used for thousands of years and can sneak up on you quite suddenly, which is why they are so much fun!

We have already noted two arrangements of the Arabic alphabet: the one arranged according to similarity in the shapes of the letters and the other based on the numerical values of the letters. A third arrangement of the Arabic alphabet was created by the grammarian Al Khalil ibn Ahmed Faraaheedi (d.791AD), whom we have already encountered  as the one who perfected the vowel marker system. Al Khalil Faraaheedi wrote the first dictionary of Arabic, Kitaab al Ayn, in which he arranged the letters neither according to their shapes nor according to their values but according to where their sound originates in the mouth. His dictionary starts with Ayn  عas the first letter because it is voiced from the lowest point in the throat and moving upwards and outwards in the mouth, ends with Meem  مas the last letter because it is voiced from the tip of the lips. Because the first letter in this dictionary is Ayn it is called Kitaab al Ayn.

These three arrangements of the Arabic alphabet are not exhaustive.

Persian, Urdu, Turkic, Malay and Allied Scripts
Persian, Urdu, Turkic, Malay use the Arabic script for their own sounds by mapping the Arabic letters onto similar sounds from their alphabet. However in the case of each of these languages their sound space is much larger than the one catered to by the 28 Arabic letters and this has neccesitated the innovation of new shapes from with the 28 letter repertoire in each of these languages.

Additional letters can be spotted in the alphabet tables given below:
 Persian / Daari alphabet

Urdu alphabet

Ottoman Turkish alphabet

Sindhi alphabet

Jawi / Malay alphabet

 I hope this post has helped you to understand the basics of the development of the Arabic script and will point you in the right direction.

 To Know More About:

Arabic script and learning to write Arabic
Wikipedia's page on the history of the Arabic script
Guidedways's has a decent introductary course to learn the script
Youtube video tutorial

Numerology/Gematrical values
One of my favourite Urdu luminaries, Prof Frances Pritchett, talks about Chronograms
Wikipedia on Arabic gematrical values
Wikipedia on Hebrew gematrical values

Writing Systems, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Proto-Cannanite
Writing Systems, A Linguistic Approach by Henry Rogers
Writing Sytems of the World by Florian Coulmas

The phenomenal work by Kees Versteegh on the development of the Arabic language
Alan Jones talks about the significance of papyrus Perf No 558
Wikipedia on the history of the Quran, including its compilation

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

William Jones aka Yunis Uksfardi, Oxford and Persian

William Jones urf Yunis Uksfardi, Oxford and the Persian Language

Most people know of William Jones' superhyperparanormal command of scores of languages, precocious childhood and ever more prodigious adulthood. Most also know that he was the founding father of the famous Asiatic Society of Bengal. However, few are aware that William Jones also went around by the nom de plume Yunis Uksfardi.

In 1771 William Jones wrote a book on Persian Grammar. On the inner title page of this Persian Grammar, William Jones wrote his name in Persian text as Yunis Uksfardi. The sheer sense of wow which I got the first time I encountered this Persian rendition of William Jones' name can not be described. I think it was akin to suddenly finding a small fantastic treasure buried under one's bed. 

Uksfardi obviously comes from Oxford and refers, perhaps, to the deep sense of attachment that William Jones may have had for the University of Oxford. He seemed to treasure his association with the University of Oxford so much that he selected Oxford rather than his place of birth, Westminster, as his last name in Persian. Perhaps he took up Uksfardi as the second part of his pen name because it was at Oxford that he learnt Arabic and then Persian under the tutelage of a Syrian native, Mirza of Aleppo, whom William Jones chanced upon in London and requested him to help him learn these tongues. William Jones was very highly regarded at Oxford and won quite a few accolades during his time there. In 1780 he even contested in the Parliament for the seat from Oxford.

Why did William Jones choose Yunis as his first name though? Some are of the opinion that Jones is a Welsh contraction of John (or of son of John). In this case William Jones had two choices for rendering John into Persian (Arabic):
Youhanna - the Christian Arab version of the name John
Yahya - the Islamic Arab version of the name John 

He swept aside both options in favour of Yunis. There has to be a reason for this choice.

But why Yunis, why?

One gets an idea of William Jones' inclination towards the re-discovery of Ancient Oriental knowledge from the (celebrated) Preface to his Grammar of the Persian Language. The Preface is truly an introduction to the Persian language as it goes into the details of describing the Persian language as well as of the development of the language. He extols the virtues of Oriental knowledge and also denies any validity of the various excuses the British of his time used to make for not showing an interest in Persian culture; ranging from being too busy to waste time on Persian to Persian being a language of barbarians and or of believers in Mahomet,  to everything else in between. Bear in mind that in 1771, warfare between the fractious European powers and the Ottoman Empire was still very common indeed and also that European imperialism was now taking firm shape. William Jones cites Voltaire's unbridled appreciation of Persian literature in support of his ideas. He goes on to explain how Persian has started becoming very important for the British in India for good governance and politics as all court correspondence, firmans and petitions are in Persian and every British official in the Indian courts must be able to hold his own when it comes to reading and writing in proper Persian without resorting to Munshis. This book on Persian Grammar is clearly targeted at the British officials in India. I think I remember reading somewhere that William Jones wrote this book at the request of a director of the East India Company who wanted a Persian manual for the EIC officers. Earlier they had to rely solely on the Indian Munshis for learning Persian and other Indian languages. However, soon after, the British realised the importance of employing local dialects rather than Persian or Sanskrit while conversing with the commoners. To this end, Fort William College was established in Calcutta at the turn of the 19th century. The British of course, sounded the death knell for Persian in India when they outlawed its use as an official language of British India around half a century after the publication of the first edition of William Jones' Persian Grammar.

In his Preface, William Jones laments the fact that he does not have enough time to write an accompanying history of Persian literature. William Jones, of course had earlier already translated many books on Persian history from Persian into European languages. Perhaps in the title pages of these texts also he may have given his name as Yunis Uksfardi. He gives pointers to Europeans on which intermediate and advanced texts to study in order to extend their basic learning ("the first book I would recommend is... Gulistan, the Bed of Roses..."). William Jones informs the reader that if the learner follows his advice then he will be able to correspond with any prince in India and with any commoner within a year of starting his studies. He also suggests that mastery of the various aspects of Arabic (Arabick) will be completely essential for attaining truly dizzying heights in the knowledge of Persian.

Although William Jones' Persian Grammar is good as a book for learning Persian but it's not the best.. Perhaps it was the best book of its kind in English when it came out but then it was soon eclipsed by other Persian manual. Lt. Col D C Phillott's magnificent book comes to mind immediately as a later day example of a much more exhaustive text, but there is no doubt that William Jones's book was the path finder for learning Persian through English. William Jones' Persian Grammar proved so useful and famous that it has to date never really gone out of publication (latest edition 2010). For me, the true value of the book lies not so much in the main didactic section but rather in the Preface, which William Jones uses very well to converse with his reader and to put forth his case for the study of Oriental subjects.

I end by quoting the last paragraph from Yunis Uksfardi's Preface to his Persian Grammar:

" As to the literature of Asia, it will not, perhaps, be essentially useful to the greater part of mankind, who have neither leisure nor inclination to cultivate so extensive a branch of learning; but the civil and natural history of such mighty empires as India, Persia, Arabia and Tartary, cannot fail of delighting those who love to view the great picture of the universe, or to learn by what degrees the most obscure states have risen to glory, and the most flourishing kingdoms sunk to decay; the philosopher will consider those works as highly valuable  by which he may trace the human mind in all its appearances, from the rudest to the most cultivated state. and the man of taste will undoubted be pleased to unlock the stores of native genius, and to gather the flowers of unrestrained and luxuriant fancy"

I still can't get over Yunis Uksfardi being the nom de plume of William Jones. I think it would have been fantastic to meet him.

To know more about:

Yunis Uksfardi, I mean about...William Jones

LSR Krishna Sastry's quick read of a book on Sir William Jones

Wikipedia on William Jones

The collected works on Sir William Jones at

A Grammar of the Persian Language (1771 edition)

A Grammar of the Persian Language (1828 edition) - this one has some useful footnotes to the Preface and the font is more legible.

Asiatic Society of Bengal
The official website - They have done a decent job of ensuring that some of the old manuscripts of India and scholarly papers remain in circulation.
Their history in their words

Learn Persian
Lt Col D. C. Phillott's fantastic book of Persian - Higher Persian Grammar (1917). Make sure you read the Introduction.
And while you're at it, also consider reading his true treasure, a book on Hindustaani Idioms,  Khazana - i Muhaawaraat (Treasure of Idioms) - highly highly recommended.

Or just check any of the 50 trillions websites which help you to learn Persian.