On disappearing scripts

Medium is a new online forum or format that I’ve been seeing more and more writing of note on, Quinn Norton’s essay collection is an example of some of the most interesting online writing at the moment. Smart, savvy, independent, thoughtful, nuanced.

This week I stumbled across another piece of note for language nerds, about the potential demise of the Urdu script nastaliq – one of the Persian scripts of note, still found in parts of Afghanistan, Western China, Pakistan and India:

…Urdu, a South Asian language spoken by anywhere between 100 — 125 million people in Pakistan and India, and one of Pakistan’s two official languages. Urdu is traditionally written in a Perso-Arabic script callednastaliq, a flowy and ornate and hanging script. But when rendered on the web and on smartphones and the entire gamut of digital devices at our disposal, Urdu is getting depicted in naskh, an angular and rather stodgy script that comes from Arabic. And those that don’t like it can go write in Western letters.

Here’s a visual comparison taken from Wikipedia.

Nastaliq v. Naskh. Courtesy Wikpedia.

Looking at the picture, the discerning eye may immediately realize why naskh trumps nastaliq on digital devices. With its straightness and angularity, naskh is simply easier to code, because unlike nastaliq, it doesn’t move vertically and doesn’t have dots adhering to a strict pattern. And we all know how techies opt for functionality.

I’m glad the writer goes further, finding the fascination of a language Romanized (the romance of a language romanized), although makes the following claim which I found odd, emphasis mine:

Writing in Roman letters also makes it easier to switch in and out of English. As an example, take a recent Tweet by the human rights activist Sana Saleem: “If you’ve read my tweets, or my work, I hardly ever cuss. Sorry about that, par bus boat hogaya, buss kardo bass.”

To me, as a writer, that is an astonishing piece of text. Not only are we looking at two languages collapsed into one, but the Romanized part is a language that has not yet been formalized; it is literally under construction due to the pressure exerted by the exigencies of the internet.

The implication that the English language is somehow fully formalized and is protected from the vagaries of the internet is just incorrect – it has been three years since Superlinguo dropped I can has language play on us – but even further, English is still being contested offline. Online is just giving younger people greater sway in that contest.

It’s also not that surprising or astonishing a concept to almost anyone that speaks a second or third language – I presume anyway. As someone that speaks small amounts of three or four other languages, inter lingual word play has always been a source of humour, power and poetry.

Despite this minor quibble, it’s a fascinating insight into the deep search that humans go on when confronted with so much knowledge, leading the author unsuccessfully to the doors of Apple and the, surprisingly successfully, to the doors of Microsoft.

It’s a great reminder of how fragile a language or culture can be – despite the ubiquity of information and knowledge online.

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