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The tyranny of vowels

By Syed Nomanul Haq

Urdu script — which is, in fact, an augmented version of Arabo-Persian script — does not by default indicate short vowels, as is the case with its primogenitors. The doubling of a letter, such as the ‘r’ in the popular name Khurram, is not normally indicated either, the diacritic indicator being familiarly called tashdeed.


Likewise, those letters in a word that are not followed by a vowel — quiescent letters, that is — these, too, are left unmarked in normal writings. An example of this last case is the word amn [peace] in which there is no vowel after ‘m’ and so it is quiescent; but then, almost universally this word is becoming aman: yes, if the script has no vowels, it allows for such possibilities.

Note that all Semitic scripts, Hebrew and Syriac among them, share such peculiarities — they are all consonantal and they all move from right to left, and yet there is one exception, a telltale exception. This is the case of our common numerals, what are known as Arabic numerals, based as they are on a place-value system shared by the Latin/Roman script, moving from left to right. The appellation ‘Arabic’ numerals is a kind of misnomer, for these are Indian numerals, but since they reached the modern world through the Arabic writings of the 8th/9th century mathematician Al Khwarizmi, they were named so.

Now there are some intriguing consequences of all this. For example, a word in the Urdu script can be read in numerous ways, given that the three unspecified short vowels, zaer (the ‘i’ vowel), zabar (the ‘a’ vowel), and paesh (the ‘u’ vowel), can occur in different combinations; then, there can be that unmarked doubling of a letter as well as quiescent letters in it, too. It so happens that, quite often, many different readings of the same word in an expression all make equal lexical sense at once, leading to what one may call a semantic anarchy. So how does one cope with this anarchy?

It is very important to recognise that there are at least two ways of determining the correct reading. The first has to do with the context, the semantic environment is which the word occurs. One reads a word such that it makes plausible sense (qareena) in the general thrust of the expression. For example, the words aa‘lam [the created world] and aa‘lim [learned] are orthographically identical — but quite naturally one would opt for the latter vocalisation in a sentence such as ‘Zaid is erudite and informed; he is a great aa‘lim.’ But here two fascinating issues ought to be noted: one, that the moment of reading a text is also a moment of the interpretation of the text. So there is, in today’s parlance, an interactive relationship between the text and the reader. This is a mode of improvisation which we see in South Asian classical music too, where the moment of execution is also the moment of creation.

The other fascinating issue is that this interpretation can always be, in principle, challenged because this is a human judgemental act. Indeed, multiple readings of the same text have a whole history in the intellectual life of Arabic, Persian and Urdu. It is for this reason that the text of the Holy Quran is fully vocalised, with all diacritics given and all vowels specified, so that it is read in one and only one way; no other text has this privilege. The command of vowels in the script is so effective that the change of one single vowel can reverse the meaning. Thus, the word muntazir means ‘the one(s) who await(s)’; whereas muntazar reverses it, meaning ‘the awaited one(s).’ The first is an active participle, the second a passive one. Remember the well-known saying, literally, ‘my world became zaer and zabar’ — that is, ‘my world turned upside down, became messed up.’ Here is a pronouncement on the tyranny of vowels.

The second means of determining the correct reading of the text is recourse to poetry. Let’s pause here and carve it on our cultural consciousness that poetry — especially Urdu, Persian and Arabic poetry — is essential to learning a language, its sounds and its semantic range. Now we know that Urdu poetry is overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, built until this day around certain fundamental metres articulated for Arabic prosody by the mathematician Khalil ibn Ahmad as early as the 8th century. Khalil’s system has ramified into numerous modified metres that poets use as their ground, even when they play with them or subvert them, as is the case with modernist poets such as Noon Meem Rashid and Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

The historic point is that no poet who is considered a poet-proper would use a word destroying its standard vowels. If the reader omits a vowel when there is one, or adds a vowel when there is none, or does not double a sound when doubling is standard — this reader will destroy the metre of the poem. What does this mean? It means that the rhythm of a poem serves as the bridle to control the reading. How fascinating.

But there is one illegality that poetry does not control — placing a vowel when needed, but placing the wrong vowel. This is the offence often committed to Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s famous verse:

[O awaited Reality, manifest yourself in the cloak of metaphor!]

The fourth word here is muntazar, but, ah, it is often read as muntazir. And as I wrote in my last column, the same havoc is meted out to Faiz’s ahl-i-hikam — an expression almost ubiquitously misvocalised by readers. Poetry and therefore language is more than orthography.