1. Be, kāf, and short vowels

Be

There are a few basic ways that Urdu script differs from both English and Hindi. One is that it’s written from right to left. A bigger difference is that the letters of a word are usually connected, and the letters can look different depending on where they appear. To see what all this means in practice, let’s take a look at the letter be, which makes a b sound. By itself, it looks like this:

ب

This is called the . If we write the nonexistent word babab, it looks like this:

ببب

Here we have three different forms of be (remember, we’re reading from right to left):

ـب

ـبـ

بـ

the

the

the

Although the forms are a little different, each one consists of a shallow curve with one dot (called a ) below it. We call the part of the curve that sticks up a . In the initial and medial forms, the dots go above or below that tooth. Many letters are distinguished by the number of dots and their placement, so it’s important to pay attention to both.

As their names suggest, the initial form appears at the beginning of a , the final form appears at the end, and all the letters in between are in the medial form. When a letter isn’t connected to anything else, it appears in the independent form. However, not every letter has all four forms. Some letters don’t connect to the letter that follows them (we call these ) and thus lack an initial and medial form.

For the rest of this book, we’ll present new letters in a consistent format. For each letter, we’ll show what the different forms look like in printed or Nastaliq. We will also give you short animations that demonstrate how to write each form with an ordinary pen:

calligraphed final form

calligraphed medial form

calligraphed initial form

calligraphed independent form

name

handwritten final form

handwritten medial form

handwritten initial form

handwritten independent form

sound

These are the forms of be:

Practice

This photo contains an initial, medial, and independent be (written in style). Can you click on all of them?

Al-Mashhur Bhayya Kabab Shop (Al-Mashhūr Bhayyā Kabāb Shāp), Lahore. Photo credit: Tahir Iqbal.

Principles of the script

In Urdu, you always write a word the same way. Going from right to left, you write the word’s . Then you go back and, again working from right to left, add the dots and any other marks. One of the most striking features of Nastaliq is its verticality: individual words are written on a gentle downward slope, with each one landing at the same imaginary horizontal .

To see what some of these features look like in practice, let’s look at an example. In the illustration below, each letter is given its own color. In addition to each word’s downward slope, you can see that letters look different depending on where they appear. The pink and blue letters both have two dots, but they appear above the main line in the pink one and below it in the blue one. In its final form, the blue letter loses its dots and instead curls beneath the word. Meanwhile, the final forms of the orange and gray letters dip below the dotted baseline.

A color-coded phrase in UrduA tongue twister, pītal ke patīle meñ papītā pīlā pīlā (“there’s a bright yellow papaya in the brass pot”).

Short vowels

The Urdu script takes two approaches to vowels: in general, separate letters indicate long vowels such as ā, ī, and ū. Short vowels like a, i, and u, on the other hand, are typically not written, but are instead expected to be filled in by the reader.

This is more intuitive than it sounds. If you were presented with the word “nmbr” it would not take much effort to fill in the vowels and read it as “number.” Earlier, we saw this made-up word:

ببب

We’ve essentially just written b-b-b, and expected our readers to fill in the short vowels between the letters themselves. This system works well when the word’s meaning is unambiguous, but sometimes we might want to explicitly indicate which short vowels readers should insert between the letters. To do this, Urdu uses , or markings above or below the letters. A diacritic mark indicates the vowel that follows the letter to which it is attached.

A short a vowel is indicated by a short diagonal line called zabar, placed above the letter:

بَب

bab

A short i vowel is indicated by the same short diagonal line, but now written below the letter. This is called a zer:

بِب

bib

A short u vowel is indicated by a pesh, which is written as a small loop, placed above the letter and shaped a bit like a number 9 (or a chhoṭe u kī mātrā in Hindi, which has the same sound):

بُب

bub

Using these diacritics to write short vowels is optional, and you will rarely see them used in handwriting or in print.

Insight

Though optional, short vowel marks are used on occasion. Explore the cover of this book on the history of Urdu literature, which uses them for aesthetic effect:

Nūr ul-Hasan Naqvī, Tārīḳh-e Adab-e Urdū. Image credit: Educational Publishing House.

Now that you know the most common diacritics, you might be able to figure out what this book’s title means. Zer is written below the word and zabar is written above, so literally, zer o zabar means “above and below,” in other words “topsy-turvy” or “higgledy-piggledy”!

Kāf

The letter kāf sounds like k or क. It doesn’t have any dots, but instead has a slash coming off of a vertical stem:

Kāf is written using two separate pen strokes. First, write the stem of the letter as part of the main line of the word, then go back and supply a long downward slash above it, along with any dots belonging to the other letters in the word. Don’t try to write a kāf in a single penstroke. The stem here is taller than the tooth of a be. In the final and independent forms, the shape is often drawn somewhat flatter than a be, and with a more pronounced hook at the end.

We can now write a few common words using the letters be and kāf. Notice how intuitively you can supply the short vowels in the first example below:

کب

kab ‘when’

In the next three examples, we have indicated the vowels used to distinguish between three words that are otherwise written exactly the same way:

بَک

bak ‘nonsense prattle’

بِک

bik ‘be sold!’

بُک

buk ‘book’

Review

Urdu is written right to left, along a downward-sloping path. The letters of each word generally connect to each other.

Most letters have four forms, depending on where they appear in a stroke: initial, medial, final, and independent forms.

Short vowels are usually omitted, but can be specified with diacritics when necessary.

In this chapter, we introduced these letters and diacritics:

Letter or diacritic

Name

Sound

ب

be बे

b ब

ک

kāf काफ़

k क

◌َ

zabar ज़बर

a अ

◌ِ

zer ज़ेर

i इ

◌ُ

pesh पेश

u उ

Exercises

Exercises
(Roman)

Exercises
(Devanagari)

License

Zer o Zabar Copyright © 2023 by David Boyk and Daniel Majchrowicz. All Rights Reserved.