Who this book is for

Zer o Zabar is a guide to reading and writing in Urdu. It is designed primarily for those who have some familiarity with either Hindi or Urdu, equivalent to a first-year level or above. For this reason, the book is not meant for absolute beginners, but will be an ideal introduction to the Urdu script for:

  • students who have studied Hindi-Urdu for one year or more using the Devanagari (Hindi) script;
  • Hindi speakers who can read Hindi, but not Urdu;
  • Hindi or Urdu speakers who have not yet learned to read and write either script.

To help learners from the first two groups, we often refer to spelling conventions in Hindi. However, a knowledge of Devanagari is not necessary to use this book.

Urdu as a language and a script

It is not always immediately clear what we mean when we say “Urdu.” Different people use this name to refer to a language, a script or writing system, an accent, a literary tradition, and other things besides. Above all, “Urdu” is defined by simply constrasting it with “Hindi.” Given this confusion and the many uses of the term “Urdu,” it’s worth clarifying what we’re talking about in this book.

Hindi-Urdu is a major language of India and Pakistan. The standard variety—in other words, the way of speaking that you’ll usually encounter in books, films, newspapers and elsewhere—is based on the Delhi dialect, called Khari Boli. (There are many other dialects and closely related languages that are also called Hindi and Urdu; in this book, we use the standard variety.[1]) While often called Hindi-Urdu in academic settings, the language is more commonly referred to by one name or the other: that is, as either “Hindi” or “Urdu.” What exactly distinguishes Hindi and Urdu from each other depends on whom you ask. For many people, the biggest distinctions are script (Devanagari for Hindi, and a form of the Arabic script for Urdu) and the dominant sources of vocabulary (Sanskrit for Hindi, and Persian and Arabic for Urdu). In reality, it is often difficult or impossible to definitively say whether someone is speaking or writing in “Hindi” or “Urdu.” The similarities between the two are much greater than their alleged differences.

In terms of grammar, Hindi and Urdu are indistinguishable, or nearly so. In terms of pronunciation, while there are particular sounds that are associated with words derived from Sanskrit and similarly for Persian and Arabic, neither people who identify themselves as Urdu speakers nor as Hindi speakers are at all uniform in whether or how they pronounce these sounds. In terms of vocabulary, the vast majority of words used by speakers of either variety are the same. This is because both Hindi and Urdu both draw from a huge stock of Indic words that are not taken directly from Sanskrit, Persian, or Arabic, and from a wide range of other sources, most of all English. It may be that Urdu tends to prefer borrowing words from Persian and Arabic, and Hindi from Sanskrit, but this is true only in general terms: speakers freely use whichever word suits the moment, no matter its linguistic origin. In fact, it is nearly impossible to speak Hindi without words derived from Persian and Arabic (ki ‘that,’ agar ‘if,’ bachchā ‘child,’ bād ‘after’). Meanwhile, because the language itself is ultimately a descendant of Sanskrit, it is literally impossible to speak Urdu without words derived from that language (karnā ‘to do,’ dekhnā ‘to see,’ ghar ‘house,’ phal ‘fruit’).[2]

That leaves script, the topic of this book. Hindi-Urdu is usually written in three scripts.[3] One is Devanagari (also called Nagari), which we’ll call the “Hindi script” or “Devanagari.” Another is a modified form of the Arabic script (especially a style of writing called Nastaliq), which we’ll call the “Urdu script” or “Nastaliq.” And the third, which often gets ignored, is the Latin or Roman script. In this book, when we say “both scripts,” we mean the Hindi and Urdu scripts, and sometimes we’ll also include Roman script and refer to “all three scripts.” Anything in one script can be written in the others, as you see in this film poster:


Poster for Jaggā Ḍākū (Jagga the Bandit).

How the Urdu script works

The Urdu script uses a modified version of the Persian script, which is itself an adaptation of the Arabic alphabet. Building on the Persian script, Urdu has developed several of its own spelling conventions and letters to accomodate its distinctive sounds, like the retroflex and ṭh. Urdu script is written from right to left, and some letters can appear above or below others. Generally, the letters of each word connect to each other, and look different depending on where they appear in a word. The script is not technically an alphabet but an abjad, meaning that some vowels are unwritten and must be inferred by the reader. Each of the letters has a name.

Urdu can be written in different styles, just as English can be in roman, italic, blackletter, and so on. The predominant style is called Nastaliq, which is distinguished by an elegant downward slope and the fact that letters are sometimes written above and below each other:

تجھے دیکھا تو یہ جانا صنم
پیار ہوتا ہے دیوانہ صنم

The second common style is called Naskh, which is written horizontally rather than at an angle:

تجھے دیکھا تو یہ جانا صنم
پیار ہوتا ہے دیوانہ صنم

Traditionally, both Nastaliq and Naskh were written by calligraphers using a pen with an angled nib that allowed for contrast between thin and thick lines. Nowadays, Nastaliq computer fonts imitate the appearance of calligraphy. Everyday Urdu handwriting resembles Nastaliq calligraphy, but with some differences; in this book, we devote attention to handwriting alongside the calligraphic style.

How to use this book

This book is intended as a comprehensive guide to learning the Urdu script, either in a classroom or on your own. We introduce the letters and symbols a few at a time, building your familiarity with the script until you are able to read the language comfortably. Readers familiar with Hindi will benefit from references to Devanagari scattered throughout the book. With each letter we introduce, we show all its forms, in both computer-printed Nastaliq and ordinary handwriting. To learn how to write a letter, short animations show the handwritten versions. Throughout the book, you will encounter red “Insight” boxes that delve deeper into some of the subtleties of the script, as well as blue “Practice” boxes containing interactive activities that you can use to deepen and solidify your learning. We’ve also marked unfamiliar terms in bold and linked them to brief definitions.

Each chapter concludes with a set of exercises, together with a key, which you can use to practice your newly acquired skills. All the exercises are available in two versions, one using Hindi script and the other using only Roman script.

Zer o Zabar is divided into thirteen chapters. The first eleven cover the letters and other essential marks of the Urdu script. Chapter 12 explains the Urdu numerals and related topics. For students interested in reading literary and historical texts, Chapter 13 is an optional chapter that explains less common marks, archaic spellings, and other arcana. To cover the material more quickly, it is possible to work through more than one chapter in a single class session, for instance by pairing Chapters 1 and 2, 10 and 11, or 12 and 13.

There are also four appendices. Appendix A explains the transliteration system we’ve used to render Hindi-Urdu words in the Roman script. Appendix B is an annotated list of all the letters of the Urdu alphabet in order, along with the diacritics. Appendix C is a guide to nuances in the formation of Urdu letters, which can sometimes look different in particular contexts. Finally, Appendix D lists books, websites, games, and other resources for further study.

There are a number of different ways to use Zer o Zabar in the classroom or to study on your own. If you are a teacher using it in a classroom setting, you could ask students to read a chapter before class, and then use class time to review and elaborate on the material. It is also possible to take a flipped-classroom approach by assigning each chapter as reading and devoting some or all of class time to correcting and discussing homework assignments. Especially if you are using the book on your own, you can reread each chapter after completing and correcting its accompanying exercises, in order to understand and learn from your mistakes.

Note that this book is still in draft form. We are continuing to refine and improve it. Please contact us if you find any errors or have any suggestions.

And now—to make a joke that will soon make sense:

زیر و زبر پیش ہے

Zer o Zabar pesh hai

We present Zer o Zabar


  1. There are many names that are used for particular varieties—Awadhi, Bambaiya, Bhojpuri, Dakhni, Fiji Hindi, Rajasthani, and dozens of others. Many of these are quite distinct from standard Hindi-Urdu (also called Hindustani), but nonetheless they are often referred to as dialects of “Hindi” and “Urdu.” As a proverb says, “kos-kos pě badle pānī, chār kos pě bānī”: every two miles the water changes, and language changes every eight.
  2. Technically, Hindi-Urdu and other modern languages are descended from Prakrits, but the distinction is an academic one.
  3. In fact, however, even more scripts have been used to write the language, including Kaithi (a relative of the Devanagari script), as well as Bengali, Gujarati, and even Hebrew!


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