2. Pe, gāf, alif, and lām


In Chapter 1, we said that some Urdu letters are distinguished from one another by the number and placement of dots. A group of letters with the same basic shape is called a series. If we write a be-series letter with three dots below the line rather than one, we have a pe. The letter pe sounds like p or प:

Notice the arrangement of the dots here. When a letter includes three dots, they are always in a triangle formation, with the two-dot side of the triangle closer to the main line.

Let’s try combining pe with other letters to form new words. Remember to mentally fill in the short vowels yourself:


pab ‘pub’


kap ‘cup’


pak ‘be cooked!’


We can also make a minor adjustment to the letter kāf to produce a new letter, gāf. Gāf sounds like g or ग, and it looks like kāf but with another slash floating above the first:


In the Hindi script, dots can be used to distinguish ग (as in गाना ‘to sing’) from ग़ (as in बाग़ ‘garden’). In the Urdu script, however, these two distinct sounds are represented by entirely different letters. Gāf is only used for ग (the letter corresponding to ग़ is covered in Chapter 9). The same is true for क and क़. Kāf is equivalent to क, while क़ (which is pronounced farther back in the throat) corresponds to a different letter, covered in Chapter 8.

We can make some words with gāf:


gap ‘gossip’


big ‘big’


pag ‘turban’


All the letters we’ve introduced so far are connectors, meaning that they connect to the letter before them and to the letter after them. A few letters, however, are nonconnectors. These letters still connect to the letter before them, but not to the one that comes next. After writing a nonconnecting letter, you pick up your pen and begin a new stroke. Recall that which form you use depends on where you are in the stroke, so the letter after a nonconnector will be in the initial or independent form, never medial or final.

The first letter of the Urdu alphabet, alif, is a nonconnector and looks like a vertical line:

Since alif is a nonconnector, the independent and initial forms are the same, and so are the medial and final forms. When we introduce nonconnectors, we’ll just show these two forms.

Alif is a vowel, but which vowel in particular can vary. If it appears at the beginning of the word, it can represent any vowel, and the usual diacritics can be used:


ab ‘now’


ik ‘one’ (poetic)


ug ‘sprout!’

If a word begins with an ā sound, you write a special diacritic over the alif, a tilde called madd. Unlike the other diacritics we’ve seen, madd cannot be omitted:


āp ‘you’


āg ‘fire’

If alif appears anywhere in a word other than at the beginning, it sounds like a long ā:


bāp ‘dad’

There are a few caveats to these rules; see Chapters 10 and 11.


You may know that the Hindi script has special forms to write vowels that are not attached to a consonant, such as when they appear at the beginning of a word. Urdu has its own system for writing standalone vowels. An alif at the beginning of a word essentially means, “this word starts with a vowel.”


The letter lām is a connector, and sounds like l or ल:

In the initial and medial forms, lām is written as a connected vertical line. That makes it easy to confuse with alif, until you remember that alif is a nonconnector but lām isn’t. When you write a medial lām, the pen goes down the same way it came up. In the final form, the bowl of the lām drops below the baseline.

Let’s write some words:


pal ‘moment’


pul ‘bridge’


bulbul ‘bulbul, nightingale’


bāl ‘hair’

Special forms

Kāf and gāf take special forms when they appear before alif or lām. The vertical stem curves forward to touch the vertical line of the alif or lām. In the medial and final forms, this curve becomes a loop. For instance, the kāf-alif combination looks like this:

Here are some words that include this family of shapes:


pakā ‘cook!’


kal ‘yesterday, tomorrow’


pāgal ‘crazy’


Artists and graphic designers like to play with letters. The Afghan magazine Kābul (Kabul), published between the 1930s and ’70s, featured a delightful range of writing styles on its covers. The magazine was not published in Urdu but rather in Persian and Pashto, in the Nastaliq and Naskh scripts. Enjoy looking through these exuberant variations:

Image source: Library of Congress (control number 2006204653).

There is also a special form when alif follows lām. Rather than coming straight up from the end of the lām, the alif curves forward slightly, or else the lām extends a little past the bottom of the alif:

Here are two examples in both calligraphy and handwriting:


lagā ‘seemed’


gulāb ‘rose’


In Naskh, the alif sometimes doubles back and crosses over the lām:


lāl ‘red’


gulāb ‘rose’


Initial alif functions as a generic vowel. The madd diacritic turns it into ā (and cannot be left out). Anywhere else, alif makes a long ā sound.

Kāf and gāf have a distinctive shape when they appear before alif or lām. So does alif following a lām (though this difference is less pronounced).

In this chapter, we introduced these letters:

Letter or diacritic



پ pe पे p प
گ gāf गाफ़ g ग
ا alif अलिफ़ vowel
آ alif-madd अलिफ़-मद्द ā आ
ل lām लाम l ल






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