What is significant about the Urdu alphabet?
The Urdu alphabet has 39 basic letters and 13 extra characters, 52 all together. It is written from right to left and is closely related to the Arabic and Persian alphabets, but also contains some sounds from Sanskrit.
Certain sounds in Urdu have no equivalent in English or in other languages written in the Roman alphabet. For this reason it is often difficult to express the true pronunciation of Urdu words using Roman letters.
Examples of letters that are not found in the English alphabet are:
ق – a sharp sound at the back of the throat, similar to ‘k’
خ – the pronunciation of ‘ch’ in Scottish ‘loch’.
ژ – much like the sound made by ‘s’ in ‘pleasure’
Urdu has three short vowel sounds and seven long vowel sounds.
In writing, short vowels are represented by special symbols above or below the word. These symbols are known as ‘diacritics’. However, these diacritics are often left off written Urdu, so you can’t always tell how a word should be pronounced, unless it’s in context. There are similarities in English, with a word like ‘wind’ – ‘The wind blows’ and ‘Wind up the clock’.
The short vowels sound like:
The ‘a’ in the English word ‘about’
The ‘i’ in ‘bin’
The ‘u’ in ‘put’
Long vowels are written using the letters ا [alif], و [wao], ی[choti ye], ے [bari ye] combined with diacritics. Once again, the diacritics are often left out so you have to work out the pronunciation of the word based on its context.
The seven long vowels in Urdu sound similar to these English sounds:
The ‘a’ in ‘father’
The ‘ee’ in ‘seed’
The ‘oo’ in ‘boot’
The ‘o’ in ‘order’
The ‘au’ in ‘Australia’
The ‘e’ in ‘help’
The ‘a’ in ‘apple’
Getting used to reading words without diacritics can be a bit tricky at first, so most books for people learning Urdu or for children tend to include them. But most other forms of written Urdu, such as street signs and general publications don’t bother with diacritics.
The other thing to bear in mind is that two of the letters which represent vowels can also represent consonants.
و [wao] can also represent a ‘v’ sound or a ‘w’ sound
ی [choti ye] can also represent a ‘y’ sound
A single dot makes a big difference
Dots play an important part in the Urdu alphabet. The placement of a dot can change one letter into a different letter. For example:
حـ [hey], becomes
خـ [khey], with a dot above it, and
جـ [jeem], with a dot below it.
The letter ب [bay], has its basic shape in common with three other letters, with only some dots to differentiate them:
One of the challenges for learners is to memorise the differences between these very similar-looking letters.
Email and website conventions
When saying web or email addresses, the words hyphen, slash,dot and at are all pronounced as in English.