Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in May-Jun 2014

Ki or key? Hai or hay?

The confusion that is Roman Urdu.

(The article was first published in May-June 2014 edition of Aurora.)

Urdu is the national language of Pakistan, yet only about a quarter of the population consider it to be their mother tongue, despite the fact that Urdu’s reach stretches from the lowlands of the Makran coast to the heights of the Skardu plains.

Urdu is also a language that advertisers do not seem to value much. You may be curious as to why I say this. My reasoning is based on the observation that a large part of the communication aimed at consumers in Pakistan is not done in Urdu, but in either English or Roman Urdu. Think of the taglines we are exposed to and the language in which they are most often expressed. It’s definitely not Urdu.

A reason for the predominance of Roman Urdu can be traced to the fact that the Perso-Arabic script used to write Urdu requires both Urdu typing software as well as people who are skilled in using this software. Furthermore, brands may prefer to communicate their taglines in Roman Urdu because they believe (erroneously) that Urdu fonts do not lend much to readability and clarity. Another reason for the reluctance to use Urdu may be attributed to a desire by a brand to not appear too desi.

Unlike Indian brands which have embraced in their communication not only their country’s culture, but the less privileged segments of their society as well, Pakistani brands on the whole shy away from depicting the less privileged segments, justifying the visual narrative and tonality of their advertising as being aspirational – thus depicting the middle classes even when, for many brands, the only area of consistent growth is in the rural areas. The worry is that a tagline in Urdu would risk alienating the middle or niche upper class consumers.

Are brand managers and agencies wrong to opt for Roman Urdu? It is undeniably true that Roman Urdu is an easier vehicle of communication compared to Urdu that is written in Nastaliq script. I am sure you have noticed how Bollywood and our own Lollywood always show the name of the film in Roman Urdu after it appears in Urdu or Hindi, thereby ensuring that people who are not able to read either Devanâgarî or Perso-Arabic will be able to understand what the name of the movie is. Also in most films the dialogue tends to be in Hindustani and not Hindi.

The history of the rise of Roman Urdu is interesting; no doubt the language is an abomination to purists who favour the original Perso-Arabic script. The language has spread mostly through the development of modern technology and the lack of Urdu script software.

In fact, there is a school of thought that views Hindustani (Roman Urdu is one of its derivatives) as a bridge between not only Urdu and Hindi but between India and Pakistan, and judging by the information given on, an initiative of the Azaad Media Foundation, and dedicated to this lingua franca (Hindustani), this is the language that unites all of South Asia.

On the flip side, India with its jingoistic attitude has deliberately made an effort to replace Hindustani with Sanskrit or as near a language to Sanskrit. This is why in Indian dramas and stage shows, and even in some films, the dialogue is not easy for Pakistanis to understand.

The history of the rise of Roman Urdu is interesting; no doubt the language is an abomination to purists who favour the original Perso-Arabic script. The language has spread mostly through the development of modern technology and the lack of Urdu script software. Every day, from the quantum of spam and useful SMS we receive, how many are in Roman Urdu compared to Urdu or English? The majority of our daily written communication on mobile and computers is in Roman Urdu. Even on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, people do not talk in English or Urdu; they use Roman Urdu.

Speaking of Facebook, more than a few friends have asked me not to comment or reply in Roman Urdu because, apparently, my inefficient grasp of the language’s grammar is painful for them. I, on the other hand, have an issue with the way brands are using Roman Urdu; they seem to be applying their own spelling and logic to formulate their taglines and communication.

Take for the example the word ki which means ‘of’ or ‘belonging to’. This word can be written as ki, or kee or even key. Another common example is the ubiquitous hai. This word has been written as hey, hai or hay. It is my guess that this random creation of ‘new’ words and phrases is leading to some confusion in the minds of consumers. If brands have opted for Roman Urdu as the language they choose to communicate in, the next step is for them to adhere to a common spelling for the words they use.

This is not as hard as it seems. Both the film and music industries use standardised spellings. Think about the song titles written on the back of cassettes and CD covers. (Or for that matter, the telecom companies – they have managed to use a common spelling in their Roman Urdu text communication with their subscribers). There is also a standardised dictionary for Roman Urdu which can be accessed on the internet. Yet the people involved in marketing either are unaware of the vibrant and active use of standardised Roman Urdu, or are oblivious to the existence of this problem.

Why does this matter? Because brands are in the business of communication and confused or unclear communication results in wasting time, money and resources. In a landscape where ad overkill is the norm and clutter an important factor that every brand must face – brands really do not want to waste the few seconds of attention they receive. Whether it is the last slide of a TVC or the tagline on a billboard, people will not spend time trying to figure out what the message is. They will simply move on and give their attention to something else.

Tyrone Tellis is a marketing professional working in Pakistan.