The Urdu Project

A Historical Analysis of Compromises Made to Adapt Language to Technology, and Designs to Adapt Technology to Language

Zeerak Ahmed (MDE ’18)

Project Type
Independent Design Engineering Project

Fall 2017 – Spring 2018

Project Advisors
Neil Brenner
Susan Crawford
Krzysztof Gajos

Keyboards for Urdu conventionally have the same number of keys as a normal QWERTY keyboard. This is nonsensical, because Urdu has more letters than English. Further, the standardized layout promulgated by the Pakistani government maps the Urdu alphabet onto QWERTY phonetically. This builds into the technology the assumption that Urdu computing requires a familiarity with English computing. This is only one in a series of compromises made in the history of computing, typewriting, and printing in Urdu, other languages in the Arabic script, and non-Latin languages more broadly. The result is an inescapable belief in Pakistan today that English is the language of computing, implying that Urdu will never be sufficient for computing. Of course, the reality is that current computing is not sufficient for Urdu.

This project challenges not just technological designs, but social conceptions of localized technology, with an outreach initiative to test and provide language models for the keyboard, promoting not just better language technology, but rethought ownership of technology that reflects and promotes a renewed cultural, social, and historical awareness in our practice.

The Keyboard

-A smartphone keyboard that is designed to respect the complexities of the Urdu language-

The متنساز (matnsāz) keyboard is a rethink of how Urdu should be represented digitally. It takes ideas old and new, situates them in the historical development of Urdu and of the technological landscape, to reimagine what a digital representation of the language may be without compromises.