It is known that the Urdu script is used to write Hindustani languages and Shahmukhi is used to write Punjabi and Saraiki languages.

But both the Perso-Arabic-based scripts are of the same Nastaliq style, the only minor difference being that Shahmukhi has additional 2 consonants that is not present in modern Urdu. (and Saraiki introduces 4 implosive consonants, 3 of which directly borrowed from Sindhi)

That being the case, what is the (historical?) reason for the apparent perception that both are different scripts? Is there any other significant difference apart from what is mentioned above?

Is there a common name for the script that encapsulates Urdu+Punjabi+Saraiki?

3 Answers 3


The existing responses do not really answer your question, so I will try. Urdu orthography does constitute a different script than "standard" Arabic script as it includes a number of adaptations which are not legible to Arabic readers. This is an Arabic letter ة and this is an Urdu letter ۃ. The latter is used in Arabic to Urdu loans, but is not the same, as we can see when we connect them to another letter like لة or لۃ.‎

For context, note that most Punjabi speakers do not write Punjabi at all, in any script. In Pakistan, people are instructed in Urdu or English. However, many if not most native Punjabi speakers who learn to write "Urdu" often write Punjabi as well and will still describe it as "writing in Urdu." The term "Shahmukhi" is somewhat remote to this common usage and is more likely to be used when brought up as a distinction against Gurmukhi, or by people who advocate writing in Punjabi explicitly as opposed to Urdu or "Urdu with a Punjabi accent." It would not be wrong to say Shahmukhi is nearly the same thing as Urdu.

Where the distinction between Shahmukhi and Urdu lies is that Shahmukhi is an adaptation of the same alphabet for Punjabi specifically. The name of the writing system is translated literally to "from the Shah's mouth" and is named metaphorically as if it were a spoken language or "tongue" rather than a writing system (it is not called Shahlipi; we can say Shahmukhi Lipi like Latin Lipi as if Shahmukhi were a language). This is fitting because what makes the system different is governed by the grammar and phonetics of the spoken language.

Some examples:

  • گیا is a suffix in "definite" verb endings in Punjabi which is spelled ਗਿਆ in Gurmukhi. This has a short vowel which would normally be omitted in an Arabic-based script, but if we allowed the omission of this vowel in writing it as کِا it would make many words confusing to read as they would be spelled the same as differently pronounced verb forms. Instead ی is used as a short vowel that cannot be removed. Someone only familiar with Urdu would pronounce this as "gee-ya" but a Punjabi speaker would know this is "giya."

  • The shaddah or tashdeed can be used to indicate geminate "long" consonants, but this is rarely done in Urdu and it is convention to omit it from the writing of verb forms. However, in Punjabi, long consonants are the basis for some very important word distinctions, such as اِک and اِکّ not being the word. Many writers would typically write those the same and pronounce those differently by interpreting the context, but there are situations where it makes sense to clarify which would not work the same way in Urdu. Punjabi verbs have forms which have been described as "phases" which come from the initial meaning of the verb which allow for different constructions suited to different contexts. There is a common phonetic tendency in verb phases where the geminate consonant following the first vowel in the "basic" phase of the verb is unstressed in its causative phases. So the verb "to laugh" ہسّ becomes ہسا in its causative phase. In Muhammad Salahuddin's Punjabi Shahmukhi dictionary, you can see the shaddah/tashdeed included on the head words for verb entries where applicable. This is an example of where Urdu writing conventions would be poorly suited for clarifying Punjabi words.

  • ھ do chashme he is used to represent aspirated consonants in Urdu, but in Punjabi this combining letter is often a precursor for a vowel with "low tone" pronunciation. (Whether or not the aspirated consonant is preserved is a function of dialect.)

There are many small details like this. What Shahmukhi describes is mostly in the underlying logic of the Punjabi language rather than the letters used.

  • Thank you, interesting. Did not know these subtle differences. Regarding گِا, is that a grammatically valid spelling? Wouldn't we write it more purely as گِئِآ with an intermediate seated hamza as per the intervocalic voweling rules ? From that perspective, writing it without kasrah as گئا makes it non-ambiguous, and the گیا spelling can entirely be eliminated as wrong.
    – Gōkúl NC
    Sep 6, 2022 at 6:08
  • It would be great if you can also mention what more differences does Panjabi have from Urdu language in its written (Perso-Arabic) form. In general, does it mean that unlike Urdu, it makes more sense to include most/all tashkeel marks when writing Panjabi?
    – Gōkúl NC
    Sep 6, 2022 at 6:12
  • There is no standard spelling for Punjabi in Shahmukhi, but گِا is unlikely to ever be used simply because it would be too easy to confused with گا, which is different grammatically (singular as opposed to plural). The rules for hamzah are different in Urdu and Punjabi than in Arabic. The hamzah would typically follow alef or precede ye / bari ye (occasionally on bari ye, but not on word final choti ye); we would not see it before alef like that. Alef madda is not typically used on word endings either. گیا is simply is what is recognizable as this Punjabi verbal suffix form. Sep 6, 2022 at 16:44
  • Generally, no, somewhat paradoxically despite the tashkeel being used to indicate features which are more important in Punjabi than in Urdu, Persian, or Arabic, you are less likely to see them overall then in all three. I would not be able to tell you why specifically, but as a guess, Punjabi is very much a primarily colloquial language and the script being cursive, it is laborious to go back in and add diacritics if they are not absolutely necessary. There are more formal contexts in which Urdu is printed where it may make more sense by comparison. Sep 6, 2022 at 16:48
  • Here is a query in Salahuddin's Shahmukhi dictionary for nun + shad where you can see some examples of what would be included in a dictionary entry dsal.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/app/… The word چکّ in Punjabi is a prefix in the names of hundreds if not thousands of villages in Pakistan Punjab. You will rarely see the shad spelled though even though it is pronounced, you will typically see چک. That is an example of a common word where it would rarely be deemed necessary to clarify because it is recognizable. Sep 6, 2022 at 16:50

From a global point of view, neither Urdu nor Shahmukhi are considered separate scripts, they are just instances of the Arabic Script. This point of view is taken by international standards such as Unicode. I am not aware of any terminology introducing fine grained levels for subgroups of the Arabic script, but since Saraiki or extended Shahmukhi is a strict superset of the others, it would be a fitting designation.

Compare this with the situation of Icelandic: The alphabet contains some additional letters (among them ð, þ, and æ, plus some letters with diacritical marks), but the Icelandic alphabet is still an instance of the Latin script.


The term "script" is used in many different ways. Unicode defines "script" as

A collection of letters and other written signs used to represent textual information in one or more writing systems. For example, Russian is written with a subset of the Cyrillic script; Ukranian is written with a different subset. The Japanese writing system uses several scripts.

In their epic work on writing, Daniels & Bright 1996 simply say that "script" is the same as "writing system". The Oxford English Dictionary does not even hint that Arabic and Latin might be different "scripts" – they say "A type of writing or handwriting, and related senses" and "Any of various typefaces or fonts which imitate the appearance of handwriting, esp. cursive handwriting; lettering in any of these typefaces", which would make European Latin handwriting different from American Latin handwriting. Websters (online) simply refers one to "alphabet", which is technically wrong because Arabic is not an alphabet, except that they also define an alphabet as

a set of letters or other characters with which one or more languages are written especially if arranged in a customary order

so actually they simply reject the linguist's specialized definition of "alphabet". In other words, it depends on how you define "script".

You can consult this page for the scripts recognized in Unicode (which is not necessary exhaustive). You can see that Shahmukhi is not included, nor is the Kurdish alphabet (not an abjad), instead they are subsumed under greater Arabic, although Unicode does recognize Arabic and Arabic Nasta'liq. Similarly, many languages of the former Soviet Union use a Cyrillic alphabet with letters that are not part of traditional Cyrillic, but have been subsumed under broader Unicode Cyrillic (§7.4) that covers all of the distinctive letter shapes used in Cyrillic Kurdish, Komi.

Accordingly, there is no such thing as Urdu script, Kurdish script or Persian script, there are (currently) just two Arabic scripts. This doesn't correspond to ordinary usage, where speakers of a given language tend to think in terms of the system of writing for their language, and they don't generally seek to find the broadest applicable concept – unless there is a reason to do so (as there can be with Arabic script).

  • 2
    Nasta'liq is not a "script" separate from Arabic; it is a style of handwriting, of which there are several others in Arabic (Kufic, Ruq'a etc.)., in the same way that Latin script can be Roman, Italic, Black letter, etc.
    – fdb
    Aug 13, 2021 at 17:49
  • I take it you reject the Unicode decision.
    – user6726
    Aug 13, 2021 at 18:09
  • Unicode does not have separate code points for Nataliq and Arabic, in that sense they are one writing system. The standard ISO 15924 (a different standard from Unicode!) defines a special script code for Arabic Nataliq that is different from Arabic. Aug 13, 2021 at 19:56
  • BTW, ISO 15924 defines also codes for Fraktur and Gaelic as variants of Latin. This does not give them code points in the standard. The presesence of Fraktur code points for math usage is a different story, and they are frequently used non-mathematically, but there is no Fraktur Sharp S or Fraktur O Umlaut there ... Aug 13, 2021 at 21:04

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