Urdu has suffered from a serious lack of reliable online resources. Finding synonyms has never been an easy task. But the time is over and it is good news for all those who often felt lost to find suitable Urdu words. Musharraf Ali Farooqi, an acclaimed novelist and translator adds another feather to his cap by making an online Urdu thesaurus (UrduThesaurus.com) as well as a free Android app for mobile phones. He launched Urdu Thesaurus through his publishing house Kitab. It is the world’s first service of its type. There are more than 40,000 words and over 20,000 sets of synonyms which are all searchable through the built-in search bar. The Urdu Thesaurus has attracted the attention of people all over the world and according to Mr Farooqi it is being used in 74 countries. In an exclusive interview with Weekend he talked about the significance of Urdu Thesaurus and the challenges he faced in pursuing this venture.

Faizan Hussain: What persuaded you to make an online Urdu Thesaurus?

Musharraf Ali Farooqi: The online Urdu Thesaurus and the free mobile app were developed because these resources did not exist, and were needed.

Before paper became widely available, people relied on their memories to hold great stores of information. That was very portable. Everything could be recalled in an instant if it was already stored in your head.

The invention of paper made the transportation of knowledge unwieldy because of the sheer weight of bound books. A comprehensive dictionary of the Urdu language could easily run into twenty fat volumes. How does one carry it around? How does one put all of the volumes on a desk, or even on the floor?

Now we are again returning to the time of large, portable collections of knowledge; except, instead of our heads, we store them on small phone-computers, that we carry in our pockets. This first ever online Urdu Thesaurus grew from the need and my personal desire to make such a resource, so that it could make life easier for readers and writers of Urdu. Because I also do translations I know the importance of a portable Urdu Thesaurus to anyone translating from another language into Urdu.

FH: Did you have help in this arduous task?

MAF: The compilation and editing was done by me, and with my resources that paid for data-entry and proofreading. The database and app were developed with volunteer help and supervision of our technology advisor Awais Athar.

FH: Were you familiar with the principles of lexicography, or did you study them for this project?

MAF: I have the basic knowledge and have some ideas of my own about how data should be organized for electronic databases to facilitate complex searches. Some of the data included in the Urdu Thesaurus was already organized in the sources from where it was compiled. But about ninety per cent of the data had to be systematized for the database. As the beta status of the web interface and mobile app shows, it is a work in progress, and a lot more data, and several lexical fields and features, will be added to it in the coming months and years. For that I hope to find enough resources, and hire experts.

FH: As a lexicographer, do you have to know lots of words?

MAF: Typically dictionaries are derived from earlier available sources. So most work today is of a compilation nature. You do not have to know all the words but must have a fair understanding of the multiple senses in which a word could be used. This knowledge either comes from extensive reading of the poetic works, texts from different disciplines, or poring over dictionaries.

FH: What were the key challenges that you faced during the five years that you worked on the Urdu Thesaurus?

MAF: Financial resources were the challenge then and still remain. I have a clear idea of the work that needs to be done on developing this language resource in the coming months and years. Some friends and supporters of the Urdu Thesaurus are making an effort to raise the funds and I hope more people will come forward to offer help.

FH: What are some of the major sources you used in making the Urdu Thesaurus?

MAF: Nine dictionaries were used in compiling the data for the online Urdu Thesaurus. The complete list of sources will be released when the beta version converts to a full version.

FH: What was the response from countries other than Pakistan?

MAF: The Urdu Thesaurus is currently being used in 74 countries. So there are 73 countries besides Pakistan where a significant number of Urdu readers and writers are using it. After Pakistan the six largest number of users are from the US, UK, India, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Canada.

FH: In one of your interviews you mentioned the ‘natural death’ of words. Could you elaborate on it?

MAF: What I meant was that a lot of our language has become invisible to us because our prose classics are not known to us, and their language is becoming more distant and unfamiliar. We are not reading our classical poets either. Our education system is not helping us develop good language skills. So if our vocabulary is limited to the daily newspaper or the noise coming out of the TV, it is not our language that is dying, but our brains.

FH: Did you get any support or positive response at the government level after the launch of the Urdu Thesaurus?

MAF: No.

FH: Will you also publish the Urdu Thesaurus at some stage?

MAF: I have considered the possibility, and at some stage we may carry out the planned publication after the data has been fully organized.

FH: What is next in pipeline?

MAF: A dictionary of antonyms. Also a fully integrated dictionary so that it is not just the synonyms or antonyms you see but the meaning as well. Later, dictionaries of idioms, proverbs and phrases will also be integrated into this resource.

I am also going to launch a school programme to introduce children to the Urdu Thesaurus.  The sooner they learn to use it, the more comfortable they will become with the Urdu language and accessing it.

I do not strictly see the Urdu Thesaurus as a simple reference source. I have some ideas about how linguistic resources like dictionaries and thesauruses could be linked to texts to make them popular again. There are also many possibilities of textual analysis and research. But before all that I must first complete the Urdu Thesaurus and Dictionary. The work continues.

Rapid Fire

What is your hobby other than reading and writing: Collecting books, playing with my cat and cooking.

Your favourite thing about being a writer: When children like a story and show their admiration, it is very gratifying.

What’s a must at your study table: Because the internet service is crap, my cell phone which I now use as a wifi-hotspot.

The advantage of being a lexicographer: People mistake me for a learned person.

One quality that a lexicographer should have: Perseverance. And not just for lexicographers.

A tip to increase Urdu vocabulary: Memorise poetry. You will not have difficulty understanding words when you realise the sense in which they have been used.