The death of Urdu, the new illiterate

Published May 21, 2015
The lack of interest in Urdu's preservation is disturbing. —Shameen Khan/
The lack of interest in Urdu's preservation is disturbing. —Shameen Khan/

Back in my screenwriting days at Burka Avenger (when it hadn’t yet gone public), we used to have these long-winded meetings where we would discuss the plot, individual scenes, gags, dialogues – basically the whole episode.

These meetings comprised entirely of people with a severe Urdu handicap ... writing a show in Urdu.

Someone would suggest dialogue that made perfect sense, and had all the intended effect in English. However, being that it was an Urdu show, we were hard pressed to translate it with the same sentiment.

We were so alienated from Urdu that nobody in the entire group knew the right sound that the letter ق makes. A case of 'blind leading the blind' it was.

Invariably, someone would get frustrated and burst out along these lines: “Urdu is such a limited language” (this said in English of course), purely because they did not have an inkling of how Urdu worked. I have seen people get into a fit of laughter because someone used a common Urdu idiom; it was like meeting entitled tourists.

Needless to say, the language is in a crisis. Specifically, it is the lack of interest in its preservation which is disturbing.

Also read: BBC broadcaster laments decline of Urdu

The anecdote of the Burka Avenger team above has similar manifestations everywhere in the entertainment industry. People mask their inexperience by butchering the language however they see fit; they don't do this deliberately, it is just that they don’t know any better.

We see a copious blending of Urdu and English with phrases like “shaandaar offer”, “aur haasil kijiye amazing discounts”, “fun ko on karo” or my personal favourite, “raho connected everyday”. We once had gold like PIA’s “Great People to Fly With” – that managed quite well without alienating anyone.

A handful of people admit their flaws and skip Urdu altogether, ala Waar. Others enforce a now defunct pattern of conversation into modern television without fully understanding the intricacies of terms.

This ignorance has bled into our daily lives, such as hoardings featuring simple words like Pahiya (wheel); Gaari (car); Safaai (cleaning/cleanliness); Dukaan (shop); Dastavaiz (documents); Tasdeeq (attestation); replaced with their English counterparts, still written in Urdu.

All that because apparently, being able to read Urdu isn’t proof enough that they can handle the actual words expressed in it. Imagine reading Dickens, written phonetically in Urdu. It sounds like a setup to a joke, but, that is actually what's happening in our every day lives.

Take a look: A composite education

I am part of a generation that actively helped blur the distinction between Urdu and English in Pakistan.

We are the ones who started sneaking in an English noun or two despite the presence of perfectly serviceable Urdu words. We went from skipping some words, to fading them out out, all the way to practically revolting against the language.

Will we eventually maim and mutilate it and leave it out to die on the streets?

I have had numerous, oft heated debates on the politics behind the language. Some claim it held us back, that it was enforced on the population, etc. We cannot entertain those as valid arguments for one simple reason: Regardless of what was accomplished in the name of language, the language itself has nothing to do with politics.

Explore: Tongue-tied: The politics of language

Language exists to help communicate. It is not designed to be hurtful. If negative connotations were truly intrinsic to languages, then the world would have discontinued speaking Spanish after the Inquisitions; German after their slight kerfuffle; in fact, let’s even ban French while we’re at it – they’ve seen their fair share of bloodshed.

People who put the language down have simply not studied it. I don’t mean they have to be Urdu Lit. majors, but they should at least have some awareness of it! People who aren’t aware of the works of Yusufi, Insha, or at the very least have not gone over Zia Mohiuddin’s readings, should not get a say on what happens to the language.

There are those who have developed an affinity towards Saadat Hussain Manto of late, but you can tell that it is because of the subject matter more than his literary style. In my opinion, his style of writing was not groundbreaking by any standard.

As you can see, the language is poorly managed, this is what keeps new words from being created in it. Or why we don’t have modern epics (Daastaangoi) coming out these days. And, most unfortuantely, how the masses have mixed feelings about the language.

Take a look: Why national language lacks functional development?

The language itself is difficult to wrap one’s head around, but that should have been the case only if we had not been introduced to it from the very beginning. Any objections to difficulty fall squarely on our shoulders. If Chinese kids can be bilingual with complicated languages like Cantonese, as well as Mandarin, then, we really have no reason to complain.

Try this experiment: speak for five minutes without using a single English word. Just give it a whirl and see where you land. My best was two minutes. If you do succeed, try thinking entirely in Urdu and see how far you are able to go.

As a consequence of all the lack of effort towards helping it grow, Urdu's progress has stagnated. Now we are at the mercy of whoever decides to write whatever they like in the language and subject the public to read it.

We are coming dangerously close to “illiteracy” in our own national language. But apart from lamenting its decline, there is, perhaps, nothing much we can do with educational authorities like ours.

Best to move on then, for as a scholar once said, “Milk agar spill ho jaye toh crying karnay se kuch gain nahi hota”.




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