LINGUISTIC prescriptivism or purism means to perceive or recognise a variety of a language as superior to the other varieties of the same language.

In other words, a language purist tries to ‘prescribe’ how to use a language, with his or her favourite variety as the only standard, for example, Urdu as spoken in Lucknow or Delhi or any other specific region. On the other hand, descriptivism favours looking at a language as it ‘is’ being used rather than how it ‘should’ be used.

As is the common knowledge, all languages change and change a lot with time. But a purist looks at the linguistic change as deterioration, while descriptive school of thought says change does not necessarily mean decay and that insisting on a peculiar style or variety of a language restricts the language.

The modern linguistic science favours descriptivism, but the desire to ‘preserve’ a language or keep it ‘pure’ is not new and many European languages were studied from a prescriptive point of view, especially in the 18th century, writes David Crystal in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language.

In Urdu, too, there has been a massive linguistic movement to reform and purify the language. But Imam Bakhsh Naasikh, a renowned poet from Lucknow, and some others, took the linguistic reforms to a new height. They are known for their zeal to ‘purge’ Urdu of certain words and expressions, replacing rustic and local (read: Urdu or Hindi) words and compounds with Arabic and Persian ones.

Lucknow, known for its sophistication and delicacy in tastes, took pride in using literary and ornate Urdu, insisting on the form of the language as spoken and favoured in Lucknow. An aspect of Lucknow variety of Urdu was a desire to be different from Delhi. Declaring Delhi’s idiom or usage as “obsolete” or “forsaken” partly reflected that desire, too. Noor-ul-Lughaat, the four-volume Urdu-Urdu dictionary written in Lucknow, is a point in case. Its compiler Noor-ul-Hasan Nayyar in his preface in the first volume (first published in 1924) gave a long list of words and expressions that he said were “obsolete” or “archaic” and must be “given up”. The list included many words used in Delhi and elsewhere quite widely. Noor-ul-Lughaat was criticised for its overzealousness to give up certain words as well as for its many errors.

Oudh Punch, an Urdu humour weekly published from Lucknow, made fun of Noor-ul-Lughaat for its “inaccuracies”. Asar Lakhnavi, a scholar and poet from Lucknow, too, criticised Noor-ul-Lughaat. Asar’s work was more serious and he not only opposed giving up the use of many words, contrary to what Nayyar had suggested, but also pointed out a large number of entries that must have been part of Noor-ul-Lughaat but were left out. Another important job meticulously done by Asar was to point out the classifying tags, such as women’s parlance or colloquial usage. This is known as ‘label’ and ‘register’ in modern lexicography and applied to mention the restrictive or specific connotations. Asar had also corrected the “errors” or “shortcomings” in Jalal Lakhnavi’s Sarmaya-i-Zaban-i-Urdu, another Urdu-Urdu dictionary. Asar’s work criticising these dictionaries, first serialised in a magazine, became a dictionary in itself and was published in two parts as Farhang-i-Asar in 1961 from Lucknow. These parts were later reprinted by National Language Authority, Islamabad, with due permission from the legal heirs.

Though Asar Lakhnavi, too, can be criticised for emphasising too much on Urdu usage favoured in Lucknow, still his monumental effort is a fine example for lexicographers and linguists who want to compile or evaluate a dictionary.

Asar Lakhnavi was a poet, critic, lexicographer, scholar, translator, a connoisseur of words and an epitome of Lucknow’s cultural and linguistic sophistication. A very important aspect of Asar’s work and his personality was his keen sense of correct and standard Urdu language. Not only in his critical and poetic works did he take care of usage but in everyday life too he was ever so careful as to correct the common errors in spoken and written Urdu made by his peers and juniors. But, as put by his some critics, his way of correcting errors

was very polite and sophisticated. This softness and a subtly effective manner are evident in Farhang-i-Asar too.

In criticism, Asar stressed aesthetical and cultural values as well as linguistic accuracy. He was well-versed with the modern critical theories, though not fully agreeing with some aspects of Marxist criticism. This critical stance inevitably brought some skirmishes with some renowned contemporaries that included Majnoon Gorakhpuri, Niza Fatehpuri, Josh Maleehabadi and some others.

Nawab Mirza Jafer Ali Khan Asar Lakhnavi was born in Lucknow into a noble family on July 12, 1885. He did his BA in 1906 and was made deputy collector in 1909. According to Malik Ram, Asar also served as minister for revenue and later on as prime minister in the State of Kashmir for quite some time. His other books include

Chhaan Been, Mir Anees Ki Marsiya Nigari, Mutal’a-i-Ghalib, Asaristan, Baharan, Aroos-i-Fitrat and Naghma-i-Javed.

Asar Lakhnavi died in Lucknow on June 6, 1967.

Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2019