This is with reference to the article ‘Overturning dominant cultures’ (Feb 21) which has put the process of overturning the dominant culture in a nutshell and has recognised English as its most important symbol. For, a language is not a mere medium of communication, but always also contains a particular perspective on the world. However, every language has its own concepts that allow different perspectives on the world.
The article has described the process of establishing English and its related dominant culture through colonialism and European and American dominance in the world as an inevitable medium. To this point, most will agree. Ironically, the article has quoted Akbar Allahabadi and has emphasised that he was the first one to introduce English words in Urdu poetry:
[Forget about studying your own literature or even history; Break your relations with the Shaikh and the mosque, go to school]
It seems to have missed entirely the satire of these verses. Akbar is not at all flatly arguing to abandon one’s own traditions, literature and culture, but is particularly criticising the development that was already present in late 19th century South Asia.
It would be quixotic to neglect the importance of English in various spheres. But Akbar’s entire poetry vehemently argues against blindly abandoning one’s own literature and history for the sake of a so-called bilinguality.
Urdu is being confined to a few realms, like emotions and religious beliefs, perhaps also literature, but even here we can observe a gradual shift towards English. Can this be called bilinguality and is this a desirable development?
When we take a close look, we also see that this overturning is in fact an illusion. For, what is the intent when people mix English with Urdu? It is among other reasons also an expression of the wish to participate in the dominant discourse. Hence, the dominant role of English is by no means undermined, but rather solidified. As a result, we can observe a tripartite classification of languages in Pakistan, with English at the top, Urdu in the middle and the regional languages at the bottom. While I have discussed the confinement of Urdu to a few spheres, I have not even mentioned the situation of the regional languages.
South Asia has experienced a comparable development of vernacularisation, beginning around the turn to the second millennium, as Sheldon Pollock has argued. Vernacularisation started in the southern parts of South Asia and gradually spread to the North during the following centuries. Before it could cover various spheres apart from literature and religion, colonialism gained strength, replaced the cosmopolitan language of Persian with English and gradually turned the process of vernacularisation back towards a cosmopolitan language, English, that increasingly took hold of more and more spheres.
Taking this into account, can we really call the enrichment of English with new ideas and concepts for the sake of confining Urdu to a few spheres an overturning of a dominant culture or is this not rather a further step towards the solidification of English as a cosmopolitan language?
Lecturer for Urdu
South Asia Institute Heidelberg University
Published in Dawn, February 28th, 2021