ELENA Bashir in her article ‘Urdu and linguistics: a fraught but evolving relationship’, published in Wisconsin University’s journal Annual of Urdu Studies, rightly pointed out that despite early linguistic research in Urdu carried out by scholars, such as Mohiuddin Qadri Zor in early 1930s, the disconnect between Urdu and linguistic sciences remained very much in place.

Though she sounded a bit hopeful that scholars were beginning to recognise lack of linguistic scholarship in Pakistan, the fact is very little genuine and original research is being carried out in the country on linguistics even today, a decade after Bashir expressed her optimism. One of the reasons for this lukewarm response to the scholars cheering for linguistic research is that Urdu’s academia is deeply biased in favour of literature and looks down upon linguistics.

It is a fact that Urdu is widely perceived as merely a language of literature, especially poetry. Some 35 years ago, Shanul Haq Haqee, while lamenting disconnect between Urdu and sciences despite a long history of scientific material published in Urdu, sorrowfully wrote that “these days Urdu has been rendered useful for culture and literature. With the passage of time, its future would become more endangered and, may God forbid, a dynamic and vibrant language might become a forgotten tale”. By cultural and literary use, he perhaps meant the ubiquitous Hindi (read: Urdu) movies and Urdu mushairas.

Another twist in the tale is a growing estrangement from general public in India and many perceive Urdu as a language too poetic or sweet-sounding to be used in everyday life. Some make fun of pretentious and ornamental expressions used by those who speak Urdu and Indian movies mockingly portray such characters, usually a paan-chewing poet of Urdu talking in an ostentatious parlance, as Bashir has mentioned in her article. The irony is Urdu was born in India, flourished there and even non-Muslims very much owned it, that is, until the Partition in 1947.

It would be out of place to narrate here the long history of scientific works published in Urdu so we steer clear of it, at least for now, but another reason for lack of linguistic research in Urdu is that many academics misunderstand what linguistics is and even some who teach at our universities believe that linguistics is concerned with just orthography, correct usage and etymology.

They feel linguistics is at the most concerned with how and where Urdu was born, oblivious of the fact that tracing the history of a language is just a part of historical linguistics and descriptive linguistics is what makes a very important component of this branch of knowledge often dubbed ‘science of language’. As lamented by Shamsur Rahman Farooqi, scholars of Urdu have been morbidly obsessed with the correct usage and have ignored most of the other aspects of language.

It is a fact that most of our government-run universities do not have a separate department of linguistics. As often is the case, departments teaching languages, such as Urdu and English, are entrusted with the responsibilities of teaching linguistics as well. Their English departments usually teach courses in the name of linguistics that may help prepare students to teach ESL (English as a second language) and a lucrative job market has always existed in Pakistan to absorb all those students.

As for Urdu, alas! This writer once came across a professor and head of department of Urdu at a government university who used to scoff at and ridicule those who dared utter the word ‘linguistics’ in his presence. He would always stress teaching criticism instead, not knowing that much of modern criticism was based on linguistics.

Despite all this one has reasons to still be optimistic as some senior scholars and linguists like Dr Tariq Rahman and Dr Sarmad Husain have been contributing immensely towards linguistics and Urdu linguistics. It is heartening to note that in addition to seniors, some younger scholars and pedagogues are taking a keen interest in the field and keep on writing research papers on the topic. Just published by Oxford University Press is a book in Urdu penned jointly by four young linguists: Muhammad Shiraz Dasti, Muhammad No’man, Bibi Ameena and Liaqat Iqbal.

Titled Lisaniyaat: Aik jam’e Ta’aruf (Linguistics: a comprehensive Introduction) has some fresh ideas rarely discussed, if ever, in Urdu, as well as the usual basic concepts that must be taught to the students of linguistics. Some of the topics covered include: applied linguistics, psycholinguistics, discourse analysis, corpus linguistics, computational linguistics, forensic linguistics, clinical linguistics and semiotics.

With books like this one, Urdu remains more than just a sweet-sounding poetic language. It serves as a textbook of linguistics for students of graduate and postgraduate studies, something that is badly needed in Urdu.

drraufparekh@yahoo.com

Published in Dawn, October 3rd, 2022

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