That we make mistakes is true not just for the acquired languages we use — English and Persian, for instance — but also for when we converse in our native tongues such as Pashto, Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi and others. We are lucky if we find a mentor who can correct our pronunciation or grammar, construction of sentences and use of idioms.

Being corrected by those who know the language seems to be a dying tradition, though. I am reminded of Jaun Elia’s verse: “Ab mujhay koi tokta bhi nahin/ Yehi hota hai khaandaan mein kya?” [Ah! No one corrects me when I am wrong/ Is that the way a family should behave?].

When it comes to writing, all writers need an editor or multiple reviewers of their work before it sees the press. Those who don’t do that can easily be identified by the quality of both their text and the proof.

At the same time, those of us not conservative in matters of language welcome the addition of new words and diversity of dialects in our languages. As a spoken language, as well as in the literature produced in it in recent years, Urdu has benefitted significantly by absorbing words and phrases from English and other Pakistani and Indian languages.

English itself embraces words from so many other languages spoken all over the world, with scores of new words added to its standard dictionaries every year. We also understand that a language — if it is to grow and survive — evolves with continuously changing patterns of human experience over the ages.

There is a natural progression in day-to-day language and rule breakers emerge from time to time to give a new flavour to the old language and enrich its contemporary use. However, one has to know the rule to break it. In order to expand the frontiers, one must know the territory that the existing frontiers hold.

To give an example from our classical literature, the 18th and 19th century Urdu prose of Mirza Rajab Ali Baig Suroor in Fasaana-i-Ajaaib [The Story of Strange Things] can now only be enjoyed by connoisseurs of classical prose, who are still able to appreciate the highly formal and Persianised register of the Urdu language.

Today, someone may try mimicking that kind of prose for the sake of indulgence, but that language is neither understood nor spoken. Interestingly, Suroor’s contemporary Mir Amman’s translation of the Persian epic Qissa Chahar Dervish [The Tale of the Four Dervishes] in Urdu, titled Baagh-o-Bahaar [The Garden and the Spring], can still be accessed and enjoyed by readers today.

Legend goes that the epic was written by the true polymath of all times, Amir Khusro, to please his spiritual saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, when the latter had fallen ill. Some other texts suggest that some tales in the Qissa were written after Khusro’s period.

Likewise in poetry, we thoroughly enjoy Wali Deccani’s 17th century ghazals, but not even the ace poet Makhdoom Mohiuddin — who hailed from the same Deccan, albeit in the 20th century — seldom used that language and style. To write a ghazal or two in Wali’s style by some of our poets now is more the paying of a tribute to a major poet who was our predecessor.

To give another example, there is a clear difference in the vocabulary and use of the Sindhi language between the 17th/ 18th century classical poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai and the 20th century master poet Sheikh Ayaz.

Evolution and transition in languages is a natural process, impacting their different registers as well. As the National Geographic website notes in its resource collection on language evolution: “Although languages are defined by rules, they are by no means static, and evolve over time. Some languages are incredibly old and have changed very little over time, such as modern Icelandic, which strongly resembles its parent, Old Norse.

“Other languages evolve rapidly by incorporating elements of other languages. Still other languages die out [because of] political oppression or social assimilation, though many dying languages live on in the vocabularies and dialects of prominent languages around the world.”

American linguist Noam Chomsky confirms that “Each language is a way of understanding and interpreting the world.” Meaning that, since the world continues to change — and so does the human condition — language will continue to change. Allama Muhammad Iqbal has said: “Sukoon muhaal hai qudrat ke kaarkhaney mein/ Sabaat aik taghayyur ko hai zamaanay mein” [Tranquillity is an impossibility in the mill of nature/ It is only the change that prevails].

This brings me to the final point. While accepting that all languages change — especially those whose native speakers are majorly outnumbered by the total number of users, as in the case of English or Urdu — there remains an importance of standard and detail in using any language for reading or writing, from Burushaski to Gujarati, to Punjabi to Brahui.

There are things which happen through a natural process. But then there is correct usage, embedded idioms and acceptable pronunciation, which are now consistently messed with on the basis of ignorance while not knowing the rule and flouting it without a purpose.

Italian fiction writer Italo Calvino had said that, in both art and literature, the function of the frame is fundamental. The maintaining of a standard, as it is accepted in our times, and the attention to detail where words are used correctly to convey a certain meaning, form the frame in all genres and means of communication.

There is no reason to turn ‘Amar Ayyar’ into ‘Umro Ayyar’ because there is a silent letter in Arabic at the end, or for changing the gender of the word awaam [people], a collective noun, to female. In any case, the language of ‘tickers’ running on news channels gives us a lot of grief.

The columnist is a poet and essayist. He has recently edited Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into Society, Culture, Identity and Diaspora.

His latest collection of verse is Hairaan Sar-i-Bazaar

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 9th, 2023

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