On a recent visit to Iran, I was shocked at how little I could understand of spoken Persian. I could read and comprehend fluently but was struck dumb when I had to speak. What is the difference between literary language and spoken language [rozmarrah]? Is there a critical difference between language that is acquired or learned and the native tongue?

The Indian Subcontinent has always been a multilingual space, where literati know more than one language. Yet, when it comes to creative writing in more than one language, the numbers dwindle. There are many examples of South Asian authors who prefer to write in English, an acquired language, instead of their mother tongue. The case of English, one may argue, is unique.

The British colonisers introduced English in the Subcontinent when it became apparent that it was easier to teach English to the colonised subject than for them to learn a bunch of languages. They also made a case for vernaculars or the modern languages instead of the classical in schooling. Translation became an important tool for transfer of knowledge from one language to another.

At Fort William College, translation from Persian to Urdu was carried out to create a body of prose in Urdu. This was necessary because Urdu or Rekhta was primarily a language of poetry. Most of its prose was in Persian. Similarly, to create a “Hindi” language distinct from Urdu, prose had to be crafted with a Sanskritised vocabulary.

In British India, learning English was the path to acquiring government jobs. In other words, English education was the window to the world, while classical education in Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian was regressive.

Here I want to focus on the dynamics between acquired or learned language, as evidenced in the case of Persian in the Subcontinent. Persian as a literary language was introduced soon after the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in Hindustan in the 12th century. It continued to flourish as the language of the state for hundreds of years.

Persian had absorbed Arabic and Turkish vocabulary seamlessly. It now began to acquire Indic vocabulary from the different regions, where it became established as the language of state and the elite. Persian dictionaries and lexicons produced from the 14th century onwards reflected the addition of Indic vocables.

Indian Persian was a part of the Persian cosmopolis. The cosmopolis was broadly the region from Iran through Central Asia, Afghanistan to the Indian Subcontinent, where literary Persian was the dominant language in producing literature. Literary Persian did not distinguish between learned/acquired and spoken/rozmarrah.

Beginning in the late 16th century, the trend for tazah-goi or new style poetry pervaded Persian as it absorbed Indic themes and metaphors along with regionalisms. Poets like Urfi, Faizi, Naziri and Bedil brought freshness to themes and usages. The Sabk-i-Hindi was a school of Indian-style poetry in Persian. There were poets such as Shaukat Bukhari and Mirza Jalal Asir who wrote in the style but had never been outside Iran.

Eventually, the Persian cosmopolis began to shrink with the pressure of national identities associated with language. Persian became synonymous with Iran. Indo-Persian was not deemed as eloquent as Irani Persian. A question or debate began to circulate in the 18th century: are non-native speakers of Persian competent to make changes in usage and vocabulary?

The effects of this question were far reaching. Urdu, as a modern vernacular, had begun replacing Persian as a literary language in Hindustan. Poetry in Urdu proliferated. Ghalib, the great 19th century Urdu and Persian poet grappled with the question of correct usage and language purity.

Ghalib took great interest in early Persian, that is Persian devoid of Arabic loanwords and the Dasatiri, not realising that the latter was a made-up language. Ghalib had a vast oeuvre in Persian prose and poetry. He wanted to be seen as the greatest authority on Persian in Hindustan and be recognised in the literary Persian sphere.

He had experienced somewhat unpleasant criticism of his Persian in Calcutta (1828), when he had participated in Persian mushairas. He had responded with a poignant masnavi, Baad-i-Mukhalif [Contrary Winds], wherein he pointed out that he was following the great masters, such as Saadi, in his grammatical constructions. Ghalib became critical of Indian poets writing in Persian, so much so that he distanced himself from Bedil, his biggest idol in poetry’s realm.

More interesting is how he contested entries in the 16th century dictionary, Burhan-i-Qate [Cutting Argument]. The Burhan was a highly regarded Persian dictionary, produced in Hyderabad by Muhammad Husain Tabrizi. Burhan was his pen name. He is believed to have completed his studies in Tabriz, after which he returned to his native Hyderabad. It is likely that Mulla Burhan added the nisbat Tabrizi to his name to show his Irani credentials.

The Burhan-i-Qate’s popularity was due to the alphabetical arrangement followed by Tabrizi, as well as the effort to include lexis from many reputed dictionaries, such as the Farhang-i-Jahangiri. The Burhan contains a slew of words from Iranian dialects, as well as Arabic, Turkish, Syriac, Greek, Latin and Indian words. For the first time in any dictionary, the spurious Dasatiri is extensively quoted.

Ghalib produced Qate-i-Burhan [Cutter of the Argument], wherein he severely critiqued Tabrizi for his mistakes. Although Ghalib was no lexicographer himself, he took pride in his knowledge of Persian usages. He also criticised Tabrizi for being a Dakhni [from the Deccan] and not an Irani from Tabriz. Ghalib went to great lengths to prove his superiority in both Persian language and literature. He claimed to have had a tutor from Iran, the putative Abdus Samad, who coached him in the language for two years.

My point in this essay is to open the question of authority and authenticity in language use. As the percipient linguist-lexicographer-poet Sirajuddin Ali Khan Arzu had asked: where does poetic authority come from? Are ahl-i-zabaan [native speakers] the only authoritative ahl-i- muhavirah [knowers of idioms]?

Fortunately for us in the globalised world, rules for language authority have loosened. Languages are capacious. Regionalisms add spice to the language.

The columnist is professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia in the US. X: @FarooqiMehr

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 31st, 2024

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