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Loss of a script?

December 10, 2012

SURFING the Internet recently, I caught the following joke doing the rounds. It’s in Punjabi, so the translation here is mine:

“The difficulties of being Pakistani: 1) Speak Punjabi in the home; 2) Speak Urdu in school; 3) Answer exam papers in British English; 4) Speak American English in office; and 5) After death, present your account in Arabic. So consider, what can a person do but fail!”

One way of looking at it is that we’re quite a polyglot country. Most people speak at least two languages, the one they were born to and the national language Urdu. The language of officialdom and of conducting business, though, is English, so many are to varying extents conversant with that too. Apart from the four main provincial languages, there are many regional languages and dialects.

The other way of looking at it — like the joke above — is along the lines of jack of all trades, master of none. We do, after all, have a national anthem in Persian which every school kid can sing but not understand, and every Muslim child who can read can also generally read — but not understand — Arabic.

That in many sections of society, people give preference to English is undeniable. I recently learned that at many of the country’s top-level schools, while children in pre-school (under six years) are by routine taught their ABCs, the issue of alif, bey, pey is not taken up till later, when Urdu becomes a defined ‘subject’ in the curriculum. These are all English-medium schools, so obviously speaking this language is encouraged, Urdu even downgraded down to a one-hour-a-day exercise.

Automatically, then, even at the age of three or four, Urdu has been relegated to a second language. As the author Mohammed Hanif put it in an article entitled ‘Twist of the Mother Tongue’: “… most people who write in English cannot pick up a newspaper in their local language to find out what yesterday’s riot was about. It’s not their fault. They went to good schools, sometimes schools so good that the main purpose of their education was to ensure their talents remained unpolluted by local languages and cultures. […]”

But for several years now, there has been a new phenomenon. When a teacher friend told his college-level class in Karachi that they could write their exams in either Urdu or English, 80 per cent asked if they could write in ‘Roman Urdu’, i.e. using the Roman alphabet to write in Urdu. That, they said, was what they were most comfortable in. When the teacher probed, most said that they’d become used to thinking in Urdu and writing it in the Roman alphabet because of SMS texting, Facebook and email.

I too conducted a straw survey a few years ago at an upper-class private university in Lahore. Of the 200 or so students that I asked, everyone could read and write English, everyone could speak Urdu and read/write it in Roman, but only a handful could read the headlines of an Urdu paper.

We aren’t losing Urdu — notwithstanding the lament that goes up from time to time about a slowdown in quality literature in the language, the Urdu Conference convened in Karachi last week was packed solid with attendees. But could it be that for a certain class and generation, the use of the script is falling into disuse?

After all, the computer age has meant that writing by hand is any case becoming a dying art form, used mainly for writing lists and cutting receipts.

People won’t not learn to write, of course, but they will become and are becoming increasingly used to typing for writing in any appreciable quantity. And people do spend many minutes and hours using mediums that may not have readily available Urdu-character options.

But Urdu options are available, and we need to use them more. There are numerous Urdu portals and apps; you can have Facebook in Urdu, and Twitter also introduced the site in Arabic, Hebrew, Farsi and Urdu in March.

We need, in fact, to clean up our languages and scripts, use the correct one without all the deplorable mixing. That just feeds into the lazy thinking that is already part of the problem in Pakistan.

As a single block, the place where you see this problem the most in Pakistan is in the advertising industry, where English and Urdu are routinely mixed together — to the benefit of neither — and ‘Roman Urdu’ has become common, no doubt to be able to get the message across to cash-wielding youngsters from the sort of school Hanif wrote about.

But — and since it’s the advertising industry I’m talking to, I know this is an exercise in futility — the practice is dumbing Pakistanis down. Elsewhere in the world, minds are at work protecting languages and scripts; Twitter said in its blog: “Right-to-left languages posed a unique technical challenge, particularly with Tweets containing both right-to-left and left-to-right content. To solve this, our engineering team built a new set of special tools to ensure these Tweets, hashtags and numbers all look and behave correctly.”

We should be doing the same.

Tailpiece: Hanif continues: “When I was growing up in Pakistan, the complete inability to read or write in your mother tongue was a prerequisite for upward mobility. Pakistan’s founding father — the self-made aristocrat Mohammad Ali Jinnah — could barely string a sentence together in Urdu, a language that he imposed on Pakistan as its national language with tragic consequences.

“The most influential Pakistani politician of our times, the late Benazir Bhutto, spoke no Urdu when she started her career but later delighted her followers by endlessly and recklessly improvising in that language. For a long time, to rule Pakistan it was almost necessary not to be able to speak any of its languages. Or to speak them like a well-meaning foreigner. […]”

The writer is a member of staff.