By Anjum Altaf
A native Urdu speaker took a class in Portuguese and earned the following evaluation: “You were among the best students in the class but you speak like a robot.” Was it the student or was it Urdu? It is an intriguing thread to follow. The ensuing speculations, by one with no training in linguistics, are recorded in the hope that something of interest about the language might fall out as a result.
There is little doubt that the delivery of what may be termed King’s Urdu (of which, more later) is flat in terms of stresses, inflections and intonations of speech. If tonal languages like Chinese, which rely on variations in pitch to convey meaning, are at one end of the spectrum, then Urdu, which seemingly does away with tonality altogether, must certainly be at the other.
That in itself is not an issue as long as a language conveys all the meanings needed for human interaction, which Urdu does quite adequately. What is intriguing is why Urdu has this characteristic given that none of its root languages (Old Punjabi, Khari Boli) or the languages from which it has borrowed (Farsi, Arabic) are anywhere as flat? [In general, Indo-European languages are not tonal but use accents and stresses to varying degrees. The Wikipedia article linked above makes a special mention of the fact that “Punjabi is unusual among modern Indo-European languages for being a tonal language.”]
Daud Rahbar in his book Baatein Kuchh Sureelii Sii highlights variations in the enunciation of the word ‘bhai’ in Punjabi and Urdu. Leaving aside the detail that the initial sound in Punjabi is a ‘pa’ and not a ‘ba’, a key difference is that it is not aspirated in Punjabi; the word is comprised of two sounds, ‘pa’ and a long ‘ii’. The second key difference is the variation of pitch connecting the two sounds: the ‘p’ is enunciated at a higher pitch that drops with the expression of the ‘aa’ (very much like a meend or glide in music) and then the ‘ii’ is enunciated at the same frequency as the initial ‘p’.
This variation of pitch is done away with in Urdu – the word is rendered flat with equal weight on its constituent parts. This is achieved by aspirating the initial sound making it ‘bha’ instead of ‘ba’ and then by stressing ‘bha’ and ‘ii’ equally keeping the pitch constant. The words ‘dhol’, ‘ghol’, etc. follow the same pattern in the two languages. These variations contribute to what Rahbar terms the relative ‘looseness’ of Punjabi compared to the ‘tautness’ of Urdu. [Rahbar reflects on this elsewhere in connection with the stylistic differences of the Patiala and Delhi gharanas of Hindustani vocal music.]
This example is just by way of providing a concrete illustration; Khari Boli is also marked by variations of stress. The question thus remains: Why were the tonal and stress variations of its root languages muted so markedly in Urdu?
Could it be that Urdu, a ‘derived’ language, found its most prestigious use as a means of interaction in the later Mughal courts? Courtiers addressing the king or the aristocracy may have wished to avoid conveying any emotions with their words lest they be misinterpreted as expressing, for example, annoyance, irritation, disrespect, or contempt; the flatness of the diction could have emerged from the desire to avoid any possible misunderstanding of intent. This could be analogous to the way official documents are worded carefully even today to avoid unintended offense.
The wounded sensibility of the nobility could well have exaggerated this phenomenon. Justice Markandey Katju (What is Urdu) describes Urdu as “the language of aristocrats who had become pauperized, but who retained their dignity, pride and respect.” This is part of an intriguing explanation of why the court language changed from Persian during the reign of the Great Mughals to Urdu in the time of the later Mughals. According to Justice Katju, as the Mughals became pauperized remaining Emperors only in name, they had to resort to a language closer to that of commoners. It did not revert all the way to the latter, which was Khari Boli, because the nobility retained its airs, its pride, and its sense of distinction of which the heritage of Persian was a part. Hence, its language evolved into a Khari Boli that was “coupled with the graceful features, sophistication and some vocabulary of Persian,” an amalgam that could be labeled as the King’s Urdu.
According to Justice Katju, Khari Boli itself was an urban language which evolved in towns to facilitate the interaction of traders who otherwise spoke rural languages like Avadhi, Brijbhasha, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Mewari and Marwari. In this context, King’s Urdu was a supra-urban language, the language of a city inside a city. While many people speak an Urdu that is much less flat our focus in this discussion is on the King’s Urdu, the language of the Delhi Durbar as reflected in the appellation zubaan-e-Urdu-mu’alla (the language of the exalted camp). From its perch, other variants (e.g., khari boli, hindavi, rekhta, dakini) are looked down upon. The urban dismissal of rural forms as unsophisticated has a well known history. Punjabi, by contrast, is rural in origin and it is not without interest that many upwardly mobile Punjabis themselves began to consider Punjabi as ‘unrefined’ or even a corruption of Urdu reversing completely the causal relationship of the two languages.
It is not that variations of pitch were entirely absent in the Mughal courts; they had their place in well-defined settings that ruled out possibilities of misinterpretation. Thus music was an integral part of courtly life and Indian vocal music relies extensively on pitch variations, much more so than Western music. Variations in stress and accent were equally acceptable in theater and continue to be so today on TV and in movies. But such intonations in everyday conversation would immediately be labeled ‘melodramatic.’
Another characteristic of Urdu can be adduced in support of this, admittedly speculative, hypothesis. In general, speech is greatly embellished by accompanying facial or hand gestures in languages that do not rely structurally on pitch in the way Chinese does; English and other European non-tonal languages can serve as examples – the eye-rolling American and the hand-waving Italian provide familiar stereotypes. But such gestures strike a native Urdu speaker as very odd and disconcerting. King’s Urdu is not just devoid of tonal, accent and stress variations; it tends to minimize all accompanying gestures as well. Could this stem from the same courtly need to be as minimally suggestive as possible in order to avoid possible misinterpretation in a sensitive and hierarchical social environment without the right of appeal?
If true, these social dynamics might explain why an otherwise intelligent native Urdu speaker would come across as a robot to one born to Portuguese. But this also leaves me with an intriguing thought: What would Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court have been like? What kind of Punjabi would have been spoken there and how different would it have been from the Punjabi that existed beyond the court?
Continued: The Rise and Decline of King’s Urdu