Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

The Lovely Peculiarities of Urdu

November 16, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

Urdu hai jis ka naam hamiiN jantey haiN Daagh
Saarey jahaaN meiN dhuum hamaarii zubaaN ki hai

Daagh, we know, the language, Urdu is its name
Celebrated over the entire world is its fame

A Hindi speaker, fond of Urdu, came across the following text in a letter by Premchand (dated 22 February 1925):

Priy Shivapujan Sahay ji, Vande.

Mujhe to aap bhool hi gaye. Leejiye, jis pustak par aapne kaii maheene dimagh-rezi kee thi vah aapka ahsaan ada karti hui aapki khidmat men jaati hai aur aapse vinti karti hai ki mujhe do-chaar ghanton ke liye ekaant ka samay deejiye aur tab aap meri nisbat jo rai qayam karen vah apni manohar bhasha men kah deejiye…… “

He puzzled over the term dimagh-rezi and enquired on an Urdu forum whether it meant “banging one’s head against” which didn’t quite seem in consonance with the positive connotation apparent from the text.

Urdu readers, at least those over a certain age, were quick to decode the puzzle. The reader was misled by the term reza (or rezah) which in Urdu connotes fragment or fragmentation. The most common example is the term rezgaarii which is used for change in monetary transactions as in mujhe ek rupay kii rezgaarii de deejiye.

The more poetic usage is conveyed by the term reza-reza which means [fragmented into] tiny pieces. A particularly beautiful usage is made by Faiz in the following couplet (see Urdu, Hindi, English text and audio/video here; translation here):

Na GaNwao Naavak-e-Neem-Kash, Dil-e-Reza Reza GaNwa Diya
Jo Bachay HaiN Sang SameT Lo, Tan-e-Daagh Daagh LuTa Diya

Do not waste (your) half drawn arrow, (I have already) lost (broken pieces of my) heart
Collect and save the left-over stones, (my) injured or wounded body is (already) wasted

But Urdu, lovely Urdu, borrows heavily from Farsi and the Farsi term rezi is from the verb rekhtan, which means ‘to pour’, ‘to make something flow’. Dimagh-rezi would then suggest using the mind for hard or fine work – as one reader on the forum elaborated it could stand for “fine, intricate work requiring mental exertion”. (See the dictionary meaning – ‘mental exertion’ – here.)

My own contribution was to point to some terms that are commonly encountered in Urdu – rang-rez/rang-rezii for dyer/dyeing [of cloth] – (note the usage in this film song from Pakeezah: hamri na maano rangrejwa se poochho…). Similarly sang-rezii is working with stone, and the metaphorical usage arq-rezii for burning the midnight oil. While arq-rezii and dimagh-rezii are quite analogous, rang-rezii and sang-rezii rely on the sense of pouring – pouring color or stone without the extension to fine or elaborate work.

As soon as I made the suggestion, the term Angrez or Ingrez (for the English) popped into my mind leading to a curiosity as to its origin. Is this some different rez here fulfilling some other function or is it analogous to rang-rez and sang-rez in the sense of someone associated with rang and sang? In that usage, Ingrez would be someone associated with Inglistaan which is the Urdu for England – Ing being used here as the short form of Inglistaan. Alternatively, a reader on the Urdu forum has suggested the following evolution via Portuguese to Hindostani: English (E) –> Inglês (P) –> angrez (H). If this is correct than the term valandezi would come from the Portuguese holandês for the Dutch.  Since the Portuguese were the first Europeans in India, their pronunciations most influenced local adaptations – wallahu alam bisawab.

Having ventured into this territory I noted that the –ez ending is quite rare for nationality and I couldn’t think of any other than the archaic valandezi for Dutch/Portuguese. The default is of course the suffix -ii added to the name of the country as in hindustanii, pakistanii, cheenii, japanii, etc. with some significant variations as in german, fransiisii, itaalvii, haspanvii, etc.

From there, it was but natural to move on to language which is where we had started. In general, Urdu, like English, uses the same word for nationality and language as in german/german or itaalvi/itaalvi except when it comes to English where we have angrez/angrezii.

Urdu is indeed a mixed-up language which is why it was known as rekhta at one time:

reḳhte ke tumhīñ ustād nahīñ ho ġhālib
kahte haiñ agle zamāne meñ koʾī mīr bhī thā

you are not the only ustad of rekhta, Ghalib
it is said, there was a Mir in earlier times

(For explication see here where rekhta is defined as follows: Rekhtah: the Urdu language. The dictionary meaning is cement for a building. The way a house is built from lime, gravel, bricks, stones, brick-dust, etc., in the same way the Urdu language has developed from the mingling of Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and various Prakrits. For this reason they call the Urdu language ‘Rekhtah’.)

Generous thanks to the contributors to this discussion on UrduList.

Mir Anjum Altaf is provost at Habib University.

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Literature in the Fortress

March 26, 2013

By Hasan Altaf

in The Millions:

ScreenHunter_150 Mar. 26 15.40

From the beginning, there was a hint of the surreal to the recent Lahore Literary Festival, but it was difficult to put my finger on the root of that unsettling emotion, especially given the overall aura of triumph. A response to similar events elsewhere in the region – the most famous in Jaipur; the most rivalry-inducing, for the last four years, in Karachi – the festival seemed its own victory party, a massive and successful gambit in Lahore’s bid to reclaim its title as the “cultural capital” of Pakistan. The excitement had Lahore full of visitors, Mall Road festooned with banners, the Alhamra Arts Council packed with people, and in the middle of all that buzz it seemed almost churlish to have the suspicion that something odd was at work. (more…)

What Can Literature Do?

February 24, 2013

By Hasan Altaf

Interviewing Chinua Achebe – the author of Things Fall Apart, who has become, through the usual process of reduction, a one-man stand-in for Nigerian when not for African literature – for The Paris Review, in 1994, Jerome Brooks noted that the majority of Achebe’s work was in English. He asked about the existence or importance of Igbo translations, and Achebe responded with a story about an Anglican missionary’s attempt to standardize his language’s many dialects:

The way [Archdeacon Dennis] did it was to invite six people from six different dialectal areas. They sat round a table and they took a sentence from the Bible: In the beginning, God created… or whatever. In. What is it in your dialect? And they would take that. The. Yours? Beginning. Yours? And in this way… they created what is called Standard Igbo. (more…)

Learning Urdu

February 21, 2012

By Hannah Green

Everything starts to look like Urdu if you spend enough time staring at Urdu words trying to get them into your head. The script is fluid. Some letters can squiggle tightly or stretch long, sometimes letters stack on top of one another and sometimes they go side by side. It is this fluidity that makes Urdu so enthralling to look at, but also very difficult to learn to read. I’ll find myself squinting at a word in one of the more artistic fonts, wondering if a dot should attach to the loop on its right or the notch on its left.

Of course, the reason that I have these difficulties is that, for me, the language learning process is backward. Someone whose mother tongue is Urdu would have learned the vocabulary before trying to learn to read it, so they’ll know which interpretation of a dot makes a real word and which makes one that doesn’t exist or doesn’t make sense. Urdu writing also only includes about half of vowel sounds, and I ache for the native speaker’s instinct to know what these missing sounds are just by looking at the text. (more…)

The Changing World of Urdu

November 20, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

‘Urdu has changed from the Urdu of Mir and Ghalib but that simply proves it is a living language.’

That was one of the comments I received on earlier posts (here and here) about the past and future of the language. At one level, it is a statement of the obvious – nothing ever stays the same. At another, it invites a host of questions: What is the nature of the change? Who owns the language now? What functions is it serving?

Such questions could be answered by survey of Urdu speakers. A canvassing of urban centers would suffice in Pakistan since Urdu is not a regional language and hence not spoken widely in rural areas. (The situation might differ in India.) An organization like the National Language Authority could design the exercise but is unlikely to do so for any number of reasons. The best we can do for the moment is to rely on personal knowledge to generate longitudinal case studies going back almost a hundred years. (more…)

The Rise and Decline of King’s Urdu

July 29, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Any discussion of the future of Urdu arouses heated emotions turning swiftly into a test of one’s loyalties. But love of the language should have no bearing on a candid consideration of its prospects. I believe such a consideration is possible and wish to revisit the issue in light of aspects of the language I have been thinking about lately.

As part of the exploration of some aspects of Urdu speech, I have already discussed the rise of King’s Urdu in the courts of the later Mughals where, according to many, it attained its zenith during the reign of Bahadur Shah with whom the dynasty came to an end. Did that event mark a major turning point in the trajectory of Urdu? (more…)

On Some Peculiarities of King’s Urdu

July 28, 2011

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. (more…)

Cracking Urdu: A Guide for Those Who Know Hindi

June 20, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

I am an Urdu speaker from Pakistan who wrote an account (From Urdu to Hindi, Farsi and Beyond) of an immensely rewarding experience of learning the Devanagari script very quickly. As a result, I have been asked to guide those wishing to cross the divide from the other side. Nothing could be more gratifying and I have decided to devote a separate post to the effort in order to have enough room to indulge myself.

For those who know Hindi, the news is all good. You already know Urdu so there is really nothing to learn. Hindi and Urdu share the same Khari Boli grammar and therefore are the same language from a linguistic perspective. (more…)

From Urdu to Hindi, Farsi and Beyond

June 18, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

As an Urdu speaker, I had always felt it would be simple to learn Hindi and Farsi. The first shares the grammar and much of the essential vocabulary, differing only in script; the second shares the script and a considerable number of words, differing in construction of sentences and manner of speaking. My attempts to transform resolve into results yielded both confirmations and surprises and taught me something about learning, about languages, about our world and about myself.

I had always believed Hindi would be easier to learn than Farsi, but not by much. I felt I could learn Hindi within a month and Farsi within six. My Hindi-speaking friends tried to disabuse me by regularly tossing alien and tough-sounding words in my direction. I kept reminding them that I was fluent in English, yet did not know the meaning of many words. (more…)

Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

March 6, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

In response to a question asking why Faiz Ahmad Faiz was so much more popular then other, clearly ‘better,’ poets, I had argued (here and here) that we should enjoy poets on their own terms and not bother overmuch with ranking them. Comparisons being difficult, I used a metaphor from music to suggest some of the ways in which poets differ – while Faiz could be considered a poet of the vilambit, Ghalib was one of the drut, and it makes as little sense to compare Faiz and Ghalib as it does to compare a vilambit to a drut.

I am aware that the argument can be pushed: Can we not compare poets of the vilambit or of the drut to elucidate what might be involved in such comparisons? (more…)


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