Language and Society

By Anjum Altaf

There is something intriguing about the use of script and language in Pakistan that is crying out for an explanation. My observations of the phenomenon began in the metropolis before being extended to small cities and rural towns in the Punjab but the story is more interestingly narrated in the reverse order.

Next time you are in a rural town in the Punjab raise your eye-level from the cell phone to the shopfront and you shall see virtually all the shop signs in the Urdu script. This is to be expected as very few people in such places can read English. But look again — almost every sign is a transliteration into Urdu script of an English name. The most humble khoka is a ‘Cold Corner’ or a ‘Jus Shop’ written, of course, as pronounced in Urdu — kaarner for corner and shaap for shop. Once attuned to the pattern, you will see Bismillah Burger Point, Iqbal’s Beauty and Hair Salon, Butt Tailoring Services, Well Dress Garments, The Knowledge School System for Boys and Girls, etc., etc. Exceptions would be rare.

Shop Sign

The underlying phenomenon is the same in the small city except that names would now be written in both scripts reflecting the presence of a sizeable population familiar with English. Once you get to the posh areas of the metropolis, however, the Urdu script disappears altogether mirroring the clientele that communicates almost entirely in English. It is like being in California surrounded by Coffee Planet, Gloria Jeans and the like. Even Bundu Khan announces itself in English. The only unusual aspect in such environs, especially if you look at the billboards, is a coy use of Urdu written in the English script — slogans like ‘jeet ke jeeo,’ etc.

So, what’s going on? It needs an expert like Dr. Tariq Rahman to fully interpret the phenomenon but to a layperson like me it seems that the vast majority associates English so obviously with superior quality that even a lowly khoka senses the advantage of labelling itself a ‘kold kaarner.’ This is even more the case for services like education or training of any kind — varieties of ‘shaart’ courses are advertised all over in the Urdu script. Only the thin sliver of the population that has arrived because of its facility with English can afford the reverse snobbery of using Urdu words in its messaging.

This inference is strengthened by the observation that such linguistic practices are confined to goods and services for sale. Civic and moral injunctions continue to be written in Urdu as spoken in the language rather than rendered into more impressive English versions. There is no attempt to raise the acceptability of messages like ‘yahan peshaab karna sakht manaa hai’ or ‘namaaz qaim karo.’

(It is quite possible that the phenomenon I have highlighted is peculiar to the rural towns and small cities of Punjab and may differ in comparable localities in other provinces. I have asked a colleague to extend the scope of the observations and produce what could be a very interesting photo essay. Meanwhile, I request readers to email me any amusing signs they come across in their travels.)

Once alerted to these linguistic anomalies, you will begin to notice other things as well. When I say ‘shukria’ or ‘meherbani’ after getting the receipt at a toll booth the reply received more often than not is ‘welcome.’ I have often wondered how the power inequality in Pakistan stemming from differential access to English can be overcome. Many educational policies are framed on the premise that the mastery of the many can be raised to the level of the privileged few by making English the universal medium of instruction right from the very beginning. Alas, this is impossible given the quality of English language teaching in public and most private schools for the majority. (Pedagogical Alert: The policy is also ruinous for the cognitive development of young children — ask any expert in early childhood education.)

The realization of this impossibility may well be the reason for the radical choice of software used to provide road directions and to manage queues in offices. Both the language and the accent is American English in an environment where the majority of users are unfamiliar with either. I have become used to Multen, Mo-zang and Kasher (Kasur) roads but was completely floored recently by the instruction to turn left on Gallamandi road. For a moment I fantasized being in Italy till the illusion was shattered by a sign in Urdu pointing to Ghalla Mandi.

Our linguistic confusions are compounded by the fact that Urdu, unlike say Hindi, is very carefree with its pronunciation and use of diacritical signs. At a toll plaza in a Daewoo bus, one is always inundated with phone calls from passengers informing families that they have arrived at the ‘tool’ plaza. In this vein, many English signs written in Urdu can be a source of great amusement. I always have a silent laugh at a ‘Police Check Post’ thinking of their cheeks, silent because laughing at the police and the like is most likely a punishable offence in Pakistan.

A striking occurrence of this nature was witnessed at the time of the last elections when, looking up, I spotted an electoral symbol in Urdu written simply as BLA (Bay-Laam-Alif). For a while, one couldn’t figure out if it was really bla (as in the Shah of Blah) or balaa or bilaa or bulaa or balla or billa or bulla. Reverting as one does to one’s own language in dire circumstances, I could only worry about the cost of such sloppiness and mutter, again under my breath, jal tu jalaal tu, aaii balaa ko taal tu.

Many things are changing in Pakistan as is to be expected. Is it possible that linguistic changes of the type highlighted above are signalling a certain direction for the evolution of our society or are they just harmless epiphenomena that can be enjoyed without wasting a worry?    

This opinion was published in Dawn on May 19, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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2 Responses to “Language and Society”

  1. Dr Tariq Rahman Says:

    This is very acute observation in a sociolinguistic phenomenon which we take for granted. The phenomenon is the connection of language with power. Script, pronunciation and grammar are all one’s social capital and are deployed to empower one’s self, one’s group and, if one is running a business, earn more money.
    However, other phenomena are at work also. They are ideological in nature. One of them is Arabization: the use of Al-Bakistan for Pakistan and Bunjab for Punjab etc. Road signs and pictures are a fascinating way to understand such phenomena.

  2. Anjum Altaf Says:

    More detailed comment by Dr. Tariq Rahman received via email:

    “Your comment is a very acute observation of a certain linguistic phenomenon. First, that of empowerment. The script, grammar, vocabulary and other phenomena are all connected with a certain iconic value in one’s society. Hence they operate as linguistic capital and are exchanged for power, recognition, pecuniary rewards and upward social mobility. That is why businesses choose linguistic symbols which will be seen as capital by their clientele. And that is why a youth in our Punjab will use English to impress the girls but Punjabi expletives to signal that he has come of age in some of his peer groups.

    “The other phenomenon is ideological. Hence you get Al-Bakistan and Bunjab for Pakistan and Punjab by people who want to signal that one’s Muslim identity should be tied to an assumed Arab iconic identity.”

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