Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Urdu in Pakistan: Do We Need It?

November 7, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

The article on the transition to Urdu as the official language of Pakistan (Urdu in Pakistan: A Dispassionate Analysis) elicited a number of substantive comments which I will address in this third and concluding part of the series. Almost all these comments challenged, from one standpoint or another, the usefulness of and need for Urdu in Pakistan and stressed, by default, the importance of English in a globally connected world. I intend to defend the decision of the Supreme Court against these objections but before doing so I will spell out the recommendation of the 2010 British Council study on schooling in Pakistan, not because I consider it sacrosanct, but because it provides a concrete suggestion which can serve as a reference point for the ensuing discussion.

The study arrived at the following conclusion:

Early years education must be provided in a child’s home language. The dangers of not doing so include high dropout levels (especially among girls), poor educational achievement, poor acquisition of foreign languages (such as English), the long term decline and death of indigenous languages, and ethnic marginalisation leading to the growth of resentment among ethnic minorities. Pakistan is considered to be one of the countries most exposed to these risks.

Based on this conclusion, it recommended initial education in the mother tongue to be succeeded as follows:

… from class three to five Urdu is introduced and gradually replaces regional language as the language of instruction… English is studied as a main subject for four years up to grade 9. At class 10 English becomes medium of instruction with Urdu and regional languages becoming subjects.

The first objection to any such schema that includes a place for Urdu in the school curriculum, a necessity if Urdu is to be the official language of the country, represents the view of certain constituencies in the smaller provinces. Simply framed, the argument is the following: Let us have the initial years of education in the mother tongue and then switch directly to English skipping the intermediate transition via Urdu.

The justification for this argument is that for employment and getting ahead in life in Pakistan today it is English and English alone that matters. Given the above, what is the point of wasting public and private resources on teaching Urdu?

The second objection can be said to represent the view of the national, supra-provincial, elite that has acquired proficiency in English at the cost of familiarity with either Urdu or a regional language, at least to the point of being able to read the latter two with any degree of comfort. The argument is, once again, that the primacy of English requires us to prepare world citizens for the globalized world of tomorrow but the solution advocated is somewhat different.

In this view, it is alleged that we are slowing down the progress of students by imposing on them the burden of learning two scripts, that of the vernacular languages and that of English to which children have to switch midway through their schooling. This group, although equally dismissive of the place of Urdu in a global economy, is willing to retain it as a subject as long as there is a universal shift to the Latin script as has been the case in Turkey and Indonesia.

There is a third, minority, opinion that can be said to reflect the preferences of religious groups. It advocates the inclusion of Arabic, at the expense of either Urdu or English, given its growing importance in the cultural orientation of the country and as a way to offset the advantage of the English-speaking elite.

Needless to say, these are elite perspectives, irrespective of whether the elites are presently empowered or marginalized, simply because this discussion is being carried out in English and over the Internet, both of which rule out the participation of non-elite audiences. It is therefore necessary for some institution to poll citizens and uncover the extent to which these views are representative when disaggregated across various relevant dimensions: ethnicity, level of education, gender, income, urban/rural location, etc.

However, even without such a survey, there is a general response that can be offered to these proposals. In my view, each of them is focused almost exclusively on the private returns to a student while ignoring the public benefit to the country. In taking this stance, they are missing entirely the thrust of the decision of the Supreme Court that is motivated to maximizing the public benefit even if that comes at the expense of some private gain though the latter is by no means a necessary outcome.

As argued in the first two articles in this series, the public benefits of language policy arise from promoting both a common medium of communication amongst citizens and of inclusive development in which citizens can participate in policy discourses that matter to their lives and those of their children. Citizens are entitled to being able to comprehend the laws that govern them and the communications they receive in their interactions with various organs of the state. In today’s world, this can be termed a basic human right – to be addressed as an equal in a mutually comprehensible language.

This perspective can reduce the policy alternatives under discussion to the bare essentials. Almost everyone is agreed that early education should be in the mother language so that component can be dropped from the discussion. The only substantive question that remains is whether the subsequent transition is to be directly to English or via Urdu. (For the purpose of our discussion, we can leave out for now details of the exact ages at which the language transitions are most effective.)

As a next step, we can, via appropriately designed referenda, pose two simple questions to the majority of our citizens in order to practice what we are preaching, i.e., having an inclusive, participatory, and democratic process of policy deliberation. The questions can be the following:

  1. In which language would you prefer your national representatives to address the citizens of the country, at home and abroad, on matters that pertain to the latter’s present and future?
  1. In which language would you prefer to interact with various organs of the state in communications, both to and from, related to the provision of services, e.g., justice, taxation, utilities, etc.?

My best guess is that Urdu would be the answer of the majority to the first question while that to the second would be some split between Urdu and the regional language depending upon the province.

The reason for the answer to the first question should be easy to grasp. Clearly, an address to the nation in any one provincial language would not be understood by the citizens of other provinces and one in English would be understood by less than one percent of the population. With Urdu, however, one could expect raising the outreach immediately to at least around half the population, if not more. Given that, the goal of reaching the entire population would be advanced much more rapidly and effectively by imparting a knowledge of Urdu than the alternative of either English or Arabic.

The reason for the answer to the second should also be easy to grasp given its local ambit and it favors the increased use of regional languages within provinces, something that the Supreme Court decision does not in any way discourage.

In view of the above reasoning, there is a place for Urdu in the school curriculum even if not as the medium of instruction. My own view as an educationist agrees with the recommendation of the British Council that the early introduction of English as the medium of instruction in Pakistan would be harmful for learning outcomes but this claim can be tested by further experimentation. What should be obvious is that there are huge advantages to retaining Urdu as a subject that is taught to everyone at school to an acceptable level of proficiency.

I am also not persuaded by the recommendation to switch to the Latin script for Urdu and/or the regional languages simply because there is no real evidence that the benefits are worth the costs. At the individual level, children have a truly amazing learning ability in the early years if taught well while at the collective level language has at best a marginal impact on development with other factors being more far more determining. To take just one example as an illustration: Vietnam changed to the much easier phonetic Latin script while China stayed with the much more difficult character-based script; yet both countries have equally high literacy rates while there is no correlation with economic growth.

It should be reiterated that outside of a specific context there needs be no logical objection to a direct transition to English from the mother tongue. After all, Urdu is not taught in Bangladesh where the transition is directly from Bengali to English. But as long as we are part of one country, we are all better off with knowledge of a language that most readily connects people across provinces and that language, at this time, unlike in the past, happens to be Urdu. Hypothetically, if KPK were also an independent country it could well choose the Pashto-English transition; or the Hindko-Pashto-English transition, till such time that Hazara also attains the status of an independent country. The implication of stretching the argument should be clear. It has an obvious bearing on the direction in which we wish to proceed.

What this boils down to is our ability to rise above making language a victim, as we have to our detriment in the past, of the desire to settle political scores, alleviate historical injustices, or disadvantage others. We should not cut our nose to spite our face. Languages don’t have religions or ethnicities. If Urdu is to be considered the language of oppressors then by that logic English is equally the language of oppressors. The argument does not hold. If the choice of language depended on such considerations we should all be learning in Chinese because it is the language of our best friends whose friendship, at this time at least, is sweeter than honey and deeper than the ocean. One should view in the same perspective the suggestion to create a hybrid Pakistani language incorporating bits and pieces of the existing regional languages as a compromise. It is possible, though, in my view, it would signal the victory of parochial over national interests. Nevertheless, this could be another proposition that could be tested through a poll of citizens.

People all over the world are eager to acquire proficiency in languages other than their own. In our case, we would be extremely shortsighted to throw away access to a language with which we are already partially familiar and which yields many collective benefits at a very low price. What we should avoid is turning this into a binary, either-or, discussion. Learning Urdu should neither be at the expense of the regional languages nor of English. It is really a matter of sequencing the learning of languages appropriately and effectively for which there is a lot of guidance from regions that have already successfully adopted the trilingual, mother-tongue plus two, mandate.

…Part 3 of 3 …Concluded

Anjum Altaf was Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and is presently the Provost at Habib University. 

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Urdu in Pakistan – Language as the Key to Wisdom

October 31, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

I am grateful to those who have participated in the discussion initiated by the post on the recent Supreme Court decision mandating the switch from English to Urdu as the official language of Pakistan (Urdu in Pakistan: A Dispassionate Analysis). Unfortunately, the majority of the comments were received as emails which do not help to generate a public discussion and I once again request readers to post their thoughts on the blog itself.

The majority of the comments pertained to the scope of the article, the accuracy of historical claims, and to issues of interpretation of past events. However, there were some that raised substantive questions and I will address them in a subsequent post. In this post, I intend to clear some misunderstandings that I see coming in the way of a fruitful discussion. I also do not wish the misunderstandings to be compounded by the comments of those who have advocated their own points of views without reading the previous article. While I respect their views, I don’t think there is much to gain by talking past each other. We need the patience to listen to a point of view if we are to move from mindless confrontation to meaningful communication.

The first point I am forced to make is that I have no material stake in the outcome. My life has been lived out and even my children are out of college – a new language policy is for me a purely academic exercise. I believe I had a reasonably good school education benefiting from some exceptional teachers and from the period before the real confusion in language policy crept into our system of education. My college and university education in Pakistan were much poorer but that can be left for a separate discussion.

My concern in this matter is triggered by my association with two of the leading private undergraduate educational institutions in Pakistan – as Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at one and as Provost at the other. Close contact with students has left no doubt in my mind that our language policy has had an extremely debilitating effect even on the best students in the country – the majority are not solidly grounded in any one language.

One can ask why that is a problem? Why is it not good enough to know a language just sufficiently enough to undertake every day transactions and to buy and sell whatever it is that one might want to transact? Indeed, one should ask what being solidly grounded in a language means and why it is of any importance for students.

I believe an understanding of this dimension is vital for the discussion we should be having, keeping in mind that at this time we are talking not of the entire population but about students attending the leading universities in the country. These are the students from among whom will emerge the decision-makers of tomorrow and we should have a very great stake in the creativity and intellectual ability of this cohort.

In the earlier post I had identified two practical functions of language – to transfer information between generations and to be able share information within a community. Here, I would like to add a more fundamental function, that of education, which stems from the characteristic of language that makes it a key to the storehouse of wisdom. This needs some elaboration.

One can readily accept that a great number of extremely learned and gifted human beings have been part of human history and that their accumulated wisdom is enshrined in the texts they wrote and the commentaries that have been written on those texts subsequently. Access to this storehouse of wisdom, and the ability to interpret it, is an essential starting point for all those who aspire to contribute to human progress. This is best exemplified by the saying attributed to Newton: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

Examples of the creators of wisdom abound – Plato, Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Sina, Panini, Buddha, to name just a few. It was the wisdom of the Greeks, kept alive by the Arabs, which re-lighted the lamp of knowledge in Europe. In our region, an incredible amount of wisdom resides in the legacy of Mirabai, Guru Nanak, Bulleh Shah, Shah Latif, Ghalib, and Iqbal down to our times. Creativity is enhanced by being able to draw upon this knowledge in the performance of our everyday tasks. In a way that forms the positive aspect of a question like “What would Jesus do?” You have to know what Jesus did in order to answer that question. A useful analogy is of a plant that, without conscious effort, draws nourishment from the soil. If the soil is dry, the plant withers in no time.

Our linguistic heritage is akin to the soil that nourishes our ideas, that makes possible the spark that can connect disparate thoughts and thus lead to new ways of seeing things. If we lose access to this nourishment we weaken the source of our creativity and thereby the ability to draw upon the wisdom of the past in deliberating intelligently on current problems and their possible solutions.

When I come across students who cannot read their first language, whose second language, in most cases Urdu, is barely adequate for verbal communication, and whose English is only proficient for essential reading and writing, the critical dimension of our dilemma becomes obvious. In no language are they equipped to access the many storehouses of wisdom.

The difficulty is compounded in our region because the wisdom of our vernacular traditions is not adequately translated into English, the one language in which our best students can read with any proficiency. This is unlike the West where, say, the wisdom of the Greeks, is kept alive by continuous reinterpretations in local languages so that some access is possible for those who are educated in those languages, say French in France or German in Germany.

I am being generous in conceding that our students are proficient in reading English – the ability to truly understand a language comes from being imbued in its culture. Stanley Fish has mentioned that just one course in one poem, Milton’s Paradise Lost, is sufficient to make students rethink all the big questions of life:

“You who read “Paradise Lost”… what do you read but everything? This book contains all things and the origins of all things, and their destinies and final ends.” How did the world begin? Why were men and women created in the first place? How did evil come into the world? What were the causes of Adam’s and Eve’s Fall? If they could fall, were they not already fallen and isn’t God the cause? If God is the cause, and we are the heirs of the original sin, are we not absolved of the responsibility for the sins we commit? Can there be free will in a world presided over by an omniscient creator? Is the moral deck stacked? Is Satan a hero? A rebel? An apostate? An instrument of a Machiavellian and manipulative deity? Are women weaker and more vulnerable than men? Is Adam right to prefer Eve to God? What would you have done in his place? Wherever you step in the poetry, you will meet with something that asks you to take a stand, and when you do (you can’t help it) you will be enmeshed in the issues that are being dramatized.

It is not enough for our students to pick up Paradise Lost and get the same out of the poem. For one, one needs to be steeped in that culture to make sense of the literary allusions – much of English literature has its roots in the Bible. For another, we don’t have enough teachers who can make up for that deficiency. But we do have similar wisdom in, say, Noon Meem Rashid’s Hasan Koozagar or in Kabir, Bulleh Shah, and Ghalib that can be much more readily accessible because the allusions and metaphors belong to our own lived reality. We do need to ensure a solid grounding in our first language and/or Urdu to get to the point where we can access this wisdom.

Hopefully, I have made the intellectual case for why we need to ensure mastery in at least one language. If we are convinced of this its translation into reality is actually quite easy. All we need to do is to get rid of the confusion in policy and structure the linguistic education appropriately.

See the post Milton and Ghalib on this blog and our attempt to make the wisdom of Ghalib accessible to students in English. See also my 2014 presentation on this subject (Bunyaad Kuch To Ho) to the entering freshman class at LUMS.

Anjum Altaf was Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and is presently the Provost at Habib University.    

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Urdu in Pakistan: A Dispassionate Analysis

October 24, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

Our experience with the politics of language has been so traumatic – first with the Urdu-Hindi divide contributing to the partition of India and then with the Urdu-Bengali divide contributing to the partition of Pakistan – that we need to step with the utmost caution in the new quagmire created by the recent Supreme Court decision to replace English with Urdu as the official language of the country.

That said, the decision has to be examined on its own merits without our judgement being prejudiced by the experiences of the past however traumatic they may have been or any politicking aimed at local and parochial gains. To state my conclusion at the outset, I find most of the objections to the decision misplaced and analytically unwarranted but I would like to begin by outlining the primary functions of a language in order to support my contentions.

In the context of this discussion, language can be considered to have two primary functions. First, as a tool to facilitate learning across generations and, second, as a means of communication between people in any given period of time.

The evidence as regards the first function is so overwhelming that those who disregard it can justly be classified as ignorant, the only ambiguity pertaining to whether the ignorance is real or contrived for some unstated purpose. It has been repeatedly proven that the mother tongue is the most effective vehicle for instruction during the early years of education.

While the evidence has become scientifically more rigorous in recent decades, the insight itself is not only quite old but also directly related to our own region. Almost everyone is aware of the infamous 1835 Minute on Education by which Macaulay is said to have favored the use of English as the medium of instruction in British India. Very few know of the evaluation of that policy by George Curzon who became the Viceroy in 1898: “Ever since the cold breath of Macaulay’s rhetoric passed over the field of Indian languages and textbooks, the elementary education of the people in their own tongue has shriveled and pined.”

Note the observation from the 1904 resolution that followed on the education policy in India:

It is true that the commercial value which a knowledge of English commands, and the fact that the final examinations of the high schools are conducted in English, cause the secondary schools to be subjected to a certain pressure to introduce prematurely both the teaching of English and its use as a medium of instruction … This tendency however should be corrected in the interest of sound education. As a general rule a child should not be allowed to learn English as a language until he has made some progress in the primary stages of instruction and has received a thorough grounding in his mother-tongue.

Over a century later, a 2010 British Council report on education in Pakistan offered the following major recommendation:

Early years education must be provided in a child’s home language. The dangers of not doing so include high dropout levels (especially among girls), poor educational achievement, poor acquisition of foreign languages (such as English), the long term decline and death of indigenous languages, and ethnic marginalisation leading to the growth of resentment among ethnic minorities. Pakistan is considered to be one of the countries most exposed to these risks.

Given the above, it should be obvious that as far as the learning function of language is concerned all the objections to the Supreme Court’s decision are not only misplaced but irrelevant. The choice is not between Urdu and English but between either and the mother tongue. The real policy question is at what stage in a child’s education a second language should be introduced and whether it should be Urdu or English.

All those harping on the importance of English as the dominant global language of science and technology and thus necessary for development are being dense to put it mildly. First, the choice of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in the early years and Urdu as the second language does not rule out the acquisition of English at a later stage. Second, the evidence regarding development from countries like Japan, South Korea and China that use their national languages as the medium of instruction is so stark that only the deliberately obtuse could overlook it. If facility with English had been the dominant requirement for development, Pakistan and India should have been global leaders and if lack of facility in English had been a genuine hindrance Japan, South Korea and China ought to have been laggards.

The fact is that facility with English in non-English speaking countries is very poorly correlated with any index of development. Pakistan’s elite, responsible for all its policy decisions, is fluent in English and yet what do Pakistan’s rankings reveal: the sixth largest country in the world ranks 146 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index, which measures health, standard of living, and education and 136 out of 144 countries in primary education according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. Arguing that this abysmal plight would improve if the entire country learns English is the kind of pie-in-the-sky thinking that has plagued our education policies to date. More seriously, it also ignores the evidence that even the acquisition of English depends on sound early education in the mother tongue.

Communication at any given point in time is the other primary function of language and this has two dimensions. First, horizontal communication amongst citizens and second vertical communication between elected representatives and the citizens. Clearly, the existence of a common language greatly facilitates communication across both dimensions as we can observe again from the examples of Japan, South Korea and China.

Of course, this quest is greatly complicated in multi-national countries like Pakistan and India when the choice of a single language becomes politically fraught. This is particularly the case when there are distinct linguistic groups with equally large populations as is the case in India and was the case in Pakistan before 1971. The decision to force one language as the national or official language in such cases is a mindless application of the model of the nation-state borrowed from Europe. Consider this excerpt from Jinnah’s speech in Dhaka in March 1948:

…let me make very clear to you that the State Language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language. Any one who tries to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan. Without one State Language, no nation can remain tied up solidly together and function. Look at the history of other countries.

Both the tragedies mentioned in the beginning of this discussion stemmed from the lack of sensitivity in how to negotiate such linguistic minefields. The choice of any one language in such circumstances would disadvantage a part of the population. While the provinces of West Pakistan did accede to the choice of Urdu in order to counter-balance the political weight of East Pakistan, there was absolutely no lack of understanding that the decision would disproportionately disadvantage the Bengali speaking population. In such a case the choice of a neutral language like English would have been a sensible second-best compromise without, of course, conflating the issue and imposing it as the medium of early education as well. The Mughals, when they arrived in India, were faced with a similar conundrum and chose a neutral language, Persian, as the language of administration even though, and it is very important to recall this, it was not their native language. It was a pragmatic not a chauvinistic compromise. Precisely because Persian was a foreign language, every non-Persian speaker had an equal opportunity to learn it if he/she aspired to positions that required knowledge of the language.

But the Pakistan of today is in a very different situation. If horizontal communication amongst citizens is important it would not be politically possible to do so in any of the sub-national languages. The only choice is between Urdu and English and here the fact that the provinces of West Pakistan had agreed to Urdu as the national language very early has altered the linguistic demographic beyond recognition. Almost everyone now has a working familiarity with Urdu, much more than the familiarity with any other language including English.

Thus the argument that Urdu is the mother tongue of only eight percent of the national population is only a polemical one without any real relevance. If the choice being debated is between two foreign languages then English is not the mother tongue of even a handful of Pakistanis – Urdu wins handily on that count.

Furthermore, it is really an advantage if Urdu is considered a foreign language in Pakistan by virtue of not being the native language of any of its constituent nations. That makes its acceptance much more possible compared to any one of the sub-national languages just as Persian was the neutral choice in Mughal India.

The fact that Urdu is understood to some extent by the majority of the population, that it is akin to a foreign language and not one of the sub-national languages makes the case for its acceptance as the language of horizontal communication very strong, certainly stronger than the case for English. The unstated fear that the choice of Urdu would somehow enable the eight percent native Urdu speakers from conquering all the commanding heights is misplaced, to say the least. One can rest assured that regional elites which did not allow that in the past will certainly not do so in the future, more so since many have already adopted Urdu as their language of communication. Amongst the educated cohorts, the native Urdu speaker today has virtually no advantage over the native speaker of the other sub-national language – all of them communicate equally well or equally poorly in a mangled hybrid of various languages because of the breakdown of primary and secondary education.

The function of language for vertical communication is much more important in some senses and here the situation has deteriorated to a critical pass. Inclusive development calls for a common medium of communication and its absence is stark in countries like Pakistan and India where the ruling elites communicate in English while the majority of citizens is unfamiliar with the language. Ministers and experts pronouncing in English leave virtually the entire population out of the national discourse at great cost.

One illustration would suffice to make the point re lack of inclusion. The entire debate about development centered round the Millennium Development Goals is taking place without any credible translation of the term in Urdu or any other national language. How can the people participate in this debate? Contrast the case of China where every policy decision, sensible or otherwise, is summarized as a slogan in Chinese for popular dissemination – ‘Away With All Pests’ being one example.

This gulf is at the heart of the Supreme Court’s deliberation and decision. We need inclusive development, participatory governance, and a shared discourse. How are we going to get there? That is the real question that we face today

Is it possible to bring the entire population to the level where it could follow the mangled English of its elite? Do we even have teachers with sufficient grasp of English to teach others? Or is it politically possible to do so in any one of the sub-national languages, even Punjabi that is the language of the numerical majority in the country? Or is Urdu the sole remaining feasible choice that the tragedies and follies of the past have, so ironically, transformed into the commonly understood language of the majority of the population. When a cruel fate throws us some crumbs we should at least have the sense to pick them up.

There is little doubt in my mind that the choice of Urdu as the official language would be the sensible and far-sighted one in the concrete situation that exists in Pakistan today. The debate should really be on how to operationalize the transition. My recommendation, keeping very clear the distinction between learning a language and learning in a language, would be to have the early years of education in the mother tongue, introduce Urdu second, followed by English. This would yield a sound educational foundation, a common language for communication, and a facility with English when the study of science and technology requires its use.

The experience of the European Union where the “mother tongue plus two” mandate is widely accepted, and where there is great emphasis on the acquisition of English, can provide very useful guidance on the stages at which each of the languages is best introduced and the points at which the language of instruction is switched, if warranted. There is little need to reinvent the wheel.

It is an added advantage that this transition does not take away the option of the provinces to conduct their parliamentary procedures in their own language or to make information available to their citizens in the language with which the latter are most comfortable. Indeed, this is what they should be doing in any case just as in the US most material related to citizen-state interaction is made available in Spanish as well as English.


Alam, Muzaffar. ‘The Pursuit of Persian: Language in Mughal Politics,’ Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2, May 1998.

Altaf, Anjum. ‘Stupid in English,’ Dawn, December 3, 2010.

Altaf, Anjum. ‘Macaulay’s Stepchildren,’ Himal Magazine, January 2010.

Altaf, Anjum. ‘Millennium Development Follies,’ Dawn, December 24, 2010.

Coleman, Hywel. ‘Teaching and Learning in Pakistan: The Role of Language in Education,’ British Council Pakistan, 2010.

Coleman, Hywel and T. Capstick. ‘Language in Education in Pakistan,’ British Council, 2012.

Evans, Stephen. ‘Macaulay’s Minute Revisited: Colonial Language Policy in Nineteenth-Century India,’ Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, Vol. 23, No. 4, 2002.

Haqqani, Hussain. ‘Let Down by Both Carrot and Stick,’ The Hindu, October 23, 2015.

Jaffrelot, Christophe. The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience, Oxford, 2015.

Macaulay, T.B. ‘Minute on Education,’ February 2, 1835.

Supreme Court of Pakistan. Order on Urdu as the official language of Pakistan, August 26, 2015.

Wright, Wayne E., Sovicheth Boun and Ofelia Garcia, Eds. The Handbook of Bilingual and Multilingual Education, Wiley Blackwell, 2015.

Anjum Altaf is Vice-President and Provost at Habib University, Karachi.

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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…)


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