Posts Tagged ‘Language’

Patriarchy in the Culture and Language of the Subcontinent

June 3, 2015

By Rizwan Saeed

Patriarchy is an established informal system. It has clear hierarchy of power and authority that is transferred from one generation to other. As it is an informal system, its roots are embedded deep in cultural settings and social fabric of societies.

There are certain rituals and cultural practices that protect and strengthen this patriarchal system in the subcontinent. One key component of culture is language. Here I explore patriarchy in the culture of the subcontinent through the lens of language.

In Urdu, there are names for each relationship that falls under the line of authority. To understand authority lines we will have to understand some basic family structures prevailing in the subcontinent.

In the subcontinent, joint and extended family systems exist in which husband, wife, husband’s brothers and their families (spouses and children), parents of husband, and unmarried sisters of husband live together under one roof. In this arrangement, the grandfather is the ultimate authority as he owns all the property and wealth of the family. If we unpack this family structure further, we clearly find a hierarchy in the family. This hierarchy is translated into language and names are assigned to each relationship. Let’s take an example of a man (who is a son and unmarried). Brothers of his father are titled as Taya (elder brother of father) and chacha (young brother of father). The sister of father is called phupho irrespective of where she sits in the family hierarchy and there are no separate words for elder or younger sisters of father. Going further when this son gets married, his wife becomes part of his family and starts living with her in-laws. Now see the hierarchical system for the wife. The husband’s father is considered supreme head of family. Next to him power lies with elder brother of husband who is titled as Jaith. Then comes the husband. After the husband, his younger brother joins the power line, and he is titled Dewar. On the other hand, there is no segregation among elder or younger sisters of husband. They are simply called Nands. Similarly, if we see relationships from the husband’s perspective we find that there are no separate titles for brothers and sisters of the wife. The former are called Salas (singular is sala) and the latter are called Salis (without segregating elder or younger ones).

It is noteworthy that this entitlement is not simply giving specific names to one male relation. It actually indicates power and authority line both within the husband’s household which specifies the elder male who has more authority over both younger men and all sisters as well as how the wife experiences relations once she is married, where her own brothers and sisters are less important than the husbands. Taya (elder brother of father) can scold the father. Similarly, Jaith (elder brother of husband) can scold the husband. On the other hand, male member of wife’s family have no importance, no separate entitlement, and no hierarchy. All are dealt with the same stick.

Beside relationships, proverbs are another aspect of Urdu language that promotes certain patriarchal and hierarchical thoughts, and even make these thoughts the norms of society. Let’s explore how certain proverbs reflect patriarchal thoughts implicitly. For instance, Sali adhi ghar wali (sister of wife is half wife) is a renowned proverb in India and Pakistan. This proverb implicitly gives the message that husband has authority to seduce his wife’s sister. This is not an uncommon occurrence. This proverb is not simply a proverb. It actually reflects society’s thinking towards these relationships. In the subcontinent, there are numerous examples where Jeeja is married to his Sali.

On the other hand, terms denoting the wife’s relatives such as the brother (sala) and the maternal uncle (mamo) have derogatory sexual connotation and are often used between men to belittle or tease one another. The term sala (brother of wife) is used to hurt or challenge ‘masculinity’ of a man in the society. The abuser implicitly says that he has sexual relationship with the sister of abused, and the latter is not a man who could have protected his sister. The word mamo (wife’s maternal uncle) contains the message that a man was not smart enough to protect his interests, and was looted because of his naïveté.  If we interpret this in the language of masculinity and sexuality, it means the mamo was not man enough to protect his “property” (sister’s daughter). This might be the reason that Mamo of Munna Bhai MBBS got popularity while Amir Khan’s Chachu (3 Idiots) couldn’t. Young boys often challenge their peers’ masculinity and sexuality by commenting, “If you are not gonna ‘take’ her, then be ready to be called maternal uncle (mamo) of her children”. Here the connotation is that you become her brother, one that cannot have sexual relationship with her, in other words impotent.

Contrary to this, the husband’s younger brother is portrayed as friend of his brother’s wife. Culturally, wives cover their heads and/or faces with veil while facing elder brother of husband but they do not do so while interacting with younger brother of husband. In India and Pakistan, marriages between dewar (younger brother of husband) and (former) bhabi (wife of older brother) are very common. Rather, in case of death of husband, it is preferred that his wife should marry to her deceased husband’s brother (usually the younger one). Often hidden behind such marriages is a need to protect division of assets.

Another aspect of Urdu language that promotes patriarchal thinking unconsciously is its linguistic structure of feminine and masculine relations/things. Last two alphabets of Urdu are called “choti ye” (sounds like ee in English) and “bari ye” (sounds like yea in English). In Urdu most of feminine things/relations end with ee sound. It basically connotes their smallness/less value. For example, dadee (paternal grandmother), nanee (maternal grandmother), chachee (wife of uncle), tayee (wife of father’s elder brother), jaithanee (wife of husband’s elder brother).

Ironically, the word Aunt has been adopted and modified by Urdu speakers as Auntee. This “ee” phenomenon is not just limited to relationships, most of the things that are meant to be portrayed as smaller are titled with words ending with “ee” sound. For example, daigchee word is used for small pot, and daigcha word is used for bigger pot. More examples include chamacha (bigger spoon) and chamchee (smaller spoon), register (for a bigger notebook) and capee (for smaller notebook), maize (table) and kursee (chair) is used to connote smaller size of chair as compared to table.

Language is a strong vehicle that allows patriarchal norms and values to become part of our everyday life. Language discriminates and creates difference and is reflective of existing patriarchal norms in society and often we internalize this language without realizing how we have become blind to its inherent unfairness. Challenging patriarchy must involve a review of language and a search for more equal ways of relating to each gender. The fact that patriarchal values are embedded in the very ways we communicate with each other through language and through our most important kinship relations makes it all the more harder to ‘see’ the gender imbalance that exists around us and that we promote.

Rizwan Saeed is an anthropologist. He conducts trainings and writes on the issues of gender, patriarchy, and masculinity.

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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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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…)

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…)

Love’s Labor Lost?

February 7, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

In a recent article (The Music of Poetry), I argued that it didn’t make sense to ask if one poet was greater than another. The musical metaphor I attempted proved to be the undoing of the piece; perhaps I should have tried a different metaphor – it would be silly, for example, to ask if Tendulkar is “greater” than Muralitharan, though both are cricketers. The reason is obvious, the one being a batsman and the other a bowler. My conclusion was simply that we should place less emphasis on “greatness,” however defined, and focus instead on the pleasure that comes from a given work.

The use of a cricketing metaphor, however, adds another point to the argument. In cricket, statistics are available for comparison in a way impossible for poetry or music, but even then the matter is not as simple as it seems. (more…)

On Being Stupid in English

December 5, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

Learning a language and learning in a language are two very different things and not recognizing the distinction has a very high social cost.

I thought of this once again on coming across a news item that the Punjab Government School Education Department had converted thousands of its schools into English medium all over the province from April 2010. The motivation for the move is stated to be “a bid to bring the quality of education in government-run schools on a par with private English medium schools.”

The issue of the language of instruction, like many other issues in Pakistan, has been hanging fire since the creation of the country, switching back and forth at the whim of individuals seemingly without recourse to any scientific evidence or critical thinking. No one has computed the costs imposed on society by the absence of a coherent policy over the course of half a century.

Not that this is a new topic. Much evidence is available from our own experience if one wishes to look for it. It was in 1835 that Lord Macaulay mandated the adoption of English as the medium of instruction in British India from the sixth standard onwards. Even at the time this ruling was questioned on theoretical grounds by Prinsep, a fellow member of the Supreme Council of India, who asked how the English would have fared if they had been educated in Arabic rather than in Greek and Latin, the classical languages of Europe.

Prinsep was over-ruled but, to their credit, the British themselves picked up the downside of the policy in their review of its implementation. The 1904 resolution on education policy was quite explicit in its conclusion:

“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 reaffirms the conclusion and offers this 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.”

We can indulge in our favorite pastime of looking for conspiracies. When the English told us in 1835 to learn in English, it was conspiracy to cripple our intellects and when the English tell us in 2010 not to learn in English, it is, of course, a conspiracy to cripple our intellects. This is a reflection of nothing more than our actually crippled intellects and our inability to consider any proposition on its theoretical merits or to be able to assess it against empirical evidence.

Take first the theoretical arguments. The primary objective in the early years is learning how to think and grasp abstract concepts. At that stage even addition and multiplication are abstract concepts and 7 minus 10 is an exceedingly abstract one. At this point, the most significant function of language is as a tool to facilitate learning. It stands to reason that the most effective tool would be the one with which the learner is most comfortable and in which he or she thinks about everything else in his or her world including discussing lessons with peers and parents.

Mandating the use of an unfamiliar tool is counterproductive because it unnecessarily adds an intervening layer of translation in the learning process. An assignment to subtract 7 marbles from 10 marbles requires both a translation of the commodity marble as well as an explanation of the term subtract or minus. Neither would need to be explained if the assignment were in the mother-tongue. (I am reminded of the equally ridiculous Pakistani college statistics texts that base their teaching on examples from baseball and poker.)

Even this very simple example illustrates the extra burden that can be imposed on a learner. Add to this the fact that the majority of the teachers teaching in English are scarcely more comfortable with the language than the students being taught and one can imagine the distortions that would be occurring in the learning process at the Government Boys English Medium Primary School, Jadeed No 1 Thatti Gharbi, Chiniot, which, according the news item mentioned earlier, the Punjab government has switched to teaching in English. The parents who are taking pride in sending their children to an English-medium school are in fact inflicting immense damage on their learning ability – they are making them stupid in English.

This is not to argue against the acquisition of a foreign language but to reiterate the point made at the very beginning of this article: Learning a language and learning in a language are two very different things and not recognizing the distinction has a very high cost.

For those who are not at ease with cognitive theory, there is a lot of empirical evidence to consider. Look at the countries that have shown the most remarkable progress since the Second World War. Take Japan, South Korea, and now China as examples. None of them used English as the medium of instruction at the primary level; all of them used their native languages instead. This puts paid to the mindless argument that the learning in English is absolutely necessary to progress in the present times. If that had indeed been the case, South Asians would have been way ahead of East Asians because of their much greater fluency in the English language.

The reality is not only that South Asians are way behind in general development, they are much less innovative in science and technology than East Asians using any relevant indicator like the number of patents filed per capita. And this is because South Asians have lost creativity by learning in English, turning, by and large, into babus spouting Shakespeare rather than into innovative and critical thinkers.

The point is that while learning English is indeed important in our times, learning in English is not the way to go about acquiring the skill. Almost all the leading scientists from East Asian countries have learnt as much English as they need at a much later stage in life. And this reiterates the general point that a tool is most useful when it is acquired at the appropriate time. Giving a loaded gun to a child is not likely to yield a great shot.

Yet another way to look at this issue is to think of individuals we consider exceptional in recent South Asian history, say, Tagore, Iqbal, Gandhi, Faiz, Salam, Patras Bokhari, Nazrul Islam. We think highly of them because of their intellectual brilliance and their conceptual clarity. Yet, how many of them started their education in English-medium schools? All of them probably learnt English later in their lives which should provide comfort that such late acquisition is not a barrier to success. On the contrary, it is quite possible that had they started in English-medium schools they would have ended up amongst the hundreds of pompous District Commissioners that no one recalls any more.

The issue of the primary language of instruction is not one that should be treated with the casualness that has been demonstrated thus far. There is a very high cost to society in the general loss of creativity and clear thinking and through the creation of an artificial barrier to entry for many creative individuals not superficially fluent in English. Very soon this decision might not be left to the muddle-headed few who have risen to the top only by virtue of having been to English-medium schools and who have subsequently grossly mismanaged the country.

A shorter version of this post appeared as an op-ed in Dawn, Karachi, on December 3, 2010. For more on the implications of Lord Macaulay’s 1835 decision see the author’s article, Macaulay’s Stepchildren, in the January 2010 issue of Himal Southasian magazine.

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