Two Videos in Urdu (both having problems with the language)

It so happens that I happened to see the following two videos around the same time.

    1. Pakistani journalist (he seems to be an ISPR/Pak army favorite) Wajahat Khan (aka Waj Bro) has a message for Imran Khan. It is quite hilarious, but this particular post is about his ability to speak Urdu, which is clearly rather limited. He would probably do a better job in English (and he has to rely on English a lot in this video). This is fairly typical of the children of our current elite (not necessarily of the older generation). Check it out

2. The other video appears to be from closer to the other end of the socio-economic spectrum. In this case I have no clue who the speaker is (she states she is from Kasur, and she mentions at one point that she has been “pushed into prostitution”, I have no idea what the back story is) but clearly she is not from the elite class. The thing I am focused on in this post is that while her Urdu is in fact much better than Waj Bro’s Urdu, it is also quite clearly not her mother tongue. One gets the impression she would have done better in Punjabi.

My point today has nothing to do with the politics of each video (and in the case of the second one, I have no clue who she is and what the back story is, we all know cases where the story behind the video turned out to be quite different from what is immediately apparent),  I just wanted to ask what people think about the language issue in Pakistan.

Urdu is the national language and is (supposedly, ideally?) the main language of everyday use, high culture and education. But seems in trouble at both ends:

      1. My anecdotal observation is that the children of the elite cannot speak it well (OK, most are better than Waj bro, but not by much) and are almost completely unaware of (and un-interested in) its high culture (all that great poetry, etc). Their everyday language is mostly English, Urdu being used to converse (at a very basic level) with “the lower classes”;  servants, drivers and so on. Is this impression correct? what will be the long term outcome of this trend? (not a rhetorical question, I am genuinely curious and not sure about the answers, not even sure that my anecdotal observation is completely representative of the super-elite or how far it extends beyond that elite).
      2. At the other end, the “common people” of Pakistan mostly were not born into an Urdu speaking culture. The language of their forefathers is (in almost all cases except middle class and above migrants from North India) not Urdu. The languages of these people used to be Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi and so on. Today, as Pakistanis, they learn Urdu in School and via the mass media and (imperfectly, but frequently, especially in Punjab) from their recently Urduized parents. Actually it seems that many (most? some?) Sindhis, Baloch and Pakhtoons are still speaking their own languages at home, but in the case of Punjabis, it is increasingly common for them to speak Urdu at home (for example, my siblings and I started out speaking Punjabi and then switched to Urdu and stayed with that). And there is no such things as learning in Punjabi or even learning Punjabi as a language at school. You can see the result in the video above. The lady in question is not doing a bad job (she even manages to throw in fragments of a verse and an Arabic quote), but she would clearly be more comfortable in Punjabi. Her children will almost certainly be more comfortable in Urdu, but what level of Urdu? Waj Bro level?

You can see where I am going. The language issue in Pakistan. Which is connected with culture, with nationalism, with modernity. What do people see as the future? (again, not a rhetorical question, I am genuinely curious to know what people think is the current situation, and where it is likely to go).

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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

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As counter-factual as it may seem, I think that bro’s Urdu is in some ways better than the bibi’s in the second video. Why do I say that?

The answer goes back to what Urdu really is .. in raw scientific terms. It is speech that draws on a specific phonetic inventory and grammatical (syntactical) structures to convey meaning. The vocabulary (native or loanwords) is re-mapped to that phonetic inventory and syntactically re-packaged. In that respect, bro and bibi are both speaking recognizable Urdu.

However, what separates them is the heavy usage of English loanwords in bro’s monologue – in some bits he even code-mixes, i.e. borrows English grammar whosesale into Urdu. Yet the phonetic inventory he draws on is local, i.e. one can sense little or no deviation from standard pronunciation of each phoneme. That is not the case with bibi’s monologue. The substrate effect of Punjabi nasalization, schwa addition and simplification of diphthongs/long-vowels to short vowels (e.g. pronouncing Urdu “aur” as ora or “aaj” as aja) is far too obvious in her speech than is in bro’s.

In short, bro sounds like a reasonably standard Urdu speaking guy (with little trace of Punjabi) who learnt English too and finds facility in the latter, and the bibi was clearly brought up as a Punjabi-speaker who picked up Urdu (but not as well). In bro’s case Urdu is the substrate that affects his English accent, and in bibi’s Punjabi is the substrate that affects Urdu (and the effect is far more pronounced).

In linguistic evolution terms, the same language (dialect-cluster) can cope with many registers and yet represents a single form of speech. So, I think in Pakistan Urdu nativization will continue, and various dialects will emerge based on the substrata (Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto etc) the individuals hail from. Maybe new words will be borrowed from local languages and definitely a lot from English. English will continue to dominate in the foreseeable future and generate a class of people who pepper their Urdu with English in much the same way people around the Moghal court peppered their Sauraseni Prakrit with Persian and Arabic.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

6 years ago

I think there are two distinct classes in Pakistan–the English-speaking class and the Urdu-speaking class. The elite want their children to speak English. There are certain schools where children are punished for speaking Urdu. These people see Urdu as a language in which they communicate with their cooks, drivers, and gardeners. It doesn’t really have any other function for them. They certainly are not into the high culture.

Most of the lower-middle class is educated in Urdu and not in English. For these people Urdu is the main language of communication along with whatever regional language they speak. Urdu remains the lingua franca between people from different provinces (unless of course these people belong to the elite, in which case they can all converse in English).

6 years ago

I have pondered over this issue for many years. I went to an upper-middle-class high-school (Hasan Abdal) and then to medical school in Lahore. The level of Urdu that I heard at the high school was much higher than the one I heard in Lahore. My parents discouraged me and my siblings from speaking Punjabi at home (even though they spoke Punjabi with each other and their relatives, esp the ones on my father’s side). I learned Punjabi when I was at a different boarding school from guys who were from central Punjab and talked to them in Punjabi to gain fluency. In Hasan Abdal, Punjabi was the language spoken by chachas of the Wings and I found very few people there (despite a predominance of Punjabis) who were willing /comfortable speaking in Punjabi. I did learn the local dialect of Potohari from one of the chachas and that’s how I communicated with him. In Lahore, I found that many of my classmates (with A-Levels/Cambridge background) were more comfortable conversing in English and the Urdu spoken by WajBro than simple Urdu or Punjabi. For them, Punjabi was a backward language. Some of my other classmates (who had gone to Urdu Medium till 10th grade or had not been through Cambridge Education and predominantly belonged to Central and Upper Punjab (Gujranwala, Kasur, Sheikhupura, Mandi Bahauddin, Sargodha etc) were more comfortable with Punjabi than either Urdu or English.

Later, I worked at a medical college in Sialkot for a year, did a year of residency in Lahore and worked at a different medical college in Lahore for a year. The ‘younger’ generation had no grounding in any one language. They aspired to speak English fluently but were not able to speak even Urdu without borrowing words from Punjabi. One of the reasons for this linguistic mishmash, in my opinion, is lack of reading literature. In Sialkot, hardly anyone in a class of 100 knew about Faiz, much less his poetry. They knew Iqbal only through Textbooks. There are not many public libraries or bookstores with quality books in the area. The media that they consume feeds them the same mish-mash of languages.

6 years ago

I noticed the state of language in the official school magazines that I was part of. At the first boarding school, the supervising editor was a published poet who was friends with Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and organized mushairas. At Hasan Abdal, the supervising editor for ‘Abdalian’ was also a poet who had written some good Urdu poetry in the past. On the english side, the charge was taken by English teachers who published anything written in coherent language. The quality of material published in Abdalian was almost as good as any other high-school magazine in the country. In one medical school(where I spent a month before settling in Lahore), I accidentally became part of the editorial board in the first year because I could write poetry in Urdu and they didn’t have anyone with my skills to help to compile the magazine. In Lahore, there was no ‘editorial board’ as such and people in the senior years monopolized the whole enterprise. When I was in my final year of med school, I was appointed the editor of our Urdu magazine. During the interview, I was asked about my preference and I said I’m comfortable with both. I received a dismal amount of contributions and most people just wanted to get published in English (most of the English contributions were copy/paste jobs). The material I received was sub-par, particularly the Nasar/prose part. The major problem in the material was a lack of Urdu expression. Students didn’t know how to string together a full sentence in Urdu. They didn’t possess the vocabulary to express their views (which were not always regressive). Just my personal experience.

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