Where do we draw the line?
What’s being said, is more important than how it’s being said.
It ought to be axiom, but it’s not. We’ve decided that our language isn’t really ours. It is not a toy for the ordinary people to play around with. It’s the property of our forefathers who crafted it, honed it, and left it in the showcases of our literary elites to be preserved till the end of time.
Consider the status of Urdu itself in the lives of the Pakistani people, let alone pure or ‘khalis’ Urdu. Although the national language of Pakistan, it is the mother tongue of less than 10% of the population. Among the vast remainder, many struggle to express themselves in Urdu – often spoken as an accented second language. Yet, Urdu is venerated not only as a marker of our national identity, but a supposed filter separating the South Asian Muslim from the Hindu-speaking Hindu.
The establishment’s adoption and sanctification of Urdu, does little to change the fact that Urdu is a beautiful language with a rich history. But every language is beautiful in its own way; including contemporary ‘adulterated’ language
Linguistic purism may be a defense mechanism against the onslaught of a dominant language. English, the residue of our colonial past, has been steadily encroaching upon the Urdu language to the point that ‘Minglish’ is now the official language of the Pakistani educated class.
But obsession with purity may have connotation – at times, taking shape of racism, elitism, and even adultism.
Firstly, think of a Punjabi mocking the accented Urdu of a Pakhtun person who might say, “Kursi toot gaya hai” instead of “Kursi toot gayi hai”. How is the ‘grammatically incorrect’ form of the sentence any less comprehensible than the correct one? What information has this person not been able to convey, by swapping a feminine form of the word, with a masculine form?
Learning the gender of each noun in a language is a harrowing ordeal. A person who has grown up surrounded by Urdu may have little comprehension of the difficulty involved in learning the language. A Punjabi adult learning French, and scratching his head over whether a ‘chaise’ (chair) is masculine or feminine, might be more empathetic to the struggle of a person whose first language isn’t Urdu.
Yet even the most carefree Minglish-speaking Pakistani can sound like your unforgiving school teacher, when it comes to reminding the Pakhtun people that their Urdu is less than perfect. We roll our eyes, we giggle, and we allow ourselves to take pride in knowing an utterly inconsequential fact that in pure Urdu, chair is feminine and not masculine. The English-speaking elite are likely to do the same to those who mispronounce words of English.
Furthermore, this free lesson in grammar is most likely to be offered to an opponent during an argument. One’s lack of fluency in language is mistaken for reduced intelligence; something that his opponent is often happy to latch on to, laugh at, and present to the audience as evidence of unreliability and idiocy.
These tactics disproportionately harm lingual minorities in any given country – those who are naturally disadvantaged relative to those who are born and raised speaking the ‘national’ tongue. The obsession with language purity in this case, is racist by its very nature. It’s a way of silencing those who are already having a difficult time speaking up, and being taken seriously.
Secondly, there is something to be said about the threat of wholesale appropriation of a language by the country’s educated elite – the ones who can afford to send their children to good private schools, and purchase the complete collection of Iqbal’s works. The language is then used as a class marker, to help distinguish the upper class from the common rabble. As I’ve often mentioned, English is widely used for this purpose in Pakistan; but there’s no reason ‘khalis’ Urdu cannot be made to serve the same purpose.
Language is not the same as literature. It is not an art form. It is a dynamic mode of communication, and its rules are constantly evolving with respect to the communicator. This ‘communicator’ may be anyone from a humble fruit-vendor in Lalkurti, to a venerated national poet in Islamabad. The idea that the educated alone have the privilege to determine the rules of communication, is arrant elitism which betrays the very purpose of a language.
Lastly, there’s the obvious stench of ‘adultism’ to be dealt with. For those who are unfamiliar with this term, ‘adultism’ is the belief that adults have the right to determine on everyone’s behalf, the ‘proper’ way of doing things. Adultists reject all social practices commonly associated with the young, and express disdain for nearly all contribution they make to the evolving national culture.
Adultists bear a sense of entitlement that comes with falling in a golden age bracket, where they’re just old enough to be ‘experienced’, but not too old to be ‘senile’. Essentially, adultism is to ageism, what white supremacy is to racism.
Language, if not limited by class boundaries, is also not confined to certain age brackets. Unless you believe that your generation discovered all that we would ever need to know about life and the universe, the growing boundaries of human knowledge demand expansion and modification of existing language. The youth represent a wave of ‘normalisation’ of previously unpopular social concepts, or unavailable technologies. And simply from a utilitarian perspective, the youth needs to be able to take liberties with language and its grammatical rules to ensure societal progress in all forms.
A language isn’t a vase in your living room for you to polish back to its original splendour every week. It derives its shape, its size, and its purpose, from the humans who use it. The Urdu language belongs to a street kid without a school to go to, as much as it belongs to Mirza Ghalib. You may not always appreciate the changes being made to it, but preventing this change is not a decision for you to make unilaterally.