Mind your language

Published: October 16, 2016

In the last few days a notice of the Beaconhouse School System Sahiwal campus from August 2016 has been doing the rounds on social media. The usual mundane school notice on discipline has excited comment because in the section on ‘Foul language’ it has interestingly included ‘Punjabi,’—yes, the Punjabi language, the language spoken by almost 50 per cent of Pakistan’s population as a first language. When the school clarified in a bizarrely strong, arrogant and derisive statement, it conveniently added the word ‘curses’ after the word ‘Punjabi’ in order to make it all go away. However, neither was the word ‘curses’ there in the original notice, and nor is their excuse that it was ‘diplomatic’ or ‘delicate’ to miss it convincing or even sensible. Regardless, even if this explanation is taken at face value, it seems that curse words in Punjabi are banned while cursing in Urdu, English or any other language is fine — a rather stupid stipulation.

While some silly defence by the school was expected, more interesting is that they also argued that how could a ‘Punjabi Head Master’ call his ‘mother tongue’ ‘foul’? But that is where the crux of the matter is: most Punjabis from West Punjab not only look down upon their own language but even deride it.

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In his Punjab ka Muqadama [Punjab’s Lawsuit] written over three decades ago, veteran politician Hanif Ramay lamented the fact that he had to write Punjabi’s case in Urdu, simply because the Punjabis have lost the ability to read and write their own language. Ramay bewailed that in order to become ‘Pakistani’ the Punjabis had discarded their own language and focused only on Urdu. The sole emphasis on Urdu meant that while the Punjabis became dominant in the civil-military bureaucracy in Pakistan, they did so at the expense of their own identity and culture. In fact in an ironic twist of history while this Punjabi-dominated ruling elite looked down upon our erstwhile compatriots, the East Bengalis, since they thought that they were not ‘Muslim enough’ and that the Bengali language was ‘too Hindu,’ they thought the same about their own culture and language too!

The deep bias against Punjabi in Pakistan has not only stunted the growth of the language on this side of the Radcliffe line linguistically and academically, it has relegated it to being a ‘vulgar’ tongue, considered ‘rustic’ at best. This means that West Punjabis are shocked when a professor speaks Punjabi in class, not pejoratively or in jest, but academically, and students are told that one can actually ‘study’ in Punjabi the various subjects they are now studying in either English or Urdu.

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The Pakistani disdain towards Punjabi clearly carries over to our attitude towards the Punjabi culture in general. Almost every semester I ask my students what their ‘local dress’ is and almost always I get the answer ‘shalwar kameez’ from a room full of Punjabis.

When I mention that maybe a ‘kurta dhoti’ might be more local I get a confused, almost repulsed, look on the face of most students—as if something demeaning had been talked about. Some even say ‘oh that’s what the village people wear,’ or ‘that’s something people used to wear but now wear better clothes.’ It is as if most students would want their Punjabi culture buried under the skinny cut jeans and designer shalwar kameez. Having a preference for clothing is one thing, being embarrassed about it is quite another.

Language is one of the most important markers of identity and defines a people, a nation. The central problem with the notification mentioned above is that is coming from a school. A school is where a child is formed, where they learn how to be an informed, educated citizen, and so if such a hallowed place considers a language [and it could be any language] as ‘foul’ then it is a real cause of concern. Singling our Punjabi for such a treatment clearly shows the attitude the school and, by extension, soon all of its students and faculty will have towards the language. Children raised in such an environment will have no choice but to look down upon their vernacular language since they never had a choice to engage with it. Therefore the school would be producing shallow, ungrounded, and confused individuals, rather than the complete opposite.

Mind your language

In today’s cosmopolitan world it is impossible to stick to one language and most people are bilingual or even multilingual, but denigrating one’s own language shows a deep unease with who we are. Punjab is 50 per cent of Pakistan and if people in Punjab are ashamed of who they are, then what will be the fate of Pakistan itself?

Published in The Express Tribune, October 17th, 2016.

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Reader Comments (10)

  • aamir riaz
    Oct 16, 2016 - 11:58PM

    Punjabis in Pakistan are more then 65% . Urdu was imposed in 1865 so making Urdu a sole national language in 1952 was continuation of colonial mindset.That colonial mindset is heavily indulge among elite. Practically Sindhi, Punjabi, Urdu Speaking, Pukhtoon and Baloch elite always prefer English, a legacy of baboos. Recommend

  • Asad Shairani
    Oct 17, 2016 - 3:01AM

    Well written. We’ve been subject to impositions on various kinds on the national identity front, language being one of the main components. Ironically, Urdu has met the same fate as the local languages, with the elite abandoning it along with other languages and demoting anything but English an inferior language in the process. It might be a social problem, but a large part of it has to do with economics, with “communication skills” (read English speaking) getting you jobs, and the inability to speak in English meaning unemployability.Recommend

  • ahmed41
    Oct 17, 2016 - 8:33AM

    Punjabi is ALIVE on this side of the border because it is the scriptural language of SIKHISMRecommend

  • tuk
    Oct 17, 2016 - 8:50AM

    If we don’t honor our history, language, and culture, we will always be slaves no matter how much English we learn. Recommend

  • Haroon
    Oct 17, 2016 - 10:20AM

    A very well written article Dr. Bangash, unless we respect our language and culture no one will respect us, Punjabi is our mother tongue we should respect it.Recommend

  • Mustafa Hussain
    Oct 17, 2016 - 1:22PM

    @ Keith Salerno. What a crap you are talking about. Have you ever read Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain or Waris Shah?Recommend

  • Saeed KHI
    Oct 17, 2016 - 1:33PM

    Urdu language and NOT punjabi is the binding factor of the Pakistani provinces , this is a matter of fact .Do away with it and find the consequence .Pakistan does not have a choice .Live with this reality .Recommend

  • Paddy
    Oct 18, 2016 - 8:24AM

    That’s the main problem of Pakistani peoples, you are confused mindset and have identity crisis. You have Hindu past , history of converts, your Indian origins that all you rejected as your Punjabi language. In India we have to learn three languages right from primary schools, First our mother tongue then English as worlds language and Hindi as national language. In India we feel proud and very protective for our mother tongue. In Mumbai/ Maharashtra also all multiplexes cinemas are bound by law to provide prime time slots to regional marathi cinema. All states have similar rules to protect their own languages.Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Oct 18, 2016 - 3:06PM

    is You have said it all, though my comments were ignored. The professor teaches the students who are relatively more enlightened. Pakistan remains as the second half of India.

    Rex Minor Recommend

  • Hoshiar Singh Gill
    Feb 13, 2017 - 7:00PM

    People of both Panjabs should be taught both Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi scripts.This would help Panjabi people to stay in close contact with litrature on both sides.In Indian Panjab all Sufi poets are studied and anthologies of Urdu poetry are available in Gurmukhi and Devnagri scripts.One negative thing happening in Indian Panjab is that Hindi is overwhelming Panjabi.Arabic and Farsi words which had been naturalised into Panjabi over many centuries are being replaced by very unnatural Sanskrit/Hindi words in text books and media.However novels,short stories poetry and films use a balanced vocabulary which all Panjabis would understand and identify with. Recommend

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