Mixing languages

Published: March 30, 2014


I have been hearing the complaint that “today’s children don’t know any language”. The complainants are parents, teachers, aunts and uncles and even older siblings whose ticket to entry into the world of adults is to find fault with the “youngsters”. According to linguists, it is not possible to not to know any language if you are actually speaking — speaking, mind you, not writing, as that is a more advanced skill — at all. So if the “children”, who are not children at all but young men and women, actually, are speaking at all, they have internalised the rules of forming words and sentences in some language. They also need a dictionary in their minds and they need some rules for actually producing the sounds which we hear. So everybody already has all these complex rules and sets of dictionaries in their minds before they are six-year-old! In short, the complaint that the young people of today do not know any language is simply wrong.

But you will protest that I am being deliberately provocative since the complainants actually mean that the young people do not know the perfect King’s English or the Urdu of Ghalib. The evidence produced for this is that young people speak in a mixture of English and Urdu and sometimes they mix other languages in their speech too. Well, as for the charge that young people do not know perfect standard English and Urdu, this is correct, but did their parents? Or grandparents? Whatever one may say out of nostalgia, or because we tend to romanticise the past, the fact is that very few people knew the literary or high variety of these languages to perfection. As evidence, I can produce writings from the 19th century, both from India and Britain, about complaints that “young people do not know the English language”. One also has examination papers of Urdu from 50 years ago, which are not noticeably better than the work of today’s students. It may, however, be true to say that the best students did know languages better than the best students of today. This, however, is only because students studied fewer subjects and languages and were given more attention about a century ago than they are nowadays. As quoting scraps of poetry was the sign of a cultivated person, it is true that more educated people came up with cliched proverbs, couplets from the masters and bons mots than people do nowadays. But being facile in the usage of iconic verbal embellishments does not imply any deep or abiding knowledge of language and literature. Still, for the sake of argument, let me concede that a certain facility in referring to literary and cultural references was more common in the educated users of Urdu in India about a century or even 50 years ago, than it is today.

But, while conceding the above, I also want to insist that just the use of English words in Urdu — code switching for linguists — is not an indication of not knowing the two languages. If anything, it may be an indication of knowing both languages. First, one switches code for many reasons, not just lack of control of languages. Indeed, code switching has always been going on whenever two or more languages have come in contact. I have read letters written in Norman French by a high figure in the Church to an English king in which the writer starts in French and then, getting emotional, he bursts out in English and then finishes in French. And in India, Ameer Khusro, famous as a genius and a saint of the 13th century in Delhi, is said to have left behind poetry in two languages: Persian and a variety of Hindi-Urdu. The Persian lines are in italics and the Hindi-Urdu ones in bold.

The famous poem, “Za hal-e-miskeen makan taghaful”, is long and there is not enough space to quote all of it. Suffice it to say that it is considered a work of literature. It is attributed to Ameer Khusro though I am not sure it is actually his (Gopi Chand Narang has written a book arguing that it is) because the manuscript is actually a copy of the 18th century, one cannot be sure what changes occurred in its language in about 500 years. However, this does not reduce the force of my main argument that code switching does not reduce the literary worth of a work of art. I have also seen poems in three and even four languages. This was considered a sign of ingenuity, not lack of linguistic prowess. Even nowadays, many post-colonial writers — including Bapsi Sidhwa and Vikram Seth — use words of local languages in English writings to emphasise aspects of identity. This is considered high art.

People who do research on code switching point out that people do it to emphasise certain aspects of identity; to show informality; to show easy command of several languages and to impress and dominate others. Depending on the situation, one can be humble, friendly, arrogant or snobbish through the way one mixes languages. Of course, it is also true that one may know so little English that one cannot manage to sustain a conversation in it and has to fall back upon Urdu. That might well be the case but that is not the only reason for code switching. And if someone does not know English and falls back upon Urdu, then he or she knows Urdu best. It is still untrue to argue that this person does not know any language. Not knowing literary Urdu is one thing; not knowing the spoken language quite another. So, next time you feel like accusing young people of not knowing any language, please think twice!

Published in The Express Tribune, March 31st, 2014.

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Reader Comments (10)

  • Cheema
    Mar 31, 2014 - 12:55AM

    Language can never be a constant thing. It is constantly evolving. Even the English we know right was a totally different language 1000 Years ago. For example i invited one friend of mine from Karachi to spend sometime with me in Lahore. After spending two weeks in Lahore he asked me that how me and my friends pronounce our language as Urdu while it carry many words from Punjabi. Actually he was right because Over time i understood that Lahori Urdu is actually an Admixture of Urdu with a touch of Punjabi and even some English words. Essentially it could be called “Urjabi with English”. So that is what the language is all about. Every language is evolving and this process will never stop. The borrowing of Words from different cultures and new words from local languages will always mix up as the time will progress.Recommend

  • Toticalling
    Mar 31, 2014 - 1:07AM

    This blame game has its limits. In the Subkontinent. Using english words when you talk to your own people is very common. But then that is only a very small portion of our people as only less than 10% are fluent in any other language, other than Urdu and one of local languages.
    In my opinion we must accept one fact: English is the world language and gaining fluency can only benfit our careers and chances of being accepted in this world, which is becoming a global village.
    Whenever, I am in South Africa, I am amazed to see that black household staff like maids or gardners have flueny in English besides Zulu, the mother language of the province. This works very well for a rainbow nation where all races live relatively peacefully.
    So i say, do not get nationlistic and learn to read and write English. The local languages will never disappear. I anything, the poetry of ghazals, jokes and loud laughters will always keep us cosy and home bound.


  • satya
    Mar 31, 2014 - 8:38AM

    Urdu is Persianized and Arabized hindi. Urdu is turki word which army tent. First poem in Sanskrit happened when sage Valmiki had compassion for crane couple when the male one was killed by a hunter. Urdu poem happened first when Babar met captive young boys with whom he slept. Urdu is indeed language of darabari love. No wonder it is also language for drugging the masses with bollywoody Masala movies.


  • satya
    Mar 31, 2014 - 9:15AM

    Urdu is a Persianized and Arabized Hindi for Darbari purpose. It literally means Army Tent in Turki. Sanskrit’s first known poem happened when sage Valmiki after his achieving Moksha (self realization) experienced site of hunter killing male crane flying. When he heard famele crane’s wailing, sage Valmiki uttered couplets. Urdu’s first poem happened when Babar met in drunken haze captive young boys with whom he slept. Urdu is indeed language of darbaris and feudals. No wonder it became language of Bollywood to drug the masses so that new corrupt mughals and turks ie ConAngrez can misrule India.


  • Nadia Siddqui
    Mar 31, 2014 - 10:35AM

    Agree with the point of view. I believe languages are a very fluid medium. I am not sure if it is Urdu being mixed with English. It is perhaps the current form of Urdu which is adopting other vocabulary of the. dominant languages. ‘Purity’ of language is perhaps an accepted and demanded notion but we all recognize that purity in languages, ethnicity, races and nations are the ideas of fascism. Some of the dead languages were ‘pure’ and ‘un-mixed’ in the best of their times. Today they are dead scriptures only!!!


  • Rex Minor
    Mar 31, 2014 - 2:21PM

    The learned author has not commented on the importance of mother tongue on the language which the child learns during his schooling? Or did I miss the Parents complaints because of the author’s jargon on languages.

    Rex Minor


  • Harit Trivedi
    Mar 31, 2014 - 4:53PM

    It appears to me that younger people comprehend fewer idioms and proverbs and seldom actively use them themselves. The same goes for their rather limited vocabulary in whatever language.


  • Hmm
    Mar 31, 2014 - 6:34PM

    @ Dr Tariq Rahman :

    Is Urdu not a mixed language ? What are its sources of origin ? Why cite Urdu’s example while comparing languages ?


  • Unknown
    Mar 31, 2014 - 10:38PM

    Excellent article. Keep it up


  • Thawani
    Apr 1, 2014 - 10:39AM

    why you are not accepting the change.. it is common sense that language must evolve by borrowing or sharing words


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