The colonisation of language

Published: February 21, 2015
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The writer is a freelance contributor. He can be reached at @tariqmasudmalik

The writer is a freelance contributor. He can be reached at @tariqmasudmalik

Round the year, we do things that we like, yet there remains a need for a dedicated day to celebrate a cause or express our love and admiration for languages. Here we have February 21 as the World Mother Language Day, an occasion to reflect, flip over the wisdom-filled pages of books written in our respective mother tongues, sadly enough, whose alphabets have become alien to most of us. I, for one, believe the state-run media is largely to blame for first carving and then perpetuating the narrative of, as it were, ‘one nation’ that could accommodate only one language in its fold.

Professor Henry Higgins, a phonetician in the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, could identify people down to their streets in London based on how they spoke. I doubt if he could have identified people acting or speaking on Pakistan Television Network and Radio Pakistan until the year 2002 when the field was opened up for private ownership. The accents and even names of individuals for the most part were origin-neutral. As a result, only those with ‘immaculate’ Urdu could perform on these channels.

There were sporadic efforts at breaking this mould. The famous TV play “Waris” deviated from the entrenched norm and its script, to suit the plot, was set in the Punjabi heartland allowing for Punjabi-ised Urdu. The characters’ ‘faulty’ accents raised many an eyebrow in the corridors of broadcast. But the audience felt as if the drama had been shot next door. But such exceptions were few.

Tariq Aziz of “Neelam Ghar” fame was once asked which city he comes from. We had to hear a long-winded answer which ran thus: I live in Punjab, have married in (then) Frontier, worked in Sindh, love Balochistan, hence Pakistan is the name of my city. Iss mulk kay saaray shehr meray shehr hain, he had said. This was how our ancestors in their wisdom set out to form a homogenous identity. A failed and flawed attempt at forging a new identity negating the already existing ones. We were reduced to half (geographically) but insisted on maintaining ‘one identity’.

The transmissions in the national languages on state-owned entities (famously called local or regional languages) were of short durations and aired at such times when few would watch or listen. Cultures and languages of the people became a threat to the country or so its rulers thought. The famous Punjabi poet, Ustad Daman, was labelled a traitor. He was as much a patriot as anyone could possibly be but the powers that be thought he had chosen a ‘wrong’ medium to express himself in. Punjab subscribed to this ‘narrative’ more than any other ethnic entity. It continues to do so even today. Mothers are reluctant to converse with their children in Punjabi for fear of spoiling their ‘accent’. Schools have chosen to ignore it for being a ‘rustic’ language.

Post-2002, private televisions channels and radio stations have gone on to employ ‘national’ languages and those shows which do so are very popular. Language is no longer sacrosanct. Hybridisation is the order of the day. The accent is no issue either. February 21 offers us an opportunity to expand the ‘narrow’ definition of a nation, ask ourselves certain questions. Do multiple languages pose any threat to the ‘one-ness’ of any nation-state? And does one language by itself guarantee a strong state? Multiple languages have not punctured the ‘one-nation’ tube. We still remain who we are — only with better communication.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 21st,  2015.

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Reader Comments (7)

  • Toticalling
    Feb 21, 2015 - 2:33AM

    The world is changing fast as far as language is concerned. When I visted Paris a few decades ago, the French pretended not to speak Engilsh with tourists. I visted Paris a couple of years ago after a long time and was surprised that whoever I spoke to, spoke fluent Engish, even german. In Germany english was taught fron 5th class. Now it has become compulsory from the 1st class. That is why you always find Germans talking in English. This has made Europe comospolitan. Europoaen Central Bank is in Frankfurt, Germany and although UK is not part of Euro currency, the official language spoken there is English.
    We all love our mother languages, recite Urdu Ghazals or tell punjabi jokes acrosse the border and yet have increased our horizon by learning other languages. Weiter so, as the Gerrmans would say.Recommend

  • Feb 21, 2015 - 3:18PM

    A great write up, though late
    right now a generation has divorced Punjabi
    and adopted a guest language the speakers claim
    to have sacrificed.
    In fact we the Punjabis have done it for Pakistan.
    Long live Pakistan Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Feb 21, 2015 - 3:56PM

    The language is used for communication between the two people but it also expresses the culture of the people. One could decide on choosing a lingua franca to facilitate communinications but in no way it represents its superiority over other languges. Both English and urdu are classified in this category and unfortunately not acted to bridge the cultural divide among the people. The only way to understand the cultural divide is the knowledge of several languages.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • A punjabi lover
    Feb 21, 2015 - 7:39PM

    Excellent article. I felt as if my thoughts have been translated in to your words.Recommend

  • Rao
    Feb 21, 2015 - 11:38PM

    Children can learn many dialects and languages like a sponge absorbing water. It must be encouraged. Denying children their mother tongue is a serious mistake which eventually leads to loss of continuity and heritage.Recommend

  • Chachoo
    Feb 22, 2015 - 1:22AM

    @M Jahangir:
    Kindly talk on behalf of yourself only. Still in Punjab more than 90 percent households speak Punjabi. Also why Pakistan needs a Sacrifice of Punjabi language?. Kindly dont tell me the Military sponsored tales that one language should be hated for Pakistan. This is utter non sense in my view. Kindly keep in mind that no one has divorced Punjabi so far. Recommend

  • Feb 22, 2015 - 12:30PM

    No one can more agree with the facts presented in this article. The first step of colonisation of any kind starts from making locals believe that their language is inferior. There is no shortage of arguments to prove that how it is necessary to learn a “superior” language because all the scientific knowledge in its originality can be acquired and understood in that language. It’s not possible to translate all the treasure of science and technology in mother tongue because our economy can’t support it. After buying all these arguments, still we can love, speak and converse in our mother tongue. Recommend

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