Salvaging Urdu

Any policy directed at revival, preservation of Urdu must also account that English is essential for global access


Sahar Bandial July 13, 2015
The writer is a practising lawyer and teaches law at two colleges in Lahore

The Supreme Court has, over the last few weeks, kept the Federation on its feet regarding the language question. What steps, it has asked, have been taken to fulfil the constitutional imperative of granting Urdu the status of the official language?

According to a statement made before the Court by a government official on July 10, the president, the prime minister, federal and provincial ministers and government employees are to now deliver all speeches, within Pakistan or abroad, in Urdu. Circulars issued by the federal government have directed ministries to employ Urdu as the language of correspondence, ordered the translation of all government policies into Urdu, instructed the bureaucracy to take notes and issue official orders in Urdu and provided that tests conducted by the NTS for certain government jobs shall be in Urdu. These measures follow a significant decision of the cabinet, taken on May 14, 2015, declaring Urdu the “official” language of Pakistan.

The cabinet’s decision and the judicial interest in the matter may be critical in ensuring that Urdu, constitutionally designated the national language, does not become irrelevant. The protection and patronage being extended to Urdu is pursuant to Article 251 of the Constitution, a legal mandate requiring the eventual replacement of English with Urdu as the official language of Pakistan. Many of the urban elite, and those who seek association with them, however, find it increasingly expedient to adopt English as the lingua franca, even amidst individuals not necessarily belonging to a divergent linguistic group. The English language operates as a licence, granting greater accessibility to economic opportunities, and acceptance and mobility through echelons of society. This practice may be a colonial remnant, or a result of globalisation. Consequently, we converse in a warped mix of English and Urdu, at times unable to construct a whole sentence in just one language, admit ashamedly our inability to pen such a column in our national language; or are warned that being referred to as “ammi” by our child may earn her/him the epithet ‘uncool’.

There is also a nationalist rationale to such policy. A language is a marker of a group’s identity and often an embodiment of its shared cultural heritage. In multilingual polities, a national language is expected to function as a unifying force bridging cultural and ethnic divides. But in a state like Pakistan where, according to the last census, only eight per cent of the population identifies itself as Urdu speakers, the elevation of, and the patronage extended to the Urdu language has, in the past, proved divisive. Calls for the division of our federation on linguistic lines still continue to be aired vociferously.

Regardless, the new language policy is to be hailed from the perspective of cultural preservation. To permit the national language to fall into disuse would be to lose a rich past penned in Urdu, and to deprive our children of the romanticism and depth of Urdu literature. The cultural argument, however, is equally applicable to the multitude of regional languages spoken in Pakistan. To a Punjabi merely acquainted with the tales of Heer Ranjha, or the mysticism of Bulleh Shah’s poetry, patronage by the state of the languages spoken in Punjab is equally warranted. It would be so for languages spoken in other parts of the federation as well.

Surely, seeing our head of state address a UN General Assembly in our national language, much like the Indian Prime Minister did last year, would be a moment of pride. But would such a move be sufficient to salvage our languages? Along with a policy framework mandating the employment of Urdu (or other regional languages) as the medium of communication /instruction in government offices/schools, what we require is an attitudinal shift in society away from the devaluation of our local languages. Yet one must admit that the English language cannot entirely be ignored. Any policy directed at the revival and preservation of the languages of Pakistan must also account for the fact that in today’s world economy, proficiency in English is essential for access to global markets, quality education and technology.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 14th, 2015.

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COMMENTS (14)

Urdu | 5 years ago | Reply @observer: You're telling me stuff I already know, India has more "Urdu-speakers" than Pakistan but most of them don't even speak it properly, it's extremely Bollywoodized with some weird Bhojpuri/Bombay/Madrasi/Hinglish slang mixed in, it's not about the verbs being Sanskrit, just compare Urdu on Pakistani television to the one spoken in India, you can clearly hear that the Urdu spoken in Pakistan is much more appeasing on the ears, no wonder the success of Pakistani poets,writers and dramas. Also wikipedia isn't a good source, 13 million is only the number of native Urdu speakers, but almost every Pakistan is fluent and a has a good command of Urdu since we use it as our lingua franca(unifying language), just watch any Pakistani channel and you can find Sindhis,Punjabis,Baloch,Pukhtuns,Kashmiris conversing fluently in Urdu other than their native languages(which they have retained) @Sridhar The vast majority Pakistanis can speak in Urdu perfectly fine, it's Indians who sound funny to us. Also more than 50% of Pakistanis can read and write Urdu, making up stats doesn't change facts. @Nishant "Of course Indians claim urdu, because it belongs to region of Delhi and lucknow Nothing annoys more than seeing a punjabi slurring urdu in front of a Delhiwala" You do realize that not all Pakistanis are Punjabis?! My Grandparents were from the cities you mentioned and Urdu is our native language, and the Urdu-speaking community did shape up Pakistan's cultural fabric in the early years and still retain large influence, at least in the cultural sphere, by the way going by stats, Delhi "urdu" is no longer Urdu anymore, the city has been taken over by Haryanvis now and has more Punjabi-speakers now. Also just cause somebody isn't from Lucknow doesn't mean that they can't speak Urdu well, I believe the modern Pakistani dialect of Urdu spoken here is much more appealing than the Hindi/"Urdu" spoken in India now, just watch any of our TV shows, the language is more refined, and of course this modern dialect that has been formed in Pakistan is now influenced by local languages such as Punjabi,Pashto and the like, so it's very naturalized in a way.
observer | 5 years ago | Reply @Urdu: Indians love to claim Urdu as their own yet most Indians can’t even speak Urdu properly without adding some Bhojpuri,Madrasi and Bombay slang, yet still claim it! A. Well India has 86 million people who speak Urdu. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/StatesofIndiabyUrdu_speakers Pakistan on the other hand has only 13 million Urdu speakers. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LanguagesofPakistan B. Now coming to the Bhojpuri/Madrasi/Bombay slang part, Allow me to advise you that, Urdu formed from Khariboli—a Prakrit spoken in North India—by adding Persian and Arabic words to it. Around 99% of Urdu verbs have their roots in Sanskrit and Prakrit. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urdu
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