Thursday November 30, 2023

Urdu: from pidgin to creole

“Punjabi families no longer speak Punjabi with their children”. This generalisation we usually hear whenever we talk about the long-standing issue of language in Pakistan. This is, though, a generalisation and cannot be applied to the whole of Punjab; however, it is true enough for most of the urban elite

October 09, 2015
“Punjabi families no longer speak Punjabi with their children”. This generalisation we usually hear whenever we talk about the long-standing issue of language in Pakistan. This is, though, a generalisation and cannot be applied to the whole of Punjab; however, it is true enough for most of the urban elite suburbs of Punjab.
Since much of Pakistan’s political power and military might is exercised by an elite urban feudal class in Punjab, we very often tend to forget the larger rural Punjabi community which faces the same problems as anyone living in rural Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Balochistan. In some aspects the rural Punjabi lives an even worse life. A trip to the interior of Punjab will be enough to shatter the myth about the ‘big brother’. In rural Punjab one comes frequently across with people who can neither speak nor understand Urdu.
Urdu language historians and our textbooks tell us that the etymology of the term ‘Urdu’ is Turkish ‘lashkar’ suggesting that Urdu is actually made of various elements from different languages when the speakers of those languages came into contact with each other because of trade and military manoeuvres.
Linguists call such a language ‘contact language’ or pidgin. This is not unique to Urdu only. When two or more language communities come into contact for trade they usually need a ‘makeshift’ language, which later becomes pidgin.
Pidgins are made by social conditions in order to enable communication between different language communities. Pidgin thus becomes the ‘second language’ for the communities in contact; it is in addition to their indigenous languages, which they use for intra-communal communication. This is very true for Urdu in most of Pakistan. Urdu is now a second language for many citizens in Pakistan.
When a society is bilingual in their indigenous language and the dominant language of the ‘nation-state’ we find that each language has its own functions, and switching from one to the other underlies specific identifiable patterns. This we notiernce when a Punjabi, Sindhi, Pakhtun or a speaker of the Dardic languages of north Pakistan speaks Urdu.
A ‘nation-state’ usually needs a national language; and a national culture, too. After Independence both India and Pakistan faced the issue of how to build their ‘nations’ out of the multiple ethnicities within the new countries that would be legitimately different from each other as well.
Prior to Independence, the primary language issues in the Subcontinent were linguistic diversity, and the relative status of Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, English and other regional languages. Urdu use was (and is) mostly associated with Muslims in South Asia, but spoken Urdu is generally understood by Hindi speakers and vice versa.
In order to claim a unique identity, mostly charged by religion, the ideologues and demagogues of the two-nation theory stressed the use of Arabic and Persian lexicon instead of that of Sanskrit in Urdu. On the other end, the Hindu nationalists began to revive more and more Sanskrit words in Hindi. These people had applied ethnogenesis. The divergence was the political need of that time otherwise there is virtually no difference between Urdu and Hindi except the religious jargons in both the languages.
A ‘nation-building’ project based on a single language and culture is very often counter-productive. In reality there is no ‘nation-state’ today in the world. The nation-states are actually multiethnic and multicultural with different ethnic communities within. Europe and the United States are presented as examples of nation-states. In today’s America we see the Navajo, like many other American Indians, asserting their identity and rejuvenating their language – Navajo.
Pakistan has seen the counter-effects of imposing a single language and culture on a multiethnic society in the transformation of East Pakistan into a separate state, Bangladesh. But, as in every case, the power-wielders always learn the opposite lessons – whether it is the ethnic unrest or outcomes of using religion for geostrategic purposes.
Instead of getting the right lesson of giving the right status to multiethnic communities in Pakistan, those with power took the cultural multiplicity of Pakistan as a threat. They blamed the Bengalis and Indians for breaking the country, ignoring what they had themselves been doing since the very idea of a separate homeland for the Muslims of the United India.
The recent laudable but impracticable judgement by the Lahore-based chief justice of Pakistan to switch over to Urdu instead of English as the official language of Pakistan indicates the love our urban Punjabi brothers have for Urdu. The judgement would have been lovelier if the honourable judge had mentioned the need to protect the rich linguistic diversity of Pakistan as well.
As mentioned earlier, our urban Punjabi establishment is shy of their language and identity. They love Urdu; and regard its exclusion an incomplete agenda of their ‘nation-building’ project. They recommend Urdu for us in education and in the public sphere but ironically they educate their children in elite English medium schools in Pakistan or abroad.
The middle urban class of Punjab is shy of their language. They regard it a symbol of backwardness; too rustic and often slang as we mostly hear Punjabi from them when they are in a light mood. They don’t deem Punjabi ‘civilised’ enough to be transmitted to their children, and so avoid its use at homes. They are actually making creole of a pidgin.
When a pidgin takes the place of the first language (native language) of a people, it becomes a creole. Urdu is now being made creole in urban Punjab. The middle class tries to make it creole for their children whereas the elites give English that status. However, the question that still remains unanswered is: will such a scheme in education and public work, as – unfortunately – Pakistan’s 200 million people are not all elite?
The writer heads IBT, an independent organisation dealing with education and development in Swat.