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Language/Meaning / 21.05.2019

By Anjum Altaf There is something intriguing about the use of script and language in Pakistan that is crying out for an explanation. My observations of the phenomenon began in the metropolis before being extended to small cities and rural towns in the Punjab but the story is more interestingly narrated in the reverse order. Next time you are in a rural town in the Punjab raise your eye-level from the cell phone to the shopfront and you shall see virtually all the shop signs in the Urdu script. This is to be expected as very few people in such places can read English. But look again -- almost every sign is a transliteration into Urdu script of an English name. The most humble khoka is a ‘Cold Corner’ or a ‘Jus Shop’ written, of course, as pronounced in Urdu -- kaarner for corner and shaap for...

Language/Meaning / 11.07.2017

By Anjum Altaf The other day I read an article on indigenous languages. I admired its spirit but was dismayed by its logic relating language and learning. The article mentioned there are 17 languages spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of which only two, Pashto and Hindko, will be explicitly recorded in the forthcoming census. The rest will be categorized as ‘Other.’ The author feared these languages would decay and urged the government to preserve them for posterity. So far, so good as the fate of minor languages is a global concern. But the article included a paragraph that needs to be quoted in full: There are some experts who argue that a child should be taught in the mother tongue till a certain grade before opting for any other language at an advanced stage. The argument seems to be flawed since languages become harder to learn with age. So one...

Language/Meaning / 14.03.2016

By Anjum Altaf Language has started vying for inclusion in the small set of problems that compete for the title of the ‘biggest’ problem in Pakistan holding back development with the implied suggestion that solving this one problem would set most other things right in the country. This small set includes overpopulation, corruption, illiteracy, and secularism. A rising tide of opinion now claims that if only we could make the ‘correct’ choice of language we would emerge as a strong nation in the modern world. Only a little reflection is needed to debunk such one-dimensional arguments. Take just one example, that of overpopulation. Shouldn’t one ask why China and India, with over five times the population of Pakistan, have developed so much faster? Why the development of Pakistan didn’t take off like a rocket after it shed half its population in Bangladesh? Why Balochistan, the least populated province...

Language/Meaning / 12.03.2016

By Anjum Altaf One can agree with most things Pervez Hoodbhoy says on language (Is Pakistan’s problem Urdu? Dawn, March 5, 2016) and yet be left with the impression that he has painted with so broad a brush as to distract from the clarity of the issue and be actually misleading on some points. Let us begin with the first part of his conclusion: “No nation becomes stronger by having the ‘correct’ official language. Very true, but this does not imply that a nation cannot become weaker by having an ‘incorrect’ official language. For proof, just return to the beginning of the article where the author takes two paragraphs to assert the damaging effect of attempting to impose an ‘incorrect’ official language on East Pakistan. Not only did the nation end up weaker, it actually broke apart. Next consider the second part of the conclusion: “Education cannot be...

Language/Meaning / 19.12.2015

By Anjum Altaf Remembering is one thing; not forgetting another. One of the dates we should not forget is December 16, 1971. My contribution to not forgetting is an attempt to capture the spirit of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Dhaka se Waapsii par, a poem Faiz wrote a few years after the event. As I have written before (Faiz – 1: The City), I am not attempting a translation, something virtually impossible to manage from Urdu into English. Faiz Sahib’s words in this regard provide the best counsel (in Faiz Ahmed Faiz on Daud Kamal): "Translating poetry, even when confined to a cognate language with some formal and idiomatic affinities with the original compositions, is an exacting task, but this task is obviously far more formidable when the languages involved are far removed from each other in cultural background, rhythmic and formal patterns, and the vocabulary of symbol and allusion...

Language/Meaning / 05.12.2015

I deserve to be congratulated because I have now passed Farsi Level 1 (Beginner) and graduated to Level 2 (Intermediate). Although nowhere near the accomplishment of Jhumpa Lahiri whose next book will be coming out in Italian (see Teach Yourself Italian for an inspiring story), I am greatly encouraged by the progress I have made. Some readers might recall my struggles with Farsi narrated here some time back (From Urdu to Hindi, Farsi and Beyond). Very briefly, as an Urdu speaker, I had assumed I would pick up Farsi quickly given the common script and overlapping vocabulary. That did not turn out to be the case leaving me exceedingly frustrated after almost a year of struggle. I finally discovered the right mix of teaching methods and tools – interacting with an instructor in a small class and learning the grammar by reading and writing short texts. That,...

Language/Meaning / 07.11.2015

By Anjum Altaf The article on the transition to Urdu as the official language of Pakistan (Urdu in Pakistan: A Dispassionate Analysis) elicited a number of substantive comments which I will address in this third and concluding part of the series. Almost all these comments challenged, from one standpoint or another, the usefulness of and need for Urdu in Pakistan and stressed, by default, the importance of English in a globally connected world. I intend to defend the decision of the Supreme Court against these objections but before doing so I will spell out the recommendation of the 2010 British Council study on schooling in Pakistan, not because I consider it sacrosanct, but because it provides a concrete suggestion which can serve as a reference point for the ensuing discussion. The study arrived at the following conclusion: Early years education must be provided in a child’s home language....

Language/Meaning / 31.10.2015

By Anjum Altaf I am grateful to those who have participated in the discussion initiated by the post on the recent Supreme Court decision mandating the switch from English to Urdu as the official language of Pakistan (Urdu in Pakistan: A Dispassionate Analysis). Unfortunately, the majority of the comments were received as emails which do not help to generate a public discussion and I once again request readers to post their thoughts on the blog itself. The majority of the comments pertained to the scope of the article, the accuracy of historical claims, and to issues of interpretation of past events. However, there were some that raised substantive questions and I will address them in a subsequent post. In this post, I intend to clear some misunderstandings that I see coming in the way of a fruitful discussion. I also do not wish the misunderstandings to be...

Language/Meaning / 24.10.2015

By Anjum Altaf Our experience with the politics of language has been so traumatic – first with the Urdu-Hindi divide contributing to the partition of India and then with the Urdu-Bengali divide contributing to the partition of Pakistan – that we need to step with the utmost caution in the new quagmire created by the recent Supreme Court decision to replace English with Urdu as the official language of the country. That said, the decision has to be examined on its own merits without our judgement being prejudiced by the experiences of the past however traumatic they may have been or any politicking aimed at local and parochial gains. To state my conclusion at the outset, I find most of the objections to the decision misplaced and analytically unwarranted but I would like to begin by outlining the primary functions of a language in order to support...

Language/Meaning / 16.11.2014

By Anjum Altaf Urdu hai jis ka naam hamiiN jantey haiN Daagh Saarey jahaaN meiN dhuum hamaarii zubaaN ki hai Daagh, we know, the language, Urdu is its name Celebrated over the entire world is its fame A Hindi speaker, fond of Urdu, came across the following text in a letter by Premchand (dated 22 February 1925): "Priy Shivapujan Sahay ji, Vande. Mujhe to aap bhool hi gaye. Leejiye, jis pustak par aapne kaii maheene dimagh-rezi kee thi vah aapka ahsaan ada karti hui aapki khidmat men jaati hai aur aapse vinti karti hai ki mujhe do-chaar ghanton ke liye ekaant ka samay deejiye aur tab aap meri nisbat jo rai qayam karen vah apni manohar bhasha men kah deejiye...