At a Loss for Words

By Anjum Altaf

I recently visited public high schools in two villages in Mandi Bahauddin district. I was impressed by the insights of their heads on the merits of various languages of instruction. They regretted not being consulted on the matter and I couldn’t agree more with them.

I had one incongruous visual impression pertaining to the names of the schools that might seem peripheral to many. In villages with every student a native speaker of Punjabi and Urdu the medium of instruction, the names of schools, written in both Urdu and English, were comprised entirely of English words — Government, Girls, High, and School. 

I wonder if this strikes anyone as odd? It would be fine to refer to a school thus in a report written in English but shouldn’t it have an indigenous name as well? In India, one comes across ‘kendriya vidyalaya’ and in Iran I am sure there is some equivalent of ‘madrassa-e markazi.’ (In conversation, it became clear there were no local terms for headmaster or headmistress either.) 

We have perfectly good words in Urdu for Government (Sarkar) and Girls (LarkiyaN/NisvaaN). Madrassah was the term for School except that it has been shunned and left for institutions imparting religion to the poor. But we have Maktab as an alternative. It was only ‘High’ that stumped me. 

The lack of a local name for such a vital institution made me wonder what goes on in the minds of parents when they send their daughters to a place called Government Girls High School. Do they think it is an alien institution, a colonial legacy with no equivalent in our own tradition?

Perhaps not. I doubt if people rack their brains over such questions. Children have to go to iskool/sakool, gormint or pryvate, and that’s that. But, at another level, the question is intriguing. It is certainly not the case that there was no education in the Punjab before the British and we have GW Leitner’s 1882 book ‘History of Indigenous Education in India’ to vouch for that. The institutions must have had local names in those times — I saw remnants of pathshalas and gurukuls and there were madrassahs, of course. 

Thinking along these lines, it occurred to me that we have no word for College and although Jamia is a perfect equivalent for University (there is the Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi and the thousand-year-old Jamia Al-Azhar in Cairo), we don’t employ that term either.

There is much less of a loss of words in Persian — primary school is ‘dabestan’, high school is ‘dabirestan’, college is ‘daneshkadeh’, and university is ‘daneshgah’. Hindi also has reverse-engineered the vocabulary — ‘vidyalaya’ for school, ‘mahavidyalaya’ for college, and ‘vishvavidyalaya’ for university. 

When I looked up websites of institutions in Iran and India, I saw their indigenous names along with their English translations with both displayed on their respective logos. Thus, Daneshgah-e Tehran (Tehran University), Jawaharlal Nehru Vishvavidyalaya (Jawaharlal Nehru University), Bharatiya Praudyogikee Sansthaan (Indian Institute of Technology), Bhratiya Prabandh Sansthaan (Indian Institute of Management), etc. All have websites in the local language as well. 

Contrast that with Lahore University of Management Sciences that was conceived and born in English and has not felt the need to invent a local name or offer a website in Urdu. (‘Lums,’ on the other hand, has entered the vocabulary as a local term which led to a mercifully aborted move by the university to rename itself LumsU.)  

All this is intriguing because of the great tradition of learning in the subcontinent with landmark contributions to mathematics, astronomy, architecture, philosophy, theology, politics, and sexuality. The scholarship in these fields must have had institutional foundations. 

The first institution of higher learning in the world, a university with over 10,000 foreign students, was founded in the 10th century BC in Takshila, now in Pakistan. Such great names as Charaka, Panini, Kautilya, and Chandragupta Maurya were students at this institution. What was it called? When a student set out for it, where did he say he was going? Nalanda, the renowned 5th century AD monastery-cum-centre of learning, was called a ‘Mahavihara.’ These universities must have had subsidiary institutions with distinct names. 

I know this is not something that consumes our TV channels but although I can’t place my finger on it, I have a feeling that somewhere, deep down, the loss of words might matter. I respect the opinion of those who respond that languages grow by absorbing new words, that old names were not native either but borrowed from Sanskrit, Persian or Arabic, and that there really was no tradition of mass secular education before the British. But what of the loss of perfectly good words like ustaad and ustaani or pirach and piyali for that matter? Hindi has been gaining words over the last century while Urdu has been losing them. What does our shrinking vocabulary say about us? It is an issue worth a thought on a lazy winter evening.

This opinion was published in Dawn on January 3, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

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