Language/Meaning / 24.02.2013

By Hasan Altaf Interviewing Chinua Achebe - the author of Things Fall Apart, who has become, through the usual process of reduction, a one-man stand-in for Nigerian when not for African literature - for The Paris Review, in 1994, Jerome Brooks noted that the majority of Achebe's work was in English. He asked about the existence or importance of Igbo translations, and Achebe responded with a story about an Anglican missionary's attempt to standardize his language's many dialects: The way [Archdeacon Dennis] did it was to invite six people from six different dialectal areas. They sat round a table and they took a sentence from the Bible: In the beginning, God created… or whatever. In. What is it in your dialect? And they would take that. The. Yours? Beginning. Yours? And in this way… they created what is called Standard Igbo. The result: unmusical, "wooden," "a terrible tragedy." Standardizing...

Language/Meaning / 21.02.2012

By Hannah Green Everything starts to look like Urdu if you spend enough time staring at Urdu words trying to get them into your head. The script is fluid. Some letters can squiggle tightly or stretch long, sometimes letters stack on top of one another and sometimes they go side by side. It is this fluidity that makes Urdu so enthralling to look at, but also very difficult to learn to read. I’ll find myself squinting at a word in one of the more artistic fonts, wondering if a dot should attach to the loop on its right or the notch on its left. Of course, the reason that I have these difficulties is that, for me, the language learning process is backward. Someone whose mother tongue is Urdu would have learned the vocabulary before trying to learn to read it, so they’ll know which interpretation of...

Language/Meaning / 20.11.2011

By Anjum Altaf ‘Urdu has changed from the Urdu of Mir and Ghalib but that simply proves it is a living language.’ That was one of the comments I received on earlier posts (here and here) about the past and future of the language. At one level, it is a statement of the obvious – nothing ever stays the same. At another, it invites a host of questions: What is the nature of the change? Who owns the language now? What functions is it serving? Such questions could be answered by survey of Urdu speakers. A canvassing of urban centers would suffice in Pakistan since Urdu is not a regional language and hence not spoken widely in rural areas. (The situation might differ in India.) An organization like the National Language Authority could design the exercise but is unlikely to do so for any number of reasons. The...

Language/Meaning / 29.07.2011

By Anjum Altaf Any discussion of the future of Urdu arouses heated emotions turning swiftly into a test of one’s loyalties. But love of the language should have no bearing on a candid consideration of its prospects. I believe such a consideration is possible and wish to revisit the issue in light of aspects of the language I have been thinking about lately. As part of the exploration of some aspects of Urdu speech, I have already discussed the rise of King’s Urdu in the courts of the later Mughals where, according to many, it attained its zenith during the reign of Bahadur Shah with whom the dynasty came to an end. Did that event mark a major turning point in the trajectory of Urdu? All phenomena with historical roots have a momentum that carries them beyond the point at which their sustaining force is removed. What...

Language/Meaning / 28.07.2011

By Anjum Altaf A native Urdu speaker took a class in Portuguese and earned the following evaluation: “You were among the best students in the class but you speak like a robot.” Was it the student or was it Urdu? It is an intriguing thread to follow. The ensuing speculations, by one with no training in linguistics, are recorded in the hope that something of interest about the language might fall out as a result. There is little doubt that the delivery of what may be termed King’s Urdu (of which, more later) is flat in terms of stresses, inflections and intonations of speech. If tonal languages like Chinese, which rely on variations in pitch to convey meaning, are at one end of the spectrum, then Urdu, which seemingly does away with tonality altogether, must certainly be at the other. That in itself is not an issue as...

Language/Meaning / 20.06.2011

By Anjum Altaf I am an Urdu speaker from Pakistan who wrote an account (From Urdu to Hindi, Farsi and Beyond) of an immensely rewarding experience of learning the Devanagari script very quickly. As a result, I have been asked to guide those wishing to cross the divide from the other side. Nothing could be more gratifying and I have decided to devote a separate post to the effort in order to have enough room to indulge myself. For those who know Hindi, the news is all good. You already know Urdu so there is really nothing to learn. Hindi and Urdu share the same Khari Boli grammar and therefore are the same language from a linguistic perspective. The branches of this common trunk have been pruned and grafted such that we think we are looking at two different species of trees. But that is an illusion;...

Language/Meaning / 18.06.2011

By Anjum Altaf As an Urdu speaker, I had always felt it would be simple to learn Hindi and Farsi. The first shares the grammar and much of the essential vocabulary, differing only in script; the second shares the script and a considerable number of words, differing in construction of sentences and manner of speaking. My attempts to transform resolve into results yielded both confirmations and surprises and taught me something about learning, about languages, about our world and about myself. I had always believed Hindi would be easier to learn than Farsi, but not by much. I felt I could learn Hindi within a month and Farsi within six. My Hindi-speaking friends tried to disabuse me by regularly tossing alien and tough-sounding words in my direction. I kept reminding them that I was fluent in English, yet did not know the meaning of many words.All that...

Language/Meaning / 06.03.2011

By Anjum Altaf In response to a question asking why Faiz Ahmad Faiz was so much more popular then other, clearly ‘better,’ poets, I had argued (here and here) that we should enjoy poets on their own terms and not bother overmuch with ranking them. Comparisons being difficult, I used a metaphor from music to suggest some of the ways in which poets differ – while Faiz could be considered a poet of the vilambit, Ghalib was one of the drut, and it makes as little sense to compare Faiz and Ghalib as it does to compare a vilambit to a drut. I am aware that the argument can be pushed: Can we not compare poets of the vilambit or of the drut to elucidate what might be involved in such comparisons? I am faced with that challenge from a reader: I would find it more interesting if...

Language/Meaning / 07.02.2011

By Anjum Altaf In a recent article (The Music of Poetry), I argued that it didn’t make sense to ask if one poet was greater than another. The musical metaphor I attempted proved to be the undoing of the piece; perhaps I should have tried a different metaphor – it would be silly, for example, to ask if Tendulkar is “greater” than Muralitharan, though both are cricketers. The reason is obvious, the one being a batsman and the other a bowler. My conclusion was simply that we should place less emphasis on “greatness,” however defined, and focus instead on the pleasure that comes from a given work. The use of a cricketing metaphor, however, adds another point to the argument. In cricket, statistics are available for comparison in a way impossible for poetry or music, but even then the matter is not as simple as it seems.Comparisons...