Note: This article was originally published in Pakistan Tribe.
Urdu, a language spoken by approx. 200 million people around the globe – the language that played a vital role in the foundation and formulation of the two-nation theory which ultimately led to the formation of Pakistan – Urdu, the national language and “lingua franca” of Pakistan; once proudly claimed by our forefathers to be the one representative language of the Muslim nation of the sub-continent. However, now – after 70 years of independence, we are simply refusing to own it, and to truly honour it as our national language.
The word Urdu comes from the Turkic (old Turkish) word “ordu,” meaning army or military camp. The formal name for Urdu is “Zaban e Urdu e Mualla” (زبان اردوءے معلی) meaning the “Language of the exalted camp,” which refers to the fact that Urdu originated in the camps of the imperial army where the soldiers spoke Persian, Turkish and Sanskrit, and hence another name for Urdu was “Rekhta” – meaning “rough mixture!”
Urdu was, therefore, a very rich language, carrying within itself not just the words but the cultural heritage of four major languages: Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Sanskrit; an amalgamation of cultures and traditions spanning over centuries. Yet, over the past decades following our independence, the value of this refined language has been slipping from our minds. We have somehow become ashamed of owning it, speaking it, and most particularly, of teaching it to our children.
It is quite strange that the language which served as a foundation stone of our national identity should have been discarded by us merely decades after the practical realization of our dream of a separate homeland. Due to our lingering, deep-rooted complexes, an aftermath of almost two centuries of British colonization of the Indo Pak sub-continent, we naturally regard the language of our former masters to be far superior than our poor local language, though the former depicts a slavish mind caught in fetters of servitude to a foreign occupant, while the latter is a representation of the majestic thousand year rule of our own forefathers.
Over the past decades, Urdu has sadly been reduced to a language spoken by the mediocre and the uneducated, or at least less educated, in Pakistan. A language spoken by house servants and domestic helpers – while the relatively more educated and highly educated take a strange kind of pride in not only conversing principally in English, but add insult to the injury by speaking Urdu as if they hardly know it, thus treating Urdu as a second language. It has become almost an unspoken, unwritten rule, the more educated you are, the poorer your Urdu will be. Due to our highly distorted mindset, we actually take English to be a measure of intelligence, though it is just a language, like any other.
Languages originate according to the racial, cultural, ethnic and ideological needs and requirements of the people. While I do not mean to criticize English as a language, yet we appear to have swapped our own refined language, which was ideal for expressing our sentiments as a people, adapted to our cultural, racial, regional and religious requirements; for a language which originated to articulate the sentiments and perceptions of a people belonging to a different race, from a different continent. True, languages are capable of adapting and absorbing multiple cultural and regional influences, yet there is still something farangi or foreign about English that will always keep it from becoming our sole representative language.
It cannot be denied that English appears most sadly deficient in words we are used to expressing our sentiments and feelings in. For instance, there is no word for Haya in English. Modesty does not even come close to it. Haya is a very vast word encompassing a wide array of sentiments which English simply cannot define. Then there’s Ghairat, coming from the Arabic word Ghairah. Translated as honour, integrity, etc, words which poorly define the actual sentiments embedded in it.
The question we need to ask ourselves is why we are so ashamed of teaching our offspring the “complete and unabridged” version of Urdu? Pure Urdu – with no English words jabbed in it to make it appear a horrible patchwork of two very different languages. Common sense tells us that in this digital age, where kids are constantly in touch with technology and electronic media, including cartoons, movies, video games, which are almost entirely in English, it is impossible for them to not be fluent and well versed in this foreign language we so wholeheartedly adore.
Multiple languages facilitate and supplement each other. Latest scientific research tells us that we might not be doing our child a favour by depriving them a chance to learn a second language – which in this case is their own language – in addition to English. There is sufficient scientific evidence to suggest that bilingual or multilingual people have better cognitive skills, better attention span and better judgement compared to those who can speak only one language.
There are two things that define the identity of a people: language and attire. Though we may, quite miraculously, have somewhat retained our national attire over the past 6 decades – despite the changing fashions – we have most criminally neglected and mistreated the second half of our identity, our language. We have devalued and degraded it. We have taught our children to be ashamed of it. We are either oblivious of or simply unperturbed by the fact that our children have lost a major part of their identity by becoming systematically detached from their own national language
If we take a look at some of the non- English speaking nations of the world, France, Germany, China, Japan, there are lessons to be learned. If anything, they teach us how nations preserve their integrity, by honouring their language. This does not imply, however, that English should be entirely given up by us; only that Urdu is granted the place it deserves in our society, our education, and in our hearts and minds.
An important point to be noted here is that in September 2015 the Supreme Court of Pakistan issued an order to the Government of Pakistan to adopt Urdu as the official language of the country. The Supreme Court’s orders were based on article 251 of our constitution which says:
“(1) The National language of Pakistan is Urdu, and arrangements shall be made for its being used for official and other purposes within fifteen years from the commencing day.
(2) Subject to clause (1), the English language may be used for official purposes until arrangements are made for its replacement by Urdu.”
We Pakistanis are probably not even aware that such an article even exists within our constitution. Our founding fathers would certainly have wanted us to set ourselves free from our slavish mindset by getting rid of the colonial language, and replacing it with the language we fought for, the one which represents us.
Urdu is our identity – a sign and symbol of our national integrity. It defines our magnificent history, our lost glory. Perhaps one of the reasons our country’s image keeps sinking internationally is that we have failed to honour what we should have honoured, both on a collective and an individual level. A nation thus suffering from an inferiority complex about its own language can never be self-assertive. A nation so uncertain about its own identity should never expect others to respect and honour its sovereignty.