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Urdu’s last stand

Ehsan Masood
9 January 2007

The web may be helping to harmonise English usage around the world, but – especially across the association of former British colonies known as the Commonwealth - the survival of older words and phrases makes this very much a work in progress.

Nowhere more so than in Pakistan, where any interchange with agencies of the state can involve an interesting lesson in history – less the country's history than the history of the English language. Pakistan's school-leaving exam, for example, is still called "matriculation". The government office lavatories are labelled "latrines". A man who wishes to marry may be required to specify whether his spouse is a "maiden".

Despite much rhetoric and many policies to make the use of the Urdu language routine across government, education, the professions and trades, it is English (old and modern) that remains stubbornly embedded as the favoured medium of communications in Pakistan. So much so, that in December 2006 the education ministry took many by surprise with a new policy announcement. From late 2007, the English language will be taught much earlier in all state schools, and English will take over from Urdu as the medium of instruction for natural sciences and mathematics.

The authors of a white paper released to the media on 7 January 2007 rightly agree that early-years education should be in a child's mother tongue. They also conclude that the current starting-point for pupils in state schools to learn in English (age 10) will be significantly reduced (though disagreement remains within the ministry over the exact age at which science and maths should begin to be taught in the language).

This is the second of two articles by Ehsan Masood on Pakistan's language policies. The first, "Pakistan's education gamble", was published on 13 December 2006

Some have been taken aback by these developments, seeing them as yet another sign that the generals who rule Pakistan seem keen on selling every last item of the family silver to London and Washington. You couldn't, for example, imagine China announcing that English would be replacing Chinese in schools, or Iran declaring that she wants to replace Farsi with French as a medium of instruction.

But what is true of China and Iran is not quite the same for Pakistan. That a development of such magnitude seems to have passed off with relatively little opposition points to an uncomfortable reality that is shared among the countries of the Commonwealth: what to do about the fact that English is just too well established to replace with any other language. In recognising this question, Pakistan's policymakers have begun to understand what the nation's citizens have known for some time.

Urdu's journey

Urdu is without question one of the world's great literary languages. Together with Hindi (its equivalent in India, but written in a different script) it is the world's fifth or sixth most spoken language; at least 350 million people use it daily. Along with the printing press, Urdu has had a central place in communicating Islam in south Asia, a role that continues today. Hindi/Urdu is the language of Indian cinema and Urdu journalism continues to thrive - not least in India where there are some 3,000 daily Urdu newspapers.

But there are many things that Urdu is not. It is not, for example, the language of the upper reaches of Pakistan's legal system, nor is it the language used in written communication in government offices in the capital city, the stock exchange, modern medicine, higher education and research. Pakistan's Urdu-language cinema industry, meanwhile, produces fewer than fifty films a year.

Urdu's failure to become a working language is recognised by parents who increasingly demand an education with English at its core (alongside Urdu and other national languages) - except that they have to pay for it privately as it is not available to them from the state. They know that fluency in English is among the tightest guarantees of a higher quality of life for the children from families who are not born into wealth, or privilege.

English may be popular, but many still ask if it is right for a country to reduce the reach of its national language. There are probably two answers to this. The first is that not teaching science and maths in Urdu is unlikely to have much of an impact on Urdu as a language of letters, on the numbers who buy newspapers, or on those who read Urdu on the web. Nor will it affect people's ability to follow Urdu on radio or television.

Ehsan Masood is a writer and journalist based in London. He is the author of British Muslims: Media Guide (British Council/Association of Muslim Social Scientists, 2006), and co-editor (with Daniel Schaffer) of Dry: Life Without Water (Harvard University Press). He has also edited How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (Pluto Press). He writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network

Ehsan Masood's writes a regular column for openDemocracy: Global Politics

A second answer is that what we are seeing today is a result of the fact that the project to create a national working language out of Urdu was at best poorly executed from the beginning; at worst it was misconceived. How so?

Urdu is a younger language than its relatives Arabic and Farsi: written Urdu is little more than four centuries old, and the first records of the use of "Urdu" as a name for the language only appear after 1780. At the same time, spoken Urdu - according to the historian Shamsur Rahman Faruqi - could be up to 900 years old.

Urdu's earliest years in prose and print coincide with the arrival of Britain in India. In later years, Farsi would be phased out as the language of public administration to be replaced with Hindi, Urdu and English. Philologists such as George Grierson (1851-1941), employed by the government to advise on language policies, recognised that Urdu and Hindi together had the curious feature of being understood by a majority in India, even though they were the principal language for a much smaller minority in Delhi and neighbouring cities. But even Grierson knew that it was unrealistic to expect Urdu and Hindi to dominate all of India and advised his superiors against pursuing such grandiose ambitions.

Pakistan's independence-era leaders seemed to brush all such reservations aside when they sought to make Urdu the principal language for their new country (rather than allowing a variety of languages to have equal status). This decision contributed to the secession of predominantly Bengali-speaking East Pakistan (and its transformation into the new nation of Bangladesh) in 1971.

Much has been done to mainstream Urdu into the life of Pakistan. But these efforts have had a self-defeating quality. Why? A primary reason is that Pakistan's leaders from the earliest times were themselves no advertisement for Urdu. In addition, the country's elites and communities of professionals such as lawyers, doctors and scientists never themselves stopped using English. Public and private correspondence between members of the country's founding Muslim League shows that day-to-day communications were conducted exclusively in English (see Roger D Long, ed., Dear Mr Jinnah: Selected Correspondence and Speeches of Liaquat Ali Khan, 1937-1947).

The same could also be said for the current generation of politicians including Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf, neither of whom are at all comfortable in Urdu. For the Daughter of the East that she claims to be, Bhutto penned her autobiography in English; as more recently did the general In the Line of Fire. (The Urdu edition of Musharraf's memoir is in fact a translation from the English original, though it uses a different title).

The long-term consequence of the new language policy is that, at last, parents from all income groups will be able to get a better English-language education for their children than at present. This, with due recognition of the losses as well as gains that may be involved, can be no bad thing. A world-class command of Urdu with an ability to appreciate the skill of its writers and poets is undoubtedly good for the soul. But what seems to count for more in 21st-century Pakistan is that fluency in English is good for the CV.

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