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The language of today

The language grows at times violently, at times steadily, and it is formed, like much other, in retrospect

The language of today

Language is an ever-changing form of human expression. There are so many languages in the world, spoken and written and there have been so many languages ever since mankind learnt to speak and express itself verbally, that it is impossible to lay a number on them. Languages become extinct and new languages are born that survive as long as they cater to the expressive and creative needs of a group of people.

Many languages have a trans-national or a trans-regional character. Conquerors in their empires made sure the language of their culture was imposed and made the dominant expression of rule and authority. Many in the process changed the script and a living language with a totally different script came into being which then, over a period of time, became the accepted script of the language.

Language also is a means of forging identities, which principally are based on shared values and heritage. It is the major repository of national or collective consciousness and that becomes the basis of a sentiment that can be expressed politically in nationalistic terms. Similarly, languages have been associated with religions and the religious rituals and, to many in the past and many even now, diversification into any other language for the purposes of religious obligation and discourse is considered a sacrilege or the violation of a sacred bond.

In literature, it is impossible to translate the ethos and sensibility of one language into another. There is a massive loss of subtlety and quality.

So, the question of language is not as easy as many think. The great proponents of English in our context value the significance of English as a language of scientific development and the only way or the easier way proposed is to adopt this language rather than to make the effort at translating the great fund of the language into native or national language. That to accept the language of the most advanced nations or peoples the only way possible on the journey to development is a supposition that has been rendered hollow by the development in science and technology by the Japanese, Koreans, and the Chinese in their respective languages.

The charcoal, the quill pen, bark of trees, wood, leather, stone, papier mache all must have had their characteristic limitations imposed on the development of language as the computer, SMS and Twitter do these days.

Some have questioned the progress of these societies and have labelled them as imitations only. But their quantum leap into open creativity depends more on their ability to cultivate an environment of free enquiry rather than the mere characteristics of their languages.

Then there are many who are forever worried about the loss of quality in the expression of a language. These days one hears a lot, especially on the media, radio, and television where the mixing of language is galore — Punjabi, Urdu, English in our case —  and scant respect is paid to accent, pronunciation, and the style of rendition. It forces many to question the proliferation of the platforms. Allied with it is the nostalgia for days when special attention was paid to accent, pronunciation, and inflection in rendering the language. In our case, the state-owned radio provided the lead.

Urdu is a very recent language by comparison. In the various dialects that were spoken around Delhi, the poetical expression known as rekhta while form/diction known as rekhti was employed in tukbundi or in doggerel while people with a serious bent wrote in Persian. It was only when Wali Dakhni visited Delhi from the Deccan, where incipient Urdu was not burdened by overbearing Persian in the 18th century that the local poets realised that more serious poetry could also be written in the dialects, which subsequently came to be known as Urdu. The more serious phase of Urdu poetry started with Mir and he can be called the first major poet of the language. His creative life spanned greater part of the 18th century.

The British colonialists attached a great deal of significance to Urdu and it was during their early rule that Persian saw its demise and Urdu was made the language of medium of instruction in the Punjab. It found a new home, as it were, and more literary journals were published here than in Delhi and (UP) United Provinces. Then, the Punjab produced its first major poet of the Urdu language, Iqbal, by the beginning of the 20th century. All through his life and even posthumously he was pilloried for an incorrect use of the language by those hailing from the Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb. When he recited his poetry he was piqued for his accent, which did not utter the proverbial qaaf and sheen sounds to perfection.

The partition of India changed everything dramatically and Urdu was pushed down from its high pedestal but found fertile soil in the areas that became West Pakistan. This area then, during the course of the century, produced more and better poets in Urdu than in the erstwhile hometown of the language.

This kind of controversy has surrounded all languages, particularly those that have a trans-regional or trans-national outreach. Persian was the official language of the Ottoman, Safavid, and Sultanate /Mughal Empires but in Iran these days farsi-e-hind is treated differently from their own farsi. The English laughed at the American and the Australian use of the language and the Indian usage was drowned in derision. Till these countries became powerful enough to establish their linguistic identity, albeit within the larger umbrella of generic English, they were dictated on how it should be written and spoken. The same linguistic prejudice exists between the Spanish that is written and spoken in the mother country Spain and the countries in Latin America. The latter has produced many more great poets than the Spanish have done but is still looked down as vulgarisation by the original speakers of the language.

These days the medium is bearing down on the reconstruction of language. Facebook, Twitter, and the SMS have imposed a new limitation and that is becoming endemic throughout the world. Initially, the language of the computer communication was the English alphabet and its Roman usage spanned continents and hundreds of languages and thousands of dialects. But as they become more common, these started to displace the more formal and proper usage of language. History has taught us that what becomes common usage is accepted subsequently as legitimate language.

The pertinent question is who determines what proper language is and what is the formal discourse. In the past, it was the court or the elite that established the rule, in the United Kingdom it was based on the Oxbridge gold bar, later supplanted by the BBC. In our society, it was the establishment of the radio, following the principles set by the BBC as the central court had ceased to exist.

The world has many more centres now as it has become multi-polar. As it is, the contemporary era decries centralisation and standardisation — the post-modern world draws its sustenance from an absence of centre, champions plurality, and hails multiplicity. Perhaps not enough attention has been paid to the relationship of a more fluid oral expression and the formal discourse of the written form as well as to the process involved in developing the written form.

The charcoal, the quill pen, bark of trees, wood, leather, stone, papier mache all must have had their characteristic limitations imposed on the development of language as the computer, SMS and Twitter do these days. As always, it is the fullness of expression in a language that determines its authenticity rather than formal rules of linguistic or grammar. The language grows at times violently, at times steadily, and it is formed, like much other, in retrospect.

Sarwat Ali

sarwatali
The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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