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Paper language versus ruling language

Though rich enough to function as the language of administration, judiciary and military at the highest levels, will Urdu really become Pakistan’s official language by replacing English?

Paper language versus ruling language
English to stay anyway.

The Supreme Court has ordered that Urdu should be the official language of Pakistan — something which had been promised in the 1973 Constitution — forthwith (July 10, 2015). The federal government complied immediately declaring that from now on the highest members of the government will deliver their speeches in Urdu. Moreover, all forms, policies, by-laws, notice boards and websites will be in Urdu.

Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja even pointed out that the Punjab government had done nothing to promote Punjabi. Now the question is whether this court order and the governments’ apparent compliance actually make Urdu the official language of Pakistan?

States carry out several language planning functions. The main ones are status planning, corpus planning and acquisition planning. The first is about the status of a language (national, official, provincial etc); the second about its script, terms for new subjects such as technology and rules of writing etc; and the third about spreading its use in schooling, media and abroad. Now this is what the 1973 Constitution says about the first:

(a)           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.

(b)           Subject to clause (a) the English language may be used for official purposes until arrangements are made for its replacement by Urdu.

(c)            Without prejudice to the status of the National language, a Provincial Assembly may by law prescribe measures for the teaching, promotion and use of a provincial language in addition to the national language (Article 251).

In other words if the governments of Pakistan had to obey the constitution they would have switched to Urdu from 1988 in all official domains. They did not because the investment of the elite of power — the federal bureaucracy, the higher judiciary, the officer corps of the armed forces, the higher educational and research establishment, the private elite educational establishment, sections of the press etc — in English is so much that such a change would be a veritable revolution.

It would deprive an articulate and powerful section of their cultural capital and reduce their chances of finding lucrative and powerful employment in some domains of power. Hence, the Pakistani elite has responded the way it always has: by apparent compliance and actual deviation. This is how we responded to the ban on alcohol. People just shifted to drinking in private and the bootleggers made money. And this is how the ban on Youtube is maintained — by finding proxy servers. So this, I believe, is what is going to happen now.

Some government ministers will make speeches in Urdu as they already do since Ayub Khan started addressing his ‘piyare hamvatano’ in Urdu. Notices and other things will be in Urdu and perhaps even the PLD, the judgments given by the superior judiciary, will be in Urdu. These are only cosmetic measures and, despite their cost, they are easy to implement in three months.

The real test of an official language which really replaces English is whether it is the only one used by the higher bureaucracy, the officer corps of the armed forces and the higher judiciary. It is not that Urdu does not have words to be used in all these domains. Corpus planning in Urdu started as soon as Pakistan was made and even the terms coined in the Usmania University were taken up and reissued.

Many institutions were created to make Urdu a modern language capable of expressing the modern and scientific world. The Urdu Development Board, charged with producing a standard dictionary of Urdu, was created in Karachi in 1958. In 1982, it was named the Urdu Dictionary Board. The Central Board for the Development of Urdu was established in 1962 in Lahore. In 1984, it was renamed the Urdu Science Board and it created a large corpus of terms for writing scientific works in Urdu.

There is no real impediment for the power elite if it really desires to switch to Urdu for all official functions such as preparing summaries, cases for internal circulation and action on file etc. Soldiers are passed all orders in the military in Urdu anyway so all that is required is to do the same for officers.

Among the institutions which were busy creating new terms in Urdu were the Karachi University’s Bureau of Composition, Compilation and Translation and the General Headquarter of the army in the domains of higher education and the military respectively.

Initially, the emphasis was on the creation of technical terms in Urdu for use in the domains of the state — government, administration, judiciary, military and education — and the Urdu Science Board took the lead in producing such terms called the Farhang-e-Istilahat in three volumes. Meanwhile the Anjuman also kept publishing its glossaries which had first appeared in 1925.

The National Language Authority (initially called the Muqtadra Qaumi Zuban but now called Idara-e-Farogh-e-Qaumi Zuban or National Language Promotion Department) was founded in Islamabad in 1979. Its function was to create or consolidate the administrative and scientific vocabulary of Urdu so that it could take over from English as an official language. Initially it published Usmania Universities’ list of technical terms for teaching modern subjects at the university level in two volumes.

Later, it developed terms for all possible domains of a modern state. One of its chairpersons, Professor Fateh Mohammad Malik, reported in 2005 that there was enough vocabulary to shift all government working from English to Urdu if desired. He told in private conversation to this author that the government did not take action on the report he had submitted.

In short, Urdu is rich enough to function as the language of administration, judiciary and the military at the highest levels. Moreover, the majority of the bureaucrats, judges and military officers are no longer from the upper or even the upper-middle classes of Pakistan which have been Anglicised at least in the urban areas since colonial times. They are from the lower-middle and middle classes who are actually more comfortable in speaking Urdu in informal conversation than English.

So, there really is no real impediment for the power elite if it really desires to switch to Urdu for all official functions such as preparing summaries, cases for internal circulation, action on file and taking minutes etc. Soldiers are passed all orders in the military in Urdu anyway so all that is required is to do the same for officers.

The only obstacle I see is psychological. The elite of power, especially middle-class members of it who have climbed up into it through their manipulation of English, consider English as a badge of distinction. For them, it is symbolic of their high status and they may not want to switch completely to Urdu for these identity-marking reasons. English has linguistic capital and they have invested in acquiring it so they will not squander away their intangible wealth.

What about domains such as elite education, higher education, scholarly publication and research. Here too the elite has invested excessively in English-medium schooling and will not abandon it. Since English is a world language it does benefit those who know it very well.

The elite of Pakistan will continue to invest in it. Even if the state converts everything it does to Urdu, there are other domains controlled by the private sector where English will continue to function. These are the English newspapers, the entertainment sector, literature in English, foreign banks, think tanks, NGOs and private educational institutions. These will still require English and so the demand for it will not decrease among the elite. This will keep schooling in English alive and if the past is any indicator the state’s own elite schools, or those run by the military and other elite services, will also continue to function in English. This has always been against the law if strictly interpreted and there are even court cases against state-sponsored elite schools (called public schools ironically) but they continue undaunted.

The only way to change this is to make it illegal to use English as the medium of education in schools but this requires state violence and will divide and possibly harm Pakistan. Though if it does happen all students will get an equal playing field as far as language is concerned. However, the risks are too great for a draconian outlawing of English as a medium of instruction (never as a subject of course) in our schools.

As for research and higher education, it would be a mistake to change to Urdu in these domains in my opinion. English is the language of higher education and research all over the world now and we ought to teach it so well that our students can compete with the world in it. So here the only change which is desirable is to give the status of a research university only to such institutions which carry out research and teach in English at the highest level comparable to the top universities in the world. Other institutions such as teaching universities and colleges should be brought to a high level even if they do not produce research but they too should teach in English.

Barring the one domain of higher education and research, it is just and appropriate that Urdu and the indigenous languages of the country should be used in all domains including school education. However, the present declaration of the government is not likely to bring about this change. What I foresee is some cosmetic change with ministers making speeches in Urdu and lots of public notices from the government in the same language. Maybe even such highly visible documents as the PLD, laws, policy documents and websites may be in Urdu.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes the educational apartheid will continue. The state sector may become even more of a ghetto in the eyes of English-medium youth and the private sector employment will have more and brighter candidates to choose from. Urdu will become the sole official language of Pakistan on paper while English will continue to rule.

Dr Tariq Rahman

tariq rahman
The author is a linguistic historian.

One comment

  • There are elites, and then there are elites. The top elites in Pakistan might be the Anglophone yuppies but the upward mobile Urduwalas are no less of elites. The non-elite is the laborer or shopkeeper who knows no English and speaks Urdu only when absolutely necessary for profit or survival.

    The demand to make Urdu a defacto national language and have it used for all state purposes will only be met when a drastic change is made in the teaching of Urdu at ALL levels. To begin with Urdu language teaching should be separated from Urdu literature teaching. The language textbooks should be directed at making the students functionally able in Urdu. Urdu language teaching should not be used to instruct them Islam, patriotism, nationalism, literary history, Urdu ghazal and all such stuff.

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