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Urdu, but which Urdu?

Those who wish to confine Urdu to a specific accent are fighting a despairing battle against the overwhelming range of intonations of ever-evolving Urdu

Urdu, but which Urdu?

Many native speakers of Urdu feel it is their privilege to speak this language in its most pristine form since it is their first language or mother tongue. They are upset that others, who learn and speak Urdu as their second language — and this includes all the ethnicities inhabiting Pakistan including Sindhis, Punjabis, Pashtuns, Balochis, Kashmiris — speak this language with marked regional accents. They feel that mispronunciation of Urdu words and phrases through accents derived from other languages — notably Punjabi — undermines the way words in Urdu need to be spoken and is tantamount to corrupting the language. They feel that they must protect Urdu from intrusion by other languages so that it retains the pristine character of its articulation.

As far as primacy of Urdu in Pakistan is concerned, there is no doubt that Urdu stands above all the other local languages since it has been declared our national language and now, the official language, as well. This fact is accepted by nearly all Pakistanis who endeavour to learn and speak it well. They consider it a part of their own heritage because of the large number of eminent Urdu writers and poets who belong to all regions of the country. Many parents, especially in the Punjab, prefer to speak to their children in Urdu instead of their mother tongue and their children have learnt to speak Urdu as their first language. But the accent in which they speak Urdu is very different. It carries a distinct Punjabi intonation.

Since the accent in which a language is spoken is the only aspect that differentiates the origin and ethnicity of its speakers, it will be instructive to understand the development of English as a world language despite being spoken in many hundred accents around the world. There is no one single accent that can be called the correct accent in speaking English. Linguists and other keepers of the English language gave up attempts to impose their pronunciation of English words and phrases over non-British speakers, long ago.

Even in Britain, the so called King’s English is spoken in a narrow area confined to the South of England and that too among the upper classes of society. Their lower classes speak a strange language known as ‘Cockney’ English. English spoken in America, Africa, Australia, and other continents also has distinct accents but it is English, nonetheless; as are its Scottish, Irish and Welsh dialects. English has gained from sounds and words borrowed from a large number of languages which have happily been integrated into its lexicon without any qualms. Similarly, Urdu has been a huge contributor to English on this subcontinent.

There is another reason why many native speakers of Urdu in Pakistan wish to retain the distinctiveness of their spoken Urdu over its local speakers. They use their language to maintain their own separate identity for political reasons.

There is a common accent in which English is spoken in the subcontinent. It derives from the English taught by Missionaries in mission schools in undivided India and Sri Lanka. Almost all English medium schools in all countries of the subcontinent teach and promote this accent and everyone who has studied in these schools and their children (and they run into millions) speak in English with the same accent. This English is generally devoid of regional accents because it has common roots and does not betray the ethnicity of its speakers. If you hear them speaking on radio, in films, on television or on telephone, you will not be able to guess either their ethnicity, faith or even their nationality. Once, when I wanted to change my reservation on a flight back from New York to Pakistan, I rang up my airline and was pleasantly surprised when a very Pakistani sounding voice answered me. As I switched to Urdu, I was politely informed that I was speaking to an Indian in Kerala who did not know Urdu and to whose company my airline had out-sourced its ticketing operations.

Surprisingly, however, children of Urdu-speaking families who have studied in local schools for a few years tend to lose the distinct Urdu accent associated with their ethnic background. This happens unconsciously because of their association with other children speaking Urdu with other accents. There is no doubt that in time, perhaps after a few generations down the line, the accent in which Urdu is spoken in Pakistan will assume a more unified non-ethnic, non-local character as has happened with English. That is, if the evolution of the Urdu language is allowed to take its own course unimpeded in Pakistan, it too will find a common way of expression, as English has done.

A language is not static but is constantly evolving and the environment sustains the language and not vice-versa. If we insist that Urdu language has but only one distinctive way in which its words must be pronounced, we will restrict its growth. A language is the way of expression of the majority of its speakers, not its minority. There is, therefore, no danger to the Urdu language. It must be allowed to grow into a vehicle that can deliver greater knowledge and information than ever before. For this, it must foster an ever-expanding vocabulary incorporating words, phrases and sounds derived from diverse sources. Only then will Urdu truly qualify as a language capable of delivering education at all levels in Pakistan and replace English as the medium of higher education. In this respect, quantity is better than quality; the more Urdu spreads in the country, the greater strength and acceptance will it gain.

Native Urdu speakers should realise that Urdu, in its myriad forms, is growing in Pakistan. It is in India, its place of origin, where it is really being restricted. And the threat is serious because it is posed by a dominant local language ‘Hindi’ that not only has their government’s backing but that of the entire religious right as well, which is presently in power. Native Urdu speakers, mostly Muslims, are being forced to use Hindi and Sanskrit words in place of their own words in their vocabulary to demonstrate their allegiance to their country. In India, Urdu is being undermined by its own native speakers for socio-religious reasons.

There is another reason why many native speakers of Urdu in Pakistan wish to retain the distinctiveness of their spoken Urdu over its local speakers. They use their language to maintain their own separate identity for political reasons. Native Urdu speakers are in majority in most areas of Metropolitan Karachi and Hyderabad and it is political organisations like the MQM that use commonality of language as a force to bind them together as a tightly knit political community. This commonality is only in their pronunciation of the language. Although they may keep emphasising their separate identity as refugees, they are now well into their third generation since their movement to Pakistan. Their migration now remains no better than a fading part of their historical legacy. Their ethnicity is now solely based on their way of speaking. If their brand of Urdu is allowed to wither, so will their ethnic identity along with their political power. For them it is important to cling to the pronunciation of the Urdu language as was spoken in the areas of India from where they migrated.

But their youngsters are apolitical and have no need to emphasise their separateness nor do they have any links with their places of parental origin. They will follow the local accent of Urdu spoken in schools, colleges and markets. Those who wish to confine Urdu to a specific accent should realise that they fight a despairing battle against the overwhelming range of intonations of Urdu, which will determine how this language will be spoken in future.

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