Urdu's last stand

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Jan 10 14:25:12 UTC 2007

 Urdus last stand

 Ehsan Masood 9 - 1 - 2007

A new education policy in Pakistan signals a shift from the idea of Urdu
as the country's everyday working language, says Ehsan Masood.

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).

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

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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