Calling all language snobs

Published: November 27, 2010

Is Urdu trapped in our idea of who should speak in it?

A culture that does not respect, nay deems inferior, its mother tongue, the language of its forefathers is a culture whose native country is doomed to forever spiral the seventh circle of hell… and here we are!

Now, before I am ostracized and the townsfolk burn me at the stake, hear me out. I know on the blasphemy scale that statement would rate pretty high; insulting Pakistanis and being condescending towards religion in the same sentence? Sacrilege!

But even as you feel self righteously indignant I’m pretty sure a certain part of you is wondering if that’s why life might be so horrible. No, sadly, we can’t attribute all our problems to our inferiority complexes and wash our hands of the blame. We have many, many other faults.

Here’s a quiz to find out how much of a language snob you are (mentally check mark all that apply):

a)      You admit, with a little bit of pride intermingled with embarrassment, that you don’t know your entire Urdu alphabet.

b)      You think in some foreign language (English would constitute a foreign language)

c)      You hardly ever read Urdu newspapers or books

d)     Your music player rarely has an Urdu song

e)      When someone speaks broken English with a foreign accent it’s cute, not so much if it’s local

f)       You think ‘Urdu medium’ is quite the cutting insult

If you scored on any one of these questions, congratulations! You are a language snob! Welcome to the club, we have cookies, and not the local ones either!

Let’s treat the root cause instead of the symptoms though, shall we?

Urdu is a language rich with meaning, puns and subtlety. Its bastardised street version may be replete with dirty words that would make our moms blush but that’s mostly borrowed from our generous neighbors. So, why is it that street slang Urdu is embarrassing but slang English makes you hip? Why do we need to forever be oppressed under the tyranny of a master that still hasn’t quite left?

The speak we are talking

George Orwell’s 1984 comes to mind, the bit about how newspeak was slowly replacing oldspeak is particularly relevant. The language was being made high context and low context at the same time, where one word had several meanings but the undesirable ones denoting freedom of thought, resistance against an oppressive regime, individualism, democracy etc. were slowly weeded out and made obsolete, it came to the point where the masses were no longer capable of free thought, to a point where they found nothing ridiculous about the fact that the three party slogans:

Freedom is Slavery

Ignorance is Strength

War is Peace

To say language is a tool of communication is to grossly underestimate its potential. Language can be used to rally the troops, make the masses hunger for blood, put the fear of God in the enemy or to promote peace and love. Whatever use it’s put to, language has a profound impact on the senses.

We should learn to take pride in Urdu, learn to love, respect and cherish it. When used by an artisan no other language can beat its delicate intricacies and nuances.


Nyda Ahmad

A masters student who is interested in music and literature

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • parvez

    Sorry I got all confused half way through. Will give it another shot tomorrow.Recommend

  • Liaquat Ali

    “Why do we need to forever be oppressed under the tyranny of a master that still hasn’t quite left?”

    Now that is a powerful political statement in English. :)Recommend

  • Deen Sheikh

    Well written nyda, i am particularly mentioned the low and high context argument. Asian languages like asian cultures are high context in nature relative to western cultures particularly anglo saxan cultures which are low in context. I do however feel english had some rich times as well, the victorian and shakespearean era. I believe that english language’s changes took about a change in the 20th century, with Americas rise as a major global player and the simplification of the english language. Let us just say that the yanks ruined English for us.Recommend

  • Sarah B. Haider

    The reason why people feel ashamed of speaking in wrong English, but feel ‘proud’ when it comes to speaking in wrong Urdu is nothing but a sign of identity crisis and mere inferiority complex. Even as a child, Pakistani moms teach their kids ‘beta hands wash karlo, beta shakehands karlo’. I think many people do not even know what’s the term for ‘handshake’ in Urdu. I have seen women talking to chokidaars and dukaandaars in English Language. That depicts nothing but a deep sense of inferiority complex.

    P.S. Your blog post clearly reflects that you are into literature. Cool! but I have a suggestion for you. When your target audiences are the ‘masses’, use terse and simple language which could be easily comprehended by them. That’s what journalistic writing is all about.Recommend

  • Taha Kehar

    An interesting point of view.
    But it is essential to remember that the state of being ”language snob” is fairly relative. No quiz can objectively measure it.
    However, I do concede with the suggestions made through an appropriate analogy with 1984. Recommend

  • MilesToGo

    You can trace back Urdu’s origin to Sanskrit…Recommend

  • Agam

    Would you say the same for Balochi or Sindhi?Recommend

  • mir liyaqat

    It was really a nice piece of information about the langeuage discourse.Recommend

  • Haris Masood Zuberi

    Excellent write-up Nyda! Keep up the good work.Recommend

  • SKChadha

    @ Nyda:

    “Its bastardised street version may be replete with dirty words that would make our moms blush but that’s mostly borrowed from our generous neighbors.”

    Are you sure about bastardised street version is borrowed by you from your generous neighbors? I suggest you to visit Lucknow or Delhi to know the rich culture of Urdu in India. Read the orgin of this rich sophesticate language and its culture. Urdu is official language in 5 Indian States and an Indian citizen can appear even in ICS exams with Urdu as medium for examination.

    And by the way, is it true that national language Urdu is yet to be an official language of Pakistan? Is it true that in recent judgement LHC has turned down the demand to make Urdu as official language of Pakistan? If that be so how Pakistan can any time consider itself as saviour of Urdu?Recommend

  • Ali Hassan

    Very excellent article. (and @ B. Haider – Very Relevant comments)

    Without undermining the importance of English language today and its centuries old glorious past, I make the following observations:

    For us this is the direct legacy of centuries of British Raj over us, which gave us this inferiority complex (Off-course subjects naturally want to act and talk like their Masters, at least we still have our native language, in many countries where British Empire ruled the native languages died because of one or the other reason). I have a few observations that I could never find the reasons for:

    1) In our TV discussion programs, communication medium is not single (as everywhere in the world), people go like “aap sahi kah rahay hain BUT main yeh samaghta hoon” did we need a BUT there.

    2) I have seen normal Urdu speaking people talking to their pets in English (tommy come here), what— does the dog speak English, you can tame your puppy in Urdu, (Moti idher ao).

    3) We still use the word “Sir” to give respect to someone, even if we are talking to him in Urdu.

    4) I have seen many people who watch many English programs which are based on sex based jokes and situations (most of the times below the belt), but the same people complain that our Urdu stage dramas are vulgar.(Why can’t you digest the same jokes in Urdu).

    5) And I do not know why our pathan bus conductors use the word “Ladies”, why can’t they say, bus roko aik aurat nay utharna hai

    One day I will get these answers.Recommend

  • faraz

    There are no books in Urdu; whats the purpose of learning a language which has no knowledge in it? I know many brilliant people who have language problems because they got thier education from an urdu medium school, while average students from english medium schools find it much easir to get jobs.

    Language mainly allows you to acquire knowledge. In urdu press, reputed right wing columnists can easily distort history because the urdu reader cant google out the facts. While the english version of such right wing conspiracy theorists e.g. Zaid Hamid became a target of ridicule. In Pakistan, its the urdu language which is used to control the thoughts of the masses, not english.Recommend

  • AHR

    Nyda while writing about people considering Urdu inferior, you generously use English vocabulary with several allusions to literature which many ordinary pakistanis can never comprehend – paradox at its best :) I believe that everyone should be able to comprehend, read, speak and write Urdue to some extent. But deriding the use of English and linking it to slavery of sorts takes us back to the 17th century. We need to accept that one of the strengths Pakistanis have in the global market is their somewhat reasonable understanding of English as compared to many other countries where English doesn’t proceed further than Hello and Bye. Believe me it’s frustrating to be trapped between a chinese salesman and an Iranian taxi driver and trying to get ur point accross because neither understands nor wants to understand english. The biggest benefit of english is that it’s a global language which unifies the whole world and pretty easy to learn than french or german. As far as Urdu is concerned, the subtleties and nuances that Urdu contains cannot be found in English. I guess there are certain things which sound good only in Urdu and certain things wchih sound good only in English. let’s learn to balance the both – because nothing works in isolation. as far as snobbery is concerned, it goes hand in hand with human nature – can’t avoid it. Recommend

  • IZ

    Oh nos! My music player rarely has an Urdu song! Help! I am colonized and a brainwashed agent of the west dragging my own society down to the depths of hell!!!

    The only thing being dragged down here is the IQ level of the poor readers who unsuspectingly attempt to read this ridiculous trash…Recommend

  • Minelle Khan

    Your article’s in English? Recommend

  • DN

    The problem is not just about identity crisis. It is manifesting itself into a much bigger problem creating rift in our society between the masses n the classes and culminating itself in the broader version of Pro-Western n Extremist elements.Recommend

  • Humanity

    Excellent piece !!
    @Faraz ..The fact that instruction in Urdu medium is mediocre is because the role that language plays in building and nurturing a culture has been marginalized. People with a strong sense of identity hold on to their language while keeping pace with the modern world by also learning the prevalent language, English as a SECOND language. The French, the German, the Spaniards, and the Iranians are excellent examples of proud people with a strong sense of identity.

    Language was the very first human technological invention, which laid the foundation of all future developments and made it possible for the human species to progress. It is a well known fact that to stunt the growth of a people and turn them into a non-entity, simply strip away their identity by killing or marginalizing their language. Turkey is another good example. Their language was radically transformed to annihilate the Ottoman Empire by westernizing their means of information flow, their language! The evidence of a despondent, confused nation running amok can been seen all over in Pakistan. The identity void is being cunningly shoved in with an empty religious fervor. This is the power of pride or shame of one’s language, that either makes or breaks a nation!

    For a person to not have a good command of his/her native language reflects poorly on the psyche and exposes a deep inferiority complex. Language alone can be a powerful mechanism to rebuild identity and confidence of the people who have been abused for way too long by the English speaking / Urdu scoffing gentry with a low self esteem. And yes, there needs to be a national language for the diverse people to co-exist. Provincial languages must also be supported equally and encouraged whole heartedly. How else does one nurture unity?

    The writings of Faiz alone can arouse the latent pride of this nation to take control of its destiny. I encourage every one to read the anthology edited by Reza Arsaln “Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East” to appreciate the role of language in carving a nations destiny. Urdu works are also featured in this masterpiece of literary works. Now that westerners are showing interest in these works, maybe our own people will also consider it worth their while to appreciate their own genius.

    Shabaash, Nyda .. thank you!!

    Nothing can be as astounding as life — except writing. -Ibn ZehraniRecommend

  • SKChadha

    Language is just a medium of communication while speaking or writing. It is alright if it conveys the desired meaning to the person to whom the speech or writing is directed. That’s all. The dialect is a heritage and represents evolution of culture of communication. The pride for Pakistan is not in Urdu language alone. Apart from language there are plenty cultural heritage which gives identity to the land known as Pakistan. No one has tried to describe folk dances, folk lore, heritage buildings, natural beauty and special attire of ethnic people those gives you separate identity as a nation.

    I do not know why my Pak brothers and sisters while discussing Pakistan’s language and cultural heritage do not talk about Indus Valley Civilization, Moin-jo-daro, Harrapa, Kot Diji, Gandhara civilization and the World Heritage Site of Taxila, Nankana Sahib, Takht-i-Bahi (in KP), enumerable sufi shrines, beautiful Mosques, Tombs build by Muslim rulers, its festivals, folk dances like Luddi, Attan, Chand Raat, Nawruz etc. Even if you talk of the language and its rich heritage please refer to Faiz, Allama Iqbal, Ahmad Faraz, Nadeem Qasimi etc. More so, if we talk of taking pride in local languages, friends, what’s wrong in Balochi, Saraiki, Brahui, Pashto, Sindhi, Hazaragi etc.? After all they also represent the culture heritage of Pakistan …??Recommend

  • Amna

    Excellent article….thank you for bringing this up…it hurts to see Urdu and Pakistani-at being forgotten and looked down upon.

    @Ali Hassan: very good points…especially #4.Recommend

  • Ahmed

    I really can’t understand why we Pakistanis make such a big deal of Urdu. Urdu/Hindi (both dialects of Hindustani) is a foreign language of Indian origin. Sindhi, Seraiki, Punjabi, Hindko, Brahui, Sindhi — now, these are languages of Pakistan. Urdu is the mother rongue of only the Mohajir immigrants from India.

    Given that we reject most things Indian, why this obsession with the Indian language of Urdu? The center for Urdu culture, historically and today, will always be Lucknow, and other regions of Uttar Pradesh. Another example of our foolish lack of identity. We must reverse our love for an Indian language and encourage the languages of our ancestors instead!Recommend

  • AHR

    @ Ahmed: “Sindhi, Seraiki, Punjabi, Hindko, Brauhi – languages of Pakistan”, “why this obsession with the Indian language of Urdu?”
    Hahaha. U amaze meRecommend

  • Live and learn

    You chose to write this article in English. Is the irony lost on you? :)Recommend

  • Afsheen

    The undue reference to the generous neighbours was totally uncalled for.

    In spirit I agree that the national language should be given due respect but then knowing, thinking, speaking and writing in a global language isn’t snobbish at all. It’s rather a matter of expertise! Recommend

  • SKChadha


    Urdu did not come to Pakistan with partition. In fact it was the medium of communication and record keeping in that area. Most of Hindus migrated to India at the time of partition were educated in Urdu medium. The police station records in many parts of India and Pakistan were maintained in Urdu since Mogul rule. In central India at many places even today the Police records are maintained in Urdu with Hindi dilect.

    It is and was always a royal language and spoken in ‘Lakhnavi Andaz’. It is a fact that now a days Urdu’s existence in India is mainly due to our Muslim citizenry who patronize it. We owe a lot to them for keeping this language alive in India. My comment was only for writer mentioning its alleged “basterdization” by India which I did not like. That’s all.Recommend

  • Nida

    Sadly i’m among the snob crowd for i fail to spell the urdu alphabets! But I believe its not just about speaking English rather than Urdu, its more to with the ‘western culture’. We try to adopt and change our ways to become what our ‘Angrez’ friends are like. The notion that english is ‘cooler’ or even better is a subsection of the broader issue that we wish to become Western in our ways.Recommend

  • Nizam

    Why not be proud of speaking both languages — Urdu AND English — well, and not make it an either or case? And your article makes you seem like an “Urdu Snob” — what about Punjabi, Pashto or Sindhi? All part of Pakistan’s rich heritage, and equally worth speaking. But let’s not throw out English, it’s a real advantage for Pakistanis when it comes traveling, education and global employment. Recommend

  • SKChadha


    Lord Macaulay did it first in undivided India, Zia followed footsteps in Pakistan and public at large is in dilemma as to what is their own cultural identity viz a viz ‘western culture’. When India tried to impose Hindi perforce as ‘Rajbhasha’ the tremors were felt Deep South in Tamil Nadu as the Centre’s will was not stronger the resistance it faced. It was affecting the culture of poor masses in South as well making their elite uncomfortable. Golden rule is that “Who has the gold makes the Rule” and masses follow it. The age old local traditions (culture) become subservient to public appeal of “Who have Gold” in the name of fashion or change for their social betterment. The deep social divide between haves and have-nots, in the absence of GOLD, force masses like us to search their identity and culture.

    Have we done anything to promote our identity and culture? Surprisingly, considering most of the Art and Culture of the sub-continent as Indian, my brothers in Pakistan are shying away from it. Please note that Urdu language is just a drop in the rich cultural heritage of all of us. We are all product of Indus Valley Civilization. We may be practicing different faiths or may have fell apart in historical, political or nationalistic turmoil. One fact which Ashutosh mentioned is worth analyzing that we all are actually an Indian – historically, culturally, originally, socially, mentally, genetically and what-so-ever you can further imagine.Recommend

  • Omar

    Excellent piece !!! Simply awesome !! Recommend

  • pfechoes

    i thank you for the generous praise, for the most part. i admit the allusion to the ‘generous’ neighbors was a tad below the belt and seems to have hit a raw nerve. every language has a slang street version that’s replete with derogatory terms, and not a matter unique to Urdu, and we’ve contributed as much to the creation of this bastard child as our neighbors

    the quiz was mostly in jest, so if it seems childish it’s only because it’s meant to be funny! i use English language for this blog because obviously the tribune doesn’t accept Urdu articles, though i’m equally capable of writing in Urdu…i guess that makes me a different kind of a snob

    the article has taken quite a bit of splicing and dicing though, so if anyone’s interested in reading the entire thing as i had meant it to be, it’s up on my blog…some might say the editing has done it some good but i’m not one of those people.

    i thank you all again. see you on the flip side.

  • YouHaveMyPassword

    In the US, an American friend of mine wanted to learn Urdu. I searched for English books to teach Urdu and, much to my surprise, even found one — a 1930s version of Urdu for English Dummies.

    After going through the initial chapters, we came to some ‘Translate from Urdu to English’ practice sentences. One of the ‘practice’ sentences to translate was, “Main tumhari nauker nahi hoon.”

    I rest my unmade case. :-DRecommend

  • Urooj

    It’s pathetic whenever someone abuses language, Urdu or English. It takes all my strength to stop myself from slapping someone upside the head when they open their mouths and an accented version of SERIOUSLY alien English comes out.. some of them can’t even decide whether they want a British accent or a Yankee one, alternating between the two mid sentence.

    As for the whole Urdu complex? Well, what can you say about people who show off that they “avoided” a bargain and bought something similar for a much higher price? Pakistanis, I’m afraid, are completely messed up beings.Recommend

  • Ushi

    I think whoever gets his article published on a newspaper blog, is cool.

    But on a more serious note…

    …iss ke ilawa yeh baat zaruri hai ke Urdu zabaan jitni gehri, takatwar, pyar bhari, aur zarkhaiz hai, utni Angraizi kabhi nahi ho sakti. Angraizi zarur parhiyay, sikhiyay aur likhiyay, magar Urdu se pyar kijiye. Yeh ap ke aur ap ki nasal ke haqq main hai.

    Bhot shukria.Recommend

  • pfechoes

    ushi and roojay i love you both!

  • Sardar Alam Khan

    @SKChadha: Whatever this article is all about and whatever are the views of commentors, I’d like to comment(please don’t mind it) that for the 1st time I have seen an Indian talking in such a civilized and dignified manner. I mean I haven’t seen such peaceful comments unlike what I witness when I read comments especially on YouTube videos, both by Indians and Pakistanis. I like this attitude of reconciliation. Your name and conversation makes me think that you are and Indian and I hope I am not wrong :-)Recommend

  • Emmon Khan

    The silliest idea in the world is to write AGAINST a language in the same language! Only fools will listen to someone who contradicts herself in word and deed. So if English is such an alien language and Urdu deserves such pride, why the writer does not write in Urdu newspapers where she can have access to more readership? Or is it that English is ‘good’ for Nyda Ahmad but not for the rest of ordinary Pakistanis? What else is hypocricy and double-standards?Recommend

  • Atif

    It’s amazing how you wrote this entire article without mentioning any of the other languages which are native to people in Pakistan. Urdu itself is NATIVE to 9% of the Pakistani population while Punjabi is native to 40% of the population, Sindhi 15% and Pushto 10%. Recommend