So what if Urdu newspapers use English words?

Published: March 16, 2011
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So what is the harm in borrowing some more and saying “our most corrupt-tareen VIP?"

A friend recently called my attention to a headline in a credible paper – hamari mulki tareekh kay corrupt tareen vizier-i-azam.

I was furious. Such slander of the country’s prime minister can in no way be considered decent. The friend stopped me saying it was not this aspect of the headline he was hinting at – slander being the inescapable fate of whosoever wields power. He was annoyed at the English ‘corrupt’ and Persian ‘tareen’ being forged together. “What kind of Urdu is this?”

“My dear,” I said, “it may once have been an English word. But with the English it was no more than just a word. We have borrowed it since and taken the practice to such a level that the word now belongs to us. In fact, the English now marvel at how the Pakistani elite have nationalised a word that had originated in their language. So brother, you have to hand it to our people who have used what they borrowed so creatively that ‘corruption’ is no longer an English word, but has become a social attribute of ours.”

Truth be told, it is no longer fair to describe the experts in the practice as ‘corrupt’. Had the word still belonged to English there would be need to say ‘the most corrupt’. Now that we have exhibited such great innovative ability and brought our creative genius to bear on it and the word belongs to us the superlatives have to be derived from our own languages. I, therefore, find the sub-editor who used ‘corrupt-tareen’ in the right.

Actually, I, also feel that this does not sound enough. So what is the harm in borrowing some more and saying “our most corrupt-tareen VIP?” No? You know, you may be right. Even this does not say it all. We need to probably borrow superlatives from several languages when we mention some of the corrupt-tareen among us.

Earlier, during General Musharraf’s days – or perhaps during General Ziaul Haq’s era – we had borrowed another phrase from English in view of our social needs – gang-rape. We pronounced it so frequently and fluently on our TV channels and used it in so uninhibited a manner in our newspapers that it seemed to be part of the Urdu idiom.

In fact, it seemed the done thing. If the act, or achievement, was happening unimpeded, it was also being reported freely. This, in fact, was where we beat the degenerate Western societies. In fact, it was in one of their cities that our General Musharraf provided the great quote about Pakistani women faking the thing to obtain a visa. The idea could not have been conceived except in General Musharraf’s fertile mind.

A friend once objected to the usage saying it amounted to ‘gang-rape’ with Urdu. “How could a language survive such foreign assaults? How would a lay Pakistani understand this English construct?” “Well,” I said, “why should you insist on making the subject plain to every body? If such use of an English term affords us a little ambiguity let it be. It may not be much, but be grateful for it. It is in situations like this that English is particularly helpful. There are so many things our culture does not permit us to mention but the use of English allows us to do so comfortably, even pleasurably.”

The thing is: no language or culture can be preserved in a box. As times change they are bound to interact with other cultures and languages. Besides other cultural exchange this interaction involves a give-and-take of words and phrases. Ours is the age of globalisation; there is no escape from such influences. All that is new is that what used to be a slow process has gained in pace.

The electronic media wallahs are particularly fast. In addition, most of them are quite un-initiated. They often do not realise how the way they graft English phrases in Urdu, sounds jarring.

This reminds me of Kaisiths of days gone by. Kaisiths were a minor clan among the Hindu community who were seen during the Mughal era to be excessively close to Muslims in linguistic and cultural terms. They were as fond of borrowing from Persian as maybe our media people today are of borrowing from English. This gave the Kaisiths’ Urdu a flavour all its own and which people found quite amusing. The Kaisith Urdu, somebody said, smelled like a kachori.

Our media people are Kaisiths of the modern age. But they are far more influential in our society than the original Kaisiths were.

It should not surprise anybody, therefore, if someday their crude innovations become the standard.

So that if somebody objects to how we use or pronounce a word we have to cite an anchor-person on some TV channel as doing the same.

*Translated from Urdu

Intezar Hussain

Intezaar Hussain

An eminent Urdu fiction writer who writes short stories and novels, and also columns for newspapers in English.

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