Language politics

Professor Stephen M. Lyon
A representational image. — Thinkstock via TNS
A representational image. — Thinkstock via TNS 

In the 15th Aalmi Urdu Conference hosted by the Arts Council Karachi in the first week of December, the celebration of language was centre stage. I don’t know the total number of attendees over the four days, but it must have been thousands of people poured through the gates of the Arts Council to enjoy different aspects of language, particularly Urdu. The conference wasn’t exclusive to Urdu and there was a discussion of other languages of Pakistan and plenty of English being spoken all around the conference venue. For better or worse, English should probably now be considered a South Asian language, so I’m going to go ahead and say that while Urdu was the focus, many South Asian languages were on display over the course of the conference.

I was lucky enough to participate in two panels and the closing ceremony. One of the panels was a book launch for an edited volume that has recently come out with Oxford University Press, called Pakistan Left Review: Then and Now (co-edited by Nadir Cheema and me). That book reproduces a leftist journal from the late 1960s. It was edited by young Pakistani intellectuals based in London at that time and the articles were filled with the expected passion and ideological clarity that youth generate so well. As a not-so-youthful scholar, I share the commitment to social justice and a more equitable world, even if I stop short of signing up for a copy of the Little Red Book. The other panel I was involved in focused on the arts in the 21st century. Several of the panelists talked about the impact of different media on vernacular languages. It reminded me, yet again, that languages are not politically neutral.

A linguist friend of mine helped me understand the distinction between a dialect and a language. He said that languages have armies and navies. Dialects, in contrast, just have speakers. As ever, Pakistan provides an incredible natural environment to understand something important about humanity. The incredible richness of languages in this country is both celebrated and suppressed. There are events like the Aalmi Urdu Conference that provides space for multiple languages and there are venues like Lok Virsa, in Islamabad, that provide tangible support for an impressive range of folk traditions that showcase different languages. Despite these laudable efforts, however, language discrimination and the imperative to speak certain languages to gain access to some careers are a reality. This is as true in the United Kingdom as it is in Pakistan, but arguably, it is much harder to ignore in Pakistan.

My friends in Attock District enjoy the language of their villages. I find it an incredible language that is musical and powerful and I love to listen to it, even though I often struggle to understand it. They insert nonsensical sounds around words just because they like the sound of it. On one occasion, many years ago, in frustration at not understanding, I asked a friend why he was adding nonsense syllables to words. He laughed and said, “Just like that… for fun. It sounds nice, don’t you think?” I agreed and still agree, even though it drives me a bit batty trying to decipher what’s an actual word and what’s just a playful syllable to round out the sentence to make it sound nice.

The language of Potohar is distinct from Hindko or Lahori Punjabi. Among linguists, it is certainly recognised and written about, but it lacks the political clout of Seraiki or Hindko (or Pushto, Sindhi, Balochi, Urdu or, indeed English). So, what gives one language clout that can attract resources and enable rewarding careers, while leaving another language languishing to thrive only in very restricted populations? That’s a question worthy of another PhD and the first one was demanding enough so I’ll let someone else do it about Potohari Punjabi. I can, however, reflect on the relationship between language and wider social justice/injustice.

Multilingualism has been the solution for many in Pakistan for generations and it’s one that has a lot of merit. It affords greater flexibility and resilience in the face of changing political and economic contexts. It may have some costs, however. Parochial languages appear to be more under threat from such linguistic strategic action.

My friends in Potohar watch as their children turn their backs on the village language and while there are plenty of Potohari speakers and it is unlikely the language would completely disappear, it may be relegated to very low status and become restricted to only the poorest households within a generation or two. In my possibly naïve view, that would be a loss. It would not only mean a loss for the Potohar region, but for all of us. Linguistic diversity, like biodiversity, strengthens humanity and makes us more resilient and able to cope with the inevitable changes that lie ahead in our environment. Sadly, I have no solution to this problem, other than to rather lamely declare my support for local languages and hope that young people do not give up their parents’ “dialects” just because English and Urdu may be more lucrative in some contexts.

Professor Stephen Lyon is the inaugural dean of Aga Khan University’s new Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).