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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 March 2007, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
Pakistan and the battle for English

The BBC Urdu service's Masud Alam, back living in Pakistan after 15 years, reflects on his countrymen's use of English.

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There are only a few video clips of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, in the archives of state-run television in Pakistan and they are aired with unfailing regularity on occasions of national import.

One excerpt is from a speech in which the father of the nation says a few lines in Urdu, to rapturous applause from the crowd, followed by the disclaimer in English "my Urdu is tangawala Urdu".

(For those not familiar with Mr Jinnah, the man was as westernised in his lifestyle as any Lincolns Inn-educated Indian barrister at the start of 20th Century could be.)

Tangawala means coachman, and perhaps in the early days of Pakistan's independence, they didn't speak Urdu very well. They still don't.

Jinnah
Jinnah spoke Urdu "like a coachman"

The same goes for leaders - politicians and army generals alike - who succeeded Mr Jinnah.

A good majority of them couldn't speak the country's national language fluently.

From Jinnah to the current leader, President Pervez Musharraf, the preferred language of Pakistani rulers has been English.

The masses, by general inclination keen to follow the ruling class, have honestly tried to keep pace.

But after 60 years of excruciating practice, they have managed only half the linguistic excellence: they've learnt to speak bad Urdu but constructing a grammatically correct sentence in English remains a challenge.

'Chips in isle'

The language of the urban Pakistani is now a hotchpotch of Urdu, Punjabi and a few words of English spoken with an accent that can be understood only by someone who speaks the same way.

My daughter is learning this cocktail language and having fun with it.

The other day she had a conversation with the man who runs the canteen at her school, that went something like this: "Can I have chips?"

(In Urdu) "Finish."

"You must have some left?"

"All finish."

"This is not fair. You want us to bring our own potatoes to school?"

"And isle."

"Sorry?"

"Isle? Isle... for frying."

When her friends elbowed her into recognising that it was "oil" the man was talking about, they all had a good laugh.

'No assess'

But things can get a little more complicated when such cryptic talk is done over the phone, with a complete stranger.

At a friend's place of work I overheard a man calling up the computer help desk. "I can't assess the drive," he complained.

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To the common man, English is still a wild horse he cannot tame

"But that's my job, what exactly is your problem?" is what I assume the person on the other end must have said.

Our man kept repeating that his inability to "assess the drive" was the problem.

After a few minutes of totally incoherent exchanges, the poor helper finally realised the problem was "access".

The first generation of Pakistani bureaucrats and military officers had derived their entire English vocabulary from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, the booklets of Standard Operating Procedures found in military and bureaucratic circles, and the official correspondence with lowly functionaries of the British Raj.

On social occasions, this word bank was embellished with phrases like "jolly good" and "old chap" to sound authentic - often to the amusement of the gora sahib (foreign master).

But after 1947, in this brand new country of Pakistan, there was no white-skinned patronising colonist to frown or frolic at the sight and sound of a subject trying too hard to speak like the master. This emboldened the native no end.

He was now free to choose English over his mother tongue. And he did so with relish.

However his vocabulary was limited to the world of officialdom, as it existed in 1940s British India. To overcome this handicap he took to improvisation, and in the process, made valuable additions to the English language.

Manufacturing phrases

Gen Musharraf, the army chief, is the epitome of this creative trend.

He deposed an elected prime minister and installed himself as the "chief executive" rather than the old-fashioned "chief martial law administrator" - the epithet preferred by three generals and for some time, by a civilian prime minister, before him.

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There is a high failure rate in English at school

He is also the proud manufacturer of the term "enlightened moderation", the meaning of which is being debated years after it was coined.

He showed his flair for linguistic innovation more recently when he suspended the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, by making him "non-functional".

He is now very disappointed that the flourish is lost on the country's lawyers who are engaging in mass protests against the chief justice's "suspension".

Lower down the order, the government functionaries continue to show the same zest at modernising English language in their day to day business.

The Capital Development Authority is on a binge of road-making these days. One such project is the upgrading of a two-lane road into a dual carriageway. It is labelled "dualisation" - a word three online dictionaries I consulted, have yet to recognise.

Long arm

To the common man, English is still a wild horse he'd like to mount every now and then but one he cannot tame. Year after year English remains the single most likely subject students at all levels flunk.

Even those who passed their English exams and made it to the present parliament - for which university education was mandatory - are not always known to have a comfortable relationship with English.

Punjab province's Chief Minister, Pervez Elahi, is among those few who seem to correctly guess Gen Musharraf's profound ideas like enlightened moderation.

His most recent demonstration of this talent was seen last month when he lifted a court-imposed ban on kite flying to celebrate the festival of Basant. (The kites, with glass shards glued to the string, are notoriously dangerous.)

It was pure enlightenment. But when the move resulted in killing several people in Lahore - as the court had cautioned against - Mr Elahi refused to extend the permission to other cities. That was moderation.

But not all ministers have the same level of perception when it comes to expressions in English language.

When the law minister, Wasi Zafar, was recently described as the "long arm of law" by a local journalist, the minister mistook it for an expression in his native Punjabi which roughly translates into "up yours".

His apt response, on national TV, was: "If anyone gives me the long arm, my long arm to his whole family."




SEE ALSO
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First impressions of Islamabad
05 Jan 07 |  South Asia
A Pakistani laments Dubai
21 Dec 06 |  South Asia



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