Literary Remix


I have been hearing the complaint that “today’s children don’t know any language”. The complainants are parents, teachers, aunts and uncles and even older siblings whose ticket to entry into the world of adults is to find fault with the “youngsters”. According to linguists, it is not possible to not to know any language if you are actually speaking — speaking, mind you, not writing, as that is a more advanced skill — at all. So if the “children”, who are not children at all but young men and women, actually, are speaking at all, they have internalised the rules of forming words and sentences in some language. They also need a dictionary in their minds and they need some rules for actually producing the sounds which we hear. So everybody already has all these complex rules and sets of dictionaries in their minds before they are six-year-old! In short, the complaint that the young people of today do not know any language is simply wrong.

But you will protest that I am being deliberately provocative since the complainants actually mean that the young people do not know the perfect King’s English or the Urdu of Ghalib. The evidence produced for this is that young people speak in a mixture of English and Urdu and sometimes they mix other languages in their speech too. Well, as for the charge that young people do not know perfect standard English and Urdu, this is correct, but did their parents? Or grandparents? Whatever one may say out of nostalgia, or because we tend to romanticise the past, the fact is that very few people knew the literary or high variety of these languages to perfection. It may, however, be true to say that the best students did know languages better than the best students of today. This, however, is only because students studied fewer subjects and languages and were given more attention about a century ago than they are nowadays. As quoting scraps of poetry was the sign of a cultivated person, it is true that more educated people came up with cliched proverbs, couplets from the masters and bons mots than people do nowadays. But being facile in the usage of iconic verbal embellishments does not imply any deep or abiding knowledge of language and literature. Still, for the sake of argument, let me concede that a certain facility in referring to literary and cultural references was more common in the educated users of Urdu in India about a century or even 50 years ago, than it is today.

But, while conceding the above, I also want to insist that just the use of English words in Urdu — code switching for linguists — is not an indication of not knowing the two languages. If anything, it may be an indication of knowing both languages. First, one switches code for many reasons, not just lack of control of languages. Indeed, code switching has always been going on whenever two or more languages have come in contact.

In India, Ameer Khusro, famous as a genius and a saint of the 13th century in Delhi, is said to have left behind poetry in two languages: Persian and a variety of Hindi-Urdu. The Persian lines are in italics and the Hindi-Urdu ones in bold.

The famous poem, za hal-e-miskeen makan taghaful, is long and there is not enough space to quote all of it. Suffice it to say that it is considered a work of literature. It is attributed to Ameer Khusro though I am not sure it is actually his (Gopi Chand Narang has written a book arguing that it is) because the manuscript is actually a copy of the 18thcentury, one cannot be sure what changes occurred in its language in about 500 years. However, this does not reduce the force of my main argument that code switching does not reduce the literary worth of a work of art. I have also seen poems in three and even four languages. This was considered a sign of ingenuity, not lack of linguistic prowess. Even nowadays, many post-colonial writers – including Bapsi Sidhwa and Vikram Seth – use words of local languages in English writings to emphasise aspects of identity. This is considered high art.

People who do research on code switching point out that people do it to emphasise certain aspects of identity; to show informality; to show easy command of several languages and to impress and dominate others. Depending on the situation, one can be humble, friendly, arrogant or snobbish through the way one mixes languages. Of course, it is also true that one may know so little English that one cannot manage to sustain a conversation in it and has to fall back upon Urdu. That might well be the case but that is not the only reason for code switching. And if someone does not know English and falls back upon Urdu, then he or she knows Urdu best. It is still untrue to argue that this person does not know any language. Not knowing literary Urdu is one thing; not knowing the spoken language quite another. So, next time you feel like accusing young people of not knowing any language, please think twice!

-by arrangement with The Express Tribune