What Language is This?

As a child, I travelled with my parents to various countries around the world, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, I attended 6 schools before I got to high school, and 8 schools by the time I got to college. We lived in England (twice), Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Pakistan, so my first language was English. I learned French, Arabic and Urdu, but the common thread in all of these countries was English schools, English teachers and English books. I won’t talk about my accent (American teachers in Saudi Arabia, British teachers in England—you do the math!), but 28 years in Pakistan hasn’t helped.

When I got to Pakistan, I started learning Urdu, but naturally struggled with the spoken word. On the other hand, my English teachers were more than pleased with me. It was my greatest balm to the merciless teasing for my less than stellar Urdu. Over the years, my self-consciousness while speaking Urdu receded. More and more people wanted to learn English, and fewer people laughed at my ‘foreign’ accent while I was speaking Urdu.

At some point, the tables turned. Instead of being laughed at, I was among those laughing at the mangled English being spoken and taught in Pakistan.

The letter ‘v’ doesn’t exist in Urdu, so all words beginning with or including ‘v’ are tough to pronounce. Words like ‘sensitive’ turns into an odd ‘sens-it-you’, and it’s normal for the ‘sh’ sound in words like ‘motivation’ to completely disappear, though I’m not sure why. Motivation becomes ‘motiwayun’, tradition becomes ‘tradiyun’.

These quirks are prevalent among a middle class that isn’t exposed to English in their daily lives. They don’t speak it regularly, they don’t read it and they don’t watch English TV or movies. Their mispronunciations are understandable—it’s not their language.

The same can’t be said of an upper-middle class that studies English throughout school, watches the shows, reads the books and speaks English more than they speak Urdu (there’s a sad shift away from speaking and reading Urdu among the elite and upper classes. It’s no longer fashionable). It’s pretty distressing when teachers (my mother was a teacher for over twenty years and told me some horror stories about English classes at her school) can’t say ‘chaos’ (their version: chraos), or ‘debut’ (they pronounce it de-butt), or ‘debris’ (normally pronounced deb-riss) or when kids go around saying ‘voculberry’ because their teacher can’t say vocabulary.

It was some comfort to me that this wasn’t just a Pakistani issue. An Indian author at Indireads was shocked to learn that her child was learning that a baby cow was a ‘cowee’—printed in their little textbooks and everything!

I used to think that the mangling of the language in English-speaking countries was limited to comedy shows (Joey’s infamous ‘supposably’ on Friends), but the writers for the show obviously got their inspiration from real life. It’s bad enough that online and mobile phone shorthand is taking over the written word, but I’ve also been watching a few American reality shows. I heard someone say that they were ‘flustrated’ with one of their team members on one show and when I hear things like ‘conversate’ and ‘presentate’, I’m wondering if English is still a first language anywhere in the world now.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem isn’t specific to English. My Urdu has improved considerably over the years, and I’ve seen the same deconstruction of Urdu that I see of English.

To some extent, I understand the issues that exist here—conflicts between regional, national and official languages prevail, especially in schools and among a middle class that is convinced that the path to progress is to learn English. The children who learn and speak Punjabi or Pashto or Sindhi at home are thrown into a school where the language of instruction is either Urdu or English. They tend not to learn or master any one language as a result.

I suppose if I asked a linguist, she’d say that the root of our problems is language. I have to agree. If you don’t understand a language, how do you master any field at all? How do you run a country if you don’t understand the legislation you’re signing your name to? How do you heal the sick when you haven’t fully grasped the concepts of medicine? How do you implement a law when you can barely read it?

I don’t know if there’s a solution to this, or if we even need one. Perhaps this is a natural evolution for any language, and we will muddle through somehow. Perhaps, like Urdu itself (which is an amalgamation of a number of languages), we’re already on our way to creating a new language that incorporates words that the whole country understands. For all I know, by the time I am eighty, I’ll be speaking, reading and writing Manglish as a matter of course.

I would really like to know if you’ve come across the same thing with languages other than English and Urdu. Are you also looking for a Henry Higgins for a nation of Eliza Doolittles?

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5 thoughts on “What Language is This?

  1. I loved this post. I get so fed up with being looked at as if I am a) old b) pathetic and c) mental because I am offended by such ‘verbs’ (no, they’re NOT!) as ‘task’, ‘gift’ ‘growth’, ‘source’, ‘hospitalise’, ‘diarise’, etc. I’ve even heard television presenters say ‘deteriate’.

    This is the worst. My 10 year old niece corrected her teacher for writing ‘would of’ instead of ‘would have’, and was told it didn’t matter which you use. Clearly, that teacher doesn’t understand basic grammar and the relationship between the verb ‘have’ and the ‘would’. So who is teaching her to teach, and saying that she’s up to the job?

    Will LOL become a word? In twenty years time, will children ask where the word OMG comes from??!! Does ‘awesome’ now just mean ‘quite good’? I could go on… and on… and on!!!

    I know language changes all the time, but this isn’t evolution – it’s sloppiness and degeneration, in answer to your question….

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  2. Thank you, Terry! I thought I was alone in thinking this was a global degeneration of language.

    Using ‘gift’ as a verb is a pet peeve of mine, because it’s used here in the Subcontinent all the time. We have the same thing happening in Urdu. Because of an inability to pronounce certain letters (we have a guttural ‘q’ that’s a little tough to pronounce), words are routinely misspelled and mispronounced. When this starts happening in schools…

    English and Urdu are both phonetic languages, and pronunciations are key. ‘Would of’ is probably the result of saying ‘would’ve’ and writing what you think you hear.

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  3. I’m a bit of an old-fashioned stickler (or pedant!) when it comes to my native tongue. I cringe when I hear the examples given in your post and in Terry’s comment.

    One thing’s for sure: language change is happening all the time. The English I learned to speak as a child in London in the 1960s was not the English my grandparents spoke 40 years earlier, nor is it the English of young Londoners. Who knows where it will lead?

    An absolutely excellent and very readable book on this subject is Guy Deutscher’s ‘The Unfolding of Language.’ A persuasive account of language change and evolution. As an Arabic speaker, you’ll be interested in his chapter on the origin of the Semitic verb template – surely this magnificent structure was designed and did not simply evolve? Deutsche gives us his reasons for claiming it’s no different to any other language growth….recommended!

    Here’s a link to the UK Amazon site for a bit more info.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the comment, John.

      I actually don’t know about the origins of the Arabic verb, and I don’t know enough of the language to deconstruct its usage. But you have me interested in the book!

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