Following up on earlier posts ("Language in Pakistan", 12/28/2007; "Camp language", 12/31/2007), here's some more on the complex linguistic situation in South Asia, and especially Pakistan. Today's post is about the cultural and historical resonances of a difference in writing systems.
I should stress that this is an area where I have no expertise at all -- I've learned about it by reading the works of others, especially Bob King -- so this post is basically a string of extended quotations. I do have a small amount of relevant personal history, however. When I started grad school, my oldest son was just learning to speak, and while I was in class, he stayed with the wife and children of a Pakistani business-school student. For a few months at least, he was bilingual in English and Urdu, and we went to some events organized by the local Pakistani students' association.
I've already quoted from King's 2001 paper "The poisonous potency of script: Hindi and Urdu", International Journal of the Sociology of Language 150:43-49. The abstract:
Hindi and Urdu are variants of the same language characterized by extreme digraphia: Hindi is written in the Devanagari script from left to right, Urdu in a script derived from a Persian modification of Arabic script written from right to left. High variants of Hindi look to Sanskrit for inspiration and linguistic enrichment, high variants of Urdu to Persian and Arabic. Hindi and Urdu diverge from each other cumulatively, mostly in vocabulary, as one moves from the bazaar to the higher realms, and in their highest -- and therefore most artificial -- forms the two languages are mutually incomprehensible. The battle between Hindi and Urdu, the graphemic conflict in particular, was a major flash point of Hindu/Muslim animosity before the partition of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947.
King observes that the difference in scripts symbolizes geographical, cultural -- and scriptural -- differences:
There is a prodigal visual difference between the Devanagari script (also called Nagari) used to write Hindi and the Perso-Arabic script ordinarily used to write Urdu. The Devanagari script of Hindi is"squarish,'' "chunky,'' "has edges'' -- conventional characterizations all -- written left to right, with words set off from each other by an overhead horizontal line connected to the graphemes and running from the beginning of the word to its end. The Perso-Arabic script of Urdu is "graceful,'' "flowing,'' "has curves,'' written right to left, with word boundaries marked as much by final forms of consonants as by spaces. The immediate visually iconic associations are: Hindi script = India, South Asia, Hinduism; Urdu script = Middle East, Islam. The graphemic difference between Hindi and Urdu is far more dramatic, for example, than the difference between the Cyrillic script of Serbian and the Roman script of Croatian.
The relationship has not been friendly or even tolerant:
One can easily imagine a condition of pacific digraphia: people who speak more or less the same language choose for perfectly benevolent reasons to write their language differently; but these people otherwise like each other, get on with one another, live together as amiable neighbors. It is a homey picture, and one wishes it were the norm. It is not. Digraphia is regularly an outer and visible sign of ethnic or religious hatred. Script tolerance, alas, is no more common than tolerance itself. In this too Hindi-Urdu is lamentably all too typical. People have died in India for the Devanagari script of Hindi or the Perso-Arabic script of Urdu. It is rare, except for scholars, for Hindi speakers to learn to read Urdu script or for Urdu speakers to learn to read Devanagari.
If you don't think that the choice of a script matters very much, you should try writing and reading English in (say) Devanagari, or for that matter in IPA. You can learn to do this -- painfully and slowly -- in a few hours; but it would take years of practice to match the facility that you have with our current orthographic system, as bizarre and badly designed as it is. King concludes:
It would be going too far to blame Hindi-Urdu digraphia for the partition of British India into the separate nations India and Pakistan; but it would not be going too far in the least to reify Hindi-Urdu digraphia as a metaphor for communal conflict between Hindus and Muslims on the subcontinent.
But on the analysis of Hamza Alavi ("Pakistan and Islam: Ethnicity and Ideology", in Halliday and Alavi, eds., State and Ideology in the Middle East and Pakistan, 1988), the difference in scripts might have been even more important as a cause of partition than the difference in scriptures was.
Alavi points to "a cascade of major contradictions that underlie any suggestion that the creation of Pakistan was the result of a struggle by Muslims of India to create an 'Islamic State'":
We have to face up to the glaring fact that the Pakistan movement was vigorously opposed by virtually the entire Muslim religious establishment in India. [...]
The men of power in Pakistan, the bureaucrats, military leaders and politicians generally, all in truth have an essentially secular intellectual make up and few are devout practitioners of their religion. [...]
What then was Pakistan movement all about, if it was not a religious movement for creating an 'Islamic State' ? The answer, in a nutshell, could be that the Pakistan movement was a movement of Muslims i.e. an ethnic movement, rather than a movement of 'Islam' i.e. a religious movement. Even that formulation needs to be qualified, for the Pakistan movement, paradoxically, failed (until the very eve of the Partition) to draw any substantial support in the Muslim majority provinces which were later to constitute the State of Pakistan. The solid base of support for the Muslim League (for most of its history i.e. until 1946, as we shall examine) lay in the Muslim minority Provinces of India, notably the UP and Bihar. [...]
For nearly four decades the Muslim League failed to make any significant impact in the Muslim majority areas which were dominated by feudal landed magnates (indeed by a coalition of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh landlords). The main political support of the Muslim League, it will be argued here, derived mainly from the job-seeking educated urban middle classes and professionals ...
For a better understanding of this background, consider the life and work of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan Bahadur (1817-1898):
The onset of the Hindi-Urdu controversy of 1867 saw the emergence of Sir Syed as a political leader of the Muslim community. He became a leading Muslim voice opposing the adoption of Hindi as a second official language of the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh). Sir Syed perceived Urdu as the lingua franca of Muslims. Having been developed by Muslim rulers of India, Urdu was used as a secondary language to Persian, the official language of the Mughal court. Since the decline of the Mughal dynasty, Sir Syed promoted the use of Urdu through his own writings. Under Sir Syed, the Scientific Society translated Western works only into Urdu. The schools established by Sir Syed imparted education in the Urdu medium. The demand for Hindi, led largely by Hindus, was to Sir Syed an erosion of the centuries-old Muslim cultural domination of India. Testifying before the British-appointed education commission, Sir Syed controversially exclaimed that "Urdu was the language of gentry and Hindi that of the vulgar." His remarks provoked a hostile response from Hindu leaders, who unified across the nation to demand the recognition of Hindi.
The success of the Hindi movement led Sir Syed to further advocate Urdu as the symbol of Muslim heritage and as the language of all Indian Muslims. His educational and political work grew increasingly centred around and exclusively for Muslim interests. He also sought to persuade the British to give Urdu extensive official use and patronage. His colleagues and protégés such as Mohsin-ul-Mulk and Maulvi Abdul Haq developed organisations such as the Urdu Defence Association and the Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu, committed to the perpetuation of Urdu. Sir Syed's protégé Shibli Nomani led efforts that resulted in the adoption of Urdu as the official language of the Hyderabad State and as the medium of instruction in the Osmania University. To Muslims in northern and western India, Urdu had became an integral part of political and cultural identity.
Note that despite his cultural commitment to Muslim identity, Sir Syed was anything but orthodox in religion:
Sir Syed felt that the socio-economic future of Muslims was threatened by their orthodox aversions to modern science and technology. He published many writings promoting liberal, rational interpretations of Islamic scriptures. However, his view of Islam was rejected by Muslim clergy as contrary to traditional views on issues like jihad, polygamy and animal slaughtering. Clerics of the Deobandi and Wahhabi schools condemned him harshly as a kaffir. In face of pressure from religious Muslims, Sir Syed avoided discussing religious subjects in his writings, focusing instead on promoting education.
Continuing with quotes from Hamza Alavi, we can see that the opposition between Sir Syed and the Muslim religious establishment in 19th-century India was echoed by the differences between the Pakistan movement -- headed by secularly-oriented ethnic Muslim intellectuals -- and the religious establishment of their time:
The irony of the argument that Pakistan was founded on religious ideology lies, if we may repeat the point, in the fact that every group and organisation in the Sub-continent of India that was specifically religious, was hostile to Jinnah and the Muslim League and had strongly opposed the Pakistan movement. Foremost amongst them was the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Hind, the leading organisation of the so-called 'Deobandi' Ulema, whom we might categorise as Islamic Traditionalists.
According to Hamza Alavi, the Pakistan movement was led by secular intellectuals aiming to protect their cultural capital, especially the role of Urdu:
My contention is that the Pakistan movement was neither a millenarian ideological movement devoted to the realisation of an Islamic state nor was it a movement of feudal landlords nor yet again a movement of an emergent Muslim national bourgeoisie, although it is true that by 1946 the Muslim League reached an accommodation with the landed magnates who ruled over Sind and Punjab, but on their terms. [...]
I will argue here that there was one particular social group for whom, more than any other, the conception of Muslim' nationhood (and not religious ideology) was particularly meaningful. That class was the product of the colonial transformation of Indian social structure in the 19th century and it comprised those who had received an education that would equip them for employment in the expanding colonial state apparatus as scribes and functionaries, the men ( for few women were so employed ) whose instrument of production was the pen. For the want of a better term I have referred to them as the salariat. The term 'middle class' is too wide and 'petty bourgeoisie' has connotations, especially in Marxist political discourse, that would not refer to this class.
Specifically, Alavi identifies "the urban educated classes who qualify for employment in the colonial state. With them we may take the new professionals, especially lawyers, journalists and urban intellectuals generally who share many of the problems and aspirations of the salariat."
The 'salariat' looms large in colonial societies because there the bulk of the population is rural and agricultural. In the absence of a significant number of people clustered around urban industrial activities, and leaving aside a small number of people engaged in petty trading or in the relatively tiny sector of export trade and finance, the urban society revolves mainly around functionaries of the state, and the educated look primarily to the Government for employment and advancement. [...]
Jinnah's 'Two Nations' theory expressed the ideology of the weaker Muslim 'salariat' vis-a-vis the dominant high caste Hindu salariat groups. The Muslim salariat was central to the Pakistan movement. However, in a society in which the rural votes predominate and are controlled by landed magnates, the Muslim salariat could make little progress in elections until it reached an accommodation with the rural magnates by the late 1940s. That was a fragile alliance, founded on temporary calculations of mutual interests.
A fragile alliance indeed, especially when crossed with the other complex geographic, ethnic, linguistic, religious and social oppositions in Pakistan.
It should be stressed that the differences between Hindi and Urdu, in some registers, can be much more than a matter of script (though that is a big deal in itself). According to Kelkar 1968, as quoted by King:
[A]s a linguistic system Hindi-Urdu has no marked dialect variations; but it has the full gamut of styles ...: formalized highbrow (poetry, learned discourse, oratory, religious sermons and the like in the ``great tradition'' of urban centers of power, commerce, and religion); formalized middlebrow (popular printed literature, songs, and films; mass propaganda); casual middlebrow (everyday educated talk especially in linguistically mixed groups and within the regionally uprooted upper or middle class family; private letter writing and newspapers waver between this and the previous styles; out of the four styles this is the most receptive to borrowings from English); and casual lowbrow (this is definitely substandard and outside the "Great Tradition''; everyday talk in lower-class, uneducated, urban milieus; this style, often called "Bazaar Hindustani'' [bazaru hindustani], is sometimes resorted to even by educated speakers and even in printed literature destined for the uneducated lower classes) ... [The] polarization between "Hindi'' and "Urdu'' reaches its maximum in the formalized highbrow style.
Some specific examples:
Common words like chai 'tea', milna 'to meet', and mashin 'machine' are the same in either Hindi or Urdu. Vocabulary diverges sharply as we move from Low to High. The Hindi words for 'south' and 'temperature' (as in weather) are dakshin and tapman, the Urdu words junub and darja-e-hararat. The sentence "Who is the prime minister at the moment?'' is ajkal pradhan mantri kaun hai? in Hindi, ajkal vazir-e azam kaun hai? in Urdu.
An Indian linguist has illustrated how far the styles deviate from each other by asking how the abstract expression "salvation's true path'' might be translated into Hindi and Urdu at different style levels and among different ethnic-social groups. Village people would render this as mukti-ki sacci sarak (Bazaar Hindustani). Pandits or educated Hindus would say mukti-ki satya upay (Highbrow Hindi). Cultured Muslims would translate the phrase as nájat-ki haqq rah (Highbrow Urdu). Indians who speak English as their second language might say salweshan-ki tru path. The only indication that these four "languages'' are in some sense variants of the same language is the genitive marker -ki. Words like satya and upay in the Highbrow Hindi rendering are from Sanskrit. Every single content morpheme in the Highbrow Urdu version is from Persian or Arabic. One sees how dramatically the character of a language is changed when the sources of borrowed words for new concepts are as far apart as they are in Hindi and Urdu: we might as well be dealing with different languages.
According to Richard Powell ("Language Planning and the British Empire", Current Issues in Language Planning, 2002), Nehru proposed to create a unifying "Basic Hindustani" (which was "inspired by reading Ogden's Basic English while in gaol in 1934"). This attempt to put Gandhi's views into practice had no effect. King again:
In speech after speech, editorial after editorial, from 1917 onward Gandhi hammered on the theme relentlessly, dismissing as trivial or unworthy the difficulties that enforcing Hindustani on the country as a whole might entail, riding roughshod over every iconic, emotional, or patriotic association speakers of other Indian languages might have. As for the script in which the Hindustani as national language should be written, he wavered between Devanagari and no choice at all.
Gandhi's tendency overall was to minimize the role of script. In a 1918 speech he laid out his thinking:
Hind[ustani] is that language which is spoken in the north by both Hindus and
Muslims and which is written either in the Nagari or the Persian script. [It] is
neither too Sanskritized nor too Persianized .... The distinction made between
Hindus and Muslims is unreal. The same unreality is found in the distinction
between Hindi and Urdu ... . There is no doubt or difficulty in regard to script.
As things are, Muslims will patronize the Arabic script while Hindus will
mostly use the Nagari script. Both scripts will therefore have to be accorded their
due place. Officials must know both scripts.
Surprisingly often, Gandhi was able to turn his ideals into reality. But not this time.
[Update -- Cosma Shalizi suggests that this ties in well with Ernest Gellner's theory of nationalism.]
[Update 3/9/2008 -- Priyanka Chauhan writes:
I noticed a very minor point in the paragraph where you quote King quoting Kelkar.
"An Indian linguist has illustrated how far the styles deviate from each other by asking how the abstract expression "salvation's true path'' might be translated into Hindi and Urdu at different style levels and among different ethnic-social groups. Village people would render this as mukti-ki sacci sarak (Bazaar Hindustani). Pandits or educated Hindus would say mukti-ki satya upay (Highbrow Hindi). Cultured Muslims would translate the phrase as nájat-ki haqq rah (Highbrow Urdu). Indians who speak English as their second language might say salweshan-ki tru path. The only indication that these four "languages'' are in some sense variants of the same language is the genitive marker -ki. Words like satya and upay in the Highbrow Hindi rendering are from Sanskrit. Every single content morpheme in the Highbrow Urdu version is from Persian or Arabic. One sees how dramatically the character of a language is changed when the sources of borrowed words for new concepts are as far apart as they are in Hindi and Urdu: we might as well be dealing with different languages."
Of the phrases in bold above, only mukti-ki sacci sarak and nájat-ki haqq rah would be correct with ki, as sarak and rah are feminine nouns. However, in mukti-ki satya upay and salweshan-ki tru path, the correct phrase would be with ka as in mukti-ka satya upay and salweshan-ka tru path as both upay and path are masculine nouns and would have to use ka (masculine) and not ki (feminine). In fact, no Hindi user, and certainly not a high-brow one, would ever say mukti-ki satya upay. It would always, always be mukti-ka satya upay.
I'm surprised to see Bob King making -- or transmitting -- a gender-agreement error in a Hindi example. (Assuming, of course, that I didn't introduce the error myself in copying the passage.) But in any case, this supports rather than diminishes the larger point about the diversity of styles and levels in Hindi/Urdu. ]Posted by Mark Liberman at January 3, 2008 03:25 PM