In bi- and sometimes tri-lingual societies such as ours, we navigate several languages all the time with a fair amount of ease. Most of us speak English and Urdu, with a regional or cultural language like Seraiki, Gujrati or Farsi thrown in. Many of us speak a provincial language- Punjabi, Pushto, Sindhi, Balochi that we may have picked up at home, in the marketplace or at school. Those amongst us who are adventurous and may have lived abroad may have added a foreign language to their repertoire as well. We may not realize it consciously, but we are surrounded by language of all kinds, and the way we pick and choose words says a lot about how we think.

Take ‘sorry’, for example. Everyone, from the gardener to your two-year old knows the word and everyone uses it with a breezy alacrity. You scratch someone’s car, sorry. Your maid burns a hole into your shalwar, sorry. Your kid draws on your sitting-room wall with a black crayon, sorry. I often find myself telling my children ‘sorry means you won’t do it again’, but I think we all know that doesn’t mean anything, because somehow I don’t think we relate to the word itself. ‘Sorry’ is English, and the very nature of its otherness as a language is both alienating and tempting. We are all desperate to have decent English speaking and writing skills, but at the same time the language is a strange, impenetrable one. How on earth can you instinctively know that ‘Leicester’ is pronounced ‘Lester’, not ‘Lye-ces-ter’, or that ‘panache’ is ‘pa-nash’ and not ‘panna-chee’? It’s crazy! Urdu doesn’t play these kind of mind games once you know the difference between zair zabr paish and things like kharri zabar. Digressions aside, on a visceral level we are not emotionally invested in the word ‘sorry’. If one were to say ‘maaf kijiye’ or ‘main aap se maafi maangta/ti hoon’, that would be another story altogether. Maafi mangna is serious business. You feel more penitent. It bites. The same applies to ‘thank you’. Again, one of those English words—or in this case little phrase—that have crept into our everyday lexicon. It is, of course, polite to say it. But like ‘sorry’, we seldom mean it. We use ‘thank you’ carelessly, although with less consequence. ‘Shukriya’ is so much nicer somehow, and it doesn’t carry the gravity of ‘meherbani’, with its accompanying implication of being indebted to someone for their kindness. Yet we fling ‘thank you’ around, and quite often it’s just a fashionable way of being polite.

We use English as a marker of sophistication, which is why we are eager to incorporate words of it into our speech whenever we can. While self-improvement is always desirable and English-speaking skills are undoubtedly required for professional (and often personal) success, we seem to use it as an either/or. We seem to have permanently replaced shukriya or meherbani with thank you, guldan with vase, tail with oil; so much so that if you use the latter, people look at you uncomprehendingly. Somehow ‘pent’ is de rigeur and ‘patloon’ has erased itself from memory, the same way if you were to ever refer to your kitchen as the bawarchi-khaana someone would most likely have apoplexy.

Another interesting trend is calling your job a job, even when speaking in Urdu. ‘Main job karti hoon’, instead of ‘kaam karti hoon’ or, heaven forbid, ‘naukri’. I grew up with people describing themselves as being a nauker in so-and-so institution and the word never carried the whiff of something unpleasantly menial. It was merely the way you described having a job; it didn’t mean you cleaned gutters. These days calling anyone a nauker is terrible bad form, the politically-correct term being ‘mulazim’ for domestic help. For the posh office-wallahs, you do a job.

Language has deep roots in our brains. The ability to create language and grammar is, according to some theory, inherent. That means we are born with the capacity and inclination to speak in a meaningful way. The languages we choose to describe our world-view and experiences are not just unconscious choices our brain makes, but reflective of a deeper psychological rationale. It isn’t just a post-colonial tic or a symptom of burger-pana; in English-speaking societies peppering your English with French words and phrases is considered to be a sign of sophistication the same way we like to intersperse English with our native language of choice. In predominantly uni-lingual societies knowing more than one language is unique and special. For us, knowing two languages is practically a given, so for us the language we choose (as opposed to having a choice at all) is what begins to take on greater psychological and social importance.

People often sheepishly (and often quite proudly) confess to not being able to read Urdu at all. Nobody seems to think less of them; in fact if one uses standard Urdu with proper words, people are wont to make fun of you. It’s a sign of the times, I suppose. But as someone who deals primarily with words, it worries me. Divorcing oneself from one’s mother tongue is dangerous, because one runs the risk of not being fluent in any of the languages one chooses to use. It may not seem like a big deal, but it is. When you don’t have enough words, you are hamstrung. How do you identify and understand with your life and experiences without language? Any language, really—I make no distinction between dreaming in English or Urdu or Sindhi. But there has to be one, fashionable or not, that gives you the ability to be enriched by it, to read its literature and be stunned, to have words that give life to your emotion.

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.