It is divinely ordained that languages were created so that human groups could be identified. It has been after decades of travelling to places where ‘no urban Pakistani has been before’ and breaking bread with people living there that I have really begun to get a rudimentary insight into what can be termed as the ‘pathology of a language’.

Traveling up and down the length and breadth of Pakistan by road, one notices an extremely interesting phenomenon that appears to draw a common thread through linguistic changes. Many areas of Khyber Pukhtoon Khwa speak Hindko. This is much akin to Punjabi except that it is quaintly softer in delivery. Move south into northern Punjab or the Potohar and Hindko changes into Potohari in so subtle a manner as to be hardly noticeable. Southwards into central Punjab another (and almost discreet) change manifests itself. Before a Hindko or Potohari speaking individual realises it, he is conversing effortlessly with a Lahori or a native from Faisalabad. Move down into southern Punjab or the Saraiki belt and the dialect used up north changes to a rhythmic one that is a pleasure to hear. A discerning person will however detect the presence of some words herein that sound like Sindhi. This impression is reinforced when one hears a chaste Sindhi dialogue. This subtle or overlapping transition of language zones is something that makes the study of how people communicate so absorbing.

Languages have other fascinating characteristics. For example Urdu (a derived word meaning a gathering of people or ‘lashkar’) was created as a result of putting together words from Sanskrit, Persian and Turkish (to name a few). I was however amazed, when a Pukhtoon friend informed me that Pushto was a chaste language with a vocabulary that refused to incorporate any English word e.g. ice cream in Pushto is ‘yakh malai’. I am currently researching this claim and my findings so far are pointing to the fact that my friend was perhaps speaking the truth.

Some languages develop idiosyncrasies of their own. Many of these ‘local dialects’ are perhaps due to the isolation of these language users in a specifically ‘confined’ social or traditional space. Take the residents of the walled city of Lahore, who can be immediately recognized by the use of the ‘rolling R’ or the Pukhtoons of Quetta, who use the Pushto alphabet ‘Sheen’ instead of ‘Kheen’.

Languages, especially ones spoken abroad can sometimes get you into trouble. I remember, the manager of the hotel I was staying in somewhere in Northern Tehran, telling me never to use the Urdu word for cucumber as it might get me into an embarrassing situation. The French sentence construction is such that when translated into literal English, it turns the sentence topsy-turvy – for example the simple greeting of ‘How are you’ or ‘Comment Allez Vous’ in French, when translated literally into English turns out to be ‘How go you? (I can see the blue line under ‘go’, on my screen telling me that the syntax is wrong).’

The use of the word ‘chaste’ is very apt in the case of languages, as the spoken word does get corrupted under external influences. I often play a game with my friends and family. I wager with them that if they can speak chaste Urdu without using any English word for a mere five minutes, I will pay them a certain sum of money or take them out for a treat. I then engage the individual in a conversation that he or she cannot avoid and watch as the victim squirms and then gives up with a huge sigh of relief. In one case, a nephew of mine broke out in tears and later told me that I had subjected him to the worst torture in life. To me this is a distressing situation, simply because it is akin to sounding the death knell for the chastity of a language.