Like many things in our life time, pushed into oblivion by modernization and western influence, language too has borne its share of forgotten words and idioms that have almost become extinct. It was last year that my grandnephew, who studies in a totally anglicized school, where the day begins with “Good Morning Teacher” made me feel weirdly old fashioned and out of place. The young man had done outstandingly well in his exams and obtained an A plus in Urdu, but when I asked him the meaning of ‘ganjeena’, I had to hastily correct him to the effect that the word did not have any linkage to somebody’s loss of hair, but was a food storage wooden cabinet with walls made of wire gauze and shelves that were slatted – all designed for air to circulate and preserve left overs. Giving up any further attempts to test him, I walked away determined to do all I could to salvage the two languages i.e. Urdu and Punjabi inherited by me through my parents, from rapid mutilation by English and its parasitical hybrid, known as ‘Minglish’.

A few days later, I received a knockout blow, when a young female of the family told me that she found the pronunciation of the syllable ‘Qaaf’ uncomfortable as it irritated the roof of her mouth and would prefer to use the “Cooler Kaaf” in her conversation. I recovered before the count of ten, determined more than ever to rectify things and went into a huddle with my sister, who retired as a Professor of Urdu. To my utter glee, she confessed that she had already taken up the cudgel five years ago and was well down the Urdu Alphabet to publish a ‘Lughat’ or dictionary that contained a short note describing the origin and evolution of each word. This week’s piece is, but a weak effort at reflecting the charisma that surrounds my ‘father tongue’ (my mother being a thorough bred Lahori from the walled city, whose command of both Urdu and Punjabi was extraordinarily deceptive).

It is said that age old sayings of common usage and idioms within a language are like icing on a cake. This is the certified truth for all languages and Urdu is no exception. Take for example the phrase “Kanaa Tattoo, Budhoo Nafar”. Nothing could define someone naïve or lacking vision more succinctly than a ‘mule with one eye’. “Akhat Na Wakhat, Meri Lado Charhi Takhat” is another manifestation of how someone with no sense of timing is concisely articulated, as is the idiom “Hath Men Nahin Daanay, Burhya Chali Bhunanay”, which was often used to describe someone, with a penchant for acting contrary to means.

My “Mother Tongue” (in the literal sense), is also deliciously rich in expression (particularly expletives). My aunts from the heart of Lahore often used the expression “Saw (100) Kos Darya, Te Suthan Mohday Te”, while commenting on the tendency to fuss about prematurely preparing for an event that was still a long time away. Another saying “O Din Dubba, Jadon Ghori Charya Kubba” conjures up the image (rather cruelly) of someone, who sets out to accomplish something almost impossible. My late mother’s food intake was habitually small. When sustenance was pressed upon her, she would laugh and say “Enna Menoo Chidday Ditta, Enna Menoo Pidday Ditta, Men Gaee Ruj”.

In my travels across Pakistan from the Northern-most region to the sea, I have been fascinated at how subtly languages morph, dissolving clear cut linguistic borders. The many dialects and languages spoken in the Gilgit – Baltistan area reveal, what can be described as Sino – Mongoloid influence. As one travels Southwards, the spoken word undergoes a change with the appearance of more and more Pushto words until we reach KPK with its thoroughbred ‘Pukhtu’, the root of many sub dialects (interestingly enough, the syllables within these dialects correspond to the harshness of their corresponding environment). We also find the presence of Hindko in KPK, which changes to Potohari as we cross the Indus River. Across the Salt Range, the Potohari changes so imperceptibly to Punjabi as to be almost indistinguishable until one has travelled well into the plain of the five rivers. The same subtle change is once more manifested as Punjabi is replaced by Saraiki and Saraiki to Sindhi. Westwards, the wonderful speech of the Baloch Tribes reflects Persian influence.

Nonetheless, there is no arguing the fact that western influence (and now the media barrage from across our Eastern border) is having adverse effects on how we express ourselves. It is now up to us to protect and preserve our linguistic tradition by ‘minding our language’.


n            The writer is a historian.