Durriya Kazi describes the process of establishing English and its related dominant culture through colonialism and European and American dominance in the world as an inevitable medium in the realm of science, technology, and commerce – to this point, most will agree. But she further argues that this dominant culture is being overturned by introducing it in other spheres: “Jamaican Patois and Ebonics spoken by black Americans have been recognised as distinct languages. Urlish, a mixture of Urdu and English, has become the norm in most Pakistani circles.” As a result of this, the dominant culture that is associated with English is overturned and English is enriched with new vocabulary, new concepts and other values. But the question is at what price is this dominant culture undermined?
After reading Durriya Kazi’s article “Overturning Dominant Cultures” (Dawn, February 21, 2021), I had an ambivalent feeling about her thesis. In her articles, she puts the process of overturning the dominant culture in a nutshell and recognises English as its most important symbol. For, a language is not a mere medium of communication, but always also contains a particular perspective on the world. When we try to make sense of the world around us, we require language to give things an order. Concepts create relations between those things in the world. However, concepts are not pre-existing but are human imaginations on the world to make sense of it. It is a process of structuring the world. But every language has its own concepts that allow different perspectives on the world.
Ironically, Durriya Kazi quotes Akbar Allahabadi and emphasises that he was the first one to introduce English words in Urdu poetry:
Chhorr literature ko, apni history ko bhool ja
Shaikh-o-masjid se ta’alluq tark kar, school ja
[Forget about studying your own literature or even history
Break your relations with the Shaikh and mosque, go to school]
So far, so true. But Durriya Kazi seems to miss entirely the satire of these verses. Akbar is not at all flatly arguing to abandon one’s own tradition, literature and culture, but particularly criticises this development that was already present in late 19th century South Asia. But Durriya Kazi seems to put Akbar in one line with “Jacob Mikanowski [who] writes, ‘No language in history has dominated the world quite like English does today. Is there any point in resisting?’”
It would be quixotic to neglect the importance of English in various spheres – why else would I write in English here. But Akbar’s entire poetry vehemently argues against blindly abandoning one’s own literature and history for the sake of a so-called bilinguality, as Durriya Kazi argues. For, nothing else is “Urlish” in most cases. The mixing of Urdu and English is nowadays not an enrichment of Urdu’s vocabulary, but an expression of oblivion of its rich vocabulary.
One can indeed call this an overturning of a dominant culture when “translations of native literature into English have introduced other values into English” and when English is mixed with Urdu. Then English is indeed detached from its elite context. But again at what price? Urdu is being confined to a few realms like emotions and religious belief, perhaps also literature, but even here we can observe a gradual shift towards English. Can this be called bilinguality and is this a desirable development?
When we take a close look, we will also see that this overturning is an illusion. For, what is the intent when people mix English with Urdu? It is among other reasons also an expression of the wish to participate in the dominant discourse. Hence, the dominant role of English is by no means undermined but rather solidified. As a result, we can observe a tripartite classification of languages in Pakistan with English at the top, Urdu in the middle and the regional languages at the bottom. While I have discussed the confinement of Urdu to a few spheres, I have not even mentioned the situation of the regional languages.
South Asia has experienced a comparable development of vernacularisation, beginning around the turn to the second Millennium, as Sheldon Pollock argues. Vernacularisation started in the southern parts of South Asia and gradually spread to the North during the following centuries.
The cosmopolitan languages Sanskrit and Persian in the North were gradually replaced by the so-called vernacular languages, starting with poetry to most spheres. This process starts in North India in the area where Urdu is spoken comparatively late around the 18th century. Before it can cover various spheres apart from literature and religion, colonialism gains strength, replaces the cosmopolitan language of Persian with English and gradually turns the process of vernacularisation back towards a cosmopolitan language, English, that increasingly takes hold of more and more spheres.
Taking this into account, can we really call the enrichment of English with new ideas and concepts for the sake of confining Urdu to a few spheres to call an overturning of a dominant culture or is this not rather a further step towards the solidification of English as a cosmopolitan language?