The beauty and bane of language

Nothing else but those 26 letters, used in an infinite number of combinations, employing typically ten or fewer of them in words, are the basis of everything that was ever written in English. 

(Daily Times, 21 August 2014)

The first thing that strikes one about language is the uncritical and excessive love and admiration which people have for their mother tongue. Then, there is the ease with which native-speakers are able to communicate in their language, while foreigners struggle. Finally, it is the sheer number of languages and dialects in use.

Native speakers see only the beauty and eloquence of their language and remain totally oblivious to its inadequacies, difficulties and complexities.

Consider, for instance, a debate between a Sindhi and a Punjabi or a Bengali and an Urdu-speaker, regarding which is the better language.  Or between a Japanese and a Chinese, or an Englishman and a Frenchman, or a Russian and a German. The debate will be intense, passionate and heated, but always inconclusive.

Language may be mankind’s greatest invention and alphabets the most astonishing single device.  Consider this: the trillions of pages of books, reports and literature in English that educate, inform and entertain billions of people, propagate and promote concepts, theories and ideas, are composed with nothing more than 26 letters, which are the building blocks of the English language in its totality. 

Nothing else but those 26 letters, used in an infinite number of combinations, employing typically ten or fewer of them in words, are the basis of everything that was ever written in English.

Words also produce trillions of hours of conversations and the most eloquent of speeches, which can mesmerize audiences, with the potential ability to drive them into a burst of constructive effort, a fit of destructive activity or a bout of murderous frenzy.

But every language comes with a heavy baggage of bizarre elements. Mention that to native speakers and they will be surprised. Take the script of Urdu, Arabic or Chinese, the spelling of English, or the grammar of French or Russian. Alphabets form words, but most words written in Urdu are completely unrecognizable from the alphabets which constitute those words.

Russians consider it absolutely natural that someone’s name should mutate depending on its usage in a sentence, because such is the case in Russian. But they find the spelling and pronunciation of English somewhat hilarious. In English, Russians say sarcastically, one writes London but reads it as Manchester.

Russian language dispenses with “to be” in the present tense.  Thus, “Moscow – capital of Russia”, rather than “Moscow is the capital of Russia”. Strangely, in Bengali too, one says and writes “Dhaka capital of Bangladesh”, rather than “Dhaka is the capital of Bangladesh”.

Every French noun must be preceded by an article, either masculine (le) or feminine (la).  All well and good, until you find that a necktie carries the feminine article and a small handkerchief the masculine.

It is not surprising that foreigners learn to speak English with relative ease, while French seems defiant.  Consider the fact that most English verbs hardly conjugate in the present tense, except for adding the ‘s’ at the end.  For example, the verb ‘to make’ changes form for the third person singular only, becoming ‘makes’. The equivalent French verb ‘faire’ conjugates, depending on the person, into fais, fait, faisons, faites and font! 

It is somewhat the same in Russian.  And while proper names remain unchanged in French, Russian takes liberties with names too, both animate and inanimate. So, depending on the case, the name Musharraf (masculine) will become Musharrafa, Musharrafu, Musharrafe and Musharrafom. Likewise, Aisha (feminine) turns into Aishi, Aishe, Aishu, Aishe and Aishoi!

Abusive or swear words with sexist, racist, ethnic or sectarian connotations are the curse of every language. Some languages are better (or should I say worse) at it than others. I dare say that if there was a world championship for the most potent (mark my word) swear words, our very own Punjabi will be a very strong contender for the first prize. I suppose Punjabi will not just win first prize for the abuse delivered, but also in the manner of its delivery.

Imagine being dark-complexioned, as many of us are. Here are some of the English words or expressions still in use today, which employ the word ‘black’ to convey an undesirable characteristic: Black spot, black day, black market, blackmail and black magic. (Most of them would have their equivalent in other languages.)

To insult and humiliate someone, one blackens his or her face. To smear or malign someone is to “blacken one’s name or reputation”. A black day in history is one that is covered in shame or ignominy, but a red-letter day is a glorious one.

The words red, white and green connote a positive aspect. One is “red-faced” from embarrassment and shame or “green with envy”. A brazen lie which can be seen through is a “white lie”.  To whitewash something is to cleanse or conceal it.

Then we have this curious tendency to use euphemisms instead of the actual words. Thus, new words are constantly and disingenuously coined to describe the humble ‘toilet’ in English: WC (water closet), lavatory, bathroom, men’s (or women’s) room, restroom, etc. On the other hand, really ‘stinky’ words like shit and crap are freely used as metaphors for, well, something utterly bad. 

If you can recall it, try using the Urdu word for toilet in polite company and see the reaction of those around you. You will never find them sitting next to you again. You will stink. The ‘Urdu’ word in vogue for, guess what, is toilet, wash room or bathroom, anything but the word itself, which I will sidestep here lest readers desert me.

While some foul words (for lack of a better word) have floundered on the bedrock of politeness, the four-letter ‘f’ word has flourished beyond belief. Having all but lost its original meaning, it is now so commonly and frequently used as to have gained acceptability all around. In fact, it may now be regarded as without equal in its versatility and the variety of its usages and meanings. If interested, search on YouTube for “the most versatile word”. For a hilarious version, add the words “Indian teacher”.

Language is what people make it and of it. Mind your language all the same. But never mind. If you ever say anything that comes back to haunt you, do what politicians everywhere do all the time: if you can’t deny ever saying what you are said to have said, say that you did not mean to say what you said. Or, if that doesn’t get you out of trouble, just insist that you were quoted out of context!

By Razi Azmi


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7 Responses to The beauty and bane of language

  1. Salim Alvi says:

    Urdu is an alien Durbari language created to separate divisive identity among the native converts. Arabs do not use vulgar words Aurat (which means dirty female sexual organ possessor) but subcontinental converts still do. Native divine words such as Stree and Mahila need to be used. Urdu is the only language in the world which has killed more than 4 Million people and caused gang rapes of 500,000 subcontinental women in 1947 and 1971.

  2. Javed Agha says:

    A very intriguing topic. Interesting read

  3. As always, Razi, very well written and so very interesting!!

  4. MALLIK says:

    Brilliant analysis of the languages, Mr Azmi. In this context, ‘think twice before you say’ seems apt.

  5. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Razi is brilliant as always.

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