Thursday, June 29, 2017

Evening Note for Thursday, June 29

Thought for the Evening: Learning Urdu

This summer I have been taking a Continuing Education course on basic Urdu. (I had hoped to find a way to start learning Malayalam in a classroom setting, but that turned out not to be possible, so I looked around to see what languages were possible.) Urdu is a language found chiefly in Pakistan and Northern India. It has a close, but rather tangled and weird, relationship with Hindi. If you ask people whether Urdu and Hindi are the same language or different languages, the answer you get will literally depend on who you ask. Some people will tell you that they are exactly the same language, and they will point to the fact that the basic grammar is the same, the basic vocabulary is the same, that the primary reason we distinguish them is not linguistic but political (due to the oppositions between India and Pakistan), and that it's not uncommon for them both to be treated as one language, Hindustani. Others will tell you that they are obviously different languages, pointing to the fact that the literary and technical vocabularies (where the two don't simply share an English-based technical vocabulary) are very different, that Urdu writing system is Persian and the Hindi writing system is Devanagari, that Hindi is far more Sanskritized and Urdu is far more Persianized and (to some extent) Arabicized, and that they are often treated as two languages. And the reasons for both answers are completely right. Part of the difficulty is just that India is a language melting-pot. Urdu speakers in a context in which there are many Hindi speakers speak an Urdu that emphasizes the Sanskrit influence and shared Hindi vocabulary; Urdu speakers outside that context often speak an Urdu with a far greater Persian and Arabic content. The situation is complicated further by shared English influence (which, of course, is very extensive) and by the fact that a very large percentage of Urdu speakers speak it as a second language.

From that little summary you can already begin to see some of the interesting facets of trying to learn Urdu, both the facilities and the complexities. Urdu is in one sense very easy to learn -- it is even more flexible for communication than English, which is saying a lot. Its weird demographics guarantees that pronunciation is not particularly important. Yes, there's better and worse pronunciation -- but Urdu speakers, just by the nature of the thing, aren't fussy about pronunciation in ordinary contexts. Likewise, you can make yourself intelligible in at least a pidgin-Urdu way very easily. Just some very basic vocabulary and basic grammar, and you can go far.

At the same time, Urdu combines its easiness for basic communication with extraordinary barriers to sophisticated communication. There are often many ways to say the same thing, some of which are better than others. Part of this is just melting-pot vocabulary -- on some things there is a Persian-based word, a Sanskrit-based word, and an English-based word, and maybe even an Arabic-based word. Khudah hafiz, God go with you, is purer Urdu; Allah hafiz is increasingly common, especially for Pakistanis; using the English is not unheard of. Part of it is the nature of the language influences that are involved. I've mentioned before, with Vietnamese, that etiquette is actually a major part of how languages work, a part of their very structure, and this is quite obvious with Urdu. Pretty much every verb in Urdu literally has five different forms that mean exactly the same thing. If you want to say, "Listen!", for instance, you can say it in any of these ways:


The sense of these is all entirely the same. But they're not equally appropriate to every situation, since each one is a more formal and polite way of saying "Listen!" than the one before. If you say, Soun!, this claims such a degree of informality that it's only used in prayer, in very special literary situations, and when you are being very, very rude. The second is more common; it is appropriate to talking to very close friends and family in a very close setting or when addressing young children. The third is the kind of thing you would use with your family while at home. The fourth, the most polite in ordinary use, you might use with strangers, or at times with family when among strangers. Sunlijey! is hyperformal -- it is more than polite, so that it tends to be an emphatic form, as in 'please be very sure to listen'.

(This intricacy of etiquette forms is a reason for an interesting feature of Urdu -- it has no native vocabulary for Please, Thank You, You're Welcome and the like. There are phrases for them, and they do sometimes get used -- to say "You're welcome", for instance, you can say, Koiin baat nahiin, which literally translates as "Don't mention it," unsurprisingly, because it is a direct translation from English. The natural way Urdu handles politeness is by the form of the words you are using -- so, for instance, if you wanted to convey your thanks, you would temporarily increase your politeness. Specific vocabulary for it only arose in interaction with English, usually, although sometimes Persian or Arabic, especially with religiously-toned vocabulary.)

The single most difficult thing about learning Urdu, though, is the detachment of the spoken language from the writing. Despite English's weird spelling conventions, spoken English and written English are very closely interlinked, and the link is even greater for most Romance languages. If you come from these languages, it is easy to overlook that this is actually an artificial development; it is not the normal state of things. For most of history, writing and speaking a language operate as effectively as if they were two languages that were closely intertranslatable. Written versions of languages usually are more formal, have older vocabulary, and retain old grammatical forms longer. One of the (many) difficulties in learning Finnish, for instance, is that the colloquial form diverges in some rather extensive ways from what you usually find in reading and writing. There have been languages where there is no standardized spelling at all -- indeed, to some extent English itself was this way up to the spread of the printing press, which is why its spelling conventions are all mixed up. And, most seriously still, speaking is a common act, while writing is a fairly specialized skill. This can have significant effects.

Written Urdu, using Persian script, is a calligraphic language; the standard way of writing is Nasta'liq calligraphy. It is literally not designed for common people to use, and it takes a lot of work even for fluent Urdu speakers to get to the point of finding it consistently quick and easy. It does not use discrete letters the way the Roman alphabet does; when you write, you scrunch the letters together in a sort of calligraphic shorthand. This means that each of the nearly forty letters changes what it looks like depending on where it is in the word. It is so difficult to typeset that it is only within living memory that newspapers in Urdu started not being handwritten. It is not uncommon for people to use Devanagari or the Roman alphabet instead -- but there is no standard romanization. Everybody spells things in whatever way they think works best. If you wanted to establish complete writing chaos, you could not design a better way.

The chief difficulty for a beginner is that it is very, very difficult to look up words. A full Urdu dictionary will be in Nasta'liq, which is difficult to read unless you are very used to it. Spelling in Nasta'liq is fairly regular, but because the script is borrowed from a different language, there are letters that are silent, and if you are not native it can be difficult always to catch the difference between soft dal and hard dal, soft rey and hard rey, and so forth; thus if you are trying to look up a word you've heard, it's usually not straightforward. Online resources allow you to use the romanized alphabet -- but, again, there is no standard romanization, so you may have to spend quite some time guessing the spelling.

It's very interesting, though, and a good example of how a new language allows you to stretch your mind a bit.

Various Links of Intesrest

* Kenny Pearce on Newton's Rationalism

* An illuminated manuscript depicting Aristotle, Averroes, and Ramon Llull going to war against the Tower of Falsehood.

* Fr. James Bradley, What Is Canon Law?

* Kathleen Vail reconstructs the Shield of Achilles from its description in the Iliad.

* Matthew Schmitz, Why Cardinal Sarah Terrifies His Critics

* Elizabeth Dunn, The Myth of 'Easy' Cooking

Currently Reading

Miguel de Unamuno, San Manuel Bueno, Martír
Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life
John of St. Thomas, The Gifts of the Holy Spirit
Kenneth L. Pearce, Language and the Structure of Berkeley's World
Nicholas Phillipson, David Hume: The Philosopher as Historian
J. R. R. Tolkien (Christopher Tolkien, ed.), Beren and Lúthien
Stephen R. Lawhead, Dream Thief

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