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Dilemma of ailing language

Huzaima Bukhari

“Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty”—Muriel Barbery in ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’

What makes a human being different from other animals is the unique ability of communicating through speaking, writing and reading a language. The importance of language cannot be undermined as it is a vital link to attaining and dispensing knowledge, the most crucial feature of a human society. The evolutionary process of language cannot be denied. The best way to observe this process is watching the development of humans from infancy to adulthood. From simple syllables to long and complex words and sentences, people keep on learning and expanding their vocabulary, some making their contribution towards literature till their time on earth expires. While some turn out to be exceptional orators, others excel in various genres of this field.

Periodically, literary awards are given to novelists, dramatists, poets, fiction writers, journalists, etc honouring them for adding their share of outstanding pieces of writings. These include the Nobel Prize for Literature, Man Booker Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Neustadt International, Costa Book Award, Hugo Award, Warwick Prize for Writing and many others. These go to show the high standard of respect for the written word as well as the importance of language and literature. Before one embarks upon a career or pursues academic excellence, a reasonable grasp is necessary over the medium of communication, which of course is language. Only a person with thorough comprehension can be expressive in transmitting ideas, to provide reasonable explanations and to make a subject known to others. 

These days, English language (that happens to be Pakistan’s official means of correspondence) and literature are no longer taken seriously especially with reference to our country. Whether it is reading essays written by students of high schools, research papers posted online by university scholars, official letters/circulars/statutes, petitions, etc, submitted in the courts and even judgements by tribunals and higher courts; grave errors of spellings, grammar and tenses are committed.

A few years back when posted in the Directorate of Training, Income Tax (as it was then known) officers under training having cleared the central superior services were noticed making spelling/grammatical mistakes. When these were confronted, they quite casually waived them aside claiming that these were of such minor nature that they hardly mattered and if they cleared the competitive examinations in flying colours, no one had the right to rebuke them. The most astounding defence used to be that if whatever written was understood, the rest was irrelevant. That there was no harm in writing ‘truly’ as ‘truely’ and it was no big deal to state ‘forty’ as ‘fourty’. After all, both sound the same. If this had been brought before the convent teachers of the last century whose methodical and meticulous style of teaching English as a language was undisputable, they would have blacked out.

Speaking of teachers and devotion to their profession reminds me of an incident that occurred way back in 2001 when my younger son was studying in class one, He was asked to write down something made out of tin and he chose ‘can’ as an example. When I checked the marked notebook I was aghast to see that the teacher had in red put an ‘e’ at the end of ‘can’ converting it into ‘cane’ which is a totally different word that has nothing to do with the element, tin. Since then, the only option left was to tutor the child personally with reference to his spellings, comprehension, pronunciation, usage of words and grammar which turned out to be a wise decision. One wonders about the quality of primary teachers recruited in private schools where parents pay exorbitant fee, through their noses at times, to provide better education to their children. Primary school lays the foundation for knowledge, especially that of language and if the base is poor, then obviously the super-structure is sure to be defective.

The habit of perusing classical literature is gradually dying and has been replaced by reading either course/technical books or whatever is available on the internet. Those who are keen on making a name for themselves as writers ask how they could improve their language skills. If only their mentors in primary and secondary school had guided them towards quality literature, grammar and meaning/usage of words, creative writing laying emphasis on construction of sentences, they would not be asking this question. Even some leading newspapers that carried flawless editorials that were vital source of learning are losing their credibility.

Unfortunately, in the words of Gore Vidal: “As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: you liberate a city by destroying it.”

The world today at large has drifted far away from genuine literary sense. Classical language is being gradually taken over by slangs and abbreviations. With the need to send express notes through Short Message Service (SMS), Twitter and WhatsApp, many new versions of words and sentences have become popular. These are formed not only using alphabet but even numbers. Thus ‘be’ is ‘b’, ‘eye’ is ‘i’, ‘why’ is ‘y’, ‘to’ is ‘2’ and ‘for’ is ‘4’, ‘tomorrow’ is ‘2moro’, ‘tonight’ is ‘2nite’, ‘later’ is ‘L8R’. A word such as ‘know’ becomes ‘no’ which is quite absurd considering what ‘no’ actually means. One can find a long list of acronyms that represent sentences carrying two to six or more words. This is all to do with re-learning a language one claimed to already know or ‘no’? It would be really interesting to see how poetry or even a short story could be translated in this type of script and whether the creator would be considered for a literary award.

With the passage of time stress on writing correctly, taking care of spellings and grammatical composition is declining. Those who speak with impeccable accents sometimes fail to distinguish in their writing between commonly occurring words as ‘affect’ and ‘effect’, ‘there’ and ‘their’, ‘principal’ and ‘principle’ etc. For those with a keen eye, these mistakes strike hard on the mind. Editing articles submitted by enthusiasts desirous of having their work published, is becoming a pain in the neck. Instead of writing simple sentences capable of conveying the ideas, (mis)use of words looked up from the thesaurus destroys the entire concept. There is a need to understand that although many words carry similar meaning, their usage depends upon a number of factors and just putting them down randomly and out of context kills the spirit of a language.

Teaching institutes, especially those catering to the needs of young school-going children will have to focus more on learning the English language with all essential elements of grammar, tenses, vocabulary and pronunciation, rather than just speaking it in order to revitalize its beauty and true character.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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