Long-delayed lessons in Urdu

Years ago, I promised myself that I would be That Parent who ensured that her child would fluently speak Urdu, Arabic, Punjabi, and her native English. Maybe Farsi and Danish too.

A decade of U.S. grade school later, a sadder and a wiser woman approaches the task again.

So this summer, we are courting Urdu once more. We’ve unearthed our qaida, the Urdu primer. And yes, I feel a little sad inside, as I remember how my 3-year old kid handily recited all these words. Now, after elementary school and middle school in the US, she has lost much of her Urdu knowledge. (I’m looking at you, Miss Bonnie, who found fault with my toddler for not being fluent in English in preschool, so I felt pressured to ditch Urdu).

I bury my sadness, and reassert joy. I firmly believe in laughs as we learn. So with ب, I throw a mock-fit because LOOK AT THE BILLI it’s like they got our very own cat Ghost for the photo!!

It’s a sign!

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I go on to explain to R that Urdu is like, such a very obliging language for English speakers. Because ٹ is for ‘tamatar’ and ‘tank.’ Can you see how you really should not even get credit for learning a new language?

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I ask her to read the word for ج and she goes 🤨 “But that’s JUG.” So I explain patiently, “Yes, you’re welcome; we’re a welcoming sort of language; we accept all words, and when you come to learn our language, we say, no problem, ma’am, bring your words, we’ll take it all.” Hammered the same point home with ر for ‘rail and ‘rickshaw.’

However, I was forced to apologize for how we use the same جہاز for a ship and an airplane, sorry about that, but you can always be persnickety and say ہوائی جہاز for an airplane, and be ridiculously literary and call a ship a سفینہ but nobody’s going to get that, especially not the current generation of romanized-internet-Urdu texters 🧐

As for the word for ث I mean, this is just the most useless word ever; you’re not going to go up to a fruit-stall and say, “Janab, my good man, give me some samar;” you’re gonna ask for پھل so this is the ‘Mess With Your Head’ side of Urdu. “Why do we have them?” she asks, “why do we keep them?” WE DO NOT TOSS. We keep it, we save it, because we don’t throw anything away.

This goes for various letters we get from Arabic, which we take, and we smelt them all into one sound each. So ث and س and ص are all the SAME sound; she’s curling her tongue to say ص and putting a little lisp into her ث and I say “NO. It’s ALL the same, don’t you be all fancy and Arabic with us.” We take our lowly ت and our sophisticated ط and we flatten them into One. “Why?” she says. Why don’t we just get rid of them? Because Tradition.

Because words with ط have meanings and links all over the place, and to substitute them with a basic ت would disconnect it. We do not disconnect – whether it’s a toxic cousin or a grumpy uncle, we do not disconnect. So we do not disconnect from our ط or our ص either.

My kid has named چ the ‘preening letter.’ Arabic doesn’t have the sound; English doesn’t have a single letter for it. But we have a چ! 🇵🇰

Likewise for ژ – if you want to transliterate French, like bonjour, you’ve got the perfect sound right here. But we know, don’t we, that for most of the time this is a useless letter. Who’s going to say ‘zhaala’ instead of اولے (hail)? And who’s going to say مژگان instead of پلک (eyelash)?

The ح word حوض is not very useful unless you’re reciting a na’at about حوض كوثر. Or you’re familiar with the water reservoirs they use to water cattle. Or you go to a mosque where they have standing water for ablutions. 😬

My teen got a kick out of خرگوش (rabbit) being an amalgam of خر (donkey) and گوش (ears). Here, we risked a long digression re: amalgamated animal names – except I moved right along to ذ which is basically like the X of the Urdu alphabet.

What is X without xylophone? For ذ all we have to offer, for years and years, is that old trade word ذخیرہ – which most folks don’t use unless they’re talking about hoarding.

I guess toilet paper would be the latest ذخیرہ and ذخیرہ can return to currency in the pandemic?


5 thoughts on “Long-delayed lessons in Urdu”

  1. I get your blog on my email and this is easier for me to respond here I am enjoying Urdu sabaq and your teaching of alphabet I am realizing the that and ZDay ث اور ز   the fifth letter after Tay and the Zay with three dots These are so peculiar letters and we could almost do without them I find your comments interesting Wahaj-ud-Din Ahmad M.D.

  2. Urdu lessons brought back the trauma of a language made an order in our household. It held the power to begin a war if you spoke English instead. As a child none of my friends had to deal this particular vernacular battle, it seemed. As an adult, I am acutely aware of the loss of such a beautiful tongue. How I regret not being able to enjoy Urdu writers, poets, …. as a reader. I feel a pang of loss and sorrow.

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