We have a habit of bemoaning the demise of Urdu. One would think that a language that has been in decline for over 50 years would be extinct by now. The truth is that the self-appointed guardians of the language insist that it should only be spoken in a certain way. This is in sharp contrast to the school of thought that Urdu, as the national language of Pakistan, should continuously evolve and be enriched by regional accents and pronunciations as no language can conform to such a narrow set of rules and standards. For example, certain words in the English language are pronounced, spelled and used in different ways in various parts of the world and their meanings have evolved with time.
That said, I am now convinced that if any language – be it Urdu or English – will truly become extinct, it won’t in the books we read; rather, it will steadily deteriorate right before our eyes, on our screens and on product packaging and posters, getting more and more absurd until one fine day, we all forget that it ever existed.
Case in point? Oh, where to begin!
Recently, a leading cola brand relaunched itself with a ‘fresh new taste’. I honestly don’t know what was new in the taste, not having tried it, but perhaps it amounts to a sea change and an acknowledgment of shifting preferences in palettes around the world. However, that important nugget is all but buried in the new campaign slogan – “Why not meri jaan”!
The first time I saw it I thought it was a spoof. But then it started springing up on screens and OOH, and I realised that no amount of burying my head in the sand would make this abomination of a slogan go away. Needless to say, both English and Urdu have been butchered with equal relish with these four words, and it has a lecherous undertone which makes it extremely disturbing in the current climate. You can forget about anyone daring to repeat it. What makes it more pitiful is that the slogan is somehow attached to a social awareness campaign that urges consumers to be generous and forgiving.
Then there is a perennial favourite beauty cream that, albeit too late, realised that we are no longer in the Middle Ages and re-named their product by replacing an adjective with a word that is a noun – or a verb – but definitely not an adjective. The new name is painful to see for anyone with even a passing acquaintance with English grammar. What is more perplexing is that the organisation behind the brand is one of the world’s leading FMCG companies headquartered in Europe.
It doesn’t end here.
There is a famous brand of noodles with the slogan, ‘is ka magic hi aur’. Now, tell me: was it too much to substitute “jadoo” (the Urdu word for magic)? It has the same weight, and phonetically it is equally attractive, and there is no risk of people not being able to understand it. As a side note: the “K” in the brand name is silent; however in Pakistan it is pronounced, thus adding to the tragedy of errors.
I believe that our ads should be more particular about language especially when selling to kids.
When was the last time you saw a product’s name in Urdu on a screen, a package or in a print ad? When you flip that shiny shampoo, soap, detergent, you are more likely to see obtuse text in a Far Eastern language than in Urdu. The same goes for billboards, posters, and TVCs. Even if something is in Urdu, it is written in roman letters. Compare that to any imported product on supermarket shelves and you will almost always see that the text is either in the language of the country of origin, or in English as well.
The problem goes deeper. Look at your phone right now; I am sure its UI is in English. Did you know that phones and PCs have offered an option for an Urdu interface for years? Have you seen anyone – be it you, or a street vendor – ever use any computing device in Urdu? Perhaps this has to do with the fact that English is glorified in our households at the expense of Urdu and other regional languages. Since no one uses Urdu, no one writes in Urdu and no one feels the need to read Urdu.
Languages survive by being used, by evolving and by accepting progress. Unfortunately, we are failing on all three fronts.
Talha bin Hamid is an accountant by day and an opinionated observer of pop culture, an avid reader, a gamer and an all-around nerd by night. firstname.lastname@example.org