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… Jehovah Starts with an I February 24, 2006

Posted by KG in Etc., FS Life, Urdu.

Other (past, present) students of Urdu, feel free to shout a “what what” on one of the more frustrating aspects of the language: the magically disappearing diacritics. Sure, sometimes you’ll see a paish, zaer, or zabar written out — but more often than not, you’ll have to sound out four or more variations on how a letter set is pronounced before realizing that “oh, wait, that’s just a cognate for New Zealand!” It’s enough to drive you batty, or at least feel like you’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on the short bus. Why have a sound simply implied by foreknowledge of vocabulary? In terms of making a language teachable, the invisibility of many short vowels makes Urdu well deserving of the “super-hard” appellation.*

At least that’s what I thought for a couple of seconds, until I opened a magazine for my post-class decompression (sidenote: the latest Vanity Fair is hott (the second “t” is silent)). A quick scan of one page revealed far more frustrating vocab specimens in English. “Paradigm”? “Colonel”? Or even on lower diction levels: “Wrap”? “Echo”? What the heck was the grand architect of English thinking**? Any frustration I have with Urdu must be a fraction of the difficulty any young ESL student has, not to mention adult learners with one base grammar structure engrained in their heads.

And it gets worse. The hybrid nature of English leads to enormous complexity from stem to stern. Loaner words, technical terminology, culturally obviated slang — English is suffused with a zilion special cases, exceptions, and terms that are opaque to outside observers. I wonder if a third-party observer would judge English more difficult than even, say, Mandarin — or at least significantly more frustrating. Compared to English, Urdu is kind of a cakewalk.

In any case, school isn’t so frustrating that I’m completely put off. Just the other day I realized I was able to de-code the fancy calligraphy on the Iranian flag (says it: “Allah-hu Akbar” (God is great), I believe), and on the spoken level I’m getting more comfortable with each passing day. Am planning on dispatching with my latest bete noires, those rascally secret diacritics, postehaste.

Still, a man can dream. Of a day when we all hear the call of L.L. Zamenhof, when we reconstruct the Tower of Babel and eliminate troublesome linguistic diversity forever, yelling aloud from the heavens: Dankon!***

* Author assumes language is constructed for teaching and not built organically. Assumption inherently incorrect.

** Author acknowledges there was no grand architect of English, and if there were, it would probably have been Dr. Johnson. And he left words out of his dictionary just because he didn’t like them! What a man.

*** Author is being wholly sarcastic. Chances of this happening: slim to none. Author claims zero knowledge of Esperanto other than basic history and thanks the Internet for providing a vocabulary list.



1. Nathan - February 25, 2006

Funny! When are you coming to Pakistan?

2. editfish - February 25, 2006

It’s a big secret, but Mandarin is far, far simpler than English. Granted, the characters do not lend themselves to an understanding of how to pronounce them, but grammatically it’s a piece of cake. No conjugations, different tenses are indicated by adding another character. I’ve always been impressed by people who could make significant headway in those languages that drop the vowels (urdu, hebrew, arabic, etc.)

Hope you get to join FSOGlobetrotter soon!

3. Audrey - February 27, 2006

Great Indy Jones ref in the title. Remember: only the penitent man shall pass.

4. Anonymous - February 28, 2006

when are you leaving?

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