Pinglish: ‘Chips in Isle’ and ‘Long Arms’

Posted on March 30, 2007
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Humor, Pinglish
Total Views: 109617

Adil Najam

'Photo State'One of my favorite post ‘categories’ on ATP is something we call ‘Pinglish.’ While we have not been able to post as many things under this category as we had hoped to, I have enjoyed putting together these posts on ‘Pinglish, Urdish or Engdu?‘, on ‘GanDeri’, and on more.

I just received from Pervaiz Munir Alvi a link to a most delightful essay posted on the BBC website that, even though it does not say it is about Pinglish, is very much about exactly that. At least according to our definition of Pinglish.

Titled ‘Pakistan and the Battle for English,’ the article is by Masud Alam of the BBC Urdu service who is now back in Pakistan after 15 years.

I thought that the way he weaves in politics towards the end of the article is quite interesting. I should add, however, that at times (towards the beginning) it seems he is making fun of how Pakistanis speak English. I hope he is not. Our conception on Pinglish, of course, is that it is something to be celebrated, not ridiculed. We now ‘own’ Pinglish; languages evolve, and this is how English has evolved in Pakistan.

There are only a few video clips of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, in the archives of state-run television in Pakistan and they are aired with unfailing regularity on occasions of national import.

One excerpt is from a speech in which the father of the nation says a few lines in Urdu, to rapturous applause from the crowd, followed by the disclaimer in English “my Urdu is tangawala Urdu”.

(For those not familiar with Mr Jinnah, the man was as westernised in his lifestyle as any Lincolns Inn-educated Indian barrister at the start of 20th Century could be.)

Tangawala means coachman, and perhaps in the early days of Pakistan’s independence, they didn’t speak Urdu very well. They still don’t.

Jinnah spoke Urdu “like a coachman.”

The same goes for leaders – politicians and army generals alike – who succeeded Mr Jinnah.

A good majority of them couldn’t speak the country’s national language fluently.

From Jinnah to the current leader, President Pervez Musharraf, the preferred language of Pakistani rulers has been English.

The masses, by general inclination keen to follow the ruling class, have honestly tried to keep pace.

But after 60 years of excruciating practice, they have managed only half the linguistic excellence: they’ve learnt to speak bad Urdu but constructing a grammatically correct sentence in English remains a challenge.

‘Chips in isle’

The language of the urban Pakistani is now a hotchpotch of Urdu, Punjabi and a few words of English spoken with an accent that can be understood only by someone who speaks the same way.

My daughter is learning this cocktail language and having fun with it.

The other day she had a conversation with the man who runs the canteen at her school, that went something like this: “Can I have chips?”

(In Urdu) “Finish.”

“You must have some left?”

“All finish.”

“This is not fair. You want us to bring our own potatoes to school?”

“And isle.”


“Isle? Isle… for frying.”

When her friends elbowed her into recognising that it was “oil” the man was talking about, they all had a good laugh.

‘No assess’

But things can get a little more complicated when such cryptic talk is done over the phone, with a complete stranger.

At a friend’s place of work I overheard a man calling up the computer help desk. “I can’t assess the drive,” he complained.

To the common man, English is still a wild horse he cannot tame.

“But that’s my job, what exactly is your problem?” is what I assume the person on the other end must have said.

Our man kept repeating that his inability to “assess the drive” was the problem.

After a few minutes of totally incoherent exchanges, the poor helper finally realised the problem was “access”.

The first generation of Pakistani bureaucrats and military officers had derived their entire English vocabulary from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, the booklets of Standard Operating Procedures found in military and bureaucratic circles, and the official correspondence with lowly functionaries of the British Raj.

On social occasions, this word bank was embellished with phrases like “jolly good” and “old chap” to sound authentic – often to the amusement of the gora sahib (foreign master).

But after 1947, in this brand new country of Pakistan, there was no white-skinned patronising colonist to frown or frolic at the sight and sound of a subject trying too hard to speak like the master. This emboldened the native no end.

He was now free to choose English over his mother tongue. And he did so with relish.

However his vocabulary was limited to the world of officialdom, as it existed in 1940s British India. To overcome this handicap he took to improvisation, and in the process, made valuable additions to the English language.

Manufacturing phrases

Gen Musharraf, the army chief, is the epitome of this creative trend.

He deposed an elected prime minister and installed himself as the “chief executive” rather than the old-fashioned “chief martial law administrator” – the epithet preferred by three generals and for some time, by a civilian prime minister, before him.

There is a high failure rate in English at school.

He is also the proud manufacturer of the term “enlightened moderation,” the meaning of which is being debated years after it was coined.

He showed his flair for linguistic innovation more recently when he suspended the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, by making him “non-functional.”

He is now very disappointed that the flourish is lost on the country’s lawyers who are engaging in mass protests against the chief justice’s “suspension.”

Lower down the order, the government functionaries continue to show the same zest at modernising English language in their day to day business.

The Capital Development Authority is on a binge of road-making these days. One such project is the upgrading of a two-lane road into a dual carriageway. It is labelled “dualisation” – a word three online dictionaries I consulted, have yet to recognise.

Long arm

To the common man, English is still a wild horse he’d like to mount every now and then but one he cannot tame. Year after year English remains the single most likely subject students at all levels flunk.

Even those who passed their English exams and made it to the present parliament – for which university education was mandatory – are not always known to have a comfortable relationship with English.

Punjab province’s Chief Minister, Pervez Elahi, is among those few who seem to correctly guess Gen Musharraf’s profound ideas like enlightened moderation.

His most recent demonstration of this talent was seen last month when he lifted a court-imposed ban on kite flying to celebrate the festival of Basant. (The kites, with glass shards glued to the string, are notoriously dangerous.)

It was pure enlightenment. But when the move resulted in killing several people in Lahore – as the court had cautioned against – Mr Elahi refused to extend the permission to other cities. That was moderation.

But not all ministers have the same level of perception when it comes to expressions in English language.

When the law minister, Wasi Zafar, was recently described as the “long arm of law” by a local journalist, the minister mistook it for an expression in his native Punjabi which roughly translates into “up yours”.

His apt response, on national TV, was: “If anyone gives me the long arm, my long arm to his whole family.”

21 responses to “Pinglish: ‘Chips in Isle’ and ‘Long Arms’”

  1. kronstadter says:

    Why does this have to be an issue anyway?

    Why should the BBC publicize the fact that some Pakistani people have trouble speaking English?!

  2. mozang bijjli says:

    I recognized my inability to speak pure mual’a urdu when i was asked to speak in my native language among the foreigners few years ago. The question i was asked later was if i was adressing them in english or does my native language sounds like english. And i was embarassed. I talking to the people who are awed by english but yet are reluctant to let go of their own identity. They cherish their national indipendance and have kept their language alive.
    Since than I try to speak only in urdu without inserting english in my dialogue.And i tell you its real fun speaking in pure urdu one feels stately.

    I had just one objection to Adnan sidqui’s idea of taking urdu as mode of education. Pinglish or english what ever we have here, it still is an asset which comes handy when we go abroad for education or business. We should not change the whole system and destroy the little strengths we do have. Rather we should try to speak only in urdu or punjabi when we are conversing among ourselves.

  3. Social Mistri says:

    Calling our cricketers “crickets” in the post above was not deliberate :-) I think this text box uses some javascript for validation and when I type fast it skips some characters… sorry.

    On hindsight, given their performance in the world cup, perhaps they deserved it :-)

  4. Social Mistri says:

    To be very honest with you, it’s not the broken english our crickets speak that bothers me. It’s the content. Even when the speak in Urdu, their responses betray a sub-par IQ, generally. I am just referring to the majority of them anyway. If you ask them a question on strategy, they will typically just translate, “Thanks God, Boyses plays vary wells” in Urdu. And the grammar will be better, but the content leaves much to be desired.

    The reason why they are perceived as not being very bright is not just an “English thing”. It’s more than that.

    Imran, for instance, sounds intelligent whether he speaks in Urdu or English, even though his Urdu tallafuz leaves much to be desired. Jinnah sahib is another great example. The point is not just the tallafuz, or the grammar, it’s mostly the content.

    We seem to be producing a lot of content-free minds nowadays. That bothers me. Maybe that’s why this Mullah-inspired vitriolic #$#@####!! becomes injected so easily… so much empty space.

  5. RASOK says:

    There is no reason not to be fluent in the lingo of the country you choose as your second home. No wonder immigration in many countries is now based on speaking the language and understanding their culture and history. NO BODY IS ASKING YOU TO APE IT, JUST UNDERSTAND IT. You can not have your cake and eat it too. As for english for our Pakistanis in Pakistan, the answer is very simple. YOU IGRNOE IT AT YOUR OWN PERIL.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *