Urdu idioms and their cultural connotations -
Pakistan Press Foundation

Urdu idioms and their cultural connotations

Pakistan Press Foundation

AS young boys, my peers and I used to address the elders, especially strangers, as chacha (an Urdu word for uncle) to show respect. Any shopkeeper, hawker or passerby was a chacha. In case of women, we addressed them as khala (Urdu for aunt). Any woman in the neighborhood was our khala.

But today the Pakistani youth, especially the ones from big cities, almost always use the words uncle and auntie instead. Even real chachas, mamoons, khalas and phuppees have now become uncles and aunties. Any kid addressing these relatives as chacha or khala may be ridiculed by other kids.

The signs of the times, you may say. Yeah, and a changing culture, too, you may add, since language reflects culture. In fact, language is a part of the culture. But the same is true the other way round: culture reflects language and is, in fact, a part of the language.

The cultural norms and social values of a society can be traced in the lexicon of the society. How important relatives are and how necessary it is to distinguish precisely between maternal and paternal relatives in our culture, for example, can be gauged by the fact that Urdu, unlike English, has different, specific words for them.

Idioms not only adorn the language, but they are part of the vocabulary of a language that has more telltale signs. Idioms and proverbs of a language are fossilised record of history and heritage.

In Urdu, for instance, certain idioms used in certain context reveal our rituals and cultural practices. Laddu bantna is one such idiom. It means, aside from literal meaning (to distribute sweetmeat among fellows), to celebrate, though laddus have now been replaced by chocolate.

The idiom is still used to refer to the celebration on a happy occasion since it was a ritual to distribute sweetmeat among friends and relatives to mark a festive occasion.

Haath peele karna is an idiom that means ‘to marry a daughter off’, especially when it is done simply. This reminds one of the ritual of applying ubtan to the hands of the bride.

In addition to idioms, Urdu dictionaries enlist proverbs too, as both idioms and proverbs are extant in Urdu in large number (English dictionaries usually do not give proverbs, but do give idioms). But it seems that to distinguish between idioms and proverbs is not easy, or at least this is what one gathers by studying different definitions by scholars and, sorry to say, some professors.

The fact is an idiom is called muhaavra in Urdu, while a proverb is kahavat or zarb-ul-misal. But there are some who cannot tell one from the other, as Vasiullah Khokhar has mentioned in his intro to the book Urdu muhaavraat ka tehzeebi mutal’a (the cultural study of Urdu idioms), published recently by Lahore’s Nashriyaat Publishers.

After giving some incorrect definitions of idiom as quoted by some scholars and professors, Khokhar sahib, a young lexicographer from Kamonke, Punjab, has very plainly and correctly described what a proverb is.

He says that an idiom must have at least two words, one of which is an infinitive and the other is a noun. It is used figuratively and not in literal sense. But many of us confuse idioms with proverbs.

Khokhar has also briefly introduced some authentic collections of Urdu idioms and proverbs. He feels that Munshi Chiranji Lal’s Makhzan-ul-muhaavraat and Moulvi Muhammad Najmuddin’s Najm-ul-amsaal are two landmark works in the field.

The book not only enlists a large number of Urdu idioms with cultural connotations but also explains their historical background and cultural aspect. Recently reproduced in Pakistan, the book, authored by Dr Ishrat Jahan Hashmi, a women scholar from India, was originally published in India a few years ago.

But what is perplexing is the fact that the author has included some proverbs as well as a large number of idioms in the book. Though it ultimately helps the reader, the author should have divided the book into two parts. The students (and some professors, too!) reading the book must keep this in mind. That said, the book has some very interesting entries and their brief cultural and historical background makes a good reading.