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Words have Pasts

April 12, 2007

For those of you who like South Asia and South Asian studies, here is a link: Key Words

It is an online dictionary of terms familiar to those who likes reading about South Asian history, culture, politics, etc.  Courtesy of the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London, my alma mater.

Each short piece traces the history of terms such as Qawm (elemental to the two-nation theory and the creation of Pakistan), Ashraf (the Muslim upperclass who often fancied themselves as foreign to South Asia, and native to the Islamic heartlands westwards), and so on.

Histories of terms such as these can be interesting. Here’s one that’s relevant to Bangladesh:

When we think of the Bangla word mukti these days – we think of “freedom.” Freedom in a very everyday sense of the word. So in Bangla,  one can say one wants mukti from work-related stress – just the way one can want mukti from imprisonment.

However, earlier, the word mukti used to have a slightly different connotation. The term actually comes to us from Hindu cosmology and to obtain mukti was akin to attaining nirvana. The connotation was of spiritual transcendentalism. So it was “freedom” but in a very strict sense of the word. After 1971, the word is deployed differently as the Bangladesh movement called its war of independence MuktiJudhho. The imagination the word mukti encompassed is refashioned. The new valence displaces the old one and now we have mukti simply meaning freedom.

This also happens when words travel between languages. Many words which come from Arabic into Urdu undergo slight shifts in meaning. This happens also when words come from Hindustani to Bangla. “Bhaaga” in Urdu/Hindi means simply to “run.” In Bangla, “bhaaga” means to “escape.”

You also have instances when everyday words in Farsi find themselves in Urdu, after a shift in valence, so the original Farsi words may end up sounding ludicrous to Urdu speakers. Take the word for “hospital” in Farsi for example. The word is bimaristan. When Farsi speakers use this word in front of Urdu dans, it sounds rather funny because the image that is conjured up is of a wasteland for the sick and ailing. Not of an institution that provides medical services. 🙂

Back to grading.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Reshad permalink
    April 13, 2007 4:44 pm

    “When we think of the Bangla word mutki these days – we think of “freedom”…”

    I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear the word mutki I think about polly.

  2. Jajabor permalink
    April 13, 2007 5:58 pm

    Haha. Whatsup man? How’ve you been?

  3. squarecut permalink
    April 14, 2007 4:05 pm

    mutki or mukti?

  4. Jajabor permalink
    April 16, 2007 3:40 pm

    I don’t know anymore…

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