Excerpts from Random Musings

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Excerpts from Random Musings
By Alaf Khan
Man: the best of creation gone awry
We created man in the best of forms, then We let him sink to the lowest of the low, except
those who believed and acted righteously; for them is a reward unending (Quran 95: 4-6).

‘Who am I, where I came from, where do I go, and what is my destiny?’. A cow or a cat, a snake or a sparrow, a flea or a fox and a horse or a hare probably never waste time on such unanswerable riddles. They may not even be aware of the need for such mental gymnastics. Man, endowed with the unique attribute of being conscious of his consciousness, has endeavored ceaselessly to trace his origin, his genealogy, the evolution of his civilization, his ultimate fate, and the purpose, if any, of his existence. Plato defined man as the speaking animal. Greek logic and philosophy captivated Muslim thought as Muslims conquered lands in North Africa, southern Europe, and central Asia. Plato and his Academia fascinated generations of Muslim scholars. Famous institutions in Baghdad, Damascus, Egypt, southern Spain, and North Africa incorporated Plato’s logic, Euclid’s geometry, and Galen’s medicine in their curricula. These subjects are still being taught in leading Muslim seminaries and universities. Muslim scholars fondly adopted the definition of Man postulated by Plato. Others have coined different terms. No single definition encompasses the whole range of human attributes. Here is a partial list of the other definitions that stress various aspects of human personality:


Dr. Alaf Khan

An animal that 1. Lights and uses fire; 2. Cooks its food; 3. Makes and uses tools; 4. Is conscious of his/her nudity; 5. Can and does tell lies; 6. Is conscious of its being conscious. 7. Is endowed with the ability to name things --- all of them ---, concrete as well as abstract.

The Quran, in a short Arabic sentence, sums up the one attribute that gives man primacy over the rest of the Lord’s creation: And He taught Adam the names ---- all of them (Al-Quran 2:31). This singles out man’s uniqueness by virtue of his ability to name all things, i.e. things that have ever been, all those that now are, and those that will ever be. Man’s ability to read and to use the pen also receives special emphasis as his unique attributes (Al-Quran 96: 1--5; 68: 01; 55: 1-- 4). Naming, describing, and recording objects (concrete as well as abstract) are the basic ingredients of human language and knowledge. Speech, pen, script, and book are listed in the Quran as human prerogatives for acquiring, storing, and transmitting knowledge. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robots may soon accomplish wonders, but they themselves owe their evolution to human intelligence which, in turn, is a product of man being conscious of his consciousness, and his ability to name things --- all of them.

Language is a unique tool for organizing thoughts and transferring them from one mind to another. Language takes several forms: 1. The spoken word, 2. The written word, 3. Signs and symbols (lipreading, finger signs for the deaf-mute, and Braille for the blind), 4. The now obsolete shorthand, 5. Musical and mathematical symbols, 6. The Morse telegraphic code, and 7. The flags used by scouts and soldiers. 

All these seemingly different modalities are the means for sharing and circulating thoughts among countless minds. The great profusion of these symbols, and their equally great variation, have resulted in the genesis of thousands of languages. Here we shall limit ourselves to the special brand of English language spoken and written by persons from the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. Some wits have aptly dubbed it Pinglish and Hinglish. Some British education centers now provide formal courses in Hinglish for Indo-Pakistan immigrants. 

School and college students in Pakistan and India copy the pronunciation and idiom of English that their teachers use. Not many of us were exposed in our days to the BBC and VOA broadcasts, or to Hollywood movies. Even those who had access to these resources enjoyed the programs without paying attention to the idiom or to the pronunciation. Words like Flour, Flower, Ear, Year, Photo, Photography, Provoke, Provocative, Provocation, Bow, Bow, Sow and Sow are still pronounced letter-by-letter as they appear on some surface. Not many notice the fine variations in the sounds of these words as uttered by native English speakers. Bomb, bombing, plumber, plumbing, numb, numbing, and many other words are deformed beyond acoustic recognition by most expatriates. So let us have a go at our Pinglish.

“A E I O U are vowels, all others are consonants” was the mantra we had to memorize at school. Though most teachers had got it wrong, their students neither knew nor could dare point to the mistake. You could not take liberties with your teacher in those days without inviting his bruising cane. You had to take it as he said it was. 

True vowels are the guttural sounds generated by uttering the letters A E I O U straight from the throat with an open mouth and without the tongue touching the palate, the teeth, or the lips. Letters of the English alphabet are vowels only if they sound like the Arabic Hamza. Some of these English letters are consonants if not voiced with the guttural sound of Hamza. Consider some examples.

In Utter, Uncle, Umbrella, Under, Unfair, Ultrasound, Unusual, Upright, andUgly the initial letter U is a vowel because of its Hamza-like guttural sound. An initial E uttered straight from the throat is, likewise, a vowel as in Equal, Ego, Egg, Easy, Exit, Eastern, Enemy, Essay, Exception, Extra, Effort, andEntrance. An internal or terminal E has usually no specific sound of its own but still remains a vowel. Examples of such E’s are in the words different, beyond and stare.

Because of its soft delivery through puckered lips, the letter U becomes a consonant in Uniform, University, Utility, Union, Usual, Ubiquitous, Utopia, Useful, andUnique. 

E followed by U or W becomes a consonant as in Europe, Euphemism, Euphoria, Euthanasia, Eucalyptus, Eugenics, andEwe. Ewe, pronounced as You, means a mature female sheep or goat. In all these examples the sound of the initial E is swallowed by the succeeding letter.

The letter H is a consonant in the words Home, Hair, House, Horror, Happy, Hostess, Heavy, Half, andHope. The H’s own sound, however, is stolen by the succeeding O in the words Hour, Honest, andHonor. The H thus becomes a vowel if its own sound is usurped by the succeeding vowel. It is the guttural sound in a voiced speech that confers vowelness on a letter. More examples will come later.

We know what Past, Present, and Future tenses are. They refer, respectively, to some task that has been done to completion, is still in the process of being done, or is yet to start. This is true of English, Urdu, and Pashtu grammar. Not so with Arabic, Persian, and Greek grammar. Arabic, for instance, looks at a task as completed, or not yet completed. A completed task is the Past tense. The not-yet-completed includes both Present as well as Future tenses. He wrote means that the task of writing has been completed (Past tense). He writes refers to a task that is still in the process of being done (Present tense). He will write means that the task is yet to commence. The one not-yet-finished and the one not-yet-started are lumped together under the term Mudhari in Arabic and Persian, and aorist (ey’uh’rist) in Greek.

Parts of speech. Arabic, unlike English, has only three Parts of Speech: Noun, Verb, and Particle. Pronouns, Adjectives, and Adverbs are all treated as Nouns. That makes Nouns the largest part of Arabic grammar and vocabulary.

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