I grew up in Pakistan speaking a mix of three different languages: Urdu, Punjabi (regional language) and English. After high school, I moved southwest to Karachi by the Arabian Sea, where Punjabi was not widely understood. Filtering out my regional language to only speak English or Urdu separately — without mixing the three languages together — was a process that took several years.
Even though I count English as my first language — I read best in it, I write it best, I understand complicated concepts in it — Urdu is my mother tongue. It is the language my soul connects with. Like every other language, Urdu has distinctive words that lose part of their meaning and evocation when translated. Here are five Urdu words that I can translate into English, but they just don’t mean the same thing:
1. Acha (اچھا)
Literally, “acha” means “nice.” In reality, though, it can have dozens of meanings when used in everyday conversation. It can be used as a “yeah, yeah, whatever.” It can mean “OK,” and when used with a certain tone, it can be used as the exclamation “Really?!” Another inflection in tone could translate it to “Ohhhhh, I see.” It is used as a filler of silence in conversation (“hmmm”), is often used to praise children—“acha bacha” (good/kind/well-mannered child) and to admire everything from cloth, to food, to people.
Acha is a very common word; I probably use it at least five times a day and, when I stop and think about it, it’s rather cool to have one word express so many different reactions.
2. Phuppo (پھپھو )
“Phuppo” (also commonly spelled “phupho“) is a word loaded with cultural connotations and sly barbs, and refers to the stereotype of an evil aunt — specifically, a father’s sister* — who is out to make life miserable for you and your family.
Countless jokes, memes, and gifs take jabs at “Phuppos” across the spectrum. There is even a Facebook page called “Phupho” that makes fun of a Pakistani’s tricky relationship with their Phupho.
Granted that often the socio-cultural-historical set-up makes this stereotype not too far from the truth but, my sister likes to hashtag #NotAllPhupposAreEvil when posting pictures with our nephew (yes, I’m a Phuppo too!). When earlier this year my nephew called me Phuppo for the first time, I thought it was the most beautiful designation in the world! But, I also know that it is a tricky one.
*In Urdu there is no common proper noun for “Aunt.” Each aunt (mothers’ sister, father’s sister, mother’s brother’s wife, father’s older brother’s wife, father’s younger brother’s wife) has a different name so one can tell instantly which aunt you are talking about.
3. Variations of “love”: Ishq (عشق), Mohabbat (محبت), Pyar (پیار) and more
There is no one word for “love” in Urdu, the way there is in English. You cannot just “love” the burger you’re eating and love your significant other the same way; you need to use different words.
There are numerous words that describe love ranging from really liking the new t-shirt you bought, to being hopelessly head over heels for someone, and — if you really start getting into Urdu poetry — all the way up to the highest form of spiritual love one has for God. Each implies a distinct kind and different level of love. For adoration, you might say “mohabbat”; for devotion and passion, “ishq“; for love bordering on madness, “deewangi,” and so on. The use and interchanging of each is not as simple as having one standard word for each type though.
There is an old Bollywood film titled, “Pyar, Ishq, Aur Mohabbat,” which makes complete sense to me but, were I to translate for someone it would sound rather ridiculous: “Love, Love, and Love.”
4. Seerat (سيرة)
Not the most commonly used word, but I have been obsessing over “seerat” for the past few months after it was used in a song* where a girl is described as being as beautiful as a fairy, with a soul (seerat) as kind as Mariam’s (Mary’s). I remember thinking, “What a lovely compliment focusing equally on inner worth as well as outer beauty.”
English translations of “seerat” will pull up meanings like “nature,” “disposition,” “inner beauty,” and “soul.” In my opinion, it means all of these combined — and more. The English versions just don’t seem to have the “oomph” this word comes with in Urdu.
*The artists featured in the video are singing in Punjabi.
5. Bus (بس)
Bus, has a few different meanings including,” “stop,” “enough,” or “that’s all.” My favorite use of it is on its own, in an incomplete sentence used as a response when you do not want to give one:
“Why did you buy new sunglasses when you already have three pairs?”
“Why can’t I skip school today?”
“Why do you want a career in underwater basket weaving?”
It could roughly translate as “because,” when used as a stand-alone. I have no statistics, but I would broadly approximate that this word is used most often between parents and children and, at different times, works to both their advantage.
Languages are one of the most beautiful and astounding things on earth, in my opinion. I am extremely privileged to be able to understand three, but I’m always wishing I knew more. You cannot just substitute one for another; centuries of history, culture, and stories are wrapped up in every single word.
How many will you unravel?
This story has been updated since its original publication.