Does “classical” necessarily denote high quality?

The term ‘classical’ and ‘classic’ is thrown around so much as to lose meaning, everything from Classical Studies, which refer only to Latin and Ancient Greek, to ‘classic coke’ meaning the way it used to be.
For a lot of people, ‘the way it used to be’ means ‘better’, and that is b/c old people think back fondly on the good old days, filtering out the bad stuff. And I am not sure what ‘classical’ and ‘classic’ mean to anyone except ‘good.’ So when we are using a form of language described as classical, as in classical Arabic or the Classical Languages (Latin and Ancient Greek), we may be raising the ‘quality’ to a level beyond our grasp. In Greece, the desire to retain as much of the Classical language as possible was so strong that it resulted in diglossia. This made literacy difficult to achieve and kept everyone in a state of limbo. Once the conservative forces were defeated in the 70s, the common or popular or colloquial language was declared the official language for all uses.
Many languages throughout the world find themselves in this position. The conservative forces, of course, view any attempt to make language available to the masses as a surrender to mediocrity and a loss of quality. Classical language, available only to the educated, maintains the hierarchical structure of society so dear to conservatives.
All this came up for me on reading an exchange on the Urdu listserv about what language the national anthem of Pakistan should be in. Here is the exchange:

The Pakistani national anthem is indeed written in Urdu but it is the Urdu of 65 years ago. Urdu comprises words borrowed from Hindi, Persian, Arabic, Turkish and other languages. Since there is a declining emphasis on learning proper Urdu, a large proportion of Pakistanis, especially those taught in the  ‘English medium schools, have developed a poor grasp of formal Urdu. Even the quoted national anthem purported to be written by Jagan Nath Azad contains several Persian and Arabic words because it represents the poetic and linguistic tradition of the time. Languages are constantly changing what may be considered easily accessible Urdu today may not be so in the future. National anthems do not reflect the colloquial versions of any language. They tend to be written in the ‘standard’ form so as to give diverse populations a common expression. Moreover, what is colloquial Urdu in one region may not be considered so in another. The Urdu spoken in the streets of Karachi is quite different from the Urdu spoken colloquially in Peshawar. If  the Pakistani national anthem is to be re-written, which version of Urdu should be used for it; which regional form of the language should be privileged?

I replied:

The trick, I think, is to use a kind of lingua franca, what Urdu was originally; but that same situation does not obtain in Pakistan. Entrenched languages do not surrender their status and autonomy easily. Conservative forces prefer restrictive approaches that maintain hierarchy, like a language variety not available to “just anybody.” But a national anthem should be a binding force. Given U.S. history and tradition of immigration (rapidly being destroyed) English works fine. Pakistan’s history is so different that this anthem question is fascinating to me, although the historical and cultural context is out of my range of knowledge and I therefore appreciate the views of others on the listserv. Maybe rotating verses in each regional language? Standard language is one alternative, a kind of classical form is another, but colloquial loses the sense of majesty required. I was playing around mentally with the U.S. anthem in colloquial American English and it doesn’t quite get the effect. Indeed, colloquial in Minnesota is different from colloquial in Arkansas, so that won’t work. Wasim Ghani is right in staying away from colloquial versions but what is ‘proper’ or ‘ formal’ Urdu? Who establishes that? Standard English is really what we call Broadcast English, a neutral variety born in the industrial areas along the Great Lakes. What do news broadcasters use in Pakistan? A news broadcaster in Kansas sounds pretty much like one in New York State. But is broadcast language what you want for an anthem? The more y’all (that’s Southern) discuss this, the more I will learn about the culture of Pakistan. And note, even though written 200 years ago, the Star Spangled Banner has only one even slightly religious reference toward the end.
Pat Barrett

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