The languages of "The Man Who Would be King"

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I just watched The Man Who Would be King for the Nth time. For those who don't know it, this is the film version of a short story by Rudyard Kipling about two Englishmen retired from the Indian Army who set off to become kings of the mythical Kafiristan. Along the way they acquire the services of a Gurkha called Billyfish, who among other things, serves as their interpreter.

If I have identified the languages correctly, Billyfish addresses the natives of Kafiristan in Urdu, but they reply in Arabic. Neither is really appropriate for the area, which is presumably intended to be in the general area of Afghanistan or the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan (though the people are depicted as non-Muslim). A guess is that linguistic authenticity was not a priority and that the film makers simply had the actors speak languages that they knew. The actor who played Billyfish, Saeed Jaffrey, is an Indian Muslim who speaks Urdu and Punjabi. The Kafiristanis were presumably played by local actors, which means they knew Arabic since the film was actually made in Morocco. But before I go too far with this speculation, perhaps someone more competent in Urdu and Arabic than I am can confirm or deny that these are indeed the languages spoken.


  1. Stephen Jones said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 6:24 pm

    Locals speak Arabic on loads of occasions. Completely wrecked any sense of verisimilitude.

  2. Stephen Jones said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

    How are the locals depicted as 'non-Moslem' by the way?

  3. Bill Poser said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 6:33 pm

    The plot turns on the local religious capitol being a place called Sikundar-Gur ("city of Alexander"), founded by Alexander the Great, who is revered as a god. The greatest authority is the high priest of this cult. In short, Kafiristan is dominated by a religion quite incompatible with Islam. And on the other hand, there are no signs of Islam, such as mosques, Qur'an-reading, or the five daily prayers, so this doesn't seem to be an attempt to depict a syncretic variant of Islam.

  4. Morten Jonsson said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

    It's a fine movie, regardless. I can't speak to the languages spoken in it, but readers of the original story will remember that Kipling's Billy Fish is actually a local chief, and the Englishmen, Peachey and Daniel, communicate through pantomime and, once they've learned it, Kafiristani (with atrocious accents, I'm sure). Filming the movie that way presents some dramatic problems, which the director, John Huston, evidently chose to sidestep by making Billy Fish a translator. It's a neat enough solution, if your audience doesn't know Arabic or Urdu, and better than the usual one of having the natives suddenly start speaking English. If James Cameron ever remakes the picture, maybe he'll hire a linguist to come up with a plausible Kafiristani.

  5. DaveK said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 7:20 pm

    I just checked Wikipedia (I know–but at least it's fast.)
    Kafiristan is the former name for Nuristan. As the name implies, the Nuristani preserved their ancestral religion down to the 1890s. They speak a Dardic language.

  6. Bill Poser said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

    DaveK@Yes, Nuristan was called Kafiristan. I called it mythical because the place as depicted only very vaguely corresponds to the actual Kafiristan.

  7. Stuart Martin said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 7:24 pm

    Urdu seems to be a popular choice for NWP movies – the Robert Downey Iron Man had Afghani warlords and their henchmen chatting away in Urdu.

  8. sephia karta said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

    It seems that there was a part of Afghanistan actually called 'Kafiristan' that this story's Kafiristan was based upon. The people were not Muslim until 1896, when they were forcefully converted by the Afghan Emir:

    The inhabitants were then rebaptised 'Nuristani' (enlightened), which is also the name of the group of languages they speak:

    I couldn't find what these people called themselves.

  9. Bill Poser said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 7:31 pm

    Stuart Martin@Interesting. According to the Wikipedia article, Iron Man was filmed entirely in the US, so the choice of Urdu was not determined by the language of the local actors, though I suppose that it could be that they cast actors of Pakistani origin for those parts.

  10. bulbul said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

    true, they did, like in the scene where they came to check on Stark and Raza (about 30 minutes into the film). But a few minutes later, just before Stark and Raza broke out, the head henchman (bald fellow with a yellow kaffiyeh) and another one spoke Arabic. The numero uno honcho spoke pretty good Arabic, too – unsuprisingly, higher-register Egyptian colloquial.
    And don't forget the Hungarian guy :)

  11. bulbul said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 8:24 pm


    there was this excellent documentary on Ancient Egypt produced by UK Channel 4 that even attempted to reproduce the language. I'm no expert on Ancient Egyptian, so I cannot judge how successful they were. I do, however, remember the 4th episode which took place in an ancient Egyptian temple and how in the usual street hustle I clearly heard the first sura of the Quran.

  12. Ray Girvan said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 10:58 pm

    Stephen Jones: How are the locals depicted as 'non-Moslem' by the way?

    In the film, there's no indication of the religion of the tribes they meet en route, until they reach the holy city where they act like Buddhist priests only with an idol. The interesting thing in the Kipling story (which they didn't do in the film) was that the people in Kafiristan were Western in appearance ("so hairy and white and fair it was just shaking hands with old friends"). Grain of truth there: some Nuristani people are, although not as much as those in the Pamirs.

    (For those who haven't read the story, the "Billy Fish" comes from the nickname they give one of the chiefs because he reminds them of a train driver they know of that name.

  13. peter said,

    January 4, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

    Does anyone know what languages Kipling spoke (other than English)?

    [(myl) From Something of Myself:

    In the afternoon heats before we took our sleep, she (the Portuguese ayah, or nanny) or Meeta (the Hindu bearer, or male attendant) would tell us stories and Indian nursery songs all unforgotten, and we were sent into the dining-room after we had been dressed, with the caution 'Speak English now to Papa and Mamma.' So one spoke 'English,' haltingly translated out of the vernacular idiom that one thought and dreamed in.

    And again:

    I taught Turkey all he ever knew of French, and he tried to make Stalky and me comprehend a little Latin. There is much to be said for this system, if you want a boy to learn anything, because he will remember what he gets from an equal where his master’s words are forgotten.

    And this:

    So, at sixteen years and nine months, but looking four or five years older, and adorned with real whiskers which the scandalised Mother abolished within one hour of beholding, I found myself at Bombay where I was born, moving among sights and smells that made me deliver in the vernacular sentences whose meaning I knew not.

    FWIW, there's a "A Glossary of Hindustani – Urdu – Hindi words to be found in Kipling's works". He spent a number of years as half of the staff of a daily paper in the Punjab, and I would guess that he learned some Punjabi and perhaps other languages there.]

  14. Sili said,

    January 4, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

    If James Cameron ever remakes the picture, maybe he'll hire a linguist to come up with a plausible Kafiristani.

    Well, they shouldn't start from scratch in this case. Presumable taking Macedonian and evolving it for 2200 years would do. Like the Egyptian > Abydonian in Stargate.

  15. Diane said,

    January 4, 2010 @ 9:12 pm

    @Stuart Martin

    "…the Robert Downey Iron Man had Afghani warlords and their henchmen chatting away in Urdu…"

    Oh, no! Really? I speak a smattering of Hindi (not much) and I was startled to realize I could understand some of the conversation in Iron Man and I assumed that Pashto or Dari or whatever language they were supposed to be speaking just happened to be really similar to Hindi. It did not occur to me that they were actually speaking Urdu. I have been going around telling people that my limited Hindi allows me to understand Afghans. How embarrassing. This is what I get for trying to learn languages from the movies.

  16. ajay said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 10:28 am

    If I have identified the languages correctly, Billyfish addresses the natives of Kafiristan in Urdu, but they reply in Arabic. Neither is really appropriate for the area…

    Having the locals speak Arabic seems a bit off, but having Billyfish address them in Urdu isn't – Urdu's widely if approximately spoken in the region as a second language, and even nowadays Billyfish's successors in the Royal Gurkha Rifles are talking to the Pathans in Helmand in Urdu.

  17. Aaron Davies said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    @Diane: do recall that Hindi and Urdu are in many ways a diasystem, being largely the same language (modulo some vocabulary differences), though written in Devanagari in the one case and Arabic in the other. If your Hindi allows you to understand spoken Urdu, that would be only to be expected.

  18. Sam said,

    June 3, 2011 @ 9:25 am

    A little late, but wanted to add to an interesting point made above.

    The doctor in Iron Man does tell Stark that 5-6 different languages are spoken over there. I remember missing this the first time I watched the movie and being disappointed they didn't bother to make this big a film authentic. Then I watched it again and realised from the doctor's comment that there are terrorists from many different countries there and they obviously have to atleast understand each other's languages, even if they don't speak it.

    Also many Afghans speak Urdu/Hindi anyways.

  19. Duncan Hill said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 10:06 am

    When Danny is being hailed as king, the locals are chanting the first verse of the Koran in Arabic.

    I was laughing at supposed Indian people responding in Moroccan Arabic, despite Billyfish asking something in Urdu. And the locals all look very definitely Arab. It's totally unwatchable given that I can understand much of the Arabic.

    I guess the makers thought that as long as they looked and sounded "like a wog" then it was good enough for the Western audience.

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