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October 1, 2017

Preserving language


October 1, 2017

The government of Gilgit-Baltistan has been trying to chalk out a mechanism for the preservation and promotion of the languages spoken in the region. It has been working on this initiative for quite a long time now.

To see how to proceed on the much needed proposal, the government of Gilgit-Baltistan recently invited heads of various language academies in other provinces along with language practitioners, academics, poets and writers for a two-day long consultation conference at the Karakoram International University. This is a task the concerned government must pursue, otherwise the cultural diversity of this knot of the three giant mountainous ranges – Himalaya, Hindukush and Karakorum – will vanish soon.

Gilgit-Baltistan is a highly diverse region in terms of landscape, culture, languages and faith. The majority of the inhabitants of this spectacular region follow four denominations of Islam: Shiite, Sunni, Ismaili and Noorbakhshia. Linguistically, the region is one of the most diverse in the world.

According to the German scholar, Hermann Kreutzmann, more than 25 different languages belonging to the four major language groups – Indo-Iranian, Altaic, Sino-Tibetan and Isolate – are found in the Eastern Hindukush and Karakoram, the present day Gilgit-Baltistan region in northern Pakistan. He further classifies the Indo-Iranian group into five distinct sub-groups: Middle Indic, Dardic, Nuristani, and West and East Iranian.

Among the 25 language communities in Gilgit-Baltistan, seven are more akin to the inhabitants and their land. These languages are: Shina, Balti, Burushaski, Gujri, Wakhi, Khowar and Doomaki. The latter was recently named Dawoodi by some concerned language activists. All of the five language communities except Dommaki are demographically larger and socially stronger. The other minor language groups are recent immigrants for trade and other occupations; and are fewer in number.

None of these languages has a historical writing tradition. Neither has any of these ever been recognised by any Pakistani government. Even the recent census carried out in Pakistan did not bother to have a separate column for any of the languages of Gilgit-Baltistan in the survey form. The sixth census counted only nine languages out of a total of 72 languages spoken by Pakistanis.

The people of Gilgit-Baltistan are multilingual. A person can speak multiple languages of the region along with Urdu, and to some extent English, too. But none of the languages has a predominant role of lingua franca. Shina is understood by the majority because of it being spoken in Gilgit where the majority of the provincial political power centres operate. Until today there seems no real lingua franca, although Urdu is gaining popularity owing to being taught at public schools.

Hermann ascribes this feature to the absence of a central authority in the history of Giglit-Baltistan. He states that, unlike other regions of the Himalayan arc, a court language was missing in the region; and only certain agreements were exchanged with neighbouring and colonial authorities in Farsi and later on in English.

The government of Gilgit-Baltistan has now become aware of the need to stop the vanishing of these cultural treasures of their land, While that is highly laudable, the task is not that simple. A few measures need to be prioritised beforehand.

First, this scribe was told that the concerned government has allocated a budget for the establishment of an academy or something to that effect. This is good news indeed. This might be the wish of those in power. This wish, however, needs some constitutional cover. The government needs to pass an act of law for the establishment of such an authority. That would provide a legal cover to sustain the move in future.

Second, the government needs to prepare educational and cultural policies wherein the proposed authority could be embedded. The policies need to address the people’s connectedness with their languages and culture.

Third, the best way to reverse the cultural alienation is to transmit language and culture to the younger generations. For this the viable means is education. Cognitive and educational research all over the world now testifies that early childhood education becomes more effective when given in the child’s native language. The government of Gilgit-Baltistan needs to incorporate this fact in the curriculum of primary schooling in the region.

Fourth, the five languages should be included in high and higher secondary schools as subjects.

And, finally, the education and cultural policies must be inclusive of all languages. The various language academies in other provinces could be feasible sources of inspiration but a complete replica of any of these academies may not serve the cause because most of them are more focused on literature rather than research; and few of them are now functioning as non-governmental organisations with the government as their main source of funding. Their capacity may not be that ideal whereas those under the government are not free from political biases and interferences.

One particular issue needs more attention. The languages of Gilgit-Baltistan did not have any script. The scripts for these languages are very recent. While Shina uses the Arabic script, Burushashki, Balti and Wakhi use other scripts as well. Any script will work if chosen with the choice of the speakers.

The proposed authority needs to involve linguists and researchers in order to design orthographies for these languages.

And as for the name any will work. Even a name like the Gilgit-Baltistan Academy of Languages may work well.

The writer heads an independent organisation dealing with education and development in Swat.

Email: [email protected]

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