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February 20, 2016

Writing a dying language


February 20, 2016

A cursory look at the development of the writing system shows that human beings are, by nature, fond of leaving their footprints in history. They began to record significant events in one way or the other from as far back as 3300BC when the Sumerian and Egyptians started a kind of pictorial writing on bone, ivory or clay tablets and papyrus.

The recorded history of human civilisation shows similar trends in China and in the Indus Valley Civilisation as well. This was mostly pictorial and based on objects but in a few cases words were concepts as well.

This evolved into a phonetic writing system around 1500BC by the Phoenicians, modern Lebanon and Syria.

Had the ancient man not endeavoured to record what they experienced with their senses, the shape of the human civilisation of today would have been very different. And had Homer or the ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights not written what they saw, thought or experienced the world would have certainly been unable to defeat fear of nature. Similarly, if the holy scriptures of all religions had not been written down the world would not have been what it is today.

The ancient pictographs and hieroglyphs later gave shape to modern scripts and so the tradition of writing abstract concepts and thoughts started.

Without indulging into the philosophical intrigues on knowledge we, as laypersons, can define it as the experiences of human beings with nature through which work as agents for the human mind.

By writing life experiences, beliefs, thoughts and conversations the ancient scribes provided a knowledge base for the coming generations throughout history. Over time, some societies gained advantage over others through the power of knowledge and through developing and retaining the knowledge base.

The single most significant bearer of this knowledge base is of course language – and, most importantly, its written form.

Pakistan has about 27 endangered languages. The speakers of these languages have also shrunk as most of them have shifted to other dominant languages. These languages are endangered because they are not written, taught or spoken by the native younger generations. The people who speak these languages are indigenous to the land but thanks to the overwhelming ‘one language’ obsession in our national narrative they have lost their identity over the years.

Having lost their powers to invaders centuries ago, these indigenous people have lost their cultural identity as well. The languages they now speak have no proper writing tradition because of a lack of writing systems. Constitution of Pakistan doesn’t give them equal rights to protect, preserve and promote their languages by subjecting any such clause to the famous Article 28 in the same constitution.

Realising this apathy, a few individuals and organisations in some of these communities have taken up the task of preserving, documenting and promoting their languages and cultures. They have designed scripts for their languages and made preliminary working orthographies. They have been writing books in their languages, compiling dictionaries and documenting folklore.

Mainstream Pakistan does not give much importance to the preservation and promotion of these languages. The majority of the people who belong to these communities don’t realise the need for preservation of their languages. And how can they if they are mostly struggling for daily sustenance? They live under-privileged and neglected lives.

Writing in these endangered languages began some years back in Pakistan. Those who have been writing in these languages deserve the status of literati, no less than the few literary figures from our country who have written in Urdu or English. In many ways the work of these individuals in preserving this depleting human treasure deserves more recognition than those who write in Urdu or English. Those writing in indigenous languages are in a way ‘creating’ knowledge bases for the coming generations while the latter are advantaged because they already have a strong base to start with.

In Pakistan over the past decade we have witnessed a growing culture of ‘literary festivals’ in big cities like Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore. Although useful, these festivals are mostly focused on two languages – English and Urdu. It seems literature in Pakistan only exists in Urdu and English. This way these exclusive elitist events further alienate the people of Pakistan from their indigenous roots.

Any engagement with the documentation work of these languages shows that the oral literature these languages have is not inferior to the one produced in Urdu or English. One can find poetry and stories in these languages by ‘illiterate rustic’ men and women; these works of literature can match the literary greats of Urdu or English. In most cases the literature in these languages surpasses the current trends in Urdu literature.

The writers of endangered languages are far ahead of their times. The work they are doing may not be lauded by their own communities or the people of the country right now but in the future these writers are sure to get recognition.

Let us dedicate this International Mother Language Day to these writers.

The writer heads IBT, an independentorganisation dealing with education and
development in Swat.Email: [email protected]



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