Ramzak Camp in present-day North Waziristan, beyond which the linguist Georg Morgenstierne was not allowed to proceed.
Photo: Flickr / Drregor
Ramzak Camp in present-day North Waziristan, beyond which the linguist Georg Morgenstierne was not allowed to proceed. Photo: Flickr / Drregor

A fading khaki tapestry

The death of small languages in Pakistan represents the death of civilisations.

Manzoor Ali is a journalist based in Peshawar.

Until a few years ago, Mohammad Sat Sayeed – from Kalkatak village in northwestern Pakistan, on the eastern bank of the River Chitral – was the last speaker of a language on the verge of extinction. Fellow villagers used to hear Sat's supplication in his native Kalasha: "O, mi ganahxudai mi muafkeri; O! Almighty, please forgive me." He was the last speaker of this language, and would often speak it in public. With Sat's death, the last vestige of a forgotten chapter of the region's history has vanished, when Kalasha was a part of Kalashgoom, or the land of the Kalashnon-Muslims.

The death of language and the loss of Kalash cultural identity at Kalkatak can be seen as the culmination of a long process of subjection to other dominant cultural and religious influences. Colonel John Biddulph, a colonial official and author who visited Chitral, noted in his Tribes of the Hindoo Koosh (1880) that many villagers in Jinjret, Loi, Suwir, Nager and Shishiare Kalash had converted to Islam. He also noted that those villagers who lived in the vicinity of Kalkatak followed their ancient customs and spoke the Kalash language.

Over the course of a century, these villages lost their distinct Kalash identity, and it is questionable whether contemporary residents are even aware of their heritage. A similar pattern of cultural loss is likely to continue in the region in the future, given that complex patchworks of languages and dialects spoken by ever-smaller communities are spread over a huge and largely remote mountainous territory. This region has for centuries been at the crossroads of movement between the Central Asian steppes and the Indian plains, shaping its rich and diverse cultural tapestry. Perhaps this interplay of diverse cultures is the reason that the Hindukush-Karakoram region of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan areas is home to around half of the languages and dialects spoken in Pakistan. Linguistically it is an interesting region, as it contributed the word 'khaki' to the English language, meaning earthen, derived from khak, the Persian word for dust, the colour of the landscape. Khaki-coloured fatigues were first used by the Queens Own Corps of Guides, stationed at Mardan, and replaced the bright scarlet uniform of the British military which had made soldiers easy for snipers to spot against the dun-coloured landscape.

Window to an unknown world
In the north of the country, nestled close to some of the world's highest peaks, the tiny mountain communities have so far preserved this linguistic patchwork. It is one of the most multilingual places on earth, especially interesting compared to the rest of Pakistan where few major languages are spoken by millions. However, as communication technologies break down barriers and distances, questions emerge about the future of smaller dialects. Most are succumbing to the influence of Urdu and other major regional languages, growing and spreading through education and better communication. Over three decades of war in this region have also impacted these languages.

UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger classifies 11 languages spoken in northwestern Pakistan as 'definitely endangered', six as 'severely endangered' and four as 'vulnerable'. Some of those identified as definitely endangered include Gawri (also known as Bashkarik), Bateri, Gawar Bati, Kati and Ormuri. Those classified as severely endangered include Chilisso, Dameli, and Kalasha, while Burushaski, Khowar, Maiya and Balti are vulnerable. Statistics on speakers of these languages from the Islamabad-based Forum for Language Initiatives (FLI) – a research institute dedicated to the preservation of Northern Pakistan's languages – show that most of these dialects have very few speakers. The FLI statistics claim that the Kalasha language has about 3000 speakers, Kalkoti over 2000, Gawar Bati 1500, Ushojo and Wakhi 1000, Domaaki 500 and Gworo and Kundal Shahi just 200 speakers each.

These mountainous communities were deeply isolated until the Great Game drew the British towards the rugged terrain that formed a barrier between Central Asia and Southasia. The Hindukush-Karakoram region was the focus of colonial exploration, and was gradually integrated into British India towards the end of the 19th century. Officials like Biddulph, G W Leitner and David Lorimer recorded and documented the region's languages and its cultural forms and in the 1920s and 30s, the Norwegian linguist Georg Morgenstierne further played a crucial role in this. Yet, fear about the future of northwestern Pakistan's linguistic heritage is evident in these scholars' work: even in the early 19th century, some communities were banished from areas amid tribal or political upheavals, and in the process eventually lost their languages.

As George Grierson notes in his Linguistic Survey of India (LSI) from 1927, Tirahi, a Dardic language (spread across Afghanistan, Chitral, Swat, the Indus Valley and Gilgit) was once spoken in the Tirah area of the Khyber Agency, in present-day Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and is an insightful example of political, social, religious and other situational factors affecting people and their language. However, the Tirahi-speaking tribe left the area in the early 19th century, after a feud with the Afridi Pathans, and settled in present-day Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan. Morgenstierne, in his Report on a Linguistic Mission to North-western India (1932), found Tirahi spoken in some villages southeast of Jalalabad (currently the capital of Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar Province). Tirahi is now considered to be extinct, or nearly extinct. There is a possibility it has survived in remote and inaccessible recesses of Tirah. Their migration to Afghanistan and settlement among a population speaking other languages probably accelerated the decline of this language.

Geopolitical strife
This region has been in the midst of cataclysmic geopolitical upheavals for a long time. In the 1890s, following the Durand Line agreement between the British government and Afghanistan, what was then called the Kafiristan region was inhabited by non-Muslim Kafir tribes, and was part of Afghanistan. The tribes, constantly at war with their Muslim neighbours had, until then, managed to keep their religion intact amid growing attacks. However, following the Durand Line agreement, Afghan Amir Abdur Rahman Khan forcibly converted these peoples to Islam, while some crossed into Chitral and settled among the non-Muslim Kalash tribe in an enclave of three valleys: Rambur, Birir and Bumburet. The region was renamed Nuristan, or Abode of Light. Kafiristan proper is now reduced to a mere historical footnote. However, the Kalash valleys are sometimes referred to as Kafiristan.

With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the infighting between mujahideen groups, the emergence of the Taliban and the ongoing War on Terror, turmoil in the region has continued. In the process, the organic growth of community has been disrupted and the region has become inaccessible to foreigners and researchers. In early 2014, there were reports of the Taliban issuing threats to the Kalash non-Muslim tribe of Chitral district in Pakistan to convert to Islam or face the consequences. The region is, in many ways, still as isolated as it was at the outset of the Great Game.

Researchers working on linguistic diversity are pessimistic about the future of small languages spoken across the remote, mountainous region. Muhammad Zaman Sagar (currently the Advocacy Officer at the FLI) thinks that the Pakistani Government is not serious about preserving such languages: "There is no government organisation dedicated to research on languages, nor [is] any university working towards this end."

The FLI was established in 2003 and operated out of Peshawar until 2009, when it relocated to Islamabad fearing the security of its foreign researchers. The forum works on basic language training, documentation, mother-tongue schools, publication and advocacy. Twenty-six languages are spoken in its focus area across northwestern Pakistan, including Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. The FLI had opened mother-tongue education preschools in its target area, which educate children for two years in science, mathematics and arts subjects. The students are taught Urdu in the final term. So far, ten preschools have been established across the region, while three more were opened in 2014. Unreliable figures on language use are a major hurdle to these developments, as these are often incorrect or exaggerated. "We are basing our estimates on 1960s and 70s figures," Zaman said. Though some cultural activists and intellectuals are aware of the implications of the death of a language, such an occurrence is unlikely to stir public feelings or generate interest in linguistic diversity among the general public.

Zaman points out that many endangered languages (such as Yidgha, Badishi, Ushojo and Gowro) are facing extinction. "Badishi is spoken in the Bishigram Valley next to Madyan in Swat, and had two speakers, and one of them died sometime back," he said. Another reason for the death of language is an economic one: unless one knows Urdu and Pashto, good economic opportunities are unlikely. Speakers of smaller languages are not given jobs, Zaman said. Industrialisation and the opening of areas that the outside world once found difficult to access has destroyed local vocabulary, as things from the outside bring with them their names.

Smaller languages are usually subsumed by dominant languages in the area. "Pashto, Khowar and Torwali were absorbing smaller languages into their folds quickly," Zaman reported, adding that in Swat, Torwali – with an estimated 80,000 speakers – is eating away at Ushojo, spoken by around 1000. According to him, among the Tirak people of Dir, only those above 40 can speak Gawri, and the younger generations have conveniently forgotten their mother-tongue. Indus Kohistani is engulfing Chilasso and Gowro, while Pashto does the same to Indus Kohistani, and Khowar in Chitral absorbs Palula, Gawar Bati, Dameli, Yidgha and Wakhi. In Gilgit-Baltistan, Domaaki has only a few hundred speakers left. "Yidgha is one of the borderline [vulnerable] languages spoken in Chitral," Zaman said. He finds that intermarriage, conversion, jobs and seasonal migration also play a role in eroding these languages.

However, Zaman is hopeful that a language movement is in the making, as even in the early 2000s nobody knew about these languages, whereas now the issue appears on the radio, on television and in newspapers. Once, there was no concept of mother-tongue education. The government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa decided to make the study of local languages part of the primary syllabus in 2010 (however, the plan has since been abandoned, possibly for good). Zaman hints at improvement: "I see language activism among all small dialect communities," he said. He believes that the government should acknowledge these languages as national heritage by taking steps towards their preservation and promotion, and by making them official languages.

Chitral, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's northernmost district, also appears prominently in most discussions on Pakistani languages, as about half of the 26 languages spoken across northwestern Pakistan are native to this district. Morgenstierne noted that Lower Chitral is one of the most polyglot regions in Asia, where within about 3000 square kilometres, no fewer than 10 distinct languages were spoken. Despite Chitral being the smallest district in the province in terms of population, it is linguistically the most diverse region in the entire Hindukush-Karakoram.

Fakhruddin Akhundzada, executive director of the FLI, is also well aware of the threats posed to these languages. Akhundzada's own village, Kalkatak in southern Chitral, has seen three linguistic transformations in the past 100 years. At the beginning of the last century, the language of this tiny hamlet was Kalasha. The Kalash villages of Jinjuret, Loi, Sawair, Nager and Shishi – whose inhabitants had converted to Islam during Biddulph's visit in 1880 – are located in close proximity to Kalkatak. Even the locals of these villages know little about their Kalash past, and perhaps in the aftermath of conversion, Kalash's history is considered heretical by their Muslim neighbours, so deliberately forgotten. This history of the village also resonates with regional patterns, as in the 1890s, Kafir tribes across the border in the west were forcibly converted to Islam by the Afghan rulers.

According to Akhundzada, a mix of taboos and stereotypes eroded the number of Kalash speakers: "Under the local ruler, Kalash formed the lowest strata of the society, called Rayat, and locals were using this term in a derogatory manner. As Kalasha became a taboo, its speakers were in close contact with their Palula-speaking neighbours and knew this language. So they started speaking it," he said. The eventual shift to Khowar seems to have been a result of attempts to better integrate with the majority Khowar-speaking neighbours, and improved means of communication might have played a role in this. Though this process was gradual and not as noticeable as in Kalkatak, in Suwir village – across the Chitral River, to the west of Kalkatak – it is said that in 1950, residents collectively took an oath on a Friday never to speak Kalasha again. Kalash were looked upon as inferior by society at large, and stigma was attached to being called kafir or infidel. As the people of Suwir had already converted to Islam, the language was their last link to their non-Muslim past, so they considered it a necessary severance. This proved to be the undoing of the last vestige of Kalashgom. Presently, the Kalasha language survives in an isolated enclave of three valleys, where over 3000 non-Muslim Kalash live.

However, according to Akhundzada, Kalasha – called Kalashwar by local Chitralis – faces threats from the Khowar language, though its font has been developed with Greek help. (The Greek interest in Kalasha stems from a legend about the Kalash people, who are said to descend from the soldiers of Alexander the Great. The legend says that some soldiers, or deserters, guarding remote passes, 'mingled' with local women.) Akhundzada said that Gawar Bati speaking people of the Arandu Valley – the southern-most tip of Chitral, on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border – were inclining towards Pashto, while speakers of the Yidgha and Palula were facing threats from Khowar.

The struggle continues
Akhundzada stresses that recognition as national languages is necessary for preservation of such languages. "There are 22 national languages in India," he said, adding that a bill to declare some of these languages as national languages had been pending for some years. Earlier this year, a standing committee of the National Assembly (NA) rejected a proposal to declare eight regional languages as national languages. Designation as a national language not only brings recognition to speakers but also government assistance in preservation and promotion. The National Language Promotion Department only promotes Urdu, and does not pay attention to other languages. However, the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the majority of these languages are spoken, has striven to introduce curricula in these languages. But, curricula "is not according to international standards", Akhundzada said. The FLI has plans to set up schools for Hindko, Khowar, Indus Kohistani and Shina speakers, too.

Ormuri belongs to the Iranian group of languages, spoken by a small community in the present-day South Waziristan tribal region of Pakistan. Ormuri is an interesting case study for language researchers, as it is spoken by a few thousand speakers in Kaniguram, surrounded by Pashto speakers; it has, in essence, survived amid a sea of Pashto. Grierson recorded this language as Bargista in 1918, deriving from Mir Barak, eponymous leader of the tribe. He noted that this language is spoken in the Kaniguram area of Waziristan and the Logar Valley of Afghanistan. Morgenstierne was told in Kabul that Ormuri was nearly extinct in the Baraki Barak village of Logar – ancient headquarters of the tribe – except for a few speakers. He was not allowed to proceed to Kaniguram by the British authorities, for security reasons, when he made it to the Razmak Cantonment in present-day North Waziristan.

No other language has suffered as much as Ormuri in the ongoing wars that have engulfed northwestern Pakistan. Kaniguram, home to the Ormur tribe, is situated in the Mehsud tribal heartland in South Waziristan, which has become the hub of the Taliban insurgency in the past decade. In October 2009, the Pakistan army launched a huge military offensive – termed Rah-e-Nijat (Path of Deliverance) – to reclaim this region. The Ormurs left their homes for safer places throughout the country. "Ormuri is faced with a double challenge of survival," said Rozi Khan Burki, a government official and Ormuri language activist, explaining that the small number of speakers have now become refugees dispersed across the country. According to Burki, this language's main problem stems from homelessness, as families settled among large numbers of speakers of other languages gradually lose touch with their own language, especially when they cannot speak it outside the home. "They will use it only among family," Burki said.

The number of Ormuri speakers stands at around 10,000 in Kaniguram, while the people of Ormur village in the outskirts of Peshawar, and Baraki Barak and Baraki Rajan villages of the Logar Valley in Afghanistan, have forgotten their language. "There are some speakers left in Afghanistan; however, no one among the youth speaks Ormuri," Burki said. He had spearheaded the Ormuri language movement in his native Kaniguram area, and is engaged in compiling a dictionary of Ormuri, for which he has so far collected about 5000 words. "I also plan to write a novel, encompassing nearly all words of Ormuri," he said. However, he admits that just as the Ormuri language movement is taking root, the people had to leave their homes, bringing them back to square one. "Now our people are spread from Tank to Peshawar and Dubai," he said. To help secure their language, a Facebook group has been founded, in which Ormuri speakers living across the country can interact and remain in touch with their roots and traditions.

Every language reflects a civilisation, in Burki's opinion. When a language dies, everything attached to it – including local nomenclature and social institutions – dies too. In his efforts at linguistic preservation, Burki has taken to poetry to spread his message:

Wake up to the crying call of Ormuri, O my nation, and Pass me on to the children of your people.

~Manzoor Ali is a Peshawar based journalist and can be contacted @Manzoor.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian