LEARNING English will make you rich, and learning Arabic will make you holy. No one ever says these things out loud in Pakistan, but their premises undergird many decisions. They dominate the thinking of parents braving long lines outside the compounds of English-medium schools during admissions season. They inspire other, newer educational institutions to advertise that they teach both Arabic and English to their students — a winning recipe for the next generation ie, holiness and wealth.
Unsurprisingly, then, many regional languages in Pakistan are dying a slow and silent death. According to one report, one-fifth of the 30 regional languages spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are in danger of extinction, with only a handful of some hundred people left to speak them. The languages gasping for life include Ushojo, Gawro, Gawarbati, Badeshi and several others.
According to Fakhruddin Akhundzada, a Pakistani linguist, Yidhga, a language of Chitral, is one of those recently placed on the endangered languages list by the United Nations Educational Social and Cultural Organisation. Also comatose and nearly dead is Ushojo, another language from the same area, which numbers only about 200 people among its speakers.
In Pakistan, the promotion of a language has often been equivocated with the political dominance of one or the other group.
Kalashi, the language of the once celebrated and now often persecuted Kalash tribe, is faring little better. Only a few thousand people speak it any more and of those the vast majority is in their seventies. It is quite likely that when they die, the language will die with them.
Research shows that language extinction usually comes along with economic prosperity. A study published in the British Journal of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B makes the claim that as nations develop, a single language comes to dominate the country’s political and educational spheres and people face the onerous choice of either adopting that language or being left out in the cold, economically and politically. The rise in GDP was also seen as directly correlated with the loss of language diversity in a region.
Neither of these claims makes much sense in Pakistan; the areas around Chitral and Kalash do not seem to have experienced any vast or sudden economic development or significant rise in income per capita. Their languages nevertheless are dying.
One of the reasons may be that Pakistan’s own identity crises have always been closely tied to issues of linguistic identity. In many cases, the supremacy of a language or its promotion has been equivocated with the political dominance of one or the other group. These ideas are being tested today by two developments. First, the emergence of transnational Islamism as an antidote to the confusions of post-coloniality (who were we before the British came and how can we return to that pristine place?) has equalled the ascendance of Arabic.
In learning that language, many believe, the misconstructions of a faith understood second-hand with the losses of translation can be avoided. The consequence will be Arabised Pakistanis whose Islam would be as authentic as that of the Arab forebears (fictitious or actual) whom they are so wont to connect themselves to. To learn Arabic, as per this argument, is to solve everything, a goal lovely enough to merit the sacrifice of many languages.
The imperialism of Arabic, of course, would not exist were it not for the pre-existing anointment of English. In the darkness of the colonial age, the subcontinent’s Muslims realised there was little hope of throwing off the yoke of Empire without mastering English. Perhaps the problem began then or perhaps it did not; with the continued ascendance of English as the global language, perhaps the ontology of the issue, its vexing origins, do not much matter.
Nor would the issue have been as knotty if, after the hackles of Partition had divided up the subcontinent, a single successor could have been agreed upon. Urdu was only perfunctorily crowned, and its crowning brought on ethnic war: with linguistic diversity attached to ethnic diversity, it was perhaps inevitable.
And so it happens that even as Pakistan is refused the prosperity that accompanies the loss of language diversity, it is nevertheless losing the variety of languages that it once enjoyed.
It need not, of course, be so. In a recent article, Ross Perlin, who studies language diversity, gives the example of the Basque language movement. In Spain, Basque speakers were persecuted under the fascist regime of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. They did not allow it to defeat them or eradicate their language. By the time the 1960s came around, the language had become a groundswell, complete with secret schools, do it yourself language learning programmes, cultural festivals and ultimately recognition from the Spanish government itself.
The endurance of Basque is a lesson to all: its speakers face the same pro-English pressures that globalisation places on the rest of the world. Its speakers received little help from government institutions. It endured because the people who spoke it saw its utility beyond simply the pragmatics of better jobs in higher places or faraway cities.
At the heart of the language issue is the premise that the ascendance of one or another language means the sacrifice of another. There are good reasons to learn English and Arabic, venerable ones that make sense in terms of economics, a deeper understanding of faith, the accessibility of a global realm of research and knowledge. This should not demote the less spoken, the ancient, the foregone.
The preservation of language should not pivot on Darwinian scales that sentence the remote to obscurity and extinction. For the picture of the future is, after all, imprinted in the understanding of the past. A lost language hence represents the loss of what was before, an absence that inevitably taints all that comes after.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, December 31st, 2014