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Losing languages

Updated January 08, 2017

IN the realm of good intentions, Pakistan rarely misses an opportunity to show off its impressive cultural and linguistic diversity. Consider as a representative example the dozens upon dozens of promotional advertisements made over the decades, every single one of which features a whole gamut of inherited traditions. In reality, though, things are not as rosy as they may seem. Take just one indicator of diversity: languages of which the country’s 200-million-strong population speaks some 72 (including Urdu and English). Of these, according to a 2014 parliamentary paper on the subject, 10 are classified as either “in trouble” or “near extinction”. Meanwhile, the numbers of those who speak dozens of others are dwindling fast, an example being Hindko. Once the primary language of Peshawar, it is now spoken only by some two million people across the country, as was underscored at a conference held recently in the city to highlight the issue. Other numbers are of greater concern. The Urmari language of South Waziristan, to name just one, has an estimated 50,000 speakers only. And yet, the bigger reality is more troubling: even languages that are considered robust — the four provincial languages of Pashto, Punjabi, Sindhi and Balochi — as they are spoken by tens of millions of Pakistanis, are fast losing their vigour.

There are many reasons for this, including migration and urbanisation, but it mostly boils down to the fact that Pakistani authorities at both the state and provincial level, as well as the country’s intelligentsia in general have largely failed to make the effort to propagate linguistic diversity. There is the ironing out effect of Urdu having been declared the national language, with nary a thought given to the fact that there is a difference between ‘official’ and ‘national’ languages. Had the handful of major languages spoken in Pakistan been considered and treated as ‘national languages’, as the country’s multicultural realities dictate, it would have kept them strong while simultaneously making space for the revival of smaller, more endangered ones. Similarly, the fact that English is considered the language of the elite and of officialdom means that anyone with upwardly mobile intentions focuses overwhelmingly on this, at the cost of his or her mother tongue. At the end of this trajectory is a dismal future where not only have languages been lost irretrievably, but with them their literature, folklore, wisdom and connectedness. Is it too late to turn course?

Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2017