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RICH in history and culture, Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) has a rich linguistic treasure, too, which is as gorgeous as captivating is its natural beauty. Some of the languages and dialects spoken in GB have created curiosity among some foreign scholars too, not to mention Brushaski, the mysterious language spoken there.

GB is the newly created administrative unit in Pakistan’s northernmost parts. Gilgit had the administrative status of an ‘agency’ for quite long but was made in 1970s a part of what was known until 2009 as Northern Areas, which included regions of Baltistan, Gilgit, and some areas consisting of some former Princely States. In 2009, GB was officially made a separate administrative unit with a legislative assembly and a province-like status.

The linguistic diversity and some little-known dialects and languages of the region have attracted foreign scholars in past and in not-so-distant past. For instance, G.A. Grierson (1851-1941), the linguist and British civil servant known for his famous and gigantic ‘Linguistic Survey of India’, had carried out research for about 30 years on the languages and dialects of India. He had surveyed over 500 languages and dialects and the survey also included the languages spoken in what is today Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and GB.

D.L.R. Lorimer (1876-1962), a linguist, a military officer and an official of the British Indian government, had served as political agent in Gilgit during 1920-1924. As a linguist he carried out research on the languages of Iran and Karakoram, especially Khowar, Brushaski, Shina, Wakhi and some other languages and dialects. His works include books on Pashto, Brushaski, Dumki, Wakhi and Persian. His work on Brushaski’s history, grammar and dictionary is in three volumes.

Prof Dr Hermann Berger (1926-2005) of Heidelberg University’s South Asia Institute carried out research on Brushaski language and it earned him international fame as a linguist. Recently, Dr Henrik Liljegren of Stockholm University has done commendable work on the languages of the KP.

But modern research by Pakistani experts on Pakistani languages and dialects, especially the ones spoken in the KP and GB, is somewhat lacking both in quantity and quality. However, the just-published book by Dr Uzma Saleem addresses that lacuna to some extent. Titled Gilgit-Baltistan ki zabanon ka jaiza ma’a taqabuli lughat (A survey of languages of the GB with a comparative dictionary), the book is published by Pakistan Academy of Letters (PAL). Aside from historical and geographical background, the book first introduces a few languages spoken in the area, such as, Balti, Shina, Brushaski, Dumaki, Wakhi, Khowar, Kohistani, Kasghari (Uyghur), Pashtu, Gojari, Persian, Kashmiri, Hindko, and Punjabi etc. With brief introduction of each of these languages and the people who speak it, the author has provided the reader with much needed information.

The second chapter surveys the influence of the Urdu language on these languages and their literatures, highlighting the changes these languages have undergone and the reasons behind. A very interesting part of the book is what the author has called “the comparative dictionary” of Urdu, English, Balti, Shina and Brushaski. Though brief, it is indeed very useful and a lot of back-breaking labour must have gone into it. But it is simply a ‘multilingual dictionary’ and “comparative dictionary” is a misnomer. Also, the author has perhaps not consulted the part three of Brushaski-Urdu Dictionary published by the University of Karachi’s Bureau of Compilation and Translation in 2014, though she has referred to its first two volumes. The book states the area of GB in terms of square miles instead of square kilometres and that too is incorrect. The author thinks that “in GB’s north is Turkestan” (page 18). While in fact, Turkestan is not a country and the term refers to a vast area, one would have supposed that it is a typo and the author meant ‘Tajikistan’. But in GB’s north, as one can see on the map, a narrow strip of land, known as Wakhan Corridor, separates Pakistan from Tajikistan. So it is not even a typo. Interestingly, no authority is quoted while stating the geographical facts about the area, declaring that the area has “109 mountains, 82 glaciers and 12 rivers” (by ‘mountains’ perhaps she meant peaks, but that too needs authentication).

But the book’s strength lies in its linguistic information and aside from such minor errors, author Dr Uzma Saleem deserves all the praise for carrying out a vast research based on field work. She is a research scholar, poet and academician. She has been teaching Urdu in GB for quite long now and, as mentioned in her foreword, had to take a lot of help from local people (for verification on certain matters) speaking the different languages as natives.

In his intro, PAL chairman Prof Dr Qasim Bughio has stressed the need to promote and publish the research and critical works on Pakistani languages as well as creative works in these languages.

Published in Dawn, January 16th, 2018

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