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Remember the dying languages of northern Pakistan

These languages need to be revitalised, because spoken words fly away, written words remain.

Updated 28 Jun, 2019 02:18pm

On a day in early May 2019, scholars, writers and activists from the mountain communities of Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa gathered in Bahrain, a scenic town 65 kilometres north of Mingora in Swat district.

Coordinated by a local organisation in collaboration with the University of Sydney, the one-day gathering was an attempt to deliberate the social, cultural, economic and political challenges the communities face, aimed at finding ways to address the challenges of modernity and of the internal and external colonisation of the margins.

Chief among their concerns was the threat to the rich cultural heritage of these communities posed by "the exclusion of the languages of these communities from spheres of state education and media". There was consensus that with the attrition of their languages, these communities will lose their identity, history, literature (which is mostly in oral form or orature) and indigenous knowledge of their cosmos.

The gathering was unique in many ways: the scholars, writers and activists in attendance resolved to carry out a number of initiatives to address their challenges.

They did not lament the apathy of the state towards their heritage, but determined to do whatever they could for their heritage and social development.

The multifaceted issues and insights of the participants need a series of articles of their own, but as threats to their languages emerged as a pressing issue in need of introspection, I would like to devote this piece to the languages spoken in northern Pakistan. I am sure, many Pakistanis do not have an idea of the extent of linguistic diversity.

Uncatalogued and unaccounted

None of Pakistan’s governments or universities have ever taken initiative to profile the languages spoken by the people of Pakistan.

Only a few — Urdu, Pashto, Punjabi, Balochi, Sindhi and Saraiki — are used in media, teaching materials and any kind of national database.

According to Ethnologue, a compendium of the languages of the world, Pakistan currently has 74 languages spoken within its territory.

Past attempts to catalogue languages spoken in Pakistan have been by foreign researchers either associated with the colonial British government or international organisations.

An Irish linguist and language scholar who also served in the colonial-era Indian Civil Services, Sir George Abraham Grierson compiled a remarkable survey of about 364 languages and dialects of British India, which he published in 19 volumes. His work, titled Linguistic Survey of India, was published over five years from 1903 to 1928.

This survey also has information about some of the languages spoken in the mountainous region of what is now Pakistan.

Explore: On embracing the hyphen and hybridity of language

Before Grierson, the Orientalist and educationist Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner did some linguistic and anthropological work on the languages and people of these areas in a book called Languages and Races of Dardistan (1877).

Following Leitner, another officer in the British Army, John Biddulph, published his work on the languages and peoples of these areas in a volume called Tribes of Hindoo Koosh (1880).

Since then a number of notable linguists and anthropologists such Georg Morgenstierne, Karl Jettmar, D.L.R. Lorimer, Fredrik Barth, Colin Masica, Richard Strand and many other individuals have studied the languages and cultures of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A systematic survey of the languages of northern Pakistan was, however, started in the 1980s. The survey was started in 1986 by Summer Institute of Linguistics under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture, through the National Institute of Folk Heritage, Lok Virsa.

The National Institute of Pakistan Studies, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, facilitated and supported the research and, finally, the survey was jointly published in five volumes by both partners in 1992.

The survey, titled, Sociolinguistic Survey of Northern Pakistan, covered 25 languages of northern Pakistan including Pashto, Hindko, Ormuri and Waneci.

This survey was an improvement of the Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India’s part of this region as the preface admits, "At a macro level, this work is definitely an improvement over Grierson's Linguistic Survey of India and the subsequent studies by various scholars".


By ‘north Pakistan’ I mean the region of Gilgit-Baltistan and upper Khyber Pakhtunkhwa such as Chitral, Dir, Swat, Kohistan and Mansehra. I intentionally do not mention two major languages of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, namely Pashto and Hindko, as by now these are considerably known to many people.

A brief note about each language will be of help for those who are interested in the linguistic diversity of the northern parts of Pakistan. I abstain from giving a number of speakers of each language because none of these languages have ever been accounted for in successive national censuses.

Nevertheless, the number of speakers for these languages vary from 500 to one million. Counting the correct number of speakers for each becomes a difficult task. Numbers given in surveys done so far are mostly based on interviews and observations — and they are just estimates.

Many of these languages are also spoken in neighbouring countries such as Afghanistan, India and China.

I have presented a very brief account of each language spoken inside the territory of Pakistan. All of these languages are categorised as ‘endangered’ in Routledge’s Encyclopedia of World’s Endangered Languages (2008). Many of them are ‘severely endangered’ whereas a few are classed ‘moribund’ or already ‘extinct’.

Most of these languages are still in the speech form; they don’t have a writing culture. Because of the erosion of these languages, scientific and literary communities of the world will lose vital indigenous knowledge and wisdom that are so important for sustainable communities.

Also read: The little-known religious history of Balakot

On the other hand, if these languages are left to their fate, the communities who use them as native languages for social interaction and understanding and communicating about their world are sure to lose their past memories, histories and identities, be exposed to manifold vulnerabilities such as loss of self-esteem, crises of identity and belonging, and the loss of their imagination which is so intrinsically embedded in language.

The region also has a blend of multilingualism, which resists forces that attempt to break the harmony these communities have.

These languages need to be revitalised using modern means and tools. The most important step is to build literacy in these languages because it is the written word that not only keeps a language vital but also enhances its prestige among speakers and non-speakers.

As the Latin proverb states, verba volant, scripta manent — spoken words fly away, written words remain.

Illustration by Rajaa Moini

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Author Image

Zubair Torwali is a human rights activist and researcher based in Bahrain, Swat. He is the Executive Director at Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT), a civil society organisation working on education.

He tweets @zubairtorwali

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (21) Closed

Jun 27, 2019 07:18pm
Super. This project needs a lot of our support.
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Akber Ali
Jun 27, 2019 07:37pm
Most of the people even don't know that these languages are existing in Pakistan. Linguistic diversity is one of the neglected phenomenon in Pakistan.
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Imtiaz Ali Khan
Jun 27, 2019 07:45pm
Great effort. One language which is spoken in Pakistan is Brahui language it's dying very fast only few millions left now. This is the oldest language of Pakistan even more older than my own Sindhi. Tamil people needs to teach fellow Dravidian Brahui people how to self safe your language, since Tamil people from all religious background always speak Tamil and were able to defend their language from Hindi infiltration and also fought for 5000+++ years to protect their language from the invaders.
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Jun 27, 2019 08:00pm
Great job, Zubair on exposing us all to the linguistic heritage of Pakistan some of which may become extinct. PK and people interacting with the Northern communities should save these languages and document their historical richness using modern technologies. Sad if we lose some of them. Just wondering what common language they speak among villages. Is it Urdu?
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sardar asad durrani
Jun 27, 2019 08:21pm
assalam o aalaikum Thank you ! very much for the information . it is a lesson for me , I never indulged in it but you educated me , Thanks again sardar asad durrani
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Jun 27, 2019 08:27pm
My Lovely Pakistan and my fairyland Northern Pakistan. There is no place in the world as beautiful, breathing and touching like you. I have combed the Canadian Rockies and they are truly breathtaking, but I have been reminiscing about you every step of my way. Let the people live their lives and languages will survive.
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Jun 27, 2019 08:30pm
....Nice article with a tragic lesson...The country formed to protect minorities is now hostage of three or four dominant ethnic groups who have calibrated its function to serve their own interests. With each passing day,Pakistan is becoming graveyard of dying smaller languages and cultures...
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M. Emad
Jun 27, 2019 08:48pm
Pakistan's all regional major languages should be made as 'National Language' of Pakistan.
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Hamid Ali
Jun 27, 2019 08:55pm
Music and Arts are must to keep the culture alive.
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Jun 27, 2019 11:21pm
The national language Urdu is also dying. Check out bookstores in Pakistan and see that English books occupy 90% of shelf space. Business signs are in English in Urdu alphabet, television and radio programs use a lot of English in their programs so do writers and reporters in Urdu newspapers.
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Ghani K
Jun 28, 2019 01:09am
Good to know that someone is concerned about the dying languages of Northern Pakistan. You don't have to worry about the languages in Punjab. A Punjabi 's preference for a language is subject to his social status, moderately rich Punjabi, for his children prefers Urdu, if he happens to belong to Gymkhana Club , he prefers English for his children. As far Punjabi Language, only Sikhs irrespective of their social status adhere to Punjabi. Thanks goodness someone is there who loves this language.
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Jun 28, 2019 12:28pm
I have lived in Canada , and have never come across an educated Pakistani from Multan, Bahawalpur region who actually speaks Seraiki. I , whose grandparents were from DG Khan, can speak way better Seraiki.
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Najma Hisham
Jun 28, 2019 01:20pm
very informative.
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Zubair Torwali
Jun 28, 2019 02:08pm
@Ghani K, Yes very unfortunate
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Zubair Torwali
Jun 28, 2019 02:08pm
@Akber Ali, That is the main purpose of this piece
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Zubair Torwali
Jun 28, 2019 02:10pm
@ahmed, It is interesting, In areas like Swat, parts of Kohistan and Dir they use Pashto as lingua franca whereas in Chitral and in GB they use Urdu. However, in Chitral most of the people belonging to other languages which are about 10 can also speak the major language, Khowar, of Chitral.
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Zubair Torwali
Jun 28, 2019 02:11pm
@wasim, Thanks. This fairyland is really a Peristan
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Zubair Torwali
Jun 28, 2019 02:12pm
@Thinker, In Urdu much literature is produced though mostly sub standard. Yet all the media uses Urdu in Pakistan
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Zubair Torwali
Jun 28, 2019 02:13pm
@Indian_multani, That is true to some extent. Saraiki, however, spoken by many well known people I know
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Dr. Bulgaria
Jun 28, 2019 03:34pm
In a globalized world, this in inevitable.
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munawar ali
Jun 28, 2019 04:50pm
what an effort sir, thank you for mentioning shina
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