cover - rajaa moini

Remember the dying languages of northern Pakistan

These languages need to be revitalised, because spoken words fly away, written words remain.
Published June 27, 2019

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.

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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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