PESHAWAR: When Mohammad Sat Sayeed died in Kalkatak Village in southern Chitral a few years back, an entire dialect died with him. The last words uttered by the native Kalasha language speaker were Sayeed’s familiar loud prayer, “O mi ganah xaudai mi nauf keri,” or, “Oh my God forgive me.”
In his 2009 book “Kalkatak: A Crossroad of Cultures in Chitral”, Fakhruddin Akhundzada notes that the Kalasha language is nearly extinct in nearby villages except for a few elderly people who are hesitant to speak it in front of outsiders. The language traces its roots to the historical Kafiristan, now Nuristan Province in Afghanistan, and was stigmatised as a ‘non-Muslim language’ by some.
This illustrates the threat faced by the rare languages of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B), where 26 of 69 Pakistani languages are spoken.
These native language communities are small, and scattered across inhospitable terrain and are facing threats from globalisation and language hegemony.
These small languages are ignored in the national language discourse. The insurgency in the region further dealt a blow to these languages, as the only institution conducting research on the subject, Forum for Language Initiatives (FLI), shifted its offices from Peshawar to Islamabad due to security reasons a few years back.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Interactive Atlas of World’s Languages in Danger 2009 says that the languages face extinction due to the monopoly of major languages and lack of documentation and preservation on the part of the concerned authorities.
The UNESO Atlas classifies at least 27 Pakistani languages as endangered and 18 out of these are native to K-P, Fata and G-B.
UNESO classifies severely endangered languages as, “Spoken by grandparents and older generations, while the parent generation may understand it but doesn’t speak it with children or among themselves.”
These endangered languages are no longer learnt by children as a mother tongue at home, while vulnerable languages, though spoken by most children, are often restricted to the home.
FLI, an initiative to promote and preserve indigenous languages, lists 26 languages spoken across K-P and northern Pakistan.
Chitral District, with a population of around 500,000, hosts 12 of these languages. Renowned Norwegian linguist George Morgenstierne noted that the Chitral was one of the most linguistically diverse regions of the world.
Mohammad Pervesh Shaheen, a linguist based in Swat said, “Languages are the limbs of humanity and when a language goes extinct, a nation’s culture, history, folklore, civilization and knowledge go with it.”
“There is a Hadith in which the Prophet Mohammad (SAW) says, ‘If you want to save yourself from the mischief of a nation, learn its language,’ and we are forgetting our own,” he added.
Last year, the K-P assembly passed a bill allowing primary education to be imparted using any of eight languages native to the province. Hopefully, this and other similar measures can lead to the promotion of endangered dialects and save these languages from the Sword of Damocles hanging over them.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 21st, 2011.