By Aamir Latif
Pakistan has different introductions – from being the sixth largest populated country to a child poster of militancy, and from being a leading cricketing nation to the land of several defunct civilizations.
But, the South Asian nuclear Muslim nation- home to over 200 million people- has another feather to its cap, it is one of the few countries where over 70 official languages, including some endangered, are spoken.
The country’s scenic northern Gilgit-Baltistan region, which borders neighboring China, and Afghanistan, alone is home to 30 languages with Indo-Aryan, Indo-Iranian, and Sino-Tibetan roots.
According to Dr. Tafseer Ahmed, a professor at the Center for Language Computing, Mohammad Ali Jinnah University of Karachi, 65 out of the total 75 languages spoken in Pakistan are regional, whereas seven languages, including Urdu-the national language-, and English are used as official languages in four provinces, Azad Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan region.
“Pakistan is one of the selected countries, which embodies an amazing linguistic diversity. But the alarming thing is that several languages are endangered, or dying or already dead", Dr. Ahmed told Anadolu Agency.
He said the two old languages- one belonging to 5000-year old Moin jo Daro ( Mound of Dead) civilization and the other Domaaki, which used to be spoken in Gilgit Baltistan- are treated as dead or extinct by the linguistic experts.
Apart from that, he added, at least eight languages- Badeshi, Torwali, Dameli, Gawar-Bati, Ushojo, Yidgha, Khowar, and Ormuri – which altogether are spoken by less than 100,000 people in Gilgit-Baltistan, and parts of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhawa provinces.
Some 17 languages, including Shina, and Balti are listed as developing languages.
Dr. Rauf Parekh, a Karachi-based linguistic expert voices similar views.
“Not only the endangered declared languages are struggling for their survival but many other languages, which are still not in that category, may meet the same fate in years to come if immediate steps are not taken”, Dr. Parekh, who regularly writes on linguistic issues told Anadolu Agency.
For instance, he added, Dameli - an Indo-Aryan language- is currently spoken by nearly 5000 people in the southwestern parts of the tourist Chital Valley, where a total of 12 languages are spoken.
Similarly, Dr. Pareskh further said, Gawar Bati, and Ushojo- both Indo-Aryan languages- are spoken by less than 15000 people in parts of Chitral, and Kunnar province of Afghanistan, and Swat Valley of Pakistan respectively.
Shina, and Balti languages might be placed on the list of endangered languages as the number of these languages’ speakers were receding apart from the lack of documentation and other records, he maintained.
The last effort in this regard, he recalled, was a decade ago when the Torwali-Urdy dictionary was published.
“This kind of step will at least keep the endangered languages alive, at least in books. Otherwise, they will be wiped out like hundreds of other languages across the globe in years to come”, he apprehended.
Some linguisticians describe globalization as a major threat to small languages and cultures.
“ Globalization is eating the small languages”, Dr. Parekh observed and added “ The younger generation is drifting toward dominating languages to get education and jobs.
In cities , more and more youths are learning English, while in remote regions, they prefer other dominating regional languages, like Pashtu or Balochi”.
Agreeing to Dr. Parekh’s observation, Dr. Ahmed said, “Survival of small languages has a direct connection with economy. When a Torwali or Badeshi speaking youth has to be fluent in English or Urdu or at least in a dominating regional language for education and job, his attention toward the mother tongue will automatically reduce.”
Migration, he noted, has been another factor, which has reduced the room for small languages.
“Millions have migrated from remote regions from north, northwest, and southwest to big cities like Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, where the general medium of conversation is Urdu, English, Sindhi or Punjabi. Their kids who are born and raised in these cities, are ultimately left with no knowledge of their mother tongue”, he maintained.
Language plays a pivotal role in the country’s politics not only to secure votes but more and more to share in the resources, according to Dr. Parekh.“If not dominating, I would say language plays an important role in the game of politics in Pakistan.
Apart from a few national-level political and religious parties, most of the political parties are actually toeing the linguistic politics”, he observed.
He was referring to even mainstream political parties like the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz group), led by Punjabi leader Nawaz Sharif, which has strong roots only in Punjab- the country’s largest and most populous province-, and Hindko speaking parts of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhawa provinces.
The main opposition left-wing Pakistan Peoples party (PPP) led by a Sindhi leader former President Asif Zardari could manage to form a government in southern Sindh province only. Similarly, the Pashtun, Baloch and Urdu-speaking Mohajirs (migrants) get votes only from their dominated areas in KP, Balochistan and Karachi- the country’s commercial capital- respectively.
“The ironic part of the story is that every community bloats its figures to get a big share in the national resources, including jobs. That’s why it is very hard to figure out the exact number of their members”, Dr. Parekh noted.
According to the official figures, Punjabi is the most widely spoken language in Pakistan, which is 45 per cent followed by Pashtu (15 per cent), and Sindhi (14 per cent) respectively). Other major languages are Balochi, Hindko, Brahui and Kashmiri.
Dr. Parekh and Dr. Ahmed however do not agree with the official statistics placing Siraiki, which is spoken in all the four provinces, as the second widely spoken language after Punjabi.