International Mother Language Day



International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by UNESCO’s General Conference in November 1999. Since then the day has been celebrated to strengthen linguistic and cultural diversity and multinlingualism. Most recently it was celebrated on 21 February the world over.

The importance of celebrating such a day is evident in the wake of a rapid globalization that threatens the very existence of smaller cultural identities. Unfortunately in our part of the world such ‘small’ matters don’t get due consideration because of poverty, illiteracy and lack of sensitization about preservation and promotion of cultural heritages.

Gilgit – Baltistan is a unique region because of its lingual and cultural diversity.  Shina (Gilgiti- Chilasi – Puniali – Hunzai), Balti, Burushaski (Hunzai- Nagari – Yasini), Wakhi (Gojali – Iskhomani), Khowar (Chitrali), Kohistani, Domaki and Gojari are some of the large and smaller languages spoken in the region. Considering the small population of the entire region, calculated optimistically at not more than two million people,  we will appreciate the average population that speaks a certain language or a dialect.

 Shina is the largest language, spoken in all districts of Gilgit – Baltistan, including all its variations. Shina is followed by Balti, spoken in the Baltistan region, comprising of Ghangche and Skardu districts. Burushaski is spoken in two districts, three variations, and is the third largest language of the region.  Burushaski is a rare language that is spoken in the northern areas only.

Wakhi, on the other hand, is spoken in different parts of some Central Asian Countries besides Gilgit – Baltistan and Chitral. The total number of people who speak Wakhi, internationaly, is calculated at around 60 ,000. Khowar, the official language of Chitral, is understood and spoken throughout Ghizar District. Similarly Gojari is spoken by a very small number of people in some parts of Gilgit – Baltistan.

All of these languages are at different stages of growth and development. Khowar, probably, is the most developed language of all. By far it has developed a rich collection of prose and poetry. But this has little to do with the Khowar speakers living in Gilgit – Baltistan. Most of the development, modernization, has taken place in Chitral, hearland of this sweet language. 

Burushaski, for all good reasons, is the second most developed language of the region, in my opinion.  While Burushaski poetry touches its zenith in the poems of Dr. Naseer Ud Din Hunzai a lot of work is required to develop Burushaski prose. Burushaski is the only language in the region in which the holy Quran has been translate, recently, by Alwaiz Ghulam Udin.

Balti is unique because apart from advances in poetry and prose there is a significant growth in Balti drama literature. Similarly Shina has developed to a large extent in almost all fields of lingual expression. Shina poetry, probably, is the most advanced form of literature.

Wakhi, despite of being an internationally spoken language, is yet to start its journey of developemnt. Wakhi poetry has developed significantly but efforts are still underway to develop a writing script for the language. Storry telling literature is available but not written, yet.

Domaki, in my opinion, is the most important language of our region. It is a unique language of the blacksmith. Discouraged by social stigmas, stereotypes and ridicule the language is threatened. Little efforts have so far been made to preserve the language and develop it on modern lines. Gojri language also faces the same fate, albeit, at a less intense scale.

The need is to instill (if needed), promote and stenghten pride of the people in their mother languages.  We all must be proud of our linguistic heritage. If we are not proud of our languages today and, more importantly, if we do not donate our time and knowledge to develop them then at some time the coming generation may not be able to know what the languages of their forefathers were.

Towards the end let me share a poetry written by Nazir Ahmad Bulbul, a towering Wakhi poet, a painter and an educationst.

Nazir Poetry <<<<<<<<CLICK HERE TO READ The Roman Wakhi Script based graphic image by Aejaz Karim

I have tried to translate this poetry into English.

I Was Shephered, I am Shepherd

I am proud that I am Wakhi, I was Shepherd, I am Shepherd

I am the language of absolute faith, I was Shepherd, I am Shepherd


In the past I owned cattle, now I am in the pasture-hut of Knowledge

Herding thougths and ideas, I was Shepherd, I am Shepherd


Holding  stick of pen in hand, my luggage of voyage are my books

Exploring the butter-store of knowledge, I was Shepherd, I am Shepherd


Skimming the butter of intellect, from the delicious curd of knowledge

Decanting the milk of ideas, I was Shephered, I am Shepherd


The entire world is our green field, everywhere we nestle to herd

In every field, at every slope, I was Shephered, I am Shepherd


I am Shepherd of my faith, I am Shepherd of the light and Quran

The most brilliant in all these times, I was Shephered, I am Shepherd


Oh Wakhi!  remember when you could not speak, it is the vision of thy Master

(so) Once in a time, inquire thy truth, I was Shepwhered, I am Shepherd


Note: My language skills and inability to exactly translate the meanings of some of the Wakhi words might limit the scope and impact of this beautful poem. But in the words of Nazir himself

“it tells us that our roles and forms of earning livelihood might change but we must not forget our past and be proud of our cultural heritage”.


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  1. Mother Language- a great tool through which we encode the social, cultural and spiritual experiences of our community and pass it on to new generations.

    You have aptly covered the importance of it and the challenges these languages and dialects face due to enromous political pressures in the form of imposition of alien langauges like English and Urdu as medium of instructions in our school system and compulsions of market forces to compete in job markets and keep ourseleves abreast with developments in science, technology and commerce.

    I am really impressed by the seemingly new poetry of Ustod Bulbul. His introspection on the shepherd’s life in the mountains and its deconstruction and using the analogy with the knowledge society and terming the whole world as a ‘global green pasture’ for herding and his message of continous quest for truth, was impressive.

    Amin Beg

  2. just as remarkable as usual. for sure Nazir Ahmed is a Bulbul, or I would rather call him our Bulbul-e-Shereen. What a fantastic peom…. we all love you loop yor. You are great. Noor, so nice of you for the roman script as well as for the translation. Well done.



  3. Sir Nazir Ahmed Bulbul is an asset — a true asset for our mother language –a living legend.

  4. Endangered languages

    Dear Noor

    Your piece on mother tongue is an eye-opener and a wakeup call for people whose languages or dialects are endangered or facing extinction. My mind goes to a report that appeared in newspapers on January 22, 2008 that the Eyak language became extinct with the death of its last speaker in Alaska on January 21, 2008. Eyak Chief, Marie Smith Jones, was 89 years old. She was the last person to have learned the language as a child from her parents — the natural way.

    The preservation of cultural and linguistic diversity in today’s world is a major concern with about half of the spoken languages facing extinction. There are 6,912 living languages known in the world of which about 3,000 are endangered, including some of the languages/dialects spoken in the region that we refer to as Gilgit-Baltistan. Their future is bleak and some of them are at the verge of extinction or already `dead’. Experts predict that about half of today’s languages will go extinct within the next 50 to one 100 years.

    Many factors affect the existence of a language. These include the size of the native population, the use of the language in formal communication, and the geographical dispersion and the socio-economic and political weight of its speakers.

    But first of all we should understand what an ‘extinct’ or ‘dead’ language is?
    “An extinct language” according to linguists and historians “is a language which no longer has any native speaker while a ‘dead language’ is a language which has stopped growing. Its grammar and vocabulary are static.”

    Although many countries have designed policies to protect and promote regional languages, Pakistan and other undemocratic countries have generally imposed a language policy to advance one official language at the expense of others. It has created political disharmony and hatred among various nationalities and ethnic groups.

    The growth of a common language in Gilgit-Baltistan stopped the day the first federal bureaucrat landed in Gilgit on November 16, 1947 with an alien official language – Urdu bringing to a halt the process of understanding, harmony, integration and enrichment of local languages that was going on. Shina, Burushaski and Khowar being market languages were understood and spoken by a large number of people enriching each other. I remember when our grand fathers would at least understand and speak three local languages which was a great source of affinity and harmony among different cultures, areas and ethnic groups in the region. The natural growth of local languages through folk literature and customs, though in a crude form, was yet going on in a natural way without any official prodding.

    Another major factor which hampered this process and harmed greatly not only our language and culture but also our ancient secular traditions, was the intervention of religious institutions in our day-to-day life and discouraging our centuries-old mystic religious literature rooted in rich Central Asian traditions, and replacing it with an alien language (Gujrati), with its unfamiliar terminologies and rituals developed in the South (Karachi) by a business class. This new culture and language totally based on mercantilism and individualistic opportunism and materialistic psyche changed our social scenario which had developed over centuries in isolation from the corruption of urban trade and commerce. The dominant interest group from south adopted a policy in the name of creating “uniformity” and “unity” in religious Tariqah produced a class of white collar baboos and managers that could serve their interest.

    A revealing instance of cultural hegemony is the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549, in which the English state sought to suppress non-English languages with the English language Book of Common Prayer. In replacing Latin with English, and under the guise of suppressing Catholicism, English was effectively imposed as the language of the Church, with the intent of it becoming the language of the people.

    According to the great Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, a diverse culture can be ruled or dominated by one group or class by imposing an artificial uniformity of beliefs and practices that ensured the dominant group’s control over the local populace and its culture.

    The third factor that is endangering local languages in today’s world is the globalization of economy through which advanced societies’ are seeking to promote their hegemonic cultural tools, such as mass media and popular (pop) culture, to indoctrinate people, especially the youth, to adopt their alien cultural norms that leaving the use of one’s mother tongue can achieve without much effort.

    In the light of this historical perspective it would be easy for our young scholars, academics, linguists and social scientists to understand the sorry state of affairs of our languages. We need to unmask and fight cultural hegemony and work for the preservation and promotion of our ‘dead’ or endangered languages. To begin with we should launch a campaign of instilling reading habits, especially of literature, among our young generation, spend more on establishing libraries and research centres rather then on establishing religious centres, encourage literary people like Nazir Ahmed Bulbul and others, and conduct serious research on language, and folk literature if possible promoting interest in the Persian mystic literature. If this be not possible then the other option is to adopt Persian as a compulsory second language, since it is the mother of all other sub-group languages, including Wakhi in schools.

    Farman Ali

  5. People learn languages for pragmatic reasons. This phenomenon, sometimes called ‘voluntary shift’, is not really ‘voluntary’. What happens is that market conditions are such that one’s language becomes deficit on what the French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would call ‘cultural capital’ Instead of being an asset it becomes a liability. It prevents one from rising in society. In short, it is ghettoizing. For example, if one is told that his or her language is inferior or that the ‘cultural capital’ they possess is not capital at all but a stigma. This makes one reject an essential aspect of his or her legacy, history, culture and identity. What is created is ‘culture shame’ —being ashamed of one’s own true identity. Or, even if language movements and cultural pride does not make them ashamed of their languages, they do not want to teach them to their children. Such decisions amount to endangering the survival of the mother languages.

    Almost all the languages in the Northern Areas are under tremendous pressure. We all agree that our languages should be preserved but at the same time we are so appreciative of the advantages of the so-called modernization that we accept the threat to our languages with equanimity. Concerns about language extinction and language death are riased by some great books such as David Crystal’s, Language Death; Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine’s Vanishing Voices and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas’s, Linguistic Genocide in Education or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights. The question whether threatened languages such as ours can be saved from extinction has been answered, with reference to some cases by Joshua A. Fishman. However, Fishman concludes that they can only be saved ‘by following careful strategies that focus on priorities and on strong linkages to them, and only if the true complexity of local human identity, linguistic competence and global interdependence are fully recognized’.

  6. Dear Ms Parveen, it is true that languages are learnt for pragmatic reasons; one might say the child also learns its mother tongue for pragmatic reasons and the deaf too master the sign language for the business of life.

    The matter of culture shame arises when you move into an alien culture where your language cannot serve the purpose of communication. It can happen in your own village when you get a letter in French or German. But it becomes a psychological issue when you stop using your language among your own set. How will you relate that to pragmatism and what about dress or food habits?

    One tends to merge in the dominant culture. It is power politics. ‘Careful strategies’, ‘priorities’ and ‘strong linkages’ as suggested by Fishman won’t serve any purpose if a community is politically weak. One’s culture gets stronger in direct proportion to one’s political strength.

    The issue of saving a language from oblivion has to be studied in the context of power politics. The Israelis have resurrected Hebrew from its grave after attaining to nationhood and acquiring power.

    Farman Ali

  7. Dear Mr Farman, thanks for the comments and the questions, they are insightful and thought provoking. Since pragmatic reasons are based on the meanings that lie in the observable practical consequences of any device (whether it is language, dress or food habits), they form our perceptions/perspectives thus shape our psychological attitudes. The relationship between the pragmatic reasons and psychological issue could be summarized by the phrase ‘whatever works’ ‘is likely true’, the former a base for pragmatic reason and the later an expression of human psychology. Since “whatever works” changes, “ likely to be true” is also changeable and of course no one can claim to possess any final or ultimate truth. A more sophisticated version of this relationship between pragmatic reason and human psychology could be found in Basil Bernstein’s work on pedagogy, symbolic control and identity.

    As far as the cultural hegemony or the power politics is concerned, I agree that survival for a political weak community is difficult. and the issue of saving a language should be studied in the context of power politics. However, it is important to note that Fishman’s conclusions are also contextualized in power politics. He labels the globalization of pan-Western pop culture as the principal enemy of minority languages and their associated cultures. Since language-shift is known to progress by way of the minority languages yielding of functionality to the dominant language in domain after domain, Fishman concludes that what is needed, as a selective, partial resistance to globalization, is for threatened languages to effect a kind of compromise with dominant languages in terms of which societal functions each will assume. Only in this way, he claims, through a kind of institutionalized diglossia, will minority languages stand a chance of survival.

  8. Mother Tongue_ A very important part of our culture and identity. Such a great topic choosen by NOOR and i appreciate it.
    Well said by Amin Baig above that.

    “Mother Language- a great tool through which we encode the social, cultural and spiritual experiences of our community and pass it on to new generations.”

    I am a WAKHI and as i am observing a time will come, our future generation will not know about their mother tongue. Even now i don’t know the meanings of major words of WAKHI languge. So the first priority for us should be speak and use such words which we have forgotten. Our elders should use that hard words, the yungers ll definitely ask about what does it mean.

    I really like the poem of Sir Nazir Ahmad BULBUL… as we all know our great poet and has alots of services for our mother tongue through his poetry.

    Irfan Ali Shah

  9. Talking about mother language(for us, Wakhi, our mother Language) and on top of that, sharing our views while using English jargons seems quite funny! Isnt it?? but even then, I appreciate Noor’s efforts for putting such an important issue on the table and I am really very much impressed by Amin Beg (loop yor’s) argument. let us hope the discussion is leading in a positive direction.

    wish you all the best.


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