[Opinion] Vanishing Voices

by Aziz Ali Dad

Because of the compression of time and space under the influence of technology the contemporary age is known as “Global Village”. This is the first time in the history of mankind that local, national, regional and international events influence one another in various ways. Gilgit-Baltistan is also not immune to globalisation. My main focus here would be to take stock of the tripartite challenges posed by globalisation, communication and modernity for the survival of indigenous languages of Gilgit-Baltistan. Examining the current situation of indigenous languages in the region vis-à-vis exogenous forces, which include, market forces and their repercussions on local vernaculars.

Till now the region of Gilgit-Baltistan remained incommunicado with the outside world. There are many disadvantages of remaining in isolation. But the situation of isolation was not without benefits. Owing to the inaccessibility of Gilgit-Baltistan, the locals had to rely on their own resources to cope with the challenges emanating from nature and management of the society. The traditional system of governance in the region is one of the examples of indigenously developed governance mechanisms. But the finest illustration of creativity of the closed society is the development of various languages within the boundaries of Gilgit-Baltistan. Balti, Brushaski, Shina, Khowar, Wakhi, Domaki and other languages are pieces of creativity on the cultural tapestry of Gilgit-Baltistan.

The isolated status of Gilgit-Baltistan started to wane with the advent of the British Empire. The British arrived here with governance structure and rational institutions, which were a product of modernity. These developments played instrumental role in opening of hitherto isolated societies to the forces of modernity and communication.

After the British, the region got connected with the southern parts of Pakistan a through jeep able road in 1950s. During the 1970s the region witnessed opening of the Karakoram Highway. It connected Gilgit-Baltistan China and facilitated easy flow of exogenous goods, people, lifestyle and trends into the region. Although, the KKH and modern means of communication benefited it was not without cost. One of the costs of modernisation is increasing threat to the survival of vernaculars.

Since the society, economy, lifestyle and governance of Gilgit-Baltistan have undergone drastic changes in last four decades, it is natural to have repercussions of these changes on language. Previously, the local languages were organically interfused with local power structure, culture and society.

The autochthonous languages have become marginalised in different spheres of life. With urbanisation of various places in Gilgit-Baltistan and migration of native people have made the vocabulary associated with hunting, agriculture, shamanism, local arts and crafts irrelevant. Hence, various life worlds connected with these areas disappeared.

Introduction of mass literacy and service sector through rationalization of society and economy proved conducive in bringing about change in the socio-economic lot of the society. Nevertheless, local languages are disconnected with the power structure that determines the contours of society, economy, and education sector, administrative and political structure. As a result, people have opted for Urdu and English languages, which open new opportunities and bring power and prestige. Native languages are not part of the medium of instruction in educational institutions and government offices. The disconnection between power and language has far reaching consequences. This factor will determine, to great extent, the fate of local languages in the future.

Other than exogenous factors, local socio-cultural ethos and pressures have contributed to the extinction of local languages. The case of Domaki language is a case in point. This is a language spoken by artisan class of Hunza. In the traditional social and tribal set up Domaki speakers were marginalized group and fall in the lowest stratum in social hierarchy of Gilgit. Hence, power structure and social ethos also treated them as anathema. In reality they were repository and creators of arts, indigenous engineering, crafts and music. In this sense they were guardians of indigenous knowledge.

Mass education has opened new vistas of progress and social mobility to subaltern groups like Doms — people who speak Domaki language and musicians. Ashamed of their heritage and knowledge they were forced to relinquish their centuries old heritage and professions and opt for modern occupations.

True empowerment is that which enables one to progress without losing one’s right to being linguistically and professional dissimilar or having different identity. These are the people who did not find a modus vivendi in either tradition or modern structures. The former kept their role and identity fixed by denying opportunities available to other members of the society, whereas the latter, in a Faustian bargain, has offered them opportunities by depriving them of their very identity. It encapsulates the failure of the society that failed to strike a balance between tradition and modernity.

The story of the moribund Domaki language is a snippet of the bigger picture regarding the vanishing voices in Gilgit-Baltistan. To counter existential threats to local language it is indispensable to engage critically with modernity and chalk out policies and strategies that enable local languages to survive. In this context we have to take into consideration the devastating impact of the modernity on local languages and raise questions about some of the assumptions implicit in the discourse of modernization.

To preserve local language in the times of rampant globalisation three important steps need to be taken. First is the study and preservation of language by the means of the science of linguistics. All the languages of Gilgit-Baltistan are oral. With the rise of printing press, written word has dominated spoken word and transformed oral cultures into written one. By learning and utilizing the modern science of languages we can equip native speakers with required knowledge and tools to survive in the age of language cannibalism. Oral culture is a product of memorization or learning by heart. Linguistic is a product of mind. To preserve local languages it is imperative to acquaint oneself with the science of language by engaging our minds.

Second, modern electronic media has provided us tremendous opportunities to save native languages. A salient feature of media is that it fuses word and image. Thus, it enables us to see things and hear words synchronically, which is not possible in print media. The cumulative result of this process is permeation of local languages into society and native speaker who ears are avoid their languages.

Third, there is a dire need to explore the society and literature by employing modern technique of humanities and social sciences through a proper research institution. Only by aligning efforts of language preservation on scientific lines and employing the tricks of the trade of modern cultural industry, we can be able to save local languages from falling them into the dustbin of history. The pronouncement of ‘The End of History’ by liberal ideologues is not just declaration of the demise of alternative ideologies or worlds, it is also a veiled pronouncement of the impending death of small cultures, local languages and life worlds under the pressures of monolithic globalization across the world.

The writer is associated with Strengthening Participatory Organisation (SPO), Islamabad. Email:

Originally published by The NEWS

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  1. Very significnt topic Aziz bhai, u’ve done it all tremndously.
    All da native languges of G-B are in great peril. I have the same opinion about dis issue. You hav raised sum vital steps, esp da Role of elctronic media. As we can see that all da culture round tha world are utilizng their potentiel in E-Media to preserve their Languges by launching Tv channels n radio staions. We are far far behind in this field. I watch sum local channels in CableTV in Gilgit, but i dn’t see nthing except for dance n folk songs..!! thez channels r not advertizng our culture n heritage, instead thy are deteriorating our traditions.! So, alot is need to b done in ths aspect.
    Some of da good peple in Gilgit are trying to launch a TV channel, named “Gilgit TV”, please aupport thm as mch as possible. On of their team mambers iz a journalist, Sharafuddin Faryaad.

  2. Aziz Sahib! you have embarked on a very crucial and timely important topic by taking up the issues of indangered vernaculars threatened by the lusters of modernity and globlization. It is high time to open a debate on this issue and sensitize the media, academic circles, journalists, writers and anchor persons to explore ways and means for the preservation of these local languages which great sources of indigenous cultures and heritage.
    Al-waez Aslam

  3. The above given topic is highly debatable in the contemporary world. Many cultures and languages are feeling threat by the so called Globalisation and Commercialisation.
    Many Sociologist are in view that the world is in its transformation stage, where different cultures and languages are mixing into each other and a comman culture is evolving, which is based on technology, rational behaviour in society and economy. Its impacts are also observing in GB aswell, the way the local languages are loosing their originality and pureity.
    If, in future we will be following a common culture then the question lies that how we will be recognised among the masses of 6 billlion?
    The media can play vital role in preserving our languages.TV channel should introduce TV shows on linguistics.
    Linguists should be brought on TV shows. Apart from that the government should establish reseach centres in GB for the preservation of the local language.

  4. Dear Aziz
    Nicely drafted and thought about the surviving voice that we have made in such condition due to some of our own reseans and development. You have mentioned that the global villages and its effects have effect most of it. But to me it’s the other way around. I will try to put forward my comment or discourses, in details at PT very soon, if Im able to, because there are to me there are question which sparks in every mind.
    Why with such exposure of education, knowledge and progress and institution we are still ignorant about our existence and ignorant to what is happening about US, different foreigners have time to research about us but where we are.
    What are the many matters in our society that have made our psychological understanding and critical skill confused and irresponsible and controlled.
    Why we are trying to relate our existence to other and ignoring our rich indigenous tradition. Why we are not in control of our own decision and what makes us independents to other cultural and values.

  5. The article is no doubt a good attempt in right direction. Though ever increasing economic pressure is compelling people(s) to adopt new techs and lanuages which can help adapt mainly for survival, still preserving their identity is not much costly. Learning a second language should not endanger mother tongue/dialect, for that mothers have to play crucial role. They shouldn’t mimic others simply to follow but preach new generations with centuries old traditions, values, culture, and all that what others don’t own.

  6. Aziz sahip has, characteristically, cast his argument in the broader framework of modernity whose newest expression is in the form of crushing globalisation that is compressing both space and time, thus paradoxically limiting as well as expanding human horizons at the same time. For some the phenomenon of globalisation is a unique opportunity to find perennial truths shared across cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious divides that were otherwise blocked by the high walls of human difference guarded by parochial ideologues. For others globalisation is an unwelcome intruder into the sacred territory that is muddying the water, disorienting time-tested values, dislodging superior human experiences with base desires and introducing violence, conflict and exploitation.

    As language plays a foundational role in human experience and civilisation so any threat to any particular language is in fact a threat to the body of experience, knowledge and wisdom held by the inheritors of that endangered language. As a matter of observation there are noticeable changes in many of GB dialects, which have assimilated or borrowed many elements from Urdu, English and other regional languages, alas without also properly internalising the experiences and feeling that comes with those foreign elements. While it is part of human civilisation to be influenced and influence other cultures but the traditional process of inter-civilisational encounter was slow, stable and progressive that allowed the requisite time to transfer all the characteristics of one culture to the other. As rightly pointed out by Aziz sahip, today’s amazing speed and intensity of cross-cultural encounters not only threaten the very existence of local dialects but it also violates the originality and authenticity of experience that was once the essence of traditional societies.
    While the demands of living in a modern society require that people need to adjust very quickly to new forces otherwise they risk being sidestepped, because in modernity ‘‘all that is solid melts into thin air’’. To be modern is to find ourselves in a promising world of adventure, power, joy, growth and regular transformation, but alas at the cost of precious human experience of the sublime. So there is a big trade-off and also a big trophy in this game of the new brave world. The choice has to be made individually and also as collectivities. Vernacular cultures and societies without conscious individuals and risk their elimination from history, but they certainly need adequate defence and they must be preserved not for their own sake but for the sake of all the humanity.

  7. For a language to survive, it must be transformed into the medium of ‘survival’. Otherwise it remains like an ancient tool of hunter which can be only valuable as an antique and museums are the only abode for. So is the case for our dialects and even for Urdu. Despite having potential to be transformed into a ‘medium of survival’, is facing a threat of extinction not because of the semiosis but because of the cognitive impairement (if I am right) of the society for not realizing the benefits of positive psychological impact on the human developement via an endogenous resource of communication.

  8. I am grateful to Hyder Abbas, Al Waiz Aslam, Asim Saeed, Nazir Ali Khan, Abdul Karim and Sultan Abbas alias ali al-Hakim for their invaluable feedback about my article ‘Vanishing Voices’. Because of editorial compulsions the editor has deleted some sections of the article, especially the discussion about interface between modernity and local languages. As a result, the natural flow of argument is impeded. Nevertheless, it is heartening to notice that the educated class of our society is paying heed to real issues.

    At the outset I have few confessions to make. First, I blame educated people for the deteriorating conditions in every sphere of our society. Without eulogizing and romanticizing our forefather, I believe that they succeeded to address the challenges of their time while employing available and limited resources, both intellectual and material. Although, we have been equipped with modern education, we are still unable to tackle challenges of modern age.

    Second, while writing the article I felt that the situation of Domaki speakers in traditional setup and modern context needs to be explored in more detail. I did not have time to think over it for a long time. Therefore, I failed to locate the locus of the issue. Hence I avoided it by summarizing in a sentence that ‘it is typical story of a society that is lost in transition from tradition to modernity.’

    Third, there is a danger of rejecting modernity totally in our love for indigenous languages and culture. I have yet to find ways that enable us to internalize modernity and mould it according to our needs instead of accepting it in purity in the form of infallible meta-narrative.

    For further clarification I am quoting that part of discussion which was in original draft but deleted for more space, clarity or ambiguity. Discussing modernity and its consequences I wrote ‘In this context we have to take into consideration the devastating impact of the modernity on local languages and raise questions about some of the assumptions implicit in the discourse of modernization.

    Modernity is a product of enlightenment. It is enlightenment that has enabled humankind to progress in every field of life by unleashing hitherto dormant creative forces of human beings. This creativity can be witnessed in developments in natural and social sciences. But it is a great paradox of the enlightenment that it has lost ability to create new languages. All the languages that emerged on the faced of the world were product of pre-enlightenment cultures and societies.

    In the post enlightenment period the world has not witnessed creation of a single language, except the creation of artificial language- Esperanto. This language was invented by L. L. Zamenhof, a Polish oculist, in 1892. It was an artificial international language based as far as possible on words common to the chief European languages. But Esperanto failed to take roots in society because it did not have organic links with the society and culture. To complement our argument we can evince the fact that the twentieth century is declared as graveyard of languages. Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine in their book ‘Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages’ declared the United States alone as a graveyard for hundreds of languages. It is a country that is epitome of progress and modernity.

    Critical engagement with modernity does not mean rejection of the philosophical discourse of modernity, rather it aims to be vigilant to its detrimental effects and intellectually sound to reap its benefits and avoid pitfalls. It is the modernity that has enabled us to develop science of languages, which is called linguistics.’

    The issue of language extinction needs an in depth research to bring its manifold dimensions to fore. Alas! NGOs are happy to save snow leopard and Ibex but they do not give a damn to preserve local vernaculars because it is not in vogue in development discourse. My article started with a quotation from Walter Benjamin but it did not appear in pamirs time. It encapsulates our existential condition. Benjamin is of the opinion that ‘”There is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” I could not agree more.
    Aziz Ali Dad

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