by Rauf Parekh
The picturesque valleys of northern Pakistan are the cradles of many strange languages and cultures. The languages spoken here — virtually little explored just like these valleys —include Balti, Shina, Khuwar, Wakhi, Pahari, Burushaski and many others. Burushaski is perhaps the strangest of them all.
In addition to the valleys of Hunza, Nagar and Yasin, Burushaski is also spoken in some parts of Gilgit, with slightly different accents and dialectic features. The interest in this obscure language among Pakistani scholars is recent phenomenon but Burushaski had courted a considerable attention at international level quite long ago. Some European scholars have carried out extensive research on Burushaski.
According to ‘Jareeda’, a research journal published by the University of Karachi’s Bureau of Compilation, Composition & Translation, George Morgenstierne wrote in his ‘Report on a linguistic mission to North West India’ (Oslo, 1932) that a scholar named David L. R. Lorimer had done earliest research on Burushaski and Morgenstierne himself compared Burushaski phonology with its neighbouring languages. But Hermann Berger, a German scholar who carried out a long and profound research on the language in the late 1950s and 1960s, wrote that Burushaski is quite different from the languages spoken in the neighbouring areas and has no resemblance with them, not even with the languages that might be considered akin to it, such as Balti. Caucasian languages are the ones with which Burushaski has any similarity, if at all, wrote Berger.
Based on his own research, Berger published a book on Burushaski grammar in 1974. He did extensive research on the Yasin accent and Gilgit-Hunza accent of the language. There are other scholars who have written much, all in all dozens of books, on Burushaski’s grammar, vocabulary, phonetics and semantics. A list of such works was published in issue 30 of ‘Jareeda’. The journal published some very informative and useful papers on Burushaski in its 21st issue as well. Despite all this research, the nature and origin of Burushaski language remains a mystery as it has defied all classifications and experts still consider it an unclassified language.
The people speaking Burushaski as mother tongue are known as Burusho and live in Karachi too in a large number. Historically speaking, the Burusho people and their language had long been shrouded in the mist of mystery when it comes to their lineage and origin. There have been different theories one of which says that old Burusho were the offspring of three soldiers who had come to the area along with the troops of Alexander the Great. These three soldiers fell ill and stayed on and settled there. Another legend has it that the ancestors of Burushos might have migrated from Iran. Yet another theory suggests that Burusho people are an offshoot of ‘Hoon’ tribe that lived in the northern and western parts of China. Some of them migrated to Hungary and some settled in the Himalayan valleys and parts of Korakoram range.
The similarity between some words and family names in the Hungarian language and Burushaski has been confirmed by some Hungarian scholars which lends credibility to the theory that some of these people migrated to Hungary and rest of them settled in the areas that now make a part of northern Pakistan. Many Burusho scholars believe that the origin of Hunza is in fact ‘Hoon za’ which in turn is a distorted pronunciation of Persian ‘Hoon zad’ or ‘Hoon zada’, which means ‘born of Hoon, the tribe’. Burushaski has some similarity with French language as far as counting and digits are concerned.
Burushaski is a language that feels and records even the slightest differences in the meanings. It has, for example, three different words to say ‘the sound of opening a door’, each one describing the intensity of the process, telling whether it produced a very slight sound, a slight sound or a loud one. Not recording such a sensitive language in the form of a dictionary would have been callous, so Berger compiled Burushaski’s first ever dictionary in collaboration with Naseeruddin Hunzai. Comprising some 50,000 words, it was a Burushaski-German dictionary. Incidentally, all the research material on Burushaski language and culture had been published abroad and in Pakistan there was little material available in Urdu on Burushaski aside from volume number 14 of the Punjab University’s encyclopaedia of Urdu literature. It includes just one article on Burushaski and that too elaborated more on the history of the area rather than the language. German and Canadian universities had published extensive research works on the language and Karachi University has now taken the lead in Pakistan by publishing vital information on the language in Urdu. Another feat achieved by Karachi University’s Bureau of Compilation, Composition & Translation is the publication of the first ever Burushaski-Urdu dictionary. Published under the guidance of Naseeruddin Hunzai and compiled by the scholars of Burushaski Research Academy, The ‘Awwaleen Burushaski-Urdu Dictionary’ comprises 60,000 words and spreads over three volumes. The first volume was published a few years ago and now the second volume has appeared.
During the launching ceremony of the second volume held in Karachi recently, the audience were informed by office-bearers of the academy that the third and the last volume was in the pipeline and would soon be published. They also intend to compile a dictionary of Yasin-accent of Burushaski. Bravo!