Domaaki: A Vanishing Voice

Aziz Ali Dad

On 21 February, 1952, the students of Dhaka University and political activists defied a ban on public rallies to protest against the Pakistani state’s attempt to impose Urdu as the sole national language of Pakistan. Police resorted to firing, which resulted in the killing of four students. That was the first sacrifice of a people for their mother language in modern times, and in 1999 the General Conference of UNESCO proclaimed February 21 as International Mother Language Day. Now this day is celebrated as International Mother Language Day across the world.

The phenomenon of linguicide is very modern. The events that unfolded during the Bengali Language Movement and their ramifications on the Pakistani polity were manifestations of modernity and its discontents. This is not to deny the occurrence of language death in the past; but with the advent of modernity, the pace of language extinction has accelerated.

In the post-Enlightenment period the world has not witnessed the creation of any new language. Only Esperanto, an artificial language, was created, but it failed to take root because it did not have organic links with a society or culture. 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. And yet it is a country that is the epitome of progress and modernity!

One of the moribund languages in Pakistan is Domaaki of Hunza. According to Georg Buddruss, Domaaki “originally belonged to the so-called ‘Central Group’ of Indo-Aryan languages somewhere south of Kashmir”. Previously this language was spoken by Doms (Domaaki speakers) inhabiting different regions of Gilgit-Baltistan. Now the speakers of this language reside in Mominabad (erstwhile Bayrishal) village in Hunza. Domaaki people worked as musicians and blacksmiths for centuries. (Even today, many musicians in the Punjab are referred to as “dom” or “doom”.) They are the repositories of indigenous music, engineering and crafts, but they have been treated as pariahs in our caste society. Politically, there was a complete disconnect between the traditional power structure and the Domaaki speaker. Even the Mir of Hunza prohibited them from speaking the Brushashki language. Doms are the only group of people that is not allowed to marry with other social groups. This has resulted in the painful isolation of Doms from the mainstream of society.

The advent of modernity has proved conducive for Doms to break the shackles of professions that have stunted their social mobility for centuries. Now they have succeeded to bring about a positive change in their economic lot and social status by making progress in other fields of life. Therefore, it can be said that modernity provided a deprived community with the opportunity of upward mobility. But modernity, in order to move along (or ‘progress’), must rupture tradition by bringing forth contradictions that persist beneath an apparent veneer of continuity.

The dilemma faced by Domaaki speakers is that if they rely on the traditional structure of society they have to remain vulnerable to the exploitation of society. On the other hand, modernity deprives Domaaki speakers of their identity, but at least it gives them human dignity and freedom, which are things they have long been denied. That is why many of them prefer to live with honor sans identity in modern structures, rather than living in a tradition that has kept them in disdain for centuries.

American linguist John McWhorter has captured an inherent dilemma in the dialectics of continuity and change and its impact on local languages in these words: ‘At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together. Globalization means hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space…. The alternative, it would seem, is indigenous groups left to live in isolationcomplete with the maltreatment of women and lack of access to modern medicine and technology typical of such societies.’

The vanishing of Domaaki language during the transition of society from tradition to modernity shows the failure of the society of Gilgit-Baltistan to tackle the challenges of modernity.

The cultural ethos of Hunza is not amicable towards Domaaki speakers. Although the traditional governance structure of Hunza was abolished by the government of Pakistan in 1974, the social and tribal structure remains intact. This is why the attitude of the majority of the members of the neighboring communities towards the knowledge and use of Domaaki language remains negative on the whole.

The complex interplay of power relations, social structures, progress, tradition and modernity appears in the shape of avoiding the use of a mother language and its knowledge by the Dom community, and entails a voluntary shift to neighboring languages. In 1990, the number of Domaaki speakers was 500. Now it is estimated that a few elders in Dom households can understand Domaaki but they do not speak their language with the new generation. With the demise of the old generation Domaaki too will also be buried into the dust.

Currently there is no single organization, either from the government or NGO sector, that is working to save the Domaaki language. This situation is not particular to the region of Gilgit-Baltistan. The other 26 endangered languages of Pakistan will meet the same fate if drastic measures are not taken. In order to reverse this situation, it is essential to broaden the definition and scope of social development by including language preservation as an integral part of development plans and interventions.

Unfortunately, as a nation we have misplaced priorities. We are ready to spend millions of rupees every year to save snow leopards in Gilgit-Baltistan and vultures in Sindh, but do not the languages that have mothered our ancestors and hold the key to our past.

The writer is associated with Strengthening Participatory Organization in Islamabad. Email:

Courtesy: The Friday Times

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  1. Mr. Aziz do not blame whole Hunza when Bayrich themselves are not doing anything to preserve their language. You look very critical of Hunzu society. One should be objective. if you are against Hunza people then say it openly. Hiding it in writing is not good for your reputation. Other societies in GB are also not good but you do not say anything to them. Please write objectively not objectionably.

  2. nice article that u high light the bitter truth … social organizations and NGOs must work on it ….

  3. My Dear Brother Ali Khan!

    I would only recommend you wake up from the slumber of ethnocentrism and you will undoubtedly find the content of this article objective.


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