Though small in terms of population, the lingual diversity of Gilgit-Baltistan is amazingly rich. This is evident from the fact that the region is home to nine languages – Shina, Balti, Burushaski, Wakhi, Khowar, Domaki, Gojri, Uighur and Pushtu.
In terms of language family, these languages belong to different groups. Burushaski’s origin is still a mystery for researchers. Shina and Khowar belong to Dardic languages group. The former is spoken in Gilgit-Baltistan, Kohistan in KP and Kargil and Darass in Indian Occupied Kashmir, whereas the former is spoken in parts of Ghizer Districts and Chitral in KP. . Balti is a Tibetan language, which is spoken in Baltistan, Ladakh and Kargil area. Wakhi is a Pamiri, Indo-Iranian, language, spoken in parts of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Chitral, Gilgit and China’s Tashkorgan region. Domaki is at the verge of extinction, owing to social prejudices against the musician tribes (Doms) that spoke it. Speakers of Uighur, a Turkic language, settled in Gilgit-Baltistan in the 1940s, fleeing after the Chinese communist revolution. Thus, the linguistic diversity makes the region a mosaic of languages.
Now, the fate of these languages, and by extension the identity of the people who speak them, hangs in the balance, because no serious efforts have been made to develop and promote them. Being oral languages, the languages in Gilgit-Baltistan do not have standard alphabets. Some books have been published in these languages by using various alphabets, but there is no consensus among the activists and writers, poets, about the scripts to be followed.
In this context, holding of the Gilgit-Baltistan region’s first ever literature festival offers a ray of hope. Led by the government officials, the literary festival brought together language experts, poets, writers and activists, enabling them to share ideas and proposals for preserving and modernizing the languages. Establishment of the languages research academy, as promised by the Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan during the literary festival, is a welcome step forward. It is imperative to make the proposed academy an independent entity of research. It should be empowered enough to carry out scholarly research, avoid stereotypes and prejudices, treat all languages as equal, instead of preferring one over the others based on the number of speakers. The Chief Minister also said that the proposed research academy will initially be tasked to develop scripts (alphabets) for five of these languages.
As explained above, the languages spoken in Gilgit-Baltistan are not limited to the region. The political frontiers of today are relatively recent phenomenon, which separate speakers of same language and ethnic group. While developing alphabets for these languages, the decision makers and language experts will have to be cognisant of the social context and role of language in society and identity. They should study the evolution of the languages, and also keep in view the impact that adoption of a particular set of alphabets will have on members of the language groups settled across the borders of GB. This is important because the language groups live in different political contexts.
The Wakhi speakers, for instance, are living in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and China. In Afghanistan, the Wakhi scholars and students use Arabic alphabets. In Tajikistan, the Wakhi speakers use Cyclic (Russian) alphabets. Not much is known about the Wakhi speakers’ alphabet preferences in China. In Pakistan, Roman and Arabic alphabets are in use. Two books of poetry have recently been published using Roman alphabets, which have been developed by a number of foreign scholars, including Dr. Stablin Kamansky and Dr. Grün Berg. A book compiled by Dr. Sabine Felmy, “The Voice of the Nightingale”, also used Roman alphabets to document the famous Wakhi epic, Bulbulik.
Similarly, the Balti language’s Yegi script was developed in the 8th century. With the arrival of Islam, the Arabic alphabets were adopted by different scholars by the 17thcentury. Currently, some efforts by young researchers and language activists are underway to reintroduce what they call the indigenous “Yige” script of the Balti language. India has also developed a modified version of the Devnagri script to write Balti.
Burushaski is written by using Arabic alphabets for the last five or six decades. Alwaiz Ghulamuddin’s translation of the Holy Quran in Burushaski, and Dr. Naseerudin Hunzai’s Burushaski devotional literature, both written using Arabic alphabets, are highly significant works.
Various primers of Shina, using different versions of Arabic alphabets, have also been published by literary icons like Muhammad Amin Zia and Abdul Khaliq Taj, Doctor Namus, and linguist Shakeel Ahmed Shakeel. Several books, radio dramas and profiles have been written using the alphabets developed, proposed, by the scholars.
Khowar is a relative developed language in terms of literary works, mainly because of the efforts undertaken by scholars, poets and writers, in Chitral. Their experiences can greatly benefit the planners.
It is apparent from the facts stated above that the lingual heritage of Gilgit-Baltistan is pluralistic. Therefore, it is important to avoid monolithic approach to linguistic diversity.
The proposed language academy should rise above sectarian, regional and ethnic biases and allow the scholars and experts of all the languages to come forth with their rational and futuristic plans and proposals.