Field Studies

An Anthropological Survey of the Ethnic Composition and Identity Shift among the Mountain communities: Approaches and Experiences of Preserving and Promoting the Hunza Wakhi Language in Gilgit-Baltistan Region in the Northern Pakistan

June 11, 2018

By Fazal Amin Beg

Based on my fieldwork learning, experiences and observations, this paper aims to explore from an anthropologically holistic perstpective the Wakhi language within the framework of ethnic composition of the Wakhi language of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral in the northern Pakistan and across the border in the Peoples Republic of China, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Various clan groups transforming their previous language identities shifted to Wakhi language have been identified.
Taking the Hunza Wakhi community as a case, the approaches and experiences from the historical context to contemporary in an evolutionary way are discussed and analyzed. At the end, some practical recommendations have also been given to bring further improvements for the preservation, documentation and promotion of Wakhi as well as other languages of Gilgit-Baltistan, Chitral and across the borders.

Note: Some aspects of this long paper (comprised on over 30 pages) I’ve shared in a regional conference on languages organized by Karakoram International University, Gilgit-Baltistan Region in November 2014; and also in a Wakhi International Symposium organized by Tokyo University, Japan in collaboration with Global Mountain Forum in August 2015 at Passu, Hunza, Northern Pakistan. Retaining the main body of the paper, herein on this website of mine, I’m going to share some parts of the developed paper including the abstract, introduction, conclusions and recommendations.

Human is sharply distinctive and refined among other animal kingdom mainly because of his or her intellectual and lingual makeup. Otherwise, at least, the fundamental behaviors and characteristics animal kingdoms possess, humankind share most or all with them. Let’s suppose, if human continues strongest or highest level of intellectual power but barred of strong or high level of lingual power, he or she would have been or equal or lesser status or status among other animals. The Nature has thus bestowed upon human both these highest levels of power and he/she thus dominates and rules the word around him or her among all creatures.
According to UNESCO, there are more or less than seven thousand languages spoken by the humans around the world ( ). All cultural communities of humans thus are connected and united directly within their respective language communities that provide them a very flexible way to communicate and express their ideas, feelings, worldviews, experiences, holistic knowledge (secular, religious, spiritual, historical, traditional, contemporary, environmental, astronomical, astrological, literary and the like) on the one hand; and a sense of pride, identity and unity on the other.
The extensive and hugely populace Asia is very rich and fertile in nurturing and promoting majority of languages. We could evidence at least dozens of them being spoken in the mountain regions of Central and South Asia like Karakoram, Himalayas, Hindu Kush, Pamirs, Kun Lun and the like. Interestingly, what we could observe in the present context that at least one native language is spoken in every valley of the region by their respective language community. This especially holds true for Gilgit-Baltistan and and Chitral in the northern Pakistan, and Badakhshan region in the north-eastern Afghanistan and southern Tajikistan where over 30 language communities live and have been speaking them for millennia in different valleys.
The Wakhi, being a branch of Pamiri languages family within the Indo-Iranian of Aryan languages family, is one of the archaic but also unique in a sense that it bridges in one way or the other the languages of central and South Asia in terms of its phonetic similarities as well as grammatical makeup, despite the fact that the language speakers have remained at present in lesser than 100,000 individuals having their original dwelling in the four contiguous nation states including northern Pakistan, north-eastern Afghanistan, southern Tajikistan and south-western china.
In the age of globalization today, entailing intensified human interactions and development, though it has its positive effects like blessings on human development in many ways, it has also hampered its negative effects like curse over the the intangible cultural aspects and heritages like languages spoken by small human populations around the globe. In this connection, the Wakhi language cannot be exceptional to spare itself from the face and negative encounter of globalization where languages of small population have been going towards endangerment and/or extinction . one of the worst examples we can find in the context of gilgit-Baltistan is highly important (and serious lesson could be learnt) is Dumaaki language where the speakers are reported to be in lesser than 200 individualss. Such phenomena are really alarming not only for the Dumaaki community but rather for all other language speakers of minority population like Wakhi, Burushaski, Shina, Khowar, Balti and others.
In such circumstances, careful steps and strategies need to be taken by the stakeholders of a related language are imperative to avoid the high risks of its endangerment and extinction. What we could observe, at least, from the Hunza Wakhi experiences and practices of more than two and a half decades that unless the language community members, especially the intellectuals and sensible socio-political leaders do not step forward themselves and/or they are not practically involved and seriously sensitized about the importance and functionality of their respective languages in the societal fabrics, exotic attempts remain not much fruitful and practical. Languages research and documentation is therefore highly invaluable to preserve, revitalize and prmote them within the local and global (glocal) contexts.

Exploring the development pertaining to the Wakhi language and culture is very broad in its context as their dwelling falls in more than four adjoining nation states within Central and south Asia. Based on the author’s fieldwork among the Wakhi communities of Pakistann, Afghanistan, China and Tajikistan, this paper, from an anthropological perspective attempts to (1) find out and analyze the indigenous and exogenous terms of address and references for the Wakhi community (so that to understand who are they basically); (2) explore and analyze today’s Wakhi speakers ethnic composition based on oral narratives about their apical ancestors in relation to the lingual identity shift from their previous language(s) to Wakhi and (3) investigate the current state of Wakhi language preservation and promotion strategies in an evolutionary way focused on the Hunza Wakhi as a case study.
Local development initiatives are imperative for positive societal change and progress to go relatively at par with the communities in the regional and national context on the one hand; and across the border with global community. But it must not imply to give up one’s own positive aspects of culture like the ever functional aspects within a language. Unfortunately, without serious deliberations, language communities are seen either stubbornly resist the global or national level moves that are for the betterment of community; or they champion societal changes without appropriate assessment of the negative sides on the cultural heritage like languages.
The Wakhi language, being archaic, has been travelling for over four thousand years taking its biological routes in the human minds and placing itself in their hearts. Like the water cycle, the steams of languages (also including Wakhi) take over from the water bodies and becoming cloud, they rain and continue. We ,therefore, should truly understand the importance of language in human life.
Languages’ identity shift are evidenced in the context of Wakhi and other languages of Gilgit-Baltistan region and such phenomena might sustain in the future; but the languages must not die as they have born naturally and we must not kill them intentionally. The fate of Dumaaki language before us is alarming example. What could be argued unless the language community members themselves not do step forward and/or they are not involved practically, languages will disappear like the bubbles.
The Wakhi language community of Hunza, having its impressive and diverse ethnic makeup, has hugely invested in historical term for its preservation and promotion during the time of the former Principality and even the rulers and ruling elites have also tried to patronize it with their limited capacity. But in the period of globalization, this ancient language of eastern Iranian languages’ family, along with the languages of Gilgit-Baltistan, Chitral, Badakshan and other languages of small population in Pakistan and the world are under various influences and must not die away.
Taking into accounts the challenges and issues pertaining to the language preservation, revitalization and promotion of Wakhi language, the following recommendations from the applied side are made.
1. Organizational sustenance for language development
The Wakhi community is seen having effectively organizational strategy to address the challenges like the Wakhi Tajik Cultural Association (WTCA) and in the later phase Gojal Educational and Cultural Association (GECA) and Initiative for Promotion of Pamiri Arts and Culture (IPPAC). Although, productively contributing towards the language preservation and promotion and having landmark achievements, especially by WTCA, these organizations are observed in many ways ignoring their mandates and not following their developed bylaws. Consequently, negative effects are seen in the form of dearth of trust by the stakeholders, especially the youth. Office of these organizations therefore need to heed serious attention on these lines and have a remedy to serve their language and culture in more effective manner around their set mandates and objectives.

2. Standardization of Wakhi writing system and role of poets and artists of performing arts
Over a hundred Wakhi poets (more male and lesser number of female) from the four related adjacent states have been highly contributing towards their language’s preservation, revitalization and promotion. Most of them have their own transcription system based either on Perso-Arabic or Latino-Greek, Cyrillic and these days on Romanized letters becoming easy for them. Although, there should not be any bar on their creativities and they should continue, they however need to come up with a standardized writing system that streamlines their creativities and encourages others as well.
3. Language research and publications by the native researchers and activists
Although, the artists of performing arts and particularly the poets have been greatly and positively working on creative sides of the language, dearth of native researchers from Hunza are seen engaged with their mother tongue. The educated youth are encouraged to also contribute in academic context on their language .
4. Knowledge sharing approach in Wakhi
Although, very few native researchers are engaged with language research on Wakhi, extreme dearth of sharing their knowledge together are observed. Whatsoever reasons there may be, it is pertinent to share their intellectual knowledge together in order to refine their knowledge and get them prepared for publications.
5. Electronic media and capacity of the hosts and guests
The Wakhi Program on the Radio Pakistan Gilgit has its significant role in encouraging the Wakhi speakers towards their language preservation and promotion in addition with facilitating them in and broadcasting (exposing) their creativities. Serious concerns could be seen regarding their language capacity among Wakhi artists and hosts. The radio programs are not up to the mark like its initial phase. The capacity in linguistic terms of these hosts and artists are imperative to be built. Such kind of issues are also observed on the Wakhi program on FM99.
6. Computer and web based approaches of Wakhi language
The web based blogs and other strategies the Wakhi youths have fantastically taken and they are appreciable indeed. The language writing system again hampers of their creative work on the one hand; and capacity issues thus result on the other. Sooner the standardized writing system comes up, many of such challenges could be addressed.
7. Educational institutions and the native languages like Wakhi
Initiatives for mother tongue literacy in the educational institutions are imperative and especially this relatively becomes easy in the community based and private schools in the respective populated language communities as Al-Amyn Moddel School Gulmit could be seen as a model. This will pave the way for effective transfer of language knowledge to the young and coming generations. The primers development around standardized writing system would help facilitate the students learning their mother tongues.
8. Kids involvement in their mother tongue
One of the effective means to involve in practical manner in their mother tongue is to come down to their levels and produce such materials that they embrace in the activities voluntarily instead of forcing them or imposing on them. A very productive means Zio Posh of Avgarch valley has taken is dubbing the kids cartoon in Wakhi. Such kinds of innovative approaches should be encouraged and they need to be facilitated to bring their contributions in further refined manner.
9. Inter-languages collaboration
Inter-language collaboration among the researchers and contributors of the language communities in general and Gilgit-Balltistan and Chitral in particular are seen. More competitive approaches and less or no collaborative strategies are observed among these language activists despite the fact that negative side of globalization, like flood or storming rains, hamper upon all. It would therefore be very critical to join hands together for the preservation of all languages of Gilgit-Baltistan, Chitral and across the borders. A joint effort could be taken especially with regard to the fading Dumaaki language of Gilgit-Baltistan.
10. Role of Karakoram International University (KIU)
Being an effective forum of higher learning and advanced studies, the role of KIU is in very high value and it cannot be ignored. KIU needs to provide spaces for the native languages research, development and publications. KIU can develop international linkages and partnerships on native languages development and can sustain workshops, seminars, conferences and symposiums at various levels as it has invaluably taken such initiatives.
11. Role of NGOs and other organizations
The roles of non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) and other civil society organizations are also of high value. Some of them like British Councils have been already facilitating and other organizations and institutions at national and international levels (such as UNESCO and others ) are anticipated to play their due roles in facilitating the endangered languages of Gilgit-Baltistan, Chitral and across the borders. .

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