Language death is inevitably accompanied by culture death, and the death of a culture means the loss of a unique system of knowledge and a unique way of looking at the world
By Joan L.G. Baart
Recently, Mr. Khawaja Rehman, a resident of Azad Kashmir, brought to my notice the existence of an interesting language spoken by the Qureshi tribe of Kundal Shahi, a village in the Neelam valley in Azad Kashmir. This language is distinct from any other language in the area and has until now not been recorded in the linguistic literature. Preliminary investigations suggest that the language is genetically most closely related to Shina, while it is heavily influenced by Kashmiri and Hindko, and also contains elements from some Kohistani languages that are located more towards the West (Rehman and Baart 2003).
In May 2003, Mr. Rehman interviewed eleven male members of the Qureshi tribe in Kundal Shahi. The ages of the interviewees ranged from 25 to 75 years old. All were born, raised, and are currently residing in Kundal Shahi. The interviewees were asked about the first language of their father, the first language of their mother, the language that their parents used with them, the language that currently feels easiest to them, the language that they use with the women in their house, and the language that they use with the children in their house.
All respondents report that their father’s first language is KS. Eight respondents also have a KS-speaking mother, whereas three have a Hindko-speaking mother (Hindko is the predominant language in the Neelam valley). Two of the respondents that were born in mixed families were raised in both languages: their fathers would use KS with them and their mothers Hindko. The youngest of the respondents born in mixed families was raised in Hindko only. As a matter of fact, all respondents under forty years of age report that they have been raised in Hindko only. They also report, not surprisingly, that Hindko is the easiest language for them. Almost all respondents report that they use Hindko with the children in their house. The reason they give is that children do not understand the KS language well enough. Among the respondents, only one man reports that KS is still being used as the first language with the children of his household.
What the table illustrates, then, and what is confirmed by numerous informal conversations with members of the community, is a change in the Qureshi community of Kundal Shahi that started around forty years ago and that spread very rapidly across almost the entire community, namely that parents started to exclusively use Hindko with their children at the expense of KS. This happened in families where the mother is a Hindko speaker, but also in families where both parents are KS speakers.
As a result, there are hardly any children nowadays that still speak the language.
It is not difficult to understand why the community is shifting to Hindko. The community itself is small (perhaps 1,500 to 2,000 people) and they are surrounded on all sides by the much larger Hindko language, which is also the language of wider communication for the area. The more intriguing question is why the shift started only forty years ago and not much earlier. The community has been living in the area for some 300 years, where they have always been a small linguistic minority. Most of this time, they must have been functioning in a state of stable multilingualism, using KS among themselves and languages such as Kashmiri and Hindko with outsiders.
What happened around forty years ago that suddenly prompted most of them to stop passing on their native language to their children? For the time being, this remains a topic for further inquiry.
Development and the maintenance of languages
The spread of a few dominant languages and the disappearance of many indigenous languages is a worldwide phenomenon. According to the Ethnologue, there are close to 7,000 languages currently spoken in the world. Optimists estimate that in this century, 50 percent of the world’s languages will become extinct. Other, more pessimistic estimates say that 75 to 90 percent will die during this century (for discussion of these figures, see Crystal 2000).
The Ethnologue lists around 70 languages for Pakistan. A few of these are already on the verge of extinction. Others are very much subject to the modernization-related language attrition processes that I have been describing. In Pakistan, too, it is a real possibility that the number of living languages will be significantly reduced during this century.
There are many good reasons as to why we should care about this state of affairs. One reason is that language death is inevitably accompanied by culture death, and the death of a culture means the loss of a unique system of knowledge and a unique way of looking at the world. (The converse, by the way, is not necessarily true. It is possible for a culture to die while the language continues to be used, albeit with significant changes, see Headland 2003.) A country’s linguistic and cultural diversity can be seen as an obstacle, but it can certainly also be seen as an asset.
However, there is more to it. As has been pointed out by Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine in their book on language extinction, loss of linguistic diversity should be taken very seriously because it is itself an indication of a larger problem. We begin to see this when we recognize that “a language is not a self-sustaining entity. It can only exist where there is a community to speak and transmit it. A community of people can exist only where there is a viable environment for them to live in, and a means of making a living. Where communities cannot thrive, their languages are in danger.” (Nettle and Romaine 2000:5).
Large-scale loss of languages, say Nettle and Romaine, is a symptom of economic stress experienced by local and indigenous communities around the globe. This stress often results from major changes to the natural environments in which these communities live. To the extent that it is important to preserve these environments, the disappearance of local and indigenous communities—traditionally the caretakers of these environments—constitutes bad news for humanity as a whole.
If we want sustainable economic development for humanity as a whole (and we do want sustainable development, because with our current economic activities we are eating up the resources of the earth, which is something that cannot go on forever), we will need to reverse the trend by empowering local communities, protecting their rights and giving them control over their environments at the local level to the greatest extent possible. This includes a positive validation of their systems of indigenous knowledge and their languages. As Nettle and Romaine say, “There is now widespread agreement that the problem of sustainable development is more likely to be solved if indigenous systems of knowledge and languages are valued and brought into play” (2000:166; for extensive documentation of this claim see Posey 1999).
Thus, if we deal with the problem of language loss we will be forced to deal with the other side of the coin, which is the precarious socio-economic state of many local communities. And if we deal with the latter problem in an appropriate way, we will see advances in both sustainable development and preservation of linguistic and cultural diversity.
This is not to say that in the tension between tradition and modernization, tradition should be chosen at the expense of modernization. Nettle and Romaine actually argue that empowerment of local communities will often lead to win-win situations, where the communities are able to benefit from modernization while at the same time retaining important elements of their traditions. As far as language is concerned, this means that the communities will maintain a healthy type of multilingualism, in which the mother tongue continues to be used while at the same time the people can speak one or more regional, national and international languages.
A colleague of mine who works in Cameroon, Africa, sent me an interesting comment. A leader of the Bafut people, an indigenous community of Cameroon, said:
“The best situation is to get what is beneficial from the outside but also keep what you have. People who throw out their culture are being foolish—they are getting rid of what makes them who they are, in order to have what they will never have. When we just take what is from outside assuming that it must be better, it leaves us worse off. New knowledge should reinforce and build upon traditional knowledge, not replace it. New knowledge does not always have to conflict with traditional knowledge.”
For the situation in Cameroon, my colleague observes that the most hopeful situations are those where the people have found a way to successfully steer their way between tradition and modernization (Barbara Trudell, personal communication).
Conclusion In this paper, I have touched upon a vast subject: the loss of linguistic diversity, the deplorability of this loss, and the connections between language loss and the need for sustainable development. We have seen that good development is concerned with empowerment of local communities, and efforts towards this purpose should build on the local cultures and languages and the knowledge encoded in them, rather than replace them. A more thorough public discussion of this subject as it applies to the situation in Pakistan is called for. In the same vein I would call for local and regional socio-economic development projects—whether government-sponsored or sponsored by NGO’s—to give increased attention to the native languages and dialects of the local communities that participate in these projects. To what extent is project staff aware of the languages and dialects of the area? To what extent does project staff value these languages? Are the local languages and the knowledge embedded in them put to use in the project? Does the project invest resources in the development of these languages? Does the project advocate the cause of these languages with the government at the various levels?
These are some of the questions that need to be asked.
Finally, I would call for the provision of formal linguistic training in Pakistan. Over the years, there have been linguistic studies of languages of Pakistan, but to this date there remain many languages for which no dictionaries, grammars, text collections, etc., are in existence. Documentation of these languages and of the oral traditions embedded in them is an urgent need and one that can best be addressed by national scholars and/or interested native speakers of the respective languages. In many language communities, there are individuals that are interested in documenting their own mother tongues, but due to a lack of training and lack of facilities these attempts are often not as fruitful as they could be. At the moment, Pakistan does not have a university department or institute of higher education dedicated to linguistics, where students could gain the linguistic know-how required for analyzing languages, putting them into writing, and documenting them in the form of dictionaries and grammars (see Rahman 1997 for an account of the state of linguistics in Pakistan; an update of this account is underway). I see the creation of such a department as an urgent need.
About the Author
German Scholar Joan Baart did Ph.D., Linguistics, from Leiden University, 1987 and M.A., Linguistics, Leiden University, 1982. He was a Senior Linguistics Consultant of SIL International and Language Development Team Leader for SIL Eurasia. SIL International is a global, faith-based nonprofit that works with local communities around the world to develop language solutions that expand possibilities for a better life.
The research paper was read at Conference on The State of the Social Sciences and Humanities: Current Scenario and Emerging Trends held in Islamabad on September 26-27, 2003
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