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Resuscitating Endangered Languages - Part I


HAVING COME ACROSS a very interesting, highly inspiring and admirable summation from Ghulamuddin,  encompassing the subject matter, which appeared on 21st February, i.e on the occasion of ‘International Day for Protection of Mother Languages, this scribe couldn’t help dilate upon and re-emphasize the centrality of the issue insofar as Gilgit-Baltistan is concerned.
It is to be seen that there are six languages and dialects spoken across Gilgit-Baltistan which are all, on the wane and as such, are threatened of going extinct. Prima facie, getting to the top of them is ‘Domaki’ which. indeed, gets singled out as the most threatened for its being on the verge of fading out.
As getting unfolded from the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 7097 languages are spoken around the globe out of which, almost half are feared to go wholly extinct towards the close of the present century. The chief reason for this dilemma is ascribed to the deprivation of 40 per cent people on the planet deprived of the facility of getting education in their respective mother language or else their preference to speak in languages other than their own. According to 16 goals set by UNESCO for 2030, the objective of resuscitation of the endangered languages cannot be made achievable until mother languages spoken in the country are included in the syllabus.
Language, to Joshua A. Fisherman, Yashiva University, Noew York, ‘ is the most human of all human abilities. It may be the defining characteristic of Homo sapiens. Wherever humans exist, language exists. Although no one knows the precise number of languages in the world today, there are at least 3000 and as many as 8000 according to different estimates and depending on one’s definition of ‘language’ and ‘dialect’. Considering that the world is populated by billions of people, the number is actually rather small. Research shows that although gestures instead of sounds are utilized, and the visual perceptual system instead of the auditory system for comprehension, their systems of units, structures and rules are governed by the same underlying principles as are spoken languages.
All human languages are equally complex and equally capable of expression. There are no so-called primitive languages. If one can say something in one language, the same thought can be expressed in another although the form of expression may differ. The vocabulary, that is, the inventory of sound (or gesture)/meaning units of every language, can be expanded to include new words or concepts through borrowing words from another language, through combining words to form compounds such as bittersweet or pickpocket, through blending words together, such as smog from smoke and fog, through neologisms or the coining of new words, a common practice of manufacturers of new products, by the use of acronyms – words derived from the initial of several words such as radar from RADIO Detecting  And Ranging.’
Language and Culture
There are three major ways in which language is related to culture: (1) Language itself is a part of culture; (2) every languages provides an index of the culture with which it is most intimately associated; (3) every languages becomes symbolic of the culture with which it is intimately associated.
Language as a part of Culture
Most human behaviours are language imbedded, thus language is an inevitable part of culture. Ceremonies, rituals, songs, stories, curses, prayers and laws (not to mention conventions, requests and instructions) are all speech acts or speech events. But such complex cultural arenas as socialization, education, barter and negotiation are also entirely awash in language. Language is, therefore, not only part of culture but a major and crucial part. All those who seek fully to enter into and understand a given culture must, accordingly, master its language, for only through that language can they possibly participate in and experience the culture. On the other hand, language shift, or loss of a culture’s  intimately associated language, is indicative of extensive culture change, at the very least, and possibly, of cultural dislocation and destruction, although a sense of cultural identity may, nevertheless, persist, as a conscious or unconscious attitudinal level.
(2) Languages as an Index of Culture
The role of language as an index of culture is a byproduct (at a more abstract level) of its rol as  part of culture. Languages reveal the ways of thinking or of organizing experience that are common the associated culture. Of course, languages provide lexical terms for the bulk of the artifacts, concerns, values, and behaviours recognized by their associated cultures. But, above and beyond such obvious indexing, languages also reveal the native clusters or typologies into which the above referents are commonly categorized or grouped. Colours, illnesses, kinship relationships, foods, plants body parts and animal species are all culture-bound typologies and their culturally recognized systematic qualities are revealed by their associated culture-bound languages. This is not say that speakers of particular languages are inescapably forced to recognize only the categories encoded in their mother tongues. Such restrictions can be counteracted , at least in part, via cross cultural and cross-linguistic experience, including exposure to mathematical and scientific languages which provide different categories from those encountered in ethno-cultures and their associated mother tongues.
(3) Languages as Symbolic of Culture
Since language is the most elaborate symbol system of humankind, it is no wonder that particular languages become symbolic of the particular ethno-cultures in which they are embedded and which they index. This not only a case of a part standing for the whole (as when Yiddish stereotypically ‘stands for’ or evokes Eastern Europe derived ultra-Orthodox Jewish culture when we hear it spoken or even mentioned), but also a case of the part becoming a rallying symbol for (or against) the whole and, in some cases, becoming a cause (0r a target) in and of itself. Language movements and language conflicts utilize languages as symbols to mobilize populations to defend (or attack) and to foster (reject) the cultures associated with them.’
It is to be recalled that UNESCO declared February 21, 1999 as Int’l Mother Languages Day for the first time which was then followed by programmes aimed at resuscitating the endangered languages around the world. Undeniably, simply devoting this day for the conservation and complete revival of these languages. As is to be seen, 20 years after the declaration of February 21, as Int’l Mother Day Language, many a nation can still be seen not having included mother languages in the syllabus as a result of which there danger of extinction persists with the imminence of the danger that 80 percent of the languages will become past history. According to statistics, there are 74 regional languages spoken across Pakistan and in a fast changing milieu and in keeping with the amorphous dictates of the times, many people tend to forsake their own language and instead go for Urdu or English for expression. This is the very trend which is becoming instrumental in extinction of the mother languages. It is said generally that every languages witnesses transformation after every ten stages. The change in terms of accent, words and even meaning of terms and terminologies can generally be witnessed. For instance, Shina the langua franca of Gilgit-Baltistan, experiences this with these phenomena being observed even in close contiguity i.e from valley to valley. Similarly, Brushaski spoken in Hunza, Nagar and Yasin does the same. Balti too, spoken in Kargil, Ladakh in Indian occupied Kashmir and Baltistan brings it to the fore.

Read part 2


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