Mar 2, 2010

Vanishing Voices

Taking stock of the tripartite challenges to the survival of indigenous languages of Gilgit-Baltistan posed by

globalisation, communication and modernity

By Aziz Ali Dad

"There is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism." Walter Benjamin

Because of the compression of time and space under the influence of technology the contemporary age is known as "Global Village". This is the first time in the history of mankind that local, national, regional and international events influence one another in various ways. Gilgit-Baltistan is also not immune to globalisation. My main focus here would be to take stock of the tripartite challenges posed by globalisation, communication and modernity for the survival of indigenous languages of Gilgit-Baltistan. Examining the current situation of indigenous languages in the region vis-à-vis exogenous forces, which include, market forces and their repercussions on local vernaculars.

Till now the region of Gilgit-Baltistan remained incommunicado with the outside world. There are many disadvantages of remaining in isolation. But the situation of isolation was not without benefits. Owing to the inaccessibility of Gilgit-Baltistan, the locals had to rely on their own resources to cope with the challenges emanating from nature and management of the society. The traditional system of governance in the region is one of the examples of indigenously developed governance mechanisms. But the finest illustration of creativity of the closed society is the development of various languages within the boundaries of Gilgit-Baltistan. Balti, Brushaski, Shina, Khowar, Wakhi, Domaki and other languages are pieces of creativity on the cultural tapestry of Gilgit-Baltistan.

The isolated status of Gilgit-Baltistan started to wane with the advent of the British Empire. The British arrived here with governance structure and rational institutions, which were a product of modernity. These developments played instrumental role in opening of hitherto isolated societies to the forces of modernity and communication.

After the British, the region got connected with the southern parts of Pakistan a through jeep able road in 1950s. During the 1970s the region witnessed opening of the Karakoram Highway. It connected Gilgit-Baltistan China and facilitated easy flow of exogenous goods, people, lifestyle and trends into the region. Although, the KKH and modern means of communication benefited it was not without cost. One of the costs of modernisation is increasing threat to the survival of vernaculars.

Since the society, economy, lifestyle and governance of Gilgit-Baltistan have undergone drastic changes in last four decades, it is natural to have repercussions of these changes on language. Previously, the local languages were organically interfused with local power structure, culture and society.

The autochthonous languages have become marginalised in different spheres of life. With urbanisation of various places in Gilgit-Baltistan and migration of native people have made the vocabulary associated with hunting, agriculture, shamanism, local arts and crafts irrelevant. Hence, various life worlds connected with these areas disappeared.

Introduction of mass literacy and service sector through rationalization of society and economy proved conducive in bringing about change in the socio-economic lot of the society. Nevertheless, local languages are disconnected with the power structure that determines the contours of society, economy, and education sector, administrative and political structure. As a result, people have opted for Urdu and English languages, which open new opportunities and bring power and prestige. Native languages are not part of the medium of instruction in educational institutions and government offices. The disconnection between power and language has far reaching consequences. This factor will determine, to great extent, the fate of local languages in the future.

Other than exogenous factors, local socio-cultural ethos and pressures have contributed to the extinction of local languages. The case of Domaki language is a case in point. This is a language spoken by artisan class of Hunza. In the traditional social and tribal set up Domaki speakers were marginalized group and fall in the lowest stratum in social hierarchy of Gilgit. Hence, power structure and social ethos also treated them as anathema. In reality they were repository and creators of arts, indigenous engineering, crafts and music. In this sense they were guardians of indigenous knowledge.

Mass education has opened new vistas of progress and social mobility to subaltern groups like Doms — people who speak Domaki language and musicians. Ashamed of their heritage and knowledge they were forced to relinquish their centuries old heritage and professions and opt for modern occupations.

True empowerment is that which enables one to progress without losing one’s right to being linguistically and professional dissimilar or having different identity. These are the people who did not find a modus vivendi in either tradition or modern structures. The former kept their role and identity fixed by denying opportunities available to other members of the society, whereas the latter, in a Faustian bargain, has offered them opportunities by depriving them of their very identity. It encapsulates the failure of the society that failed to strike a balance between tradition and modernity.

The story of the moribund Domaki language is a snippet of the bigger picture regarding the vanishing voices in Gilgit-Baltistan. To counter existential threats to local language it is indispensable to engage critically with modernity and chalk out policies and strategies that enable local languages to survive. In this context we have to take into consideration the devastating impact of the modernity on local languages and raise questions about some of the assumptions implicit in the discourse of modernization.

To preserve local language in the times of rampant globalisation three important steps need to be taken. First is the study and preservation of language by the means of the science of linguistics. All the languages of Gilgit-Baltistan are oral. With the rise of printing press, written word has dominated spoken word and transformed oral cultures into written one. By learning and utilizing the modern science of languages we can equip native speakers with required knowledge and tools to survive in the age of language cannibalism. Oral culture is a product of memorization or learning by heart. Linguistic is a product of mind. To preserve local languages it is imperative to acquaint oneself with the science of language by engaging our minds.

Second, modern electronic media has provided us tremendous opportunities to save native languages. A salient feature of media is that it fuses word and image. Thus, it enables us to see things and hear words synchronically, which is not possible in print media. The cumulative result of this process is permeation of local languages into society and native speaker who ears are avoid their languages.

Third, there is a dire need to explore the society and literature by employing modern technique of humanities and social sciences through a proper research institution. Only by aligning efforts of language preservation on scientific lines and employing the tricks of the trade of modern cultural industry, we can be able to save local languages from falling them into the dustbin of history. The pronouncement of ‘The End of History’ by liberal ideologues is not just declaration of the demise of alternative ideologies or worlds, it is also a veiled pronouncement of the impending death of small cultures, local languages and life worlds under the pressures of monolithic globalization across the world.

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