By Ejaz Ahmed
Dear world! get ready for performing the last rituals of another indigenous language, spoken in far northern district of Chitral. This Pamiri language, Yidgha, will go into extinction probably in 10 years as the native children and adults are no longer using this as their mother tongue. The official burial will take place when the elders who speak this with their fellow elders will leave the world with their language in not more than a decade. This will be the second casualty of a language of Pakistan in a short time after Badeshi in Swat, a district situated in close proximity of Chitral. There are, according to Muhammad Zaman Sagar, a language researcher working with FLI, the only organization in private sector in Pakistan to care for minority languages, merely two elders alive who can speak Badeshi.
Belonging to the Indo-European, Indo-Iranian group of languages, the Yidgha is said to have arrived in Chitral some 500 years ago travelling with the companions of Pir Shah Nasir Khisro, a Persian saint who preached Ismaili sect of Islam in the valley in the 15th century. This language is called Munji on Afghan side where it is spoken in Munjan valley. The companions of Pir hailed from this area who never returned to their place with their preacher and lived in this region for the rest of their lives.
Declared severely endangered quite a few years ago by UNESCO the Yidgha is spoken in Lotkuh valley, some 50 kilometers from Chitral town to the west. The valley is connected to Zibak, Afghanistan through Durrah Pass, the infamous bypass which remained as one of the busiest routes the Afghan refugees used to flee to Pakistan during Soviet invasion. The influx of Afghan refugees also affected the language causing more people to enter the valley and the Yidgha speakers were surrounded by the people who mostly spoke the Khowar language. The Khowar language is spoken dominantly in Chitral district and also exists in surrounding regions i.e. Gilgit-Baltistan and Swat. Along with the Khowar, there are more than a dozen other minor languages being spoken in various parts of Chitral with Yidgha among them.
How does a language die? The question was explained during a Language Vitality Survey, conducted by the Forum for Language Initiatives (www.fli-online.org), to assess where Yidgha was standing on Identity, Orality and Literacy scales. It was found that the language was losing its domains very fast to the Khowar because of the lack of the ownership the community especially the young people looked to be proud of being other than the Yidgha speaker. They shy away from disclosing their Yidgha identity and always tend to posture as Khowar people. This is the second language in Chitral to lose its domain to Khowar after Kalasha, the language of much-hyped Kalash community on the grounds of inferiority. The Kalash community people abandon its language when they convert to Islam and have at present reduced to merely 2800 speakers.
However, the Yidgha people differ with each other when asked how many people were using their mother tongue at home, streets and markets. The seven participants of the survey, among them two were women were not confident to find about 2000 parents out of 50,000 population of the entire valley who could be transferring their heritage language to their new generations. Some 20 years back, the Yidgha was the language of the majority in the valley. One of the women participants whose parents were purely Yidgha speaker shocked the enumerators by saying that she understood her language but was not fluent enough to use it.
Why Yidgha people are not transferring their language to their children? Mr. Haseeb, a senior Govt. School Teacher who helped conduct the Survey Training for his language, said: “We used to be highly discouraged to speak our language even in the government schools, let alone other departments. We were subjected to derision, bully and ridicule when spotted to communicating with each other in our heritage language, astoundingly not by the fellow students but our Khowar speaker teachers,” he recalled his school days. Mr. Haseeb said the Yidgha language was never accepted by the dominant community of Khowar speakers tagging its use a matter of shame and inferiority. “I try to use my language to communicate with my kids but they are not interested to learn it” he added.
Haji Mohammad, a 29-year-old respondent, working as a government schoolteacher recalled his schooling days when he used to get embarrassed for not having fluency in the spoken Khowar. “All the kids who could speak Khowar would share funny jokes but we, the Yidgha boys, would end up speaking our language in order to amuse the class.”
Mr. Sarfaraz Ali, a 62-year-old Yidgha speaker who now works with an NGO, said the major culprit for the demotion of Yidgha was the intercultural marriages. He said that kids born to such couples always preferred major languages.
Can this catastrophe be averted from this stage? The chief executive officer of FLI, Mr. Fakhruddin was, though not fervent about but not hopeless at the same time. “If you are asking about possibilities then nothing is impossible, we have the precedence of the revival of dead languages in the world. Look at the Hebrew, so why not, but if the government wanted so”. We have developed orthography for Yidgha and the language was very likely to be revitalized if steps taken on war footings, he added.
Ironically, the question is still there. The irony is not that the Yidgha language is losing its ground and only emergency actions can save it but the irony is that no action will be taken at all. There have been formed the governments in the province and centre by the people who don’t care for the regional languages. The resolution, passed in 2012 by KP Assembly, asking the government to establish a language development authority for the promotion of regional languages, could not be implemented. The previous PTI government in the province did not take it up and there is seldom hope that the same will be taken up by the new government.