Burushaski, the language that survived
Spoken by a small minority in Kashmir and in Gilgit-Baltistan, Burushaski is a rare and fascinating isolated language
Consider this: Out of a population of around 12.5 million in Jammu and Kashmir, there are just 350 Burushaski speakers. But the language is spoken by around 100,000 people in the Hunza, Nagar, and Yasin valleys of Gilgit-Baltistan, claimed by Pakistan as its fifth province. In Kashmir, the speakers of Burushaski are said to be the descendants of a tribal king from northern Pakistan, and are mostly concentrated in a locality at the foothills of Hari Parbat, Srinagar.
Sadaf Munshi, associate professor at the University of North Texas (UNT), has a Ph.D. in linguistics. Her research focuses on Indo-Aryan languages (Hindi, Urdu, Kashmiri, Romani or “Gypsy” language) and Burushaski, considered to be a language isolate.
Munshi started her documentation work on Burushaski in Srinagar in 2003. Many of the recordings were done during curfews in the strife-torn Kashmir Valley. She says she initially faced resistance from some young men from the community, who were suspicious of her research to “decode” the language. The issue was resolved after the intervention of the older generation.
Munshi admits that language documentation can be intrusive, involving audio and video recordings of conversations as well as other areas of speech. “One day I was trying to record a wedding, as part of my research to analyse natural discourse and songs. Despite having permission from the head of the family, one woman objected. I had stayed with the family for several days to get to the occasion, but had to give up because the family members started fighting over the issue.”
She’s recently written a book, Srinagar Burushaski (Brill), which offers a structural description of Burushaski spoken in Srinagar. In an email interview, Munshi talks about her research and the future of the language. Edited excerpts.
How did you come to know of the fact that there were Burushos in Srinagar?
This was really a chance discovery when I was visiting Shiraz (Iran) soon after my wedding in the summer of 2002. I met somebody from Srinagar over a dinner and I asked him about his first language. I also knew that his community was broadly referred to as “Bota Rajas” (Tibetans and Ladakhis are referred to as bota locally) by the majority Kashmiri-speaking community, but I suspected they were not of Tibetan origin. Our friend did not know the name of his language and (erroneously) called it “Gilgiti”. I started enquiring about the language from some contacts in Srinagar and collected a word list. This is how I discovered that it was Burushaski, a language isolate which is primarily spoken in the Hunza, Nagar and Yasin valleys in Pakistan.
How many Burushaski speakers are there in Kashmir? Is it a documented language in the state?
Burushaski speakers in Kashmir constitute a minuscule minority speech community of about 350 people. Most of them live in a small hamlet, often called “inside Kathi Darwaza”, located at the foothills of Hari Parbat Fort. As far as I know, the language had remained undocumented at least until my first publication on it in 2006.
How did the language travel there?
Most members of the Burushaski-speaking community in Srinagar are the descendants of Raja Azur Khan, the crown prince of the then Gilgit Agency in the late 19th century. The forefathers of the community, who include Raja Azur Khan, were arrested in 1891-92 by a combined force of British and Kashmiri troops under the Dogra rule. Azur Khan, along with his entourage, was dispatched to Srinagar and kept under arrest in the Hari Parbat Fort. Present-day Srinagar Burushos include a few members who were originally from Hunza and migrated at a later stage (mostly owing to new marital relationships).
Is the Srinagar Burushaski different from what is spoken in Gilgit-Baltistan?
There are distinct differences in terms of vocabulary, morphology, syntax and pronunciation between the different regional varieties. While the Srinagar variety is originally a sub-dialect of the Nagar variety, it also shares features with the Hunza dialect. The Yasin variety is geographically separated from the other dialects by many miles of rugged mountainous terrain and is the most distinct variety of all. The different dialects are mutually intelligible to varying degrees. Because it has been in isolation from the mainstream Burushaski community for over 125 years, Srinagar Burushaski has developed divergent linguistic features.
Can Burushaski be considered a linguistic isolate? Some researchers say it is of Indo-European origin?
Many studies have attempted to explain the linguistic origins of Burashaski, comparing it with different languages, but a fully convincing relationship has so far not been established. According to John Bengtson, Burushaski would belong to a “Macro-Caucasian” (or “Sino-Caucasian”) phylum of languages under the proposed “Dene-Caucasian” macrophylum—a transcontinental branch, consisting of Basque, the languages spoken in Dagestan (bordering Georgia and Azerbaijan), the northwest Caucasian languages, and Burushaski itself. Sergei Starostin proposed a macrophylum linking Sino-Tibetan, Yeniseian (linked to the region around the Yenisei river in central Siberia) and Caucasian languages. Ilija Čašule has attempted to establish links between Indo-European languages, more specifically its Paleo-Balkanic branch and Burushaski. Few of these studies provide any conclusive evidence for a genetic relationship between Burushaski and an existing language.
How many people speak the language in Gilgit-Baltistan?
There are no official figures available. Based on the government census figures of 1981, Peter Backstrom had estimated the number of Burushaski speakers in Pakistan then to be 55,000-60,000. The 2017 edition of the reference publication The Ethnologue reports about 96,800 Burushaski speakers in Pakistan in 2004. Based on personal communication with the native speakers of different dialects of Burushaski, I believe the total number of speakers is around 100,000 or more. A few thousand have migrated to cities such as Gilgit, Islamabad and Karachi. A handful have also moved abroad.
Is the younger generation shifting to Urdu/Kashmiri?
Yes, there is an increasing fear of language shift. Most speakers are multilingual in (varying degrees of) Kashmiri, Urdu and English. Burushaski is heavily influenced by Urdu and other dominant languages such as Kashmiri (in Srinagar), and Shina and Khowar (in Pakistan). Although the community has more or less succeeded in maintaining its native language and passing it on to the younger generations, there is an increasing pressure to shift to more dominant and prestigious languages, especially Urdu.
Are there any efforts to preserve the language?
Many local scholars in Pakistan have been engaged in such efforts from time to time. There are grammatical descriptions and text collections based on different dialects which have been published by various authors. I myself have done documentation and preservation project on all four dialects of Burushaski with the help of funding from the US National Science Foundation.
The language does not have a written literary tradition. What alphabet is used?
Despite a number of proposals, there is no consensus on a standardized writing system for the language as of now. Speakers use modified Perso-Arabic as well as Roman alphabet, but there is no single way of writing certain sounds (vowels and consonants) absent in Urdu/English.
You have conducted field trips in Kashmir and trained several Burushos in methods of language documentation...
I have worked with native speakers on Burushaski from all the dialects. Srinagar Burushos being a minuscule community, it has been a great challenge. Yet, a number of my language consultants were successfully able to record materials, and transcribe and analyse data for the project.
What are the types of oral traditions collected by researchers?
A number of text collections have been published by various authors, mostly translated into German and French. The outcomes of my own documentation efforts include a large searchable digital corpus, Burushaski Language Resource, housed at the Digital Collections Library of UNT. The corpus contains linguistic materials in various genres, such as popular stories, personal narratives, natural conversations, songs, etc. These are preserved and available in different formats—audio and video recordings and texts (on Burushaskilanguage.com).
Any interesting anecdotes during your work with Burushos?
There have been adventurous, happy as well as painful occasions. I could talk about the story of my ordeal to get a Pakistani visa over three years, and once in Pakistan in 2010, getting stuck at the Islamabad airport because my flight to Gilgit got cancelled. I eventually ended up hitch-hiking and taking a road trip to Gilgit, and I was five months pregnant at the time. Once in Gilgit, I had to deal with the intelligence agencies interfering with my movement in the region. An officer asked me to pay a bribe so he could give me “permission to work without further interference”. It turned out that he was the son of a contact I was supposed to meet the following day. The embarrassed officer ended up presenting me with three volumes of a translation of the Quran in Burushaski.
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