Languages of Northern Pakistan

Scholarly Endeavour

By Nadya Chishty-Mujahid | August 2022

Experienced linguist Carla Radloff, although American in terms of background, spent a considerable portion of her life working academically on the Shina language of Gilgit, thereby doing a service to academia related to Pakistan Studies. Tragically, she was killed in an automobile accident at the age of sixty-two, and therefore in order to honour her, several of her colleagues have contributed essays towards the creation of this volume dedicated to her memory. The book is a remarkably dense compendium of scholarly work, and I am not being facetious when I note that in spite of extensive linguistic glossaries provided at the end of several of the essays (one author has gone as far as to usefully alphabetize the glossary used) unless one is a trained linguist oneself one requires a glossary to actually understand the general content of this text itself.

Nevertheless, the subject material is fascinating, especially from the perspective of Pakistan Studies in general as I noted, and the study of the north of the country in particular. Some of the scholars, such as Elena Bashir from the University of Chicago are experts in Shina themselves (indeed, Bashir knew Radloff personally too), and I was also particularly impressed by the contribution of Almuth Degener (of the University of Mainz) on Shina poems of mourning. The northern areas, especially Gilgit, are sparsely populated (one of the essays mentions, for example, that the Kalasha language is now only used by about 5000 people) but percentage-wise there are more Shias in the north than in most other parts of Pakistan. Therefore, it was intriguing to perceive Degener’s take on linguistic aspects of nawha (poems of lament, thematically related to the Karbala tragedy).

In order to give a sense of how much necessary technical jargon one has to swim through in order to appreciate this book, I will give a single significant example: that of a reference to, and focus on, ‘ergativity.’ I specifically choose this example because Radloff herself and one of the editors of this volume, Henrik Liljegren (of Stockholm University) worked on an essay on this concept (which is contained in this volume). The ergative is a special linguistictense used, which the authors examine in detail insofar as it pertains to Shina. For those of us like myself who used to groan through more ‘regular’ tenses studied while in school, Radloff and Liljegren’s endeavours are remarkable to the point of being slightly frightening! However, the book gradually draws one into itself, and I was especially relieved that I possess the requisite knowledge of Urdu at least to be able to get a finer and more nuanced sense of some of the contributions. So specialized though are the text’s contents that by the time I got to Beaconhouse National University professor Tariq Rahman’s essay on Urdu linguistics, I heaved an audible sigh of relief at encountering more familiar ‘territory’ than Shina, Kalasha, dialects of the Gujjar community, and other obscure languages of the North Waziristan and Afghanistan areas.

Certain motifs, however, are universal and timeless. For instance, John Mock’s essay on Wakhi oral expression concentrates on ‘bulbulik’ poetry (‘bulbul’ being the word for ‘nightingale’) and the essay does a fine job of translating a charming indigenous example of this into English. Regardless of whether one is Wakhi-speaking or John Keats, the nightingale’s song has the universal ability to move people who are literally worlds and centuries apart. Speaking of worlds, it was refreshing to peruse a compendium where so many scholars scattered across the globe have come together. However, I was surprised not to find any contributors from the United Kingdom in this volume, especially since one would think that the idea of such a text would appeal to people based there, especially at SOAS (the famous School of Oriental and African Studies). Nevertheless, the three editors deserve praise for this scholarly endeavour which is both decent and dignified, as well as undeniably erudite.