Language is what sets humanity apart: it is our unique and miraculous ability with which we express ourselves and convey our opinions, cultural roots, and identities. It is a means of communication to learn more about those around us.
The contemporary linguistic tragedy is that there are now between 6,000 and 10,000 languages on the brink of extinction, many of which have not been documented in any form. All communities have their own language varieties which represent themselves, and if these varieties die, it is as though their respective civilisations have collapsed; when a language is lost, the entire socio-historical and cultural identity belonging to its regional or social group ceases to exist. In the words of Professor David Crystal, “when a language dies which has never been recorded in some way, it is as if it has never been.”
South Asia is home to thousands of miscellaneous language varieties which need to be documented. It is said that in the Indian subcontinent, the speech patterns of villagers subtly change every four miles.
“Every two miles the water changes, every four miles the speech”
These differences from village to village are often dismissed as ostensibly meaningless, yet they are fascinating to explore as they shed light on how each variety came about, given that they are all ancestrally bonded, with centuries of evolution having differentiated them.
At times people belittle and to an extent even feel ashamed of their own vernaculars. Many South Asian dialects traditionally have no standard written form, so it is widely thought that they are inferior. Our dialects were deemed the language of the common, uneducated people, which is why literate elders switch to the lingua franca of Hindi-Urdu even though they are conversant in the vernacular. One has to bear in mind that there is not a clear definition of language and dialect; there is a fine line if one wants to distinguish which variety constitutes which. Here, the well-known adage “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy” comes to mind; it is ultimately socio-politics which grants certain languages prestige over others.
We have to recognise that our mother tongues are as linguistically beautiful, as enriching to learn and as complex as any other variety. It could be strange for us to think of undocumented languages having literary canons, partially due to the absence of a standardised script for transcribing them. Nevertheless, there is a wealth of oral literature, including renowned works of poetry by Sufi saints across South Asia, and these are heavy influenced by the local dialects. For instance, Mian Mohammed Bakhsh (rehmatullah-alaih) of Khari Sharif, Mirpur, wrote his magnum opus of Saif-ul-Mulook circa 1863, which is composed of an elegant mixture of older versions of the Mirpuri or Jhelumi dialects of Pahari-Pothohari-Punjabi further enhanced with words and phrases from Arabic and Persian. This work revives the legend of Prince Saif-ul-Mulook and his love for the fairy Badi-ul-Jamal as a spiritual allegory for divine enlightenment, and contains numerous odes, morals, and parables.
Language inevitably evolves. There is always the necessity to name new concepts, inventions and new daily practices, particularly given the modern advent of technology. We gain new terms and the lexicon is reinforced through contact with other languages, which migration and ease of travel have allowed. Although language change is essentially natural and unstoppable, the language of our elders, the archaic, older variants, are gradually being forgotten, because they are being neglected. Whilst embracing language progression, we should also preserve older forms of the language if we want the youth to understand what their elders used to say, and to gain from the words of wisdom in older literature.
My own mother tongue is one such example of a language that has not been formally documented (at least, not yet). Even naming our dialects is fraught with problems: some call our mother tongue Pothwari after the Pothohar plateau, while others know it as Pahari, the language of the pahaar (the hilly and mountainous region). Not much linguistic research has been carried out on our mother tongue apart from the commendable efforts of Lothers and Lothers, Dr Farah Nazir and Dr Sehrish Shafi. We are in the process of recording it as much as we can, by compiling its vocabulary, grammatical features (studying its morphology and syntax) collating general phrases, idioms, proverbs and even riddles.