Challenges to the linguistic diversity of North Pakistan

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Zubair Torwali*

* The author is a senior research fellow with CRSS and the Executive Director of Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) Bahrain Swat, KP, Pakistan.

Indigenous communities living in the mountainous terrain and valleys in northern Pakistan speak over 24 indigenous languages. Some of these languages are Khowar, Shina, Indus Kohistani, Torwali, Gawri, Palula, Kalasha, Dameli, Gawar-bati, Bateri, Chiloso, Dumaki, Brushaski, Ushojo, Balti, Wakhi, Yidgh, etc.; they are the known indigenous languages spoken in northern Pakistan.

All of these languages are ‘endangered’ according to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s languages in danger. These languages are endangered because of a number of challenges/threats the languages and their speakers face. Crucial among these challenges/threats are lack of political organization, marred identities, no written tradition, and marginalization, globalization, the rule of dominant languages over these languages, rough terrain, poverty and so forth.

The aforementioned cultural, political, linguistic and ecological milieu adds to the ‘language and cultural loss’ among these communities.  Notwithstanding the toughest challenges, there are some good initiatives carried out in these communities that are focused on reversing the language and cultural loss by documenting the languages and cultures in question, transmitting the languages and cultures to the coming generation; and by trying to make the languages relevant in pedagogical setting.

This paper studies the challenges these communities face. It briefly mentions the work carried out for the documentation, preservation and promotion of these languages by individuals and community-based organizations.


The areas where these languages are spoken comprise of the mountainous northern parts of the northwestern frontier province named Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan.In Chitral only twelve languages (Decker, 2004) are spoken. These are Khowar, Kalasha, Dameli, Palula (Phalura), Gawar-bati, Yidgha, Shekhani, Eastern Kativiri, Madaglashti Persian, Gujari, Wakhi and Pashto. Khowar is the dominant language in Chitral. In the Swat valley the indigenous languages are Torwali, Gawri, Ushojo and Gujari. Pashto is the dominant language in Swat. Torwali and Gawri are said to be the ancient indigenous languages (Torwali, 2015) of Swat which are traced back to the pre-Muslim era in the valley. In Indus Kohistan there are five indigenous languages spoken in addition to Gujari and Pashto. These languages are Kohistani, Shina, Chilliso, Gowro and Bateri (Hallberg, 2002). In Indus Kohistan the major languagesare Shina and Kohistani. In upper Dir district Gawri is spoken along with the moribund language Kalkoti. In Northern Areas – present day Gilgit-Baltistan – Shina, Brushaski, Balti, Khowar and Domaki are spoken. The major languages here are Shina, Balti and Brushaski  (Backstrom & Radloff, 2002).  All these languages, excluding Wakhi, Yidgha, Balti and Brushaski, are Indo-Aryan languages. They have been classified as Dardic by a number of writers, notably by G.W Leitner  (Leitner, 1880, 1866, 1886 and 1893). The number of people speaking each of these languages is never correct because in Pakistan these communities do not have a separate counting column in the census. Their populations vary from a few thousands to  millions.

According to Ethnologue[1] there are around 7,106 languages currently spoken in the world. Linguists estimate that by the end of this century, more than half of these 7000 plus spoken languages will be extinct, resulting in loss of valuable scientific and cultural information.

UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger[2], categorizes 2,473 languages into five levels of endangerment:

  1. Vulnerable – not spoken by children outside the home;
  2. Definitely Endangered – children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home;
  3. Severely Endangered – language is spoken by grandparents and older generations, while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves;
  4. Critically Endangered – the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently; and
  5. Extinct.

Almost all the indigenous languages spoken in northern Pakistan are endangered. Some of them, for instance, Bateri, Chilliso, Kalkoti or Domaki, etc., are under the category of critically endangered languages whereas languages like Shina, Torwali, Khowar, Gawri, Kohistani, etc, are in the catalogue of definitely endangered languages.

These languages are endangered because of a number of challenges/threats the languages and their speakers face. Crucial among these challenges/threats are:

Lack of a script:

These languages don’t have ‘widely[3] used script. The working scripts they have are based on Arabic. Orthographies in these languages have recently been developed with the technical support of the Summer Institute of Linguistics. None of these languages had a writing tradition before the beginning of the third millennium, except Khowar and Shina wherein a number of writers tried to write their works following Urdu. In some languages, for instance, Balti, some people use a Romanized script instead of the Arabic one. Having been without a working orthography no written literature of worth was ever written in these languages. The old poets in Shina and Khowar wrote their works using Urdu alphabets. Urdu literacy among the people compelled the writers to use Urdu alphabets, even for the special sounds these languages have.

No recognition by the state

These languages aren’t recognized by the government of Pakistan to be used in schools as a medium of instruction or subjects. Neither are they recognized as national languages of Pakistan. Pakistan’s constitution doesn’teven recognize any indigenous group in the country. In 2012 the then provincial government in the northwestern province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, however, made a law wherein four languages: Saraiki,Khowar, Hindko and Indus Kohistani were allowed to be gradually used at pre-primary schooling where these languages are mother languages of majority of the children, whereas, Pashto, the dominant language in the province was made a compulsory subject in primary grades in areas where it is the language of the majority ( (Group, International Crisis, 2014).  This law is known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Promotion of Regional Languages Authority Act 2012in the northwest frontier province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The succeeding government, however, has not taken the initiative further and the establishment of the authority is still in a state of limbo.

Suffering a marred identity

Since the state education in Pakistan usually discourages lessons on cultural diversity of society in course books; and as these communities have no effective political say in the country, therefore,a majority of ordinary educated Pakistanis don’t know about the indigenous identity of these communities. And as the successive invaders dismantled their centers of powers in the past, these communities have lost their unique identityand consequently suffer a tarnished one. This is the reason that a majority of these communities relate themselves with Arabs or the dominating communities they live with. Moreover, globalization has also posed critical questions of identity and identity construction. It is a complex issue especially in context of a rapidly imposed external change.  Culture and identity share many things, yet they are not the same. Though an important part, there is more to identity than culture. Identity is very much political as well. Given the complexity of identity construction and the modern tools that shape it these ethnic minorities seem the worst victims of marred identities.

Onslaught of globalization—cultural and religious

Globalization has affected every community in Pakistan, whether large or small, but the impacts of it are fatal on these already suppressed communities as they are triply influenced by it: internationally, nationally and provincially or locally. Globalization has affected them in two areas the most: their language and culture. A majority of them regard their languages and cultures as hurdles in the way to development. This is the reason why many of them shift not only their culture but also the language. The best example of this is the threatened Kalash community, the single Dardic community in Pakistan which has so far retained its unique indigenous worldviews. Conversion in this community is higher; and when any body of the Kalash community converts to Islam he or she leaves his language and culture along with their faith.

As is the case with many such communities, the affluent families among thesecommunities of north Pakistan feel pride in speaking Urdu with their families. Their cultureand language are also threatened by the popular Urdu dominated media—both electronic and print. Similarly the global revival in religious fundamentalism/fanaticism, especially in the form of a politically charged puritanical version of Islam has badly affected the cultures of these communities. They cannot observe their folk traditions in music or rituals. Of course, these new phenomena have affected the larger society as well but these indigenous communities cannot survive the onslaught, as they are less in number, weak both politically and economically and historically brutalized.

Living in hard terrains

All of these communities live in mountains. Many of them living in northern Pakistan share the same history, ancestry and culture but cannot relate to each other, being scattered in valleys in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, Karakorum, Himalaya and Pamir. This has cut them off for centuries. The Shina or the Khowar community of Gilgit and Chitral don’t know that their sister communities live in Swat or in Dir. Even the Khowar community in Chitral, where it is dominant, feel shy about being identified with the Kalash, Palula or Dameli communities living in Chitral too.

The aforementioned cultural, political, linguistic and ecological milieu adds to the ‘language and cultural loss’ among these communities.  Notwithstanding the toughest challenges, there are some good initiatives carried out in these communities that are focused on reversing the language and cultural shift by documenting the languages and cultures in question, transmitting the languages and cultures to the coming generation and by trying to make the languages relevant in pedagogical setting.


These initiatives in northern Pakistan are:

  1. Forum for Language Initiatives (FLI): It is a civil society organization established in 2002 with the aim of training people from the indigenous communities in northern Pakistan so as to enable them to document and promote their languages. FLI has so far trained scores of language activists in more than a dozen languages in basic linguistics, orthography development, cultural research, teacher training and in community mobilization and advocacy.
  2. Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT): This is a civil society organization based in Swat. Established in 2007, one of its main objectives is the revitalization, documentation and promotion of endangered languages, especially the Torwali language.This forum has, so far, written a number of books in and on the Torwali language. It has also been successfully implementing a mother tongue based on early childhood multilingual education initiative among the Torwali community in upper Swat.
  3. Gawri Multilingual Education Program in Gawri community Swat by the Gawri Community Development Program (GCDP): Gawri is a sister language of Torwali and is spoken in Kalam, Swat and in upper Dir district. GCDP has, to date, published a number of books in and on Gawri. It has also been implementing a mother tongue based on an early childhood multilingual education project in the area.
  4. Palula Multilingual Education Program in southern Chitral by the Palula Community Welfare Program (PCWP): The PCWP has also been running similar programs to those of GCDP and IBT.
  5. Other such programs are: Kohistani Multilingual Education Program in Indus Kohistan by the community based organization, Initiative for People in Need (IPN); Khowar Multilingual Education Program in Chitral by Mother –tongue Institute for Education and Research (MIER); the Bakarwal Mobil School System for the nomadic Gujjars in Azad Jamu & Kashmir; and the Hindko based multilingual education project by a community based organization in Abottabad, Pakistan.



Some good initiatives by the communities themselves are underway with the meager support of some international organizations. These communities, however, cannot sustain this work unless and until the Pakistani government recognizes these languages and sets up plans for the preservation and promotion of these languages. Globalization, with all its modern technologies, is a threat to these communities but it can be turned into an opportunity if proper measures are undertaken for including these languages in education and media – the primary drivers of globalization.


  1. Backstrom, C. P., & Radloff, F. C. (2002). Languages of Northern Areas. (F. C. O’Leary, Ed.) Sociolinguistic Survey of Northern Pakistan, 2, 3-201.
  2. Decker, D. K. (2004). Languages of Chitral. Sociolinguistic Survery of Northern Pakistan, 5, 11.
  3. Group, International Crisis. (2014). Education Reform in Pakistan. International Crisis Group. Islamabad/Brussels: International Crisis Group.
  4. Hallberg, D. D. (2002). Languages of Indus Kohistan. (F. C. O’Leary, Ed.) Sociolinguistic Survey of Northern Pakistan, 1, 83-140.
  5. Leitner, G. (1880, 1866, 1886 and 1893). New Delhi: Manjusuri Publishing House [reprint 1978].
  6. Torwali, Z. (2015). The ignored Dardic culture of Swat. Journal of Languages and Culture, 6(5), 30-38.


[1]Ethnologue: Languages of the World is a web-based publication that contains statistics for 7,106 languages and dialects in the 17th edition, released in 2013. Up until the 16th edition in 2009, the publication was a printed volume.

[2]”Moseley, Christopher (ed.). 2010. Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd end. Paris, UNESCO Publishing. Online version:”. 2010. Retrieved 17 May 2013

[3] Although scripts have been designed for Khowar, Shina, Indus Kohistani, Torwali, Gawri, Brushaski and Palula but these aren’t widely used within the respective communities. Among these languages, especially Torwali, Gawri and Palula, Indus Kohistani, and Khowar the situation has bettered off over the years since 2008 because of the early childhood education initiatives undertaken in these communities with the support of Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) and Forum for Language Initiative (FLI). Among them the literacy of the script among the Torwali community is spreading a bit faster because of a number of literacy (for both adult and children) initiatives recently carried out by Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT), a local civil society organization based in Bahrain Swat.