The Languages of Northern Pakistan

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Zubair Torwali*

*The author is a community activist, researcher, author, and educator based in Bahrain, Swat Pakistan. Zubair has published works in English, Urdu, and the Dardic Torwali language. He has authored and supervised a number of books in and about Torwali. His book in English, Muffled Voices, provides insight into Pakistan’s social, cultural, and political issues. The author is a prolific writer of research papers and articles written for English dailies and weeklies of Pakistan. He founded and leads Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT), an organization that focuses on education and development.

According to an estimate by the Ethnologue there are 73 languages spoken in Pakistan as mother tongues. The number of speakers of these languages varies from a few hundred to multi million. Glottolog 3.4 counts them as 83. If we club the too varied dialects of Pashto, Punjabi, Balochi and Hindko together we get 67 languages spoken in Pakistan. Out of these, more than 25 languages are spoken in northern Pakistan. This article regards the upper Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the region of Gilgit Baltistan as ‘northern Pakistan’ and provides a brief introduction of the languages spoken in this region. This article focuses on the least known languages and excludes Hindko and Pashto as they, the author thinks, are well known to many Pakistanis. Additionally, almost all of these languages are in the various phases of endangerment – from ‘moribund’ to ‘endangered’. A short note about each language is given. The exact number of speakers of any of these languages is unknown as none of them have ever been included in any national census in Pakistan. At the end of these articles a short paragraph is written on the causes of attrition of these languages with a recommendation to include these languages in education and enhance literacy in them because literacy is the most significant tool for revitalizing and promoting any threatened language.

Early in May this year scholars, writers and activists from the mountain communities of north Pakistan gathered for a day in Bahrain, one of the scenic towns of Swat, which is 65 kilometers north of the headquarter of district Swat, Mingora. The gathering was an attempt by these very people to deliberate on the challenges they have been facing in the sociocultural, socioeconomic and sociopolitical spheres around them. It aimed at finding a way to address the challenges of modernity; and of the internal and external colonization of the margins. The one-day gathering was organized by a local organization, Idara Baraye Taleemo-Taraqi (IBT), in collaboration with The University of Sydney.

A number of factors pertaining to the marginalization of these communities were discussed. Among them ‘exclusion of the languages of these communities from spheres of state education and media’ came out as one of the most fatal threats to the rich cultural heritage of these communes. It was intensely felt that with the attrition of their languages these communes will lose their identity, history, literature (which is mostly in oral form or oralture) and indigenous knowledge of their lives.

The gathering was unique in many ways that the scholars, writers and activists resolved to carry out a number of initiatives in order to address the challenges they have been facing. They did not lament on the apathy of the state towards their heritage but were determined to do whatever they could for their heritage and social development. The multiple issues and welcoming insights by the participants need a series of articles but the threats to their languages came out as one of the pressing issues that needed attention. I would like to devote this piece on the languages spoken in north Pakistan; and I am sure, many Pakistanis do not have an idea of this linguistic diversity.

No Pakistani government or university has ever taken any initiative of profiling the languages spoken by the people of Pakistan. Only a few of them—Urdu, Pashto, Punjabi, Balochi, Sindhi and Saraiki— are mentioned in media, teaching materials and in any kind of national database. According to, Ethnologue, an informative compendium of the languages of the world, Pakistan has by now 74 languages spoken within its territory. This database is maintained by an international organization, SIL International. Past attempts of profiling the languages of Pakistan have been done by foreign researchers either associated with the colonial British government or with international organizations. The Irish linguist and language scholar who had also served in the Indian Civil Services, Sir George Abraham Grierson(died in 1941), conducted a remarkable survey of about 364 languages and dialects of India and published the work in nineteen volumes after putting in an effort of over thirty years. The work was titled as Linguistic Survey of India and was published in five years from 1903 to 1928. This survey has also information about some of the languages spoken in the mountainous region of Pakistan. Before Grierson the famous orientalist and educationist, Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner, did some linguistic and anthropological work on the languages and people of these areas in a book called Languages and Races of Dardistan (1877). Following Leitner, another officer in the British Army, John Biddulph, published his work on the languages and peoples of these areas in a volume called Tribes of Hindoo Koosh (1880). Since then a number of notable linguists and anthropologists such as Georg Morgenstierne, Karl Jettmar, D.L.R. Lorimer, Frederik Barth, Colin Masica, Richard Strand and many other individuals have studied the languages and cultures of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A systematic survey on the languages of northern Pakistan, however, started in the 1980s. The survey was started in 1986 by Summer Institute of Linguistics under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture, through the National Institute of Folk Heritage, Lok Virsa. The National Institute of Pakistan Studies (NIPS), Quad-e-Azam University, Islamabad, facilitated and supported the research; and finally the survey was jointly published in five volumes by the two partners in 1992. The survey titled, ‘Sociolinguistic Survey of Northern Pakistan’, covered 25 languages of Northern Pakistan including Pashto, Hindko, Ormuri and Waneci. The preface of the survey states, ‘At a macro level, this work is definitely an improvement over Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India and the subsequent studies by various scholars’.

In this piece when I mention ‘North Pakistan’ I mean the region of Gilgit-Baltistan and upper Khyber Pakhtunkhwa such as Chitral, Dir, Swat, Kohistan and Mansehra. I would not intentionally mention two major languages of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, namely Pashto and Hindko, as these are by now considerably known to many people. The languages this article is briefly taking into consideration are listed in alphabetical order as: Badeshi, Balti, Bateri, Burushaski, Chilisso, Dameli, Domaaki, Eastern Kativiri , Gawarbati, Gawri, Gojri, Gowro, Kalasha, Kalkoti, Kamviri or Shekhani, Khowar, Kohistani, Madaghlashti, Mankiyali, Palula, Shina, Torwali, Ushojo, Wakhi and Yidgha.

A brief note about each language will be of help for those who are interested in the linguistic diversity of the spectacular northern parts of Pakistan. I will, however, abstain from giving the number of speakers of each language because none of these languages have ever been given space in the six national censuses so far conducted in Pakistan. The number of speakers of these languages vary from 500 to one million. Counting the correct number of speakers of each language becomes a difficult task. The numbers of speakers of each languagegiven in the surveys done so far are mostly based on interviews and observations; and they are just estimates. Many of these languages are also spoken in Pakistan’s neighbouring countries such as Afghanistan, India and China. This article only presents a very brief account of each language spoken inside the territory of Pakistan. All of these languages are categorized as ‘endangered’ in the Routledge’s Encyclopedia of World’s Endangered Languages (2008) edited by Christopher Moseley. Many of them are ‘severely endangered’ whereas a few are ‘moribund’ or already ‘extinct’.

Badeshi:  It ‘was’ an Indo-Iranian language spoken by a few hundred people in a faraway village in the Chail valley to the east of the Madyan town in Swat. Last year, BBC Urdu reported that the language had only three speakers alive. In reality even those three elderly people could not speak this language. It is already extinct.

Balti: Balti is a Tibetan language spoken by the Balti people in the current four districts—Skardu, Shigar, Granche and Kharmand—of the Baltistan division of Gilgit-Baltistan region. There are, however, some small villages in the valleys of Kharmang, Rondu and Skardu where the major language of Gilgit Baltistan, Shina, is spoken, too.

Bateri:  Bateri is a Dardic language spoken by people living in the area of Batera on the east bank of the Indus River in the Lower Kohistan district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This area is in the southernmost part of the Kohistan region, to the north of and across the river from the Pashtospeaking town of Besham.

Burushaski: It is the single ‘language isolate’ in Pakistan as it has not been classified under any of the major or sub groups of languages. It is not related to its neighbouring languages, the Dardic or Iranian. It is spoken in the districts of Hunza, Nagar and in the Yasin valley in the Ghizer district of Gilgit Baltistan.

Chilisso:  It is a Dardic language which is now moribund. It is spoken in scattered villages in the right bank of the Indus River in the midst of the majority Shina-speaking population in eastern side of the Kohistan districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Dameli:  Dameli is again a Dardic language spoken in the Damel Valley which is situated between Drosh and Arandu, about 20 kilometers south of Drosh in Southern Chitral in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Domaaki:  Domaaki is a language spoken by a small community living in the scattered villages in Hunza and in Nagar. The people have recently renamed it as Dawoodi. It is also severely endangered.

Eastern Kativiri:  Eastern Kativiri is one of Nuristani languages. In Pakistan it is in spoken Lutkuh valley and by some people in the villages in the Bumboret, Rumbur and Urtsun of the Chitral district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Gawarbati: Gawarbati is another Dardic language spoken by the people living along the Chitral River, predominantly in the AfghanistanPakistan border area near the village of Arandu in the Chitral district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Gawri:  Gawri is another Dardic language spoken in the hilly villages in the districts of Swat and in the Upper Dir district. The most famous touristic destinations, Kalam in Swat and Kumrat in Upper Dir, are owned by people speaking the Gawri language. In Swat the main Gawri villages are Kalam, Utror, Mititan and Ushu whereas in upper Dir the villages where the Gawri people are in majority are Thal, Lamuti, Biar and Birikot in the Kalkot Tehsil also referred to as Dir Kohistan or Kohistan of Dir.

Gojri: Gojri is the language spoken by the nomadic Gujjars in various parts of Pakistan. It is also spoken in scattered villages in Gilgit Baltistan, Chitral, Dir and in Swat.

Gowro:  Gowro is believed to be the language of the Gabar Khel clan living scattered in some of the villages in the eastern Kohistan region in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It is also a moribund Dardic language. Gowro should not be confused with the language Gawri spoken in upper Swat and in Upper Dir district.

Kalasha:  Many people in Pakistan are well aware of the unique Kalash people living in three valleys in Chitral. Kalasha is the language of these people and is a Dardic language. The Kalasha are concentrated in several small valleys on the west side of the Chitral River south of Chitral town: in the Rumbur, Bumboret, Birir and Urstun Valleys of district Chitral in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Kalkoti:  Kalkoti is a severely endangered Dardic language spoken by a small number of people in the village, Kalkot, in the tehsil Kalkot, Upper Dir district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Kamviri or Shekhani:  Shekhani is a term used by most people in Chitral for both Eastern Kativiri and Kamviri speakers. Shekhani means ‘the language of the sheikhs, or converts’. It is spoken by a small population in the Langorbat and Badrugal villages in Chitral in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Khowar:  Khowar is the major language spoken in Chitral. It is perhaps the second largest Dardic language in Pakistan. A majority of the people in Chitral speak Khowar. It is also spoken in certain villages and valleys in the Ghizer district of Gilgit Baltistan.

Kohistani: Kohistani is one of the major Dardic languages that is spoken mainly on the west bank of the Indus River in the Kohistan region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa including the Kandhia valley adjacent to Diamer district of Gilgit Baltistan. Some ancient writers named this language as Maiya or Shuthun. It is also known as Indus Kohistani.

Madaghlashti:  Madaghlashti or Madakhlashti is an Iranian language spoken by a small population in the Madakhlast village in the Shishi Koh valley in Chitral, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Mankiyali: Mankiyali is an endangered Dardic language spoken by a few hundred people in the Danna village in Mansehra district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The language was added to Ethnologue last year.

Palula:  Palula is a Dardic language spoken by a small population in a number of villages on the east side of the Chitral Valley near Drosh in southern Chitral. Ashret, located on the main road between Dir and Chitral, just below the Lowari top on the Chitral side, is the main village of Palula people. Another valley above Ashret is Biori where Palula is spoken.

Shina:  Shina is the largest Dardic language alive today. It has multiple dialects and variations. It is the major language of Gilgit Baltistan too. Among all the Dardic languages there is much literature found on Shina. It is spoken in Gilgit city, Puniyal, in villages of Ghizer district, in Shinaki area connected to Hunza, in Astor and in Diamer districts of Gilgit Baltitsan. It is also spoken in Easter Kohistan region, on the eastern side of the River Indus in Kohistan area, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Torwali:  The speakers of Dardic language, Torwali, live in the main Swat Valley as well as in one of its tributaries, Chail Valley. These two valleys join at Madyan, a Pashto-speaking town just eight kilometers below the scenic town Bahrain which is the business and political center of the Torwali people.  Towards the north, Torwali, is spoken up to Asret although some houses of Torwali people are in Laikot, Peshaml and in Aryanai near Kalam.

Ushojo:  With a small number of speakers this severely endangered Dardic language is spoken in the villages of Kas, Kardial, Bishigram, Tangai Banda and other smaller hamlets in the Chail valley to the east of Madyan town in Swat. Each Ushojo village has Torwali speakers living in it and Bishigram also has speakers of Pashto living there.

Wakhi:  Wakhi is an Iranian language. In Pakistan it is mainly spoken in Gojal, Hunza in Gilgit Baltistan region. However, a small number of Wakhi speaking people also live in Yasin valley in the Ghizer district of Gilgt Baltistan. It is also spoken by a small population in the Yarkhun valley of Chitral, where a majority of them live in the Baroghil area in Chitral, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Yidgha:  Yidgha is also an Iranian language. In Pakistan it is mainly spoken in the Lutkuh Valley of western Chitral, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. There are probably 15 villages of Yidgha speakers in the Luktkuh tehsil between Garam Chashma and Darosh pass in Chitral.

Almost all of these languages face an increasing pressure due to cultural globalization, and internal and external colonization. The ‘dominant’ languages in the region like Pashto and Urdu along with the language of globalization, English, are replacing these languages through formal education and media. A majority of these languages are still in the ‘speech’ form i.e. they don’t have a writing culture. Because of the attrition of these languages the scientific and literary communities of the world will lose repertoires of indigenous knowledge and wisdom that are so important for sustainable communities. On the other hand, if these languages are left to their fate, the communities who use them as native languages, and have been using them for social interaction and as semiotics of their weltanschauung are sure to lose their past memories, histories, and identities; and thus be exposed to manifold vulnerabilities such as loss of self-esteem, crises of belonging and identities and loss of their distinct ingenuity which is so intrinsically embedded in the languages they learn in their communities.

The region is also a beautiful blend of multilingualism where people of one community understand the language(s) of the other community or communities. This multilingualism resists any force to break the harmony these communities have; and consequently, keeps the lacunae filled which would otherwise be consumed by forces to rip apart the matrix of co-existence and cultural harmony.

There is an urgent need of awakening these sleeping languages and revitalizing them using modern means and tools. The foremost important among such steps is to build literacy in these languages because it is the written media that not only keeps a language vital but also enhances its prestige among the communities. As the Latin proverb states, ‘Verba volant, scripta manent’ (spoken words fly away, written words remain). These languages are now ‘verba volant’ and are soon going to be ‘volant/ extinct’ if they are not made ‘scripta’/written.