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In Search of a Lost Language.

Byline: Brig (R) Tughral Yamin - E-mail:

Logisticians highlight the importance of military supplies by quoting the famous Napoleonic dictum that "Armies march on their bellies." After having spent a lifetime in the army let me underscore the importance of language in the military scheme of things by stating that "Armies move on the word of command." I think no one will disagree with me, when I say that no campaign can be launched without an appropriate and well thought out operational plan, accompanied by a host of contingencies. Neither the support staff can mobilise the required resources, nor the field commanders can maneuver their forces unless, provided clear cut orders and instructions by the general staff based on the commander's intent. Ergo, the importance of the written and the spoken word in military plans.

Army is a microcosm of our society. Our soldier speaks a number of languages. I recall, as a brigade commander I had troops from all parts of Pakistan. Soldiers hailed from Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Kashmir, NWFP (now KPK), FATA, Punjab, Baluchistan and Sindh. They spoke diverse languages and dissimilar dialects in their peculiar accent, which individually set them apart. Fortunately they could all communicate with each other in Urdu the language of the army since the times of the Moghuls. Overtime new words, mostly English parade ground 'cautions' or orders have enriched the barrack room Urdu, giving it a distinctlyfauji flavor. On the parade ground, the soldier, unversed in English, automatically obeys orders like "fall in "fall out," "quick march," and "double time," with precision and alacrity.

However, after parade hours, in the relaxed atmosphere of the recreation room or the canteen, he prefers the ease and convenience of his native tongue, to recount the events of the day to his friends from the native village and hamlet. At times, he also does that to hide his private thoughts from colleagues and senior non-corns from other parts of the country. The mother tongue not only represents a proud part of the soldier's culture, heritage and ethnic identity; it also provides him a sense of security. When conversing in his own language, he is so to speak, on the same frequency, with his fellow soldier. Each spoken word and each intonation carries a certain meaning, which is lost on another person, even if he knows the language. So, while a common military language like Urdu serves the purpose of lingua franca instructions within the unit, native tongues like Pushto, Hindko, Punjabi, Seraiki, Balochi or Sindhi provide a soldier the comfort and security of a sharedlanguageand values.

While communicating clearly is important for marshalling and mobilising men and materiel, hiding military plans from the enemy is vital for the success of any military mission. A lot of time, effort and money is spent in encrypting and encoding military messages. The furore caused by the revelations of the whistle blowing site WickiLeaks has served to intensify the importance of the security of information. Sometimes adopting simple measures like speaking in an unknown language can also help. Remember the Hollywood movie Windtalkers, starring Nicholas Cage. This World War II flick is about Navajo "code talkers," whose radio transmissions in a little known Native American language could not be deciphered by the Japanese. When I joined a Frontier Force (FF) unit, I was regaled by anecdotes about wireless operators making their transmissions in Pushto to hide the content of their messages. I am sure, this must have provided the battlefield commanders short term security in a fast moving tactical action.

When I served with a Northern Light Infantry (NLI) regiment, I discovered at close range that they spoke a number of languages, which were absolutely different from other mainstream Pakistani languages and dialects. These were difficult to comprehend for anyone from the plains. Interestingly these languages namely Khowar, Kohistani, Shina, Burushaski, Balti and Wakhi have no common words and those inhabiting one valley cannot communicate with those living in the next valley or mountain. Linguists term some of these as Dardic dialects, a sub-branch of the Indo-Iranian language group, which in turn is branch of the Indo-European language family. Noted linguist Sir G.A. Grierson has listed Shina, Kashmiri and Kohistani as part of Dardic languages. Others are categorised as Turkic and Indo-Tibetan languages. The Balti language belongs to the latter group.

Despite my best efforts, I was unable to obtain a "teach yourself manual" of the principal languages of Gilgit-Baltistan i.e. Shina and Balti, during my tenure with the NLI regiment. I was told that these languages were being written in Urdu or Persian script and were not taught in school. Like many other languages, which are slowly dying out, I thought it will only be a matter of time before these too, or at least their scripts will become extinct. During a recent visit to Skardu, I was pleasantly surprised to find two shops in the main bazaar bearing inscriptions in a language similar to Sanskrit, which I presumed to be the long lost Balti script. I decided to do some investigative work and inquired from shop keepers about the language on their signboards. Both expressed their ignorance and informed me that it had been done by some public spirited people, who hadn't charged them for their services.

They, however, directed me to make inquiries at the bookshops within the bazaar to obtain information on the vige'script of ancient Baltistan.

After a few brisk trips up and down the high street, I was able to strike gold, when a bookseller dusted a book off the shelf and handed it down to me. It was a pamphlet written in Urdu on the yige script by Major (retired) Phacho Muhammad Iqbal. The monograph contained the complete script with its usage. I bought two copies, with the aim of presenting these to the institutions carrying out research on the languages of Pakistan. Only a thousand copies of this book have been published and unless there is a reprint, there will be no more books in the market on the yige script.

Language as I mentioned earlier is not only a means to communicate but an unknown script and dialect can also help hide information. If only we can teach our officers and men to learn to read and write local languages, we would be able to reap the double benefits of enhancing our communication skills and improving our communication security. Unfortunately, the reliance on English, as the language of the fast growing SMS culture, is making us lose out on our battle to save both modern and ancient scripts. In my opinion, the army as the main reservoir of languages should take a lead in preserving our scripts. This effort in the long term will help us build an effective and secure system of information. Remember the British established the Fort William College in Calcutta to teach their officers vernaculars. Promotions were withheld, if the young subaltern didn't learn the language of his soldiers and special allowances were paid to those, who mastered a native language.

I think there is a need to revive suchlike incentives in an effort to save our languages for posterity.

The writer is a retired Brigadierpursuing doctoral studies in Quaid-i-Azarn University, Islarnabad.
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Date:Jan 31, 2011
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