Proclaimed by Unesco in November 1999, International Mother Language Day is observed on February 21 worldwide.
According to United Nations official website ( this year’s theme of International Mother Language Day is ‘Towards Sustainable Futures through Multilingual Education’. In May 2007, the United Nations General Assembly in its resolution A/RES/61/266 called upon member states “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world”. By virtue of the same UN resolution, to “promote unity in diversity and international understanding through multilingualism and multiculturalism”, 2008 was observed as International Year of Languages.
Pakistan is a multilingual and multicultural society. The large number of indigenous languages and dialects spoken in Pakistan are often erroneously dubbed as ‘provincial languages’ or ‘regional languages’. It is a derogatory term and the government of Pakistan has officially named them as ‘Pakistani languages’. Prof Fateh Mohammed Malik, former chairman of the National Language Authority, informed this writer that Farsi or Persian, too, has been included in the list of ‘Pakistani languages’.
It is generally said that there are 72 languages and dialects spoken in Pakistan. A few years ago a survey put the figure at 77. But it is yet to be supported by any substantial and commendable evidence. Dr Inamul Haq Javed puts the figure at 56. Dr Memon Abdul Majeed Sindhi in his book Lisaniyaat-i-Pakistan has mentioned a large number of languages and dialects spoken in Pakistan and has listed the following languages and dialects: Urdu, Sindhi, Seraiki, Hindko, Punjabi, Balochi, Brahvi, Pashtu, Kashmiri, Shina, Kohistani, Khwaar, Balti, Ladakhi and Brushaski. Dr Memon has named 13 dialects of Sindhi and they are: Sureeli, Vicholi, Laari, Thari, Kutchi, Laasi, Jadgali, Kohistani, Memoni, Faraki, Khetrani dialect of Sindhi, Balochistani dialects of Sindhi and Rajhastani dialect of Sindhi. He has mentioned 22 dialects of Punjabi, namely, Bhatiani, Pawadhi, Pachhaadhi, Raathi, Malvi, Potohari, Dhani, Chhachhi, Sitarapuri, Riyasati, Multani, Jaangli or Jaanglu, Pahari or Dogri, Jatkali or Jagheeri, Loristani, Gojari, Khetrani dialect of Punjabi also known as Jatki or Jagdali, Maajhi, Doaabi, Baagri, Lehnda, Kaangri. According to Dr Memon Balochi’s different dialects are Eastern Balochi and Western Balochi. Pashtu has many dialects and they are generally divided into two groups: Northern or Yousufzai dialect and Southern or Khattak dialect, which is also known as Qandhari. Shina’s dialects are: Gilgiti, Paniali, Astori, Gurezi, Darasi, Chilasi or Kohistani.
Dr Uzma Saleem in her book Shumali ilaqa jaat mein Urdu zaban-o-adab has mentioned that there are 12 languages spoken in Pakistan’s northern areas and they also include Wakhi, Kashghari, Domaki, Gojari and Farsi.
This, of course, is not a definitive list and some languages spoken in Pakistan are missing from it, such as Gujarati. Also, the speakers of different languages might have a different view, declaring their mother tongue as language and not a dialect. Similarly, there are some overlaps and sometimes a dialect spoken in adjoining areas with a slight difference is termed as a separate dialect or language and people are very emotional about it. Everybody loves their mother tongue and every language is indeed unique, beautiful, worth-learning and worth-preserving. As the famous quote goes, every language is a galaxy and every word is a star.
What we need is a scientific survey of Pakistani languages and dialects. The proposed census taking place in 2017 must take care of such issues and with the help of the linguistic information collected during the census, a Pakistani linguistic atlas of the languages and dialects should be prepared. The modern linguistic atlases record speech variations with the help of linguistic maps marked with lines that take care of even minute linguistic features, such as change of vowel or meanings of words in certain dialects, in a specific geographic boundary. These lines are known as isoglosses. Roland J. L. Breton’s famous work Atlas of the languages and ethnic communities of South Asia (1997) has invaluable information and linguistic atlas of Pakistan, based on Pakistan’s 1951, 1961 and 1981 censuses. Interestingly, it also mentions that “1991 census did not occur on account of political reasons”. And here lies the rub.
While cultural and linguistic diversity is something that makes the world more colourful and interesting, sadly, it has also been a bone of contention and in Pakistan too it is associated with some bitter memories: International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by the UN after Rafiqul Islam, a Bengali living in Canada, wrote to UN Secretary General Kofi Anan in 1988 to take steps to save the world languages and suggested that International Mother Language Day should be observed on February 21, apparently connecting it to the commemoration of those who were killed at Dhaka University on February 21, 1952, in a demonstration held during the Bengali Language Movement. The sad incident was indeed one of the reasons that accentuated the linguistic identity and fuelled the separatist movement in former East Pakistan, culminating in the separation of Pakistan’s eastern province and creation of Bangladesh.
There are no easy solutions to the linguistic and ethnic problems that we still face in today’s Pakistan. But we can learn from India where the movement against Hindi was very strong and ultimately it was resolved with the famous ‘Three-language formula’, allowing the study of Hindi, English and any other modern Indian language.
What we can do is allowing the education in Urdu, English and any other Pakistani language, according to the wishes of the people. But we must remember that the idea of declaring all Pakistani languages the national languages — touted by some — is simply impractical, because we cannot have 72 or 56 languages as national languages.
Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2017