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We Have A Language And A Script

Gilgit-Baltistan has more diversity than people usually think about it. It has ethnic, cultural, religious and lingual diverse communities peacefully coexisting in the area.

Balti language is the lingua franca of Baltistan region which comprises of four districts (Skardu being the main City) and roughly about 600000- 800000 people.

‘Balti’ language belongs to the Sino-tibetan family of languages, and is the archaic/classical form of standard Tibetan language (Dani, 2003) (Jettmar, 1958). Balti (Bal), the most westerly of the districts in which the Tibetan language is spoken (Jaschke, 1883). Due to its ethnic and lingual affinity with Tibet, Baltistan has been named as ‘Little Tibet’ in history (Vigne, 1842).

Tibetan language is spoken throughout the Tibet region along with six provinces in China, its variants are also spoken in Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim, Laddakh, Kargil, and Baltistan- only region in Pakistan with Tibetan speaking people.

‘Ayge’ script is the original script for writing Balti, it is beautiful, written from left to right, with 30 consonants and 4 vowels. However, after conversion to Islam as well as breaking of lingual/cultural ties with Tibet resulted in disappearing of Ayge script from Baltistan.

However, the other picture, the more dismal one is that Balti is one of the most rapidly diminishing languages of the world.

In fact, UNESCO has declared ‘Balti’, the language of people of Gilgit-Baltistan, among the endangered languages of the world. While, the original script ‘Ayge’ is already abandoned centuries ago within Baltistan with very few people left behind who could write it.

However, the script is alive in all other Tibetan speaking regions in Countries like China, India, Bhutan, and Nepal.

As the realization of the Balti language is high with the increasing awareness, a new debate has been started on whether the Balti, a Tibetan language by nature, can be revitalized with its original script of Ayge or should the on-going efforts to introduce Persian script to be adopted – started with the inflow of Iranian Muslim preachers in 14th century or balti is to be harmonized with the modern technological world by accepting the Roman script as writing system.

Irrespective of whatever we support it should be realized that it sole aim is to preserve Balti language with all of its peculiarity in vocabulary, phonetics, semantic, general applicability as well as cultural relativity for the people of whole Baltistan.

This will determine the suitability and viability of the script and will also help to revitalize and effective preservation of the Balti as a language itself.

Though Ayge is the genuine and alive script outside Baltistan and can suitably be used for Balti.

There are two other existing writing systems which can be used as a replacement to Ayge, i.e. Persian and Roman script.

Roman alphabets, though in common use with new technology but it does not fulfill the basic criterion of cultural relevance.

Adopting roman kills the first aim of ‘preservation’ and it would be more ‘assimilation’ rather than ‘preservation’. Secondly, it falls short of semantic and phonetic criteria for Tibetan languages.

However, we can account for Persian script because it has been in used for a more than half a century. As stated earlier, after the conversion to Islam of the Balti communities, the ayge was abandoned and Persian was used throughout the ages up to till now, like the most part of subcontinent during medieval period. More or less seven hundred years have been spent for developing Persian writing system as a script for Balti language but because of the inconsistencies that existed in representation of the Balti sounds with Persian alphabets as well as lack of capacity of the Persian script to produce Balti sounds resulted in utter failure in spite of the fact that Persian has been adopted and new alphabet was added to remove the inconsistencies that existed.

This is because the very basic contradiction is in the roots of the language. Balti has its roots in Tibetan not in any Aryan language, which is considered more consistent with the Persian writing system. Having Tibetan roots means words and syllables with very different sounds contradictory to the Aryan Languages.

As a result, so many people came up their own versions of their own scripts to accommodate and to make it more consistent with the Balti language and all these efforts but utterly failed. Moreover, the devising new alphabets for Balti created more confusion than clarity for Balti speaking people.

For example, Yousuf Hussainabadi, the renowned historian and intellectual of Skardu has devised a script system derived from Persian script and written a translation of Quran in Balti with the same script. However, it failed to gain currency because of incorrigible discrepancies inherent in the very basic alphabets that were inherent to Persian script and to its derivatives.

1. ز، ظ، ذ، ض is not distinguishable in Balti/Tibetan as they are all sounds similar. In the same manner, ی، ے and ث، س، ص، and ط، ت، and ھ، ہ، are all sounded same in Balti and there is no distinguishable differences among them so, to import them for Balti language is more confusing to native speakers.

2. Balti lacks many alphabets, like ڈ، ث، ف، ٹ، ڈ، خ،ڑ، ‍‍‍ق، ‌غ، and there is no word in actual Balti vocabulary (those very few words which includes some of these alphabets are mispronunciations of actual Balti words e.g. قار in Balti means woolen fleece, but its actual pronounciation is བལ་དཀར or Balkar – refer to Monlam & Jaschke dictionaries-which is corrupted to sound ‘Q’ instead of ‘K’).

3. Specially created alphabets in Persian for balti has also huge disparities which are inherent and incorrigible because of ;
a. When someone devises new alphabets based on phonetics of a language, then he must have chosen a standard dialect acceptable to all the other speakers with variant dialects for the same language. Balti has dialects as well, which are widespread and it is very difficult and even not pragmatic to set a standard and devise a new words for it and falsify all others.

b. This difference among dialects has compelled the Persian script followers to devise new alphabets which have very limited usage (mostly devised to use for single or couple of words) which is in fact complete unrealistic approach. Take the example of Hussainabadi’s ‘ج’ with three extra dots making it comparable to English ‘Che’ as in ‘Che-mical’- a new letter to pronounce ‘Che-mog’ meaning ‘ant’ in Balti . Hussainabadi has devised this word for this word has no any utility in whole Balti vocabulary other than this single world – simply illogical and impractical.

4. The adoption for foreign script has the most terrible impact on existing vocabulary, syntax, semantic along with impact on phonetics. There are many words that were actually ‘assimilated’ from Persian along with its script. For example, ‘wakh’ is a common word used by Balti people for ‘time’ without realization that it is corrupted form of ‘waqt’ in Urdu/Persian. Thus, accepting foreign script introduces foreign vocabulary with it and the genuine words, phrases, and overall shape and structure gets affected. It is due to this fact that most of the baltis are using Balti in their daily life without knowing the actual semantic or the meaning of words. This may sound surprising but this is a tragic reality.

For example,
i. ‘lam-thag’ is used for distance but very rarely people know that ‘lam’ mean way or road, and ‘thag’ mean distance,

ii. ‘skra-ghar’ a compound word used for ‘hair turned white of aging’ but actually very few people know that ‘skra’= hair, ‘ghar’ is actually ‘kar’ meaning ‘white’ and there are much more example to give. These corruptions (phonetics) and literal meanings (semantics) have been mainly due to following a foreign script system which has led to broken ties of a word with its literal meanings.

I am not making a case for Ayge because it is the genuine script for Balti. Adopting foreign well developed writing system have advantages as well that these system will be easily available in all new technologies and will be easy to used with.

But these benefits are so little when we take the damage caused to Balti language into account. Even, adopting Ayge has the same benefits as it has been used in Tibet (China) and other regions and is available in all technologies, and all platforms for phones, computers and other devices.

Ayge has the consistency, harmony and coherence with the Balti language and some even argue that Balti is more appropriate more than mainland Tibetan itself. In such a case, abandoning Ayge would be suicidal and adopting foreign writing systems would be ‘assimilating’ not ‘preserving’ the Balti language. After all, we have a script of our own which we do not cherish.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely of the author and do not represent ARY policies or opinion.