Yidgha: an endangered language in Chitral

Fakhruddin Akhunzada

The Yidgha language of Chitral is among the 23 languages of Pakistan which have recently been declared endangered by UNESCO. The language is spoken in Western Chitral, in Lutkoh Valley. The speakers, however, are now giving up the language to speak Khowar instead. Yidgha belongs to the Iranian group of languages.

The Yidgha-speaking area lies about 46 km to the west of Chitral town, in a side-valley called Lutkoh, or Injigan. The first village, Barbuno, lies near Garumchashma, a market town of the valley. The speakers of the language are settled in small villages spreading over 30 kms. The valley is connected with Zibak, Afghanistan through the Daruh pass which lies about 1480 meters above sea level. The last village, called Goboor, has only Shekhani speakers. There are about 20 villages with Yidgha speakers in the area. Mirden, one of the main villages, lies about 6 miles away from Garumchashma.

The people have no written history, but most of the people know about their origin. According to an elderly man of the area their ancestors had come into the area from the Munjan valley in Afghanistan about 500 years ago or fifteen generations back. Some friends of Nasir Khasrov, the preacher of the Ismaili sect of Islam and a famous saint of the area, were Yidgha speakers. The saint remained in the area for a long time and left his friends there permanently.

The exact population of the speakers are not known. According to the people themselves there are 6000 to 7000 speakers of the language. The villages where the language is spoken are Imardan, Irjiyak, Ispokht, Mushen, Oshiyak/Ghusiayak, Gohik, Ughuti, Birzen, Gufti, Goloogh, Gisteni, Parabek, Khoghik, Royee, Waht, Koch , Zitursanik, Lohok/Postaki, Zhitur and Burbuno. Parabek is the biggest one, with a population of around 1250 people.

The education rate of the area is quite low, being only 3 percent. Female education was null in the recent past. Nowadays, 75 percent of girls are going to school and a few of them have recently completed high school. AKES (Agha Khan Education Services) is playing a vital role in this regard. It has established schools for girls and provided a teacher in every village of the area. Some of the young men have a higher education.

The main occupations of the people are in agriculture and livestock. Their products are potato, animals and dry fruits, which are then sold in the market. Each family has about fifteen goats and eight cows. The land in the area is cultivable. Most of the land has been made cultivable by the people themselves. They have dug water channel to the land from the main river. The youths have jobs in the armed forces or at private and government offices. Most of the youths go to the country side for work, especially in the winter.

Khowar is the lingua franca of the area. The main market, Gharumchashma, has many Khowar speakers. Most of the people have jobs in the Khowar speaking area. Yidgha speakers have also married Khowar wives. In the offices, schools and public meetings, Khowar is used.

One other language that can be heard in the area, is Dari. A great number of refugees from the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan came into the area though the Daruh Pass due to the Afghan war. The Shahsalim road passing through the area was a route and ammunitions supply line of the Afghan Mujahidin. Some of the shopkeepers, hotel owners and transporters in the Garumchasma bazaar are Dari speakers. Some Dari people have married Yidgha women. Therefore the majority of Yidgha men know Dari.

The people of the area have close relationships with the Shekhani speakers of Hamadiwanababa in Nuristan, Afghanistan. They go there to buy wool, butter-oil, and animals. From Birzen it takes 12 hours to reach there by foot. The Shekhani people also come into the area to buy various items, particularly groceries. A thin valley leads toward the Shekhani-speaking area of Nuristan. The valley has road that is drivable by jeep. In the summer, a large number of Pashto speakers are seen in the Garumchashma bazaar. The people come here for a treatment or just for a visit. The sulphur-mixed hot spring in Garumchasma is famous for the treatment of a number of diseases.

The peoples of the area have no relationship with the people of Munjan because of the political situation and its geographical location. One Yidgha speaker, Mr. Shirin Khan, who is an advocate, has been in the Munjan for short time. According to him Munjan has a population of 1500. He also added that there are still great similarities between the Munji language and the Yidgha language. Most of the terms are the same. The elderly people of Munjan also use ‘Yaidgha’ for their language, which is officially called Munji.

Yidgha lacks an orthography. Some educated native speakers of the language want to develop the language, and one Yidgha-speaking man is presently trying to develop an orthography for the language. Sherin Khan says “I want to compile a dictionary of my language, but do not know how to do it.”

The language does not have much poetry. There is only one poet, named Qurban, who belongs to the Khoyik village.

Yidgha is a language which is going into extinction. In some villages the language is not transferring to the new generation. There are a number of factors which speed up the shifting. The Khowar language, intermarriage, migration, jobs, education and language policies are the main reasons. In the past the Yidgha-speaking area stretched further down to some other villages, but nowadays no sign of the language is found there. The people are shifting into Khowar, the lingua franca of the area. Due to an inferiority complex the people like to speak Khowar and want their children to speak in Khowar. The people marry Khowar-speaking women, and as a result Khowar becomes the language of the children. They get a job, get an education and migrate to the Khowar-speaking area. The means of instruction in schools are other languages and in some schools Yidgha is not allowed.

A number of organizations in Pakistan and the rest of the world are working for the preservation and promotion of culture and language. Yidgha is one which needs their immediate attention. The language needs documentation and the people need training. Otherwise the next generation of the people will not have this language and culture anymore.

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