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Rethinking patrilineal tradition in Khowar language

A.M. Khan

International Mother Language Day is celebrated every year to reiterate the global commitment that languages and multiculturalism can advance inclusion and diversity, and help leaving no one behind. This year’s celebration, in Chitral, must be a rethink on the meaning of the notion: mother tongue, is translated in patrilineal tradition.  

 Bifurcated into two districts in 2018, Chitral is highly rich in linguistic diversity. The major languages/mother tongues spoken in different parts or valleys of district upper and lower Chitral are: Khowar, Dameli, Madaklashti, Gawarbati, Gojri, Kalasha, Sariquli, Kirghiz, Urchuniwar, Kamviri-Kataviri (Shekhani), Palula, Wakhi, and Yidgha. Besides Chitral, the major (Dardic) language: Khowar – lingua franca in Chitral, is also spoken in some villages of Ghizer district in Gilgit-Baltistan.

As people of Chitral celebrate International Mother Language Day, it brings our patrilineal tradition of translating the meaning of the notion: mother tongue, in Khowar language, into examination. It had been raised last year meant to debate the raison d’être of what continues to be standardized for mother tongue in Khowar as ‘tat-bapo-vaar’. For the people whose first language or mother tongue is Khowar, they translate the day as ‘father-grandfather-language’ means they follow patrilineal ancestral tradition that contrasts what this day was recognized about and celebrated.  It, however, may not be the case with the people or children in Chitral whose first language is other than Khowar.

Historian Gul Murad Hasrat while commenting on this paradox writes that it is (giving the meaning of father-grandfather-language to mother tongue) against reality. Knowing it, whatever flawed has turned out to be a tradition we remain hold on to it. Those who name mother language day as father-grandfather-language shouldn’t celebrate this day as it’s the day specified for mother tongue; he advised.

Language has a very important role to ‘construct reality and self’(Witkins,2011). Mother tongue provides ‘the critical, primary organizing foundation for emotional development and intersubjective understanding’ (Stern, 1985) of self and society. Like other patrilineal, male-dominated and tribal settings the subsisting culture in Chitral has also constructed gender roles, range of meanings and uses of notions such as mother tongue (Ramanujan,1992).

The first language or mother tongue is that links a ‘person’s early language experiences’. In other words, it is a language learnt or point of origin before any other language has been learnt (Gupta, 1997). Since mother is primary caregiver, the physical and rhythmic exchange between mother and infant within it encoded that ‘soothe, excite, scare, and shape the meaning of the infant’s world’ are the earliest experiences, including language.   

Historically, it is to find mother tongue ‘determined for a child by patrilineal ancestry’. Chitral is no exception as to follow this tradition in giving meaning to the word ‘mother tongue’ in Khowar language as father-grandfather-language. Like Sanskrit as ‘fathertongue to Hindus’ (Ramanujan, 1992) Khowar has become father-grandfather-tongue (tat-bapo-vaar) to its first speakers.  

There is no raison d’être with our didactic cultural establishment but only following the patrilineal tradition appears to be vindicated, among others, in Chitral. We must have a rethink on this contradiction by an academic debate on mother language day organizing a seminar or conference. What meaning we have given to mother tongue (nano-xuban) as father-grandfather-language and maintain it is, in fact, a patrilineal ancestral tradition and gendered trope.

Like today, every International Mother Language Day would continue to remind us of the paradox we hold on with.    

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