Khowar, the language (war) of the Kho community, is also known as Qashqari or Chitrali: it is an Indo-Aryan language of the Dardic group spoken by approximately 400,000 people in Chitral in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, in the Ghizer District of Gilgit4Baltistan (including the Yasin Valley, Phandar Ishkoman and Gupis , and in two villages of Kalam area in Upper Swat, Ushu and Matiltan.
Speakers of Khowar have also migrated heavily to Pakistan’s major urban centers e.g. Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, creating sizeable populations there.
There are thirteen languages are spoken in District Chitral, of which Khowar is the second largest. Khowar has four dialects: two are spoken within Chitral, viz Lotkoh and Laspur, and two beyond, in Ushu and Matiltan in Swat, and the Ghizer valley.
There is no documentary proof of the Khowar language’s origin, although there are some stories about it. Before the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, Khowar had important role in the functioning of government. Although it was not a written language, it was the language of the royal family and was used “for all oral official communications”, while Farsi (i.e. Persian) was used for all written purposes until 1952.
The first evidence of Khowar as a written language is a letter of Mr. Muhammad Nasirul Mulk , written to his munshi (personal assistant Muhammad Ghufran, on 26 May 1917. In the letter, he used Persian script, devising signs for Khowar’s extra phones. In this early period,there was some limited foreign research on Khowar. It used Roman script for the language.
Shehzada Muhammad Hisam-ul-Mulk, governor of Mehter state, established a literary organization called Anjuman-e-Tarqi-Khowar, for promotion the Khowar language in 1956: he became its founder president. In addition, he organized the first poetry recital on the lawn of
Chitral’s public library in 1957: 17 poets attended. It was the start for local scholars. Later on the organization continued to hold poetry recitals, as part of a wider programme of promoting language development.
In 1962, Shehzada Muhammad Hisam-ul-Mulk managed to get Khowar included in the curriculum as an optional subject at primary level. Within a few months, however, this decision was withdrawn by the provincial government, since it did not seem to have community support.
In 1969, a monthly magazine Jamhor-e-Islam Khowar (The Khowar Islamic Masses) began publishing in Khowar; but it too ceased to exist when the government withdrew its financial support.
Since 1965, Radio Pakistan Peshawar has relayed a one hour program daily in Khowar. In 1993 a Khowar radio station was established too at Chitral, but this is only audible within a distance of ten kilometers.
Despite all these setbacks, Khowar is a written language with a working orthography, and long history of publication, even if it is still facing some challenges in details of its spelling. For example, the sort order of Khowar alphabet is not yet standardized. It varies with every publication (one letter added, another removed. Another big issue is spelling inconsistency, which sometimes is visible even within the work of a single writer. Writers vary in their use of diacritics etc. There is no sign for long and short vowels, stress or tone. In sum one can say that Khowar orthography still faces big challenges.
In Khyber Pakhtun-Khawa province Pushto is the dominant language. Kho people are considered peace-loving and honest but outsiders’ attitudes to the Khowar language are not good. Some consider it a dialect of Persian. Kho speakers like their language and speak it anywhere, without reserve. However, they have economic reasons to use English and Urdu, the official languages of Pakistan. Khowar is not included in the curriculum of Government or private schools. Private schools actually discourage speaking of Khowar in the classroom, encouraging their students rather to speak English, or Urdu.
The present government has included five languages in the curriculum, and Khowar is one of them. However, this does not entail progress practically.
Pakistan has no clear language policy. The Government authorities do not know how many languages are spoken in Pakistan, and sometimes mix up dialect and language. In practice, the Government of Pakistan supports only English and Urdu. At present, the minor languages face endangerment although the speakers themselves are doing their best to promote and save the language and culture for future generations. The pressures from national and international media speed up the process of endangerment of the minor languages, threatening their very existence, as
well as the history and culture which they have preserved. This is the time to act to save the history, culture and language. Otherwise in the near future the world will deprived of its long-treasured diversity.
The writer is coordinator, Multi-Language Education (MLE), a project for promotion of local languages. He has worked extensively for promotion and preservation of local and endangered languages and culture documentation.