Documenting the Burushaski language: Issues in data collection, transmission, preservation, and revitalization

Munshi, Sadaf
Karim, Piar
Munshi, Sadaf
Karim, Piar
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As globalization increases so does the loss of world languages. Two most common reasons for language endangerment are: (1) there are few living native speakers, and (2) many children do not learn the language of their parents because other languages are considered more helpful or powerful. While the first scenario leads to rapid extinction, the second scenario, quite common in South Asia and the developing world, leads to slow language attrition and eventual death. The two types of endangered languages are under pressure to differing degrees and in different ways in relation to language maintenance. Many linguists across the world are seeking to document and preserve the so-called “endangered” languages. Taking advantage of the latest state-of-the-art technologies, documentary linguists are making efforts towards documenting and recording oral and written linguistic traditions, translating and annotating documentation materials, compiling grammatical descriptions and dictionaries, and preparing pedagogical materials for language teaching/learning for the ethnic population which claims ownership of the language. The aim of this paper is to discuss the various steps, methods, and challenges in the documentation and revitalization of Burushaski – a linguistic isolate spoken by about 90,000 people in Gilgit, Pakistan (Ethnologue 2005), and (by approximately 300 speakers) in Srinagar, India (first author 2006). Burushaski is primarily orally-preserved and literacy in the native language is practically zero. Its survival is greatly threatened by multilingualism and language shift. Documentation efforts have been conducted by western scholars, but because their publications are mostly in foreign languages (Berger 1974-1998, Tiffou 1999), they are inaccessible to Burushos who are (mainly) literate in Urdu – the prestigious language. Recently, some Pakistani scholars have produced pedagogical materials for the promotion of Burushaski but, because of limited resources and lack of training, such efforts are yet to produce substantial results. Awaiting official standardization, local rivalries have also resulted in a number of competing writing systems. Burushaski is spoken in a socio-culturally conservative and a politically volatile region and documentation efforts by non-natives encounter many obstacles. Presenting a progress report of an ongoing project (starting 2003), this paper examines the various issues in documenting Burushaski, such as: initial encounters in encouraging community participation; social, cultural, political, and financial obstacles in data collection; effective use of information technologies without disrupting community traditions; and different challenges in revitalization efforts. To meet the various project goals, we propose steps in developing an integrated framework sensitive to the issues unique to this particular situation.
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