What is the name of my language?

Farah Nazir

Pahari-Pothwari, Mirpuri, a dialect of Punjabi or apni zaban?

“What language do you speak?”

I was asked this question a lot when I was growing up from my non-Asian suburban neighbours. I genuinely didn’t know what to say, so in the footsteps of my elders, I replied back with

“it’s kind of like Punjabi…a dialect of Punjabi”.

This response is heard a lot in official and unofficial places by native and non-native speakers. But the language I speak is apni zaban –  ‘my language’ – I thought to myself. That’s what we call it at home, but even at such a young age I knew that the translation ‘my language’ would not suffice.

Others sharing my cultural roots refer to the vernacular used by fellow native speakers as apni zaban. We can trace our roots one generation back to the villages surrounding the main town Chakswari and New Mirpur city in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. In the UK, the majority of the Pakistani community originate from the Mirpur district of Pakistan administered Jammu and Kashmir commonly referred to as Azad Kashmir.

Growing up, I realised that many people outside of the community referred to my language not only as a dialect of Punjabi, but as Mirpuri too, even if I had never heard anyone in my community refer to it as Mirpuri. Rather, Mirpuri was a term used largely by the Punjabi Diaspora in the UK to distinguish between the Punjabi language and that of the Mirpuri community. An unintentional consequence of this differentiation is the exclusion of the Pahari-Pothwari language from consideration as a minority language in the UK. Despite having over half a million speakers, as the sociologist and human geographer Dr Serena Hussain, a leading expert in the South Asian Diaspora, has highlighted, the Pahari-Pothwari language is the "second-largest mother tongue in the UK, ahead of even Welsh”.

Two sociolinguistic surveys by Michael and Laura Lothers have found that speakers in Pakistan and England do not refer to their language as Mirpuri. As they explain, referring to Pahari-Pothwari as Mirpuri or Punjabi raises linguistics issues because the term describes people from Mirpur, not their language. This would explain why native speakers (including me) tend not use the term Mipuri. It is not a linguistic classification and the name itself has negative connotations; unknown, inferior, non-standard, dialect or even slang form. Interestingly though, there are rumours of a minority group of native speakers that are said to be reclaiming “Mirpuri” as their own, suggesting that the term could be undergoing a semantic change.

Where does this dialect of Punjabi classification come from?

As with the emergence of the term Mirpuri, its classification as a dialect originates in external classifications. George Abraham Grierson, a linguist, conducted a detailed linguistic study of languages in British India over a hundred years ago. He categorised languages spoken in the area of Pothwar Plateau (Northern Punjab) and western Jammu and Kashmir as Northern Lahanda which means west in Punjabi (“Western Punjab/Lahandi”). Pahari and Pothwari are included amongst the languages that come under “Northern Lahanda”. And, while native speakers do not refer to their own language as “Northern Lahanda”, they do refer to their language as Pahari-Pothwari (used by many interchangeably), as I do.

Pahari literally means “mountainous” and is a broad term encompassing a large language area typically referred to as Pahari-Pothwari. The Pahari I speak is part of the language area extending from the Pothohar plain, running by the Jhelum River and the Salt Range, and coming northward into Azad Kashmir that includes Mirpur, the Murree Tehsil, and even the far Eastern parts of the Abbotabad Tehsil. The Pahari-Pothwari language complex includes three major but mutually intelligible dialects: Pahari, Pothwari, and (Mirpur) Pahari.

How was Pahari-Pothwari categorised as a dialect under Greater Punjabi?

The fluidity of the geographical boundaries, related to political and administrative factors, presents additional challenges to classifying languages in the general Indic region when compared with languages in Europe. Reiss Haidar, an ethnolinguist of the Azad Kashmir region, explains that Grierson’s classification reflects geographical references, rather than the linguistic commonalities between Punjabi and the “Northern Lahanda dialects”. In other words, geographical proximity gives rise to confusion of what language belongs where, as does the vague and fluid geo-historical boundaries of the Indic region.

Hussain identifies geo-historical shifts as well as socio-political and identity factors as contributing to the mis-classifications of Pahari-Pothwari language. The politics of language tells us that languages hold more than grammar and vocabulary; they can be a symbol of power, prejudice, discrimination, and subordination. The politics of language can also shed light on the Pahari-Pothwari language area, since a large part of it belongs to a politically ambiguous Kashmir. Some argue that the language vs. dialect debate reflects the socio-political and the geo-historical relationship of Kashmir to Pakistan, specifically Punjab, which is culturally prevalent in Pakistan and the UK. This complex relationship has moulded Pakistani Diaspora identity in the UK; the majority identify as Punjabi, even though this description is inaccurate and impacts service provisions at a community level.   

Grierson’s work distinguished between Punjabi and the “Northern Lahanda dialects”; however, this is not a dialect distinction, but a language distinction. This raises the question of how to differentiate a language from a dialect? To put it crudely, the difference between a language and a dialect is a socio-political construct and is thus subjective, having little to do with the linguistics of the language. This accounts for why some dialects of the same language are not understood by the respective speakers, while speakers of different languages like Hindi and Urdu are mutually intelligible; the speakers can understand each other.

Pahari-Pothwari speakers can understand and perhaps even speak Punjabi, while Punjabi speakers typically cannot understand Pahari-Pothwari speakers. That’s why in almost all mixed gatherings, Pahari-Pothwari speakers will switch to Punjabi or Urdu, regardless of their literacy and competency levels in Punjabi/Urdu. This fluidity can reinforce the impression that the Mirpuri Diaspora is backward, uneducated, and illiterate, while also implying that Mirpuri-speakers are imposters of another language. Hussain argues this contributes to the "identity crisis and inferiority complex experienced amongst second-generation Kashmiris in the UK".

Pahari-Pothwari and identity

The fact that the Pahari-Pothwari language area is part of a large, linguistically understudied dialect-continuum exasperates the conflation of Pahari-Pothwari with Punjab. Further work is needed in studying the dialect continuum of the Pahari-Pothwari language area and its comparison to Punjabi from a linguistics approach. My own research has found that, as much as there are similarities in grammar and vocabulary between Pahari-Pothwari and Punjabi, there are significant differences too.

In light of this, I think it is interesting that I continue to refer to Pahari as apni zaban within my own community as if it is a way to overcome the inaccurate and ambiguous labels given to my mother tongue. I don’t know if apni zaban has come about because of these labels, but regardless of where it comes from, it serves a purpose. As does Pahari, in addition to being an informative and accurate term for non-native speakers, using the term Pahari can have an intrinsic impact on the Pahari-Pothwari speaking community especially the second generation Kashmiris in the UK, as it affects their individual and collective conscious/unconscious awareness of their identity. According to Professor Anita Abbi, a linguist specialising in South Asian languages, the most important task a grammar and lexicon of any language accomplishes is establishing the identity of its speakers. Pahari, then, represents the possibility of reconsolidating one’s identity within one’s own community and beyond.

Dr. Farah Nazir (@drfarahnazir) is a UK-based linguist studying the linguistics of the Pahari-Pothwari language. Her research interests are in South Asian languages, syntax-semantics, multilingualism, language contact, and language creativity.