Known to its speakers as mišāski or ‘my language’, Burushaski is mainly spoken in the Hunza, Nagar, and Yasin valleys situated in the Gilgit- Baltistan (formerly known as the Northern Areas) region of Pakistan. There are no official records on the total number of Burushaski speakers. Based on personal communication with the native speakers of Burushaski in different regions, this study estimates the total number of Burushos (speakers of the Burushski language) in Pakistan to be around 100,000. There are significant dialectal differences between Yasin variety (Werchikwar), on the one hand, and Hunza and Nagar on the other.
Hunza and Nagar valleys are situated in the Hunza-Nagar District, and Yasin valley is situated in the Ghizer District of Gilgit-Baltistan. About 300 speakers of Burushaski live in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu & Kashmir, India. This variety, which separated from the Nagar variety in 1890-1, is a distinct variety of Burushaski exhibiting systematic differences with other varieties. The following map is a closer look at the Gilgit-Baltistan region in Pakistan, showing the Hunza, Nagar, and Yasin valleys.
Burushaski is spoken in a region home to speakers of several language families: Indo-Iranian, Tibeto-Burman, and Altaic. It has been greatly influenced by languages such as Persian, Arabic, Urdu, Khowar, Shina, Wakhi, Balti and Kashimiri. Almost all Burushos (speakers of Burushaski language) are bilingual in their native language and at least one of the other regional languages, e.g., the Indo- Aryan Urdu, Shina, Kashmiri, and Khowar, and the Tibeto-Burman Balti. Among these, Urdu has a special status in that it is the lingua franca of the region and the language of literacy. Just like speakers of other minority languages, dominance of Urdu has resulted in a strong push for a majority of Burushos to shift to Urdu. As a result, many younger generation Burushos only have a receptive proficiency in Burushaski. With greater means of mobility, more and more people have chosen to move to bigger cities for education and employment. As a result, they shift to using Urdu as their primary language. Thus, imperfect knowledge of the language is very common and fluency in Burushaski among the second and third generation is on a rapid decline. Lack of institutional support and cultural homogenization through education and media have also greatly contributed to a drive towards language shift.
Because the language is primarily preserved orally and literacy in the first language is practically non-existent, the survival of the different varieties of Burushaski is greatly threatened. The language has a very rich story-telling tradition which is yet to be fully explored. Burushaski also boasts of a flourishing tradition of Ginan/Qasida and Nauha which are genres of religious poetry in the Mulsims of the region and largely a result of linguistic and cultural contact with Urdu and Persian. Many Burushos have expressed a strong need for the documentation and preservation of Burushaski oral literature which is feared to be lost when the present older generation passes away.
Burushaski is a language whose proposed linguistic classification and genetic affiliations have been controversial. Many studies on Burushaski deal with attempts to trace its linguistic origins (cf. Toporov 1970-71, Bengston 1991-1998, Tuite 1998, Čašule 1998- 2009, among others). For example, according to Bengtson, Burushaski would belong to a “Macro-Caucasic” family under the “Dené- Caucasian” macrophylum (Bengston 1991-1998) – a proposed, transcontinental branch consisting of Basque, languages spoken in Daghestan, North-West Caucasian languages, Na-Dene, and Burushaski. Čašule (1998-2009) has attempted to derive links between Indo-European, more specifically its Paleo-Balkanic branch, and Burushaski. None of these studies provide conclusive evidence for a genetic relationship between Burushaski and an existing language so far. Therefore, the language is still considered a linguistic isolate. Other languages designated as language isolates are Basque, the language of the Yenesian Kets, the Niwch and the Yukaghir language. Most of these languages are spoken in regions of linguo-ecological risk and have come to a threshold from where the perspective of language death can be perceived.
There are three major regional varieties (dialects) of Burushaski, viz. Hunza, Nagar and Yasin Burushaski. Stark differences are observed between the Yasin variety (also called “Werchikwar”) on the one hand and Hunza and Nagar varieties on the other. The latter two, where the differences are less striking, are claimed to have descended from what would have been a single variety at some point. Dialectal differences are observed mostly in lexicon and phonology but also in morphology and syntax.