Burushaski has been a language of great fascination for many linguists and scholars across the world. My motivation to work on this language relates to a chance discovery during a visit to Iran in summer 2002 where I stumbled upon somebody from my hometown. There was no mention of Burushaski speakers in Srinagar in any of the literature I had come across on this language. It was in 2003 that I conducted my first field trip to Srinagar as a doctoral student to study the contact-induced change in the dialect spoken by roughly about 300 speakers. The ancestors of the Srinagar Burushos arrived in Srinagar in the 1890’s when a combined force of British and Dogra forces arrested Raja Azur Khan, the tribal king of the then Gilgit Agency.

Funded by a small grant from the University of Texas at Austin, I started a pilot study which eventually became the foundation towards my doctoral research, eventually leading to the documentation project which spanned many years. For the next several years, I made a number of field trips to Srinagar to collect and analyze the linguistic data from the native speakers of Burushaski.

Sadaf Munshi with Raja Safdar Ali and his wife Mimi (Srinagar, 2004)
Sadaf Munshi with Raja Safdar Ali and his wife Mimi (Srinagar, 2004)

One of my primary language consultants during the first phase of this long-term project was (late) Raja Safdar Ali Khan (popularly known as “Masterji” by the community members). Masterji’s relentless support to the project included numerous hours of sitting together and looking at the minute details of the language – its phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics.

With female Burushos in Srinagar (2004)
With female Burushos in Srinagar (2004)

During the initial months of fieldwork in Srinagar, many challenges were faced, the strongest among them being the gender issue. It was challenging to include women in the project at that point as they were not seen as knowing the language well enough by some male speakers who were participating in the project. Being a male-dominated society, it took a while to involve the womenfolk.

I met a number of Burushaski speakers from Pakistan in the United States after returning from India and decided to work on a cross-dialectal documentation project. Among the people that I met in the US, were the patron and founder of the Burushaski Research Academy (BRA) in Pakistan, Allamah Nasir-ud-din Nasir Hunzai, and his family settled in Austin. BRA is a group of Burushaski speakers and some local experts based in Islamabad working on creating pedagogical materials and a dictionary based on the Hunza dialect of Burushaski. Allamah Hunzai has immensely contributed to the work on the Hunza dialect of Burushaski by Hermann Berger many years ago and was very excited to know about my project. A number of sessions on studying dialectal differences were held in his Austin residence where he lived with his grandson Amin Hunzai and the latter’s wife Ruhi Hunzai and their children.

The next phase in the documentation of Burushaski began in 2006 focusing on dialectal differences between the Srinagar, Nagar, Hunza and Yasin varieties more closely. Most of the available literature on Burushaski was of little value to the Burushaski linguistic community. There was an immediate need for documenting a rich oral literature which was about to be lost with the older speakers of the language while the younger generations were continuously and rapidly shifting to the dominant language Urdu. Further, Nagar and Yasin dialects were considerably underrepresented in the literature. Many Burushos expressed a desire for the rich oral literature to be documented and preserved. I developed some new contacts with speakers of Pakistani Burushaski, such as Imtiyaz Ali (Newark, NJ), Rashida Bano (Houston, TX) and Piar Karim (Gilgit, Pakistan).

Sadaf Munshi with Shahnaz Hunzai at the University of North Texas (2009)
With Shahnaz Hunzai at the University of North Texas (2009)

I invited Ms. Shahnaz Hunzai, the Director of the Burushaski Research Academy, to the University of North Texas in 2009 and discussed the latest situation of research and pedagogical materials on the language, including alphabet. Many challenges were faced during meetings and discussions with various speakers and local scholars of Burushaski. One of the problematic areas was the choice of alphabet. More than one native speakers and experts have proposed their own alphabet for Burushaski but no agreement has so far been acheived on one.

PI with speakers of Burushaski in Hundur (Yasin)
With speakers of Burushaski in Hundur (Yasin valley)

In 2010, I conducted my first fieldtrip to Pakistan and trained several Burushos in methods of language documentation. Together with Piar Karim, Naseema Bano and Muhammad Wazir — speakers of Hunza, Nagar and Yasin dialects respectively, I collected a huge corpus of data in Gilgit-Baltistan from speakers of all three dialects of the language in Pakistan. I also visited the Burushaski Research Academy (BRA) in Karachi where I met Shahnaz Hunzai, Allamah Nasiruddin Nasir Hunzai and various volunteers at BRA to discuss the work on the Burushaski project. After receiving training and instruction on methods of language documentation from me, my research assistants conducted field trips to Hunza and Yasin and collected some data in the initial phases of this project. As the work on the project continues, more and more speakers of the language joined the project. These include: Quwat Khan (Toronto, Canada), Zafar Iqbal Ghizri (Islamabad, Pakistan), and Naveed Hussain (Islamabad, Pakistan), to name a few. A huge corpus of documentation materials were collected, transcribed and analyzed over the years which now housed at the Digital Collections Library of the University of North Texas (The materials can be accessed here).

Although a secondary objective, an important part of the project are the pedagogical materials for language learning purposes. One of the most challenging areas in this regard has been the question of orthography. A number of competing writing systems have been proposed for the language in the recent past by local experts on the language in Pakistan. These are mostly modifications of the Perso-Arabic script although there is a growing preference for a Roman-based alphabet among the younger generation. It will be interesting to see which of these will find wider acceptability in the community.

Sadaf Munshi, May 29, 2012 (Revised on May 17, 2017)