Linguistics Professors Study Near-Extinct Language

By Kristin Lam

The Linguistics and Language Development Department is documenting a severely endangered language in Pakistan called Domaaki through international collaboration and its first National Science Foundation grant.

Lecturer Chris Donlay and Associate Professor Roula Svorou are leading a team of graduate students and faculty at the Institute of Languages of Azad Jammu and Kashmir University (AJKU) in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan.

Svorou explains the value of saving a language partly lies in recording cultural knowledge that may otherwise be lost. Linguists collect information about sound, grammar, syntax, and other technical details, but language ultimately speaks to the human condition.

“Language is beyond data,” Svorou says. “It goes to save a whole ideology of cultures: ways of living, ways of thinking, ways of being, and ways of understanding the world.”

Many speakers of endangered languages live in small hunter-gatherer communities where they are dependent on their environment, so they’re experts on the area’s climate, botany, and wildlife. When a language dies, that knowledge developed over centuries disappears.

“We [linguists] realize that we have a moral and ethical responsibility to our fellow humans,” Donlay says. “There’s a language crisis, and we’re the only ones with any kind of training that could potentially do something about it.”

Linguists estimate 50 to 70 percent of the world’s 7,000 languages could disappear in this century. One language may disappear every two weeks.

The Doma, the people who speak Domaaki, currently face that risk of losing their native tongue.

Over the summer, Donlay and Svorou’s team of linguistic fieldworkers traveled to Hunza and Nager valleys of the Karakoram mountain range, the only places where Domaaki is spoken today. Outsiders must obtain permission to visit the remote area.

Donlay trained the AJKU faculty and graduate students before their trip, ensuring they felt prepared to interview the speakers and record their stories, conversations, and songs.

Researchers found that there were 15 Domaaki speakers, a third of which are fluent, in the Hunza Valley. Meanwhile, in Nagar Valley they found six speakers, of which one or two are fluent. Donlay says they are 50 years old or more, with some in their 90s, and all of them speak other languages more often than Domaaki.

A lot of the vocabulary has been lost as a result.

“There are no monolingual speakers, which is an indication that whatever they speak is reduced in terms of context,” Svorou says. “The context is very narrow, let’s say, at home, and maybe in the cafe where they talk with their peers.”

According to Donlay, the Doma are related to the Roma. Before the 1970s, they were not allowed to move outside of their segregated villages and were only allowed to work as metal workers, musicians, and singers.

“Because they were considered the very lowest on the caste system, Domaaki was considered very low class and was looked down upon,” Donlay says. “If you were Doma and the people around you were speaking Domaaki, that marked you as being of the lowest caste.”

A lot of oppression and shame was attached to Domaaki. When the Doma could leave for cities and school, they left the language behind for Urdu or other regional languages in order to fit in. They stopped passing Domaaki on to their children generations ago, hoping they would be more fluent in other dominant languages.

Donlay adds that language, culture, and identity are intertwined.

“Even for people who are multilingual, their native language is special to them,” Donlay explains. “It’s who they are. For this to disappear can be really emotionally damaging.”

The villagers are working with the AKJU researchers to transcribe the texts. Under Donlay and Svorou’s supervision, the team will annotate them and create a digital corpus of Domaaki.

“Once a language starts to be written down, and to have a recording, the community starts to see value in that,” Svorou says. “It’s really up to the community to have that pride to come back and try the revitalization effort. This is a necessary step if the community is ever going to start that revitalization.”

In the Hunza Valley, Domaaki speakers are talking about creating a language school. Individual speakers have also expressed that they would like to teach their children Domaaki. Donlay notes that it’s easier said than done because of social pressures, but it’s a hopeful spark. 

The annotated texts of their research will be made available to the Domaaki community as a record of their cultural heritage. The corpus will provide data for linguistic analysis, which will be shared through conference presentations and journal articles. It will also be archived at the Kaipuleohone Digital Language Archives at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, SJSU, and AJKU, for linguists to use.