Language Homes: Pahari-Pothwari and English

Dr Farah Nazir

My mother tongue didn’t come up in primary school; it was unseen and unheard. The boundaries of my language were set and that came with limited codeswitching* too, since my school was made up of majority English monolinguals. But codeswitching is a survival technique and a tool for many new learners of English especially if their peers share the same native language, like my father’s generation. This generation of mainly young Pakistani boys came to England and attended the English language schools before moving to a mainstream school. Their experiences are often filled with jokes about the confusion of words, such as the word like, which in Pahari (and related languages) means ‘studious’, but in English, it is a psych-verb. They also tell stories of teachers that commanded “speak English” in the playground — breaking up their language mixing. 

Less crudely, the “speak English” imperative echoes from my father’s generation into mine, but its seeds were planted long before both our generations. The “speak English” ideologies can be said to date back to the purist view of language in British India to the present monolingualising education system. The prestigious status of English language was strengthened when it became the official medium of education in India in 1835. At the time, the English language was reserved “for the elite class and ensured that identities were tightly bound by it” to the extent that the mixing between languages was socially stigmatised. For instance, language mixers were perceived as “people that have difficulty in expressing themselves”, or are “lazy” and “careless”.

A consequence of such ideologies has meant a loss of words from one’s mother tongue, and in certain communities, a loss of the entire language. Sulaiman Addonia’s talks of this in ‘The Wound of Multilingualism: On Surrendering the Languages of Home’, in which he highlights that the words of his language homes died within him as he learnt new languages — leaving him with a language called Silence. As I read his piece, I felt his words wake inside of me the silent death of words of my first language home. 

Like my father and mother, and like their father and mother, my first language home is Pahari (also referred to as Pothwari and/or Mirpuri) and this home is shared by over half a million speakers in the UK alone. Hence it is the “second-largest mother tongue in the UK, ahead of even Welsh”, as highlighted by the sociologist and human geographer Dr Serena Hussain. However, the latter does come as a surprise to some, as does the fact that Pahari-Pothwari speakers make up two-third of the British Pakistani diaspora community. That is, the more well-known and recognised languages Urdu and Punjabi do not form the language majority of the British Pakistani diaspora

Alongside language ideologies and misinformed linguistic classifications, there are an array of socio-political and geo-historical factors that contribute to the lack of awareness of minority languages in the UK. More specifically, for instance, the ambiguity of Pahari-Pothwari can be said to be related to the ambiguity of its name which is rooted in the aforementioned factors. Is it Mirpuri? A dialect of Punjabi? Pahari? Pothwari? Apni Zaban?

Many people outside of my community refer to Pahari-Pothwari not only as a dialect of Punjabi, but as Mirpuri too. 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. 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 linguistic issues because the term describes people from Mirpur, not their language. 

Pahari-Pothwari labelled as dialects of Punjabi emerges from external classifications too by George Abraham Grierson, a linguist. He conducted a detailed linguistic study of languages in British India over a hundred years ago in which Pahari-Pothwari was categorised as a dialect of “Northern Lahanda”. It is understood amongst academics and linguists that Grierson’s classifications are misinformed due to the fluidity of language borders in and around the language areas. However, such knowledge has not entirely reached the public sphere. 

The inaccurate linguistic classification and the name itself -‘Mirpuri’- has given rise to negative connotations; unknown, inferior, non-standard, dialect or even slang form. These sentiments are to some extent echoed by native speakers themselves. The fact that Pahari is a minority spoken language, links with the perception of the status it holds amongst Pahari speakers, and non-Pahari speakers. This might explain why Pahari speakers frequently report themselves as Urdu speakers, because Urdu is the official language of Pakistan and is a written language, and therefore perceived more prestigious than Pahari. Furthermore, the former and latter “may be reinforced by English speakers who are only aware of Urdu“ and assume this is the only language of the British Pakistani diaspora.

An unintentional consequence of the different names is the exclusion of the Pahari-Pothwari language from consideration as a minority language in the UK — and therefore inevitably impacting service provisions and education faculties at a community level. A recent example highlights this; I had a query from a teaching assistant of a year 7 pupil that arrived from Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Her family home has advised that she speaks Urdu, however she couldn’t understand the Urdu translator, and thus could not access the EAL resources. Although the pupil insists her language is Urdu, she is not able to speak with her Urdu speaking peers either. The teaching assistant researched other potential languages in Rawalpindi and found that Pothwari is amongst one of them. The mystery of her mother tongue continues, but one that highlights implications in the lack of awareness of minority languages in the UK, and how this impacts areas such as EAL. 

Although there is an increased platform for voicing the positive contributions of bilingualism and studies dedicated to investigating the strengths of a socio-cultural perspective in learning and literacy, there continues a gap in knowledge of minority languages spoken in the UK. In light of this, I’m conscious of the lopsided ratio of the two languages in my life, and even more conscious of the status of the subcontinent languages in multilingual Britain; how they arrived and how they continue to interact with the English language. A sophisticated documentation of minority languages is a vital step towards integrating bilingualism, since multilingual and multicultural communities exist through their language as does their culture, history, and education. 

*Code-switching is the practice of moving back and forth between two or more languages or between two or more dialects or registers of the same language.

Bio: 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.