Letter to Young Kashmiris

Is Kashmiri language part of Indo-European languages? Yes, indirectly.

Muhammad Tahir
Srinagar, Publish Date: Feb 15 2018 12:01AM | Updated Date: Feb 15 2018 12:01AM
Letter to Young KashmirisRepresentational Pic

In this letter I will try to explain how we acquired our language: Kashur/Kashmiri. But, before telling you particular story of Kashmiris it is better, for a broader perspective, to understand the general picture of evolution of human language; because our (Kashmiri) language did not develop on its own. 

We, as hunter-gatherers, must have used gestures (like Chimpanzees and Bonobos do) to communicate with each other, and then those gestures must have evolved into a crude form of verbal communication (like, cries, hoots, grunts, whispers, and other sounds). Later, over many centuries of demographic, social and cultural changes and outside influences, our crude verbal communication system must have evolved into a full-fledged language. (Before I proceed further, it is important to mention that there are many theories and speculations on how humans acquired language, but there is no record or direct evidence available to conclusively prove any theory. And, it is a very difficult subject area which was once considered as “unsuitable for serious study.” So, what I will tell you in the remaining part of this letter is not absolute truth but only a reasoned speculation).

According to researchers, we the modern humans (homo sapiens: ‘wise man’) originated in Africa, from where we begin to leave around 60,000-70,000 years ago and migrated around different parts of the world. Due to great climatic changes a lot of us had died, reducing our population to around 10,000 people. But after improvements in climate our population grew and some of us migrated, in different groups at different times, through Bab-al-Mandab Strait, which separates African continent and Arabian Peninsula. This theory is based on scientific studies on fossils of modern homo sapiens (found in Ethiopia), DNA testing on present-day populations, and examination of sea cores (Though recent discoveries of fossils of earliest homo sapiens in Morocco, China, and Israel may change or modify this theory. But till that happens let us go with the one I have just told you.) 

Some 50,000 years ago, one of the migrant groups from Africa had settled around Middle East and southern Central Asia and it was probably some people from this group who later entered the Kashmir Valley and made it their home. Since we come from the same migrant group our languages have similarities. This is found by many philologists also who have developed a language model called Proto Indo-European (PIE), which is considered as the oldest common language spoken by people around 4500-2500 BC (Neolithic Age). The word Proto comes from Greek protos meaning ‘first’ (also: primitive or original) and Indo-European indicates languages covered in geographical distance from the Indian continent to Europe. Thus, Proto Indo-European means primitive language spoken from Europe to Indian subcontinent. Some theorists say PIE was mainly spoken around Eastern Europe and as some speakers of this language migrated (thanks to domestication of horses and wheeled carriers) to other parts their dialect underwent a change over the years. So, from this common language (PIE) has derived many other languages called Indo-European languages. Philologists use comparative method to tell us the commonalities between languages. For example, German word for father is ‘Vater’ which sounds similar to English ‘Father’, Greek and Latin ‘Pater’, Sanskrit ‘Pitr’, and Persian ‘Pedar’. Similarly, we can see resemblances in the initial consonants of the following terms: Vidya (Sanskrit), Idea (Greek), Videt (Russian), Videre (Latin), Vedere (Italian), Vedea (Romanian), Ver (Spanish), Voir (French) Witen (old English).

Is Kashmiri language part of Indo-European languages? Yes, indirectly. Because Kashmiri language belongs to what is called Dardic languages, and Dardic languages belong to Indo-Iranian language family, which is derived from Indo-European languages. Dardic languages are spoken in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir, and they are further divided into three sub-groups: Western, Central and Eastern. Kashmiri belongs to the Eastern Dardic group, and it is the only language within Dardic language family to have been “used extensively for literary purposes.” Over the centuries, Kashmiri language received influences from other languages, like Aramaic, Sanskrit, Punjabi, and Persian. 

Sanskrit, which was spoken by Indo-Aryan people who are said to have come to Kashmir around 3000 BC, had a major influence on Kashmiri language. Since Sanskrit already had a script, Indo-Aryan settlers used their script (Sharda and Devanagiri) for Kashmiri language, as they gradually learnt it and started speaking it in everyday conversations. But they used Sanskrit for religious and literary purposes; for a long time, Sanskrit literature flourished in Kashmir. 

The earliest literary composition in Kashmiri language is attributed to great mystic Lal Ded, who wrote her ‘Vaakh’ poetry (Lal Vaakh) in the 14th century. After Lal Ded’s Vaakhs, another great mystic Sheikh-ul-Alam or Nund Rishi wrote his ‘Shrukhs’ in the 15th century. Thus, Lal Ded and Sheikh-ul-Alam introduced literary trend which influenced generations, both intelligentsia and common people. Among different literary genres, poetry has remained high point of Kashmiri literature.  Though fictional prose has been written in Europe since the 17th century (like Cervantes’ Don Quixote), it was only by the mid-20th century that Kashmiri writers also started writing short-stories and novels. In 1950, Somnath Jutshi wrote “Yelli Pholl Gash” (When Dawn Cracked), which is considered as the first short story in Kashmiri literature. Seven years later, in 1957, Akhtar Mohiuddin wrote the first Kashmiri novel “Doad Dagg” (Sickness and Pain). 

Today, over 5 million people speak Kashmiri, in its three main dialects: Kishtwari, Poguli, and Rambani. Kashmiri Muslims write it in Perso-Arabic script, while as Kashmiri Hindus prefer Sharda letters. Due to many factors (especially westernization), contemporary parents from urban middle-class families do not encourage their kids to speak in their mother tongue. Some schools also discourage conversation in Kashmiri. But, from pre-historic times to the 21st century, Kashmiri language has traversed a long history, witnessing many changes on the way. It will continue to change, and continue to grow. Some are apprehensive it may disappear if newer generations continue to remain indifferent to it. But, the language is still spoken in larger parts of Kashmir and outside, hence it is unlikely that it will become extinct in the near future. 

[P.S: In my previous letter, based on the information from Khalid Bashir Ahmad’s book Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative (2017), I had written that first humans existed in Kashmir around 7.8 lakh years ago. But it seems incorrect after I researched more about it. As archeologist Ajmal Shah told me, “The evidence of earliest human existence in Kashmir has not gone beyond 20,000 years BP [before present].” 


Yours truly,

Muhammad Tahir



The author is a PhD student of Politics and International Relations at Dublin City University (Ireland)