Duelling languages

I began writing this post, appropriately enough it turns out, in Thessaloniki’s Makedonia airport on my way back to London after an international conference on Language documentation and tradition with a special interest in the Kalasha of the Hindu Kush valleys, Himalayas. The conference ran from 7th to 9th November and included five plenary talks, over 30 papers, three workshops, and several ethnographic films made last summer in Pakistan. It was attended from researchers from around the world, including blog contributor Ana Kondic, as well as five Kalashas from north-west Pakistan.

The conference covered a number of issues in linguistics, language documentation and anthropology, with a focus on the amazingly linguistically complex region of the Hindu Kush where Iranian, Nuristani, and Indo-Aryan languages (not to forget the isolate Burushaski) live side by side, and mutually influence each other. Today various of these languages (including Kalasha) are threatened by their larger neighbours, as well as by Pakistani languages of wider communication such as Pashto and Urdu. We heard about new work on Kalasha, Dameli, and Domaaki, as well as local Greek dialects and Vlach (or Aromanian, a Romance language spoken in north-east Greece), and more distant tongues including Huastec, Salish and Nivkh. My plenary dealt with the geographically most distant languages and was entitled Back from the dead? Language documentation and revitalisation in eastern Australia. I discussed the history of black-white relations and language documentation in New South Wales and Victoria, and recent work to revitalise NSW languages, with examples drawn from Gamilaraay and Wiradjuri (including a nice video clip from YouTube). For most in the audience this was new territory and several people remarked that they felt they learnt a lot from the Australian experience and my contention that political and ideological climate plays a particularly important role in the success or failure of revitalisation efforts.
An interesting part of the conference was a set of workshops for Thessaloniki University linguistics students given by Nikolaus Himmelmann and myself. I gave two sessions, one on What is documentary linguistics and language documentation? and another on Research methods in creating a corpus that were attended by around 40 students on the first day. On day two, Nikolaus gave two sessions on How to get started with language documentation where he took questions from the students and responded to them with examples from his own research. Some of the students had done fieldwork on local Greek dialects and were able to share their experiences with the group, and to improve their knowledge and skills in the process. It was rewarding to have the opportunity to talk about topics of mutual interest with an enthusiastic group of potential new researchers.
One of the highlights of the conference for me was the plenary on The pre-Islamic world of the Hindu Kush and the legend of Alexander the Great by Professor Augusto Cacopardo, University of Florence, who, together with his brother Alberto, has been studying the Kalasha since 1973, with a focus on their religion and festivals. The Kalasha are the sole surviving group in northern Pakistan who continue to practice their indigenous religion and have not been fully converted to Islam. They maintain that they are the descendants of soldiers of Alexander the Great, a view also strongly promoted by some Greeks. Indeed, the conference organiser Elizabeth Mela-Athanasopoulou, gave a paper on Kalasha as an Indo-Aryan language with Greek roots. Alberto Cacopardo’s talk was a careful demolition of this ‘myth’ showing how cultural features shared in common between the Kalasha and Europeans, including the Greeks, to the extent that they do exist, reflect their common Indo-European heritage and do not require an explanation in terms of contact via Alexander the Great. Vigorous discussion in support of both sides of the debate followed.
In conversation outside the conference proper August Cacopardo put forward the opinion that Greek interest in Kalasha and its possible descent from Greek soldiers of Alexander has to be understood in terms of the wider Balkan context, especially the contestation of ‘Macedonia’ between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
The argument goes like this. If the Kalasha are descended from Alexander, who is historically associated with the region of Macedonia, and their language can be shown to be related to Greek then Macedonia is historically Greek.
Recently, FYROM politicians have taken an active interest in the Hunza from northern Pakistan who also claim descent from Alexander the Great, and invited Hunza Prince Ghazanfar Ali Khan and Princess Rani Atiqa to Macedonia in July this year. Indeed, this very day the lead article in the Macedonia Daily is entitled ‘Russian documents confirm Alexander was a Macedonian’.
FYROM scholars have recently proposed that the language of the Hunza, namely Burushaski, is related to (South Slavic) Macedonian and that therefore Macedonia (and Alexander) is historically Slavic.
The recent interest in these two endangered language communities of the Hindu Kush, and the provision of resources to document them, seems therefore to be fuelled by particular local European territorial concerns rather than more general research or humanistic goals. It is an interesting twist on the usual story of endangered languages being caught up in linguistic (and socio-political) competition.

2 thoughts on “Duelling languages”

  1. Alexander with a twist – A reply to Austin
    I began writing this reply, appropriately enough it turns out, after finishing yet another presentation on Pinker’s misrepresentation of Whorf’s linguistic relativity hypothesis. In his popular, if not sensationalist book The Language Instinct, Pinker applies classic strawman argumentation by creating a radical, deterministic version of the Whorfian hypothesis, only to ridicule it and ultimately dismiss it as the ‘outlandish claims’ of the imagination of an ‘amateur linguist’ who was influenced by native American mysticism. A casual reading of Whorf’s writings exposes Pinker’s shoddy scholarship and leads one to the conclusion that either Pinker had not actually read anything by Whorf, or that he deliberately chose to interpret Whorf’s work in the most radical way possible, only to then demolish it with more force: The higher the strawman is erected, the harder the fall will be, and more people will notice. Either way, the criticism was colourful and sensational and it no doubt contributed further to Pinker’s own legend, let alone his book sales.
    After reading Peter Austin’s account of the recent international conference on language documentation and tradition with a special interest in the Kalasha of the Hindu Kush valleys, Himalayas, I just could not help thinking, once again, of Pinker and Whorf. What is it that drives scholars of international renown and scientific integrity to erect strawmen and assign ulterior motives to what may well be legitimate scientific enquiry? I am of course referring to Peter Austin’s description of the views of the conference organiser, Elizabeth Mela-Athanasopoulou, and those of Augusto (not Alberto as Peter would have you believe) Cacopardo.
    I will first deal with Peter Austin’s treatment of Mela-Athanasopoulou’s paper. He does not provide us with many details, but his careful phrasing leaves no doubt that he believes that Mela-Athanasopoulou strongly promotes the idea that the Kalasha are descendants of Alexander the Great and that her research is ultimately motivated by nationalistic interests. This is apparently extrapolated from the title of her talk, which has the words ‘Kalasha’ and ‘Greek’ in the same sentence. Therefore it must have nationalistic motives! I fail to see the connection, not just because the logic is irrational, but because I happen to know the content of Mela-Athanasopoulou’s work very well. After all, I am her son, and I am also a professional linguist with an active interest in language and culture.
    Mela-Athanasopoulou’s fieldwork research of spontaneous production focuses on a systematic morphophonological comparison of Kalasha and Greek roots (not the evolutionary roots of the languages, but morphological roots-words!) and yielded a substantial amount of similarities. She is genuinely interested in the Kalasha language as a morphologist (she has been for as long as I can remember), and her deep grounding in the Ancient Greek language places her in an ideal position to examine a genuinely interesting and fascinating question: could Alexander the Great, and/or his subsequent Hellenistic descendants have formed some special relationship (physical and/or cultural) with the indigenous population of that area that could be reflected in their remarkably unique language? The Kalasha themselves claim they are ‘descendants’ of Alexander the Great (and this is not just recent, but has been documented by scholars, travellers, amateur anthropologists etc., for at least a century). There also exist several cultural and religious similarities. Why not examine whether there was any language contact as well?
    This question brings me smoothly to Augusto Cacopardo’s paper. As far as I could tell, his paper was not a ‘dismissal’ of any ‘myth’ put forward by Mela-Athanasopoulou. He simply offered several alternative hypotheses regarding the origin of Kalasha customs, cultural habits, and language. One of these alternative hypotheses is that the apparent similarities between Kalasha and Greek culture/language may simply reflect their common Indo-European ancestry and have nothing to do with contact with the Greeks. There are good arguments for both sides, and I would certainly not venture to dismiss one in favour of the other a priori.
    What is beyond doubt is the following: there was NO “careful demolition of [Mela-Athanasopoulou’s] myth”, firstly because Mela-Athanasopoulou herself never subscribed to the “Kalasha descendants from Alexander” hypothesis and indeed made that clear when explicitly asked, secondly because she did not base her arguments on any ‘mythical’ or ‘cultural’ stories from the Kalasha but on actual analysis of linguistic data, and thirdly because Cacopardo himself actually did not attack, in any way shape or form, Mela-Athanasopoulou’s linguistic arguments. Offering alternative hypotheses to explain the same phenomena does not constitute a ‘demolition’ of one’s argument; one can call it scientific debate at worst. The discussion that followed was interesting but in no way ‘vigorous’ or polarised in support of any extreme idea. Of course I cannot know what Peter and Cacopardo discussed in private, so I couldn’t possibly comment on that.
    To then go on to compare the motivations of Mela-Athanasopoulou with the overt government-run propaganda in FYROM is Pinkerian in both inspiration and execution. How a life-long interest in the Kalasha language by a Greek linguist can be construed to be “fuelled by particular local European territorial concerns” by one of the world’s leading experts in language documentation and tradition is just beyond me. To tarnish an otherwise excellent and educational conference with associations to nationalistic or other, unscientific motives, is indeed shoddy scholarship and reveals a deep-seated ignorance on the part of the writer, or, sadly, more about his own political and ideological baggage than those he accuses. I think ultimately it’s not an issue of ignorance or political agenda. A good controversy based on socio-political dimensions of endangered languages is interesting, but usual. But putting a Balkan twist on the usual story certainly makes for sensational blog-reading. Only the twist doesn’t exist this time, and if it does it certainly cannot be found in the recent international conference on language documentation and tradition with a special interest in the Kalasha of the Hindu Kush valleys, Himalayas.
    Dr Panos Athanasopoulos
    School of Linguistics and English Language
    Bangor University
    Bangor, Wales, UK

  2. As a comment to Peter Austin’s account and to Panos Athanasopoulos reaction, I wish to make three remarks:
    1) The opinion I expressed in private to Peter Austin referred in general to the outstanding attention the Kalasha have received in Greece; that is, to “Greek interest” in the Kalasha, as Austin correctly relates. It was an opinion largely based on information and materials received from a Greek student attending an Italian University – plus some searching on the internet – and did not concern specifically Elizabeth Mela-Athanasopoulou’s research.
    2)The second remark is purely scientific. As I argued in my presentation in Thessaloniki, the idea of a Greek origin is not part of Kalasha traditional knowledge. The early literature on the Kalasha makes no mention of it, nor was it mentioned to me at the time of my first fieldwork in Rumbur in 1973. It is only later in the 70s that scholars occasionally start reporting it, without, however, giving it any true credit. The legend moreover, apart from being recent, is also limited only to Rumbur and Bumburet (and even there it is far from being universally shared knowledge). In my enquiries on the oral traditions of the broader Kalasha world of Southern Chitral – carried out in the course of the 90s with Alberto M. Cacopardo – I have found that no other Kalasha community (Birir included) claims an Alexandrian ascendance, or Greek origins in general. In the Hindu Kush such claims were only made by the ruling houses of a number of Muslim principalities – especially by the rulers of Badakhshan – but not by the people of Nuristan before their Islamization nor by the Kalasha. The roots of the legend, everything indicates, are to be found in the body of Muslim lore that spread in Central Asia with the advance of Islam. And – allow me to repeat it – it did not concern the Kalasha or the other (formerly) non-Muslim peoples of the area. All this is argued, and documented, in full in the paper I submitted for publication in the Proceedings of the Conference.
    3) I agree with Peter Austin that the Conference was most interesting and stimulating, and I thank the organizers for their work.
    Augusto S. Cacopardo
    April 21st 2009

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