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.