Lesley Downer, E. O. Lorimer, SF 70
Baltit Fort, ancestral home of the Mirs of Hunza

Unravelling Burushaski

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When I was young I thought I knew exactly where the real Shangri-La was. It was the land of Hunza, in north-west Pakistan, or if not, then Gilgit or Chitral, and those magical names remained with me as I grew up.

Years later I was clearing out my father’s things and discovered a worn, spineless, much-used book on his shelves. It was called Language Hunting in the Karakorum. More years passed before I discovered where and what the Karakorum are and where my identification of Hunza with Shangri-La had come from. My father never went there but this book must have convinced him that Hunza was that perfect, unspoilt place, and it became one of those certainties that he passed on to me. I settled down to read it. With that rather forbidding title, I hadn’t been expecting such a thrilling tale of travel and adventure, every bit as gripping and informative and exciting as the best travel books.

Language Hunting in the Karakorum (1939) was written by E. O. (Emily Overend) Lorimer, wife of Lieutenant-Colonel David ‘DL’ Lorimer, who had been posted to Gilgit as Political Officer in 1920 to advise its ruler, the Mir, and effectively be the real power right across this British-held territory. Asked by DL’s superior officer whether she would be willing to go with her husband to the hardship posting of Gilgit, Emily replied, ‘I’m willing to go with my husband to HELL.’

After four years DL and Emily retired to England, having spent most of their spare time in Gilgit getting to grips with the Shina language, and most especially Burushaski, the fiendishly difficult Hunza language that belongs to no known family of languages. In 1934, now in their mid-fifties, they decided to return under their own steam so that DL could continue his study of Burushaski. Language Hunting in the Karakorum is Emily’s fascinating account of their year and a quarter in Hunza, their adventures, experiences and the many people whom they befriended

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About the contributor

Lesley Downer is half Chinese but has spent much of her life in Japan, either in reality or imagination. She writes fiction and non-fiction on Japan, including four epic historical novels, The Shogun Quartet, based on fact and set in the mid-nineteenth century.

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