Languages of Afghanistan

My First Book of Chinese Calligraphy

Click on Mimi to watch a
sample.

The winner of Friday’s free copy of My First Book of Chinese Calligraphy was An Chung in Toledo. Thanks for reading, An Chung!

The newest edition of Education About Asia, a subscription quarterly from the Association for Asian Studies, announced a collaborative effort with the National Geographic Society to increase education about Afghanistan. In the winter issue, they featured a 2,500-word overview of the languages of Afghanistan I thought was pretty cool. It’s by Walter Hakala of SUNY Buffalo. By way of some background, my friend Dean at Schoenhof’s in
Harvard Square tells me that interest in books about Middle Eastern languages, especially Arabic, Farsi, and the languages of Afghanistan took off after the events of 9/11. And, in fact, Tuttle has introductions in progress to both Arabic and Farsi. The situation Hakala describes in Afghanistan is complex. No language can claim to be “the national language of Afghanistan”. The most widely spoken language is Dari. The first vowel in Dari is IPA ‘æ’, so the name is closer to “dairy” than “dah-ree”. Linguistically, Dari is a dialect of Farsi. Our Farsi author tells me that Iranian Farsi and Dari differ no more than, say, Chilean Spanish differs from Mexican Spanish; that is to say, not much.

Where Afghanistan’s NE border meets Tajikistan live Tajik speakers, another dialect of Farsi. Most Americans rhyme the first syllable of Tajik with “tragic”. In this case, however, it’s “ah”: TAH-jeek. If you’re rhyming the first syllable of Dari with “bar” and the first syllable of “Tajik” with “tag”, switch them up and you’ll be talking about the languages of Afghanistan with verve and confidence. Dari is the most widely spoken language, but Dari is the second language of many Afghanis. The language with the most native speakers is Pashto, which you may also see referred to or transliterated as Afghani, Pashtun, or Pushto. Like Dari, Pashto is an Indo-European language of the Iranian branch, but Dari is a dialect of Farsi. Pashto is different.

In the north, where Afghanistan borders Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, there are speakers of those two Turkic languages. If one wanted to learn a “lingua franca” of Afghanistan, Dari may be the one. To the extent that it’s a dialect of Persian, you’d also be acquiring a key to the substantial literary history of Persia, such as the ever-popular Rumi. On the other hand, if you, a friend, or a family member were working or serving in Afghanistan, the Western presence in the
country is highest in Pashto-speaking areas, such as Kandahar, so Pashto might be a better choice. Most languages in Afghanistan are written in the “Persian alphabet”, the nastaliq version of the Arabic abjad script adapted by Persia and also used in Urdu.

My short summary just scratches the surface of Hakala’s language map of Afghanistan, but if you’re a National Geographic Reader, we may see more on the subject on their website from this collaborative effort by them and the Association of Asian Studies.

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