Revisiting Pashto/پښتو


Pashto, An Elementary Textbook

In December, I blogged about an excellent overview of the languages of Afghanistan by Walter Hakala of SUNY Buffalo published in Education About Asia. They and National Geographic teamed up to create some fresh articles about the peoples and cultures of the country. This morning I’m revisiting one of those languages, Pashto.

Hakala explains that this linguistically diverse country has two main languages: Dari and Pashto. Both are members of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. The lingua franca of Afghanistan is Dari—whose first vowel is an IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet, not India Pale Ale) /æ/ and so is closer to ‘dairy’ than ‘dahry’. Dari is an eastern dialect of Farsi. It has the most speakers if you count those who speak it as their mother tongue OR as a second language.

Pashto is the language of the Pashtun peoples, who make up an estimated 40% of the population. Theirs is the Afghan language with the most native speakers. It’s also in the Iranian family, although not a dialect of Farsi. Travel east of the Pashtun heartland, and you pass from the lands whose languages are related to ancient Persia and Avestan and into those whose modern languages descend from Vedic Sanskrit. The main cities of the Pashtun homeland are ones we’ve become familiar with during the NATO operations in the area: Kandahar in Afghanistan and Quetta and Peshawar in Pakistan. Because of that, interest in Afghan languages among the general public in the West has often begun with Pashto.

Pashto is written in a modified form of Arabic script, but, as an Indo-European language, it has a linguistic landscape that shouldn’t feel altogether unfamiliar to English-speakers. Just like the Romance languages, for example, Pashto has a 2-gender, sex-based gender system. It mostly uses suffixes to inflect words. I can’t find a consensus on how many noun cases Pashto has. Grammars list between 2 and 4. All seem to agree, however, that the main two are the nominative and the oblique, from which I infer that, like most Indo-European languages, Pashto had a complex case-marking system that coalesced around a 2-3 basic forms.

The definitive textbook and gold standard for Pashto learning is Georgetown University Press’s PASHTO: An Elementary Textbook by Rahmon Inomkhojayev, and my good friends at Georgetown University Press have donated a copy of Volume 1 to this week’s Language Omnivore free book raffle. This book is the beginning of a set that covers first-year college instruction in Pashto. It includes a wide selection of task-oriented, communicative language materials. It takes a functional approach to grammar, and the book includes a great CD-ROM that features authentic audio and video materials.

I’m really grateful to GUP for donating this very valuable book. If you’d like to win the book, click here to email me just put Pashto or پښتو in the subject line.

مننه Manana! (Thanks!)


Languages of Afghanistan

My First Book of Chinese Calligraphy

Click on Mimi to watch a

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.