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Number of Speakers: Approximately 17 million

Key Dialects: Eastern, Western, Central, Southern

Geographical Center: Northeastern Afghanistan Northwest Frontier Province, Pakistan

Pashto is one of the national languages of Afghanistan (Dari is the other), and the home language of Pushtuns living in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, and many Pushtuns living in Baluchistan (Iran and Pakistan). Major Pashto speaking cities in Afghanistan are Kandahar (Qandahar), Kabul; and Peshawar in Pakistan. There are 8 million speakers of Pashto in Afghanistan (50% of the population) and almost 9 million in Pakistan (13% of the population).

Pashto is one of the East Iranian group of languages, which includes, for example, Ossete (North Ossetia, South Ossetia) and Yaghnobi (Tajikistan).

East Iranian and West Iranian (which includes Persian) are major sub-groups of the Iranian group of the Indo Iranian branch of the Indo European family of languages. Indo-Iranian languages are spoken in a wide area stretching from portions of eastern Turkey and eastern Iraq to western India (see Crystal 1987 and Payne 1987). The other main division of Indo- Iranian, in addition to Iranian, is the Indo-Aryan languages, a group comprised of many languages of the Indian subcontinent including Sanskrit, Hindi/Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, and Sindhi.

There are two major dialects of Pashto: Western Pashto spoken in Afghanistan and in the capital, Kabul, and Eastern Pashto spoken in northeastern Pakistan. Most speakers of Pashto speak these two dialects. Two other dialects are also distinguished: Southern Pashto, spoken in Baluchistan (western Pakistan and eastern Iran) and in Kandahar, Afghanistan; Central Pashto spoken in northern Pakistan (Wazirstan).

The variation in spelling of the language's name (Pashto, Pukhto, etc.) stems from the different pronunciations in the various dialects of the second consonant in the word; for example, it is a retroflex [sh] in the Kandahari dialect, and a palatal fricative in the Kabuli dialect. The major dialect divisions themselves have numerous variants. In general, however, one speaker of Pashto readily understands another. The Central and Southern dialects are more divergent. The Kandahari dialect is reflected in the spelling system, and is considered by some to be the "standard" for that reason.

Pashto has been written in a variant of the Persian script (which in turn is a variant of Arabic script) since the late sixteenth century. Certain letters were modified to account for sounds specific to Pashto. Until the spelling system was standardized in the late eighteenth century, the representation of these consonants varied greatly. The Pashto alphabet, which has more vowel sounds than either Persian or Arabic, represents the vowels more extensively than either the Persian or the Arabic alphabets.

With the adoption of Pashto as a national language of Afghanistan, some revisions of the spelling system have been made in the interest of clarity. In Pakistan, the classical spelling standard is not always followed. There is a tendency to substitute the Urdu forms of letters.

Pashto has a seven vowel system. There are retroflex consonants sounds pronounced with the tongue tip curled back--which were presumably borrowed from nearby Indo-Aryan languages. Unlike other Iranian languages, such as Persian, Pashto allows consonant clusters of two or three sounds at the beginning of a syllable.

Pashto distinguishes two grammatical genders as well as singular and plural. There are generally two nominal cases in Pashto, although the vocative case is still used with singular nouns. Case is marked both with suffixes and with changes in the vowel of the noun stem and stress. Verbs agree with their subjects in person, number, and grammatical gender as well as being marked for tense/aspect. Past tense transitive sentences are formed as ergatives: in these, the object rather than the subject agrees with the verb, and weak pronoun objects rather than subjects are omitted if they are not emphatic.

Word order, which is very rigid, is subject-object-verb.

A high number of words in Pakistani Pashto are borrowed from Urdu, which is to be expected given that the majority of Pushtuns in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan speak at least some Urdu. As the language of an Islamic people, Pashto also contains a high number of borrowings from Arabic; among educated speakers, the Arabic plurals of borrowed nouns are frequently maintained.

In Afghanistan, Pashto is second in prestige to Dari, the Iranian language spoken natively in the north and west. Because of the political power of the Pushtuns, however, Pashto has been a required subject in Dari middle schools, and as an official language has been one of the languages of the government. For practical purposes, however, Dari is the language of business and higher education, and so Pushtuns learn Dari. Very few Dari speakers have a good command of Pashto. In Pakistan, Pashto has no official status; it is not taught in schools and Pushtun children learn Urdu as their language of education and activities outside the home.

Pashto has an extensive written tradition. There are a number of classic Pushtun poets, most notably Khosal Khan Khattak. Modern Pushtun written literature has adapted those modern western literary forms, like the short story, that match forms from traditional Pashto oral literature. Pushtun folk literature is the most extensively developed in the region. Besides stories set to music, Pushtun has thousands of two and four line folk poems, traditionally composed by women. These reflect the day to day life and views of Pushtun women.

The first written records of Pashto are believed to date from the sixteenth century and consist of an account of Shekh Mali's conquest of Swat. In the seventeenth century, Khushhal Khan Khatak, considered the national poet of Afghanistan, was writing in Pashto. In this century, there has been a rapid expansion of writing in journalism and other modern genres which has forced innovation of the language and the creation of many new words.

Traces of the history of Pashto are present in its vocabulary. While the majority of words can be traced to Pashto's roots as member of the Eastern Iranian language branch, it has also borrowed words from adjacent languages for over two thousand years. The oldest borrowed words are from Greek, and date from the Greek occupation of Bactria in third century BC. There are also a few traces of contact with Zoroastrians and Buddhists. Starting in the Islamic period, Pashto borrowed many words from Arabic and Persian. Due to its close geographic proximity to languages of the Indian sub-continent, Pashto has borrowed words from Indian languages for centuries.

Pashto has long been recognized as an important language in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Classical Pashto was the object of study by British soldiers and administrators in the nineteenth century and the classical grammar in use today dates from that period.

In 1936, Pashto was made the national language of Afghanistan by royal decree. Today, Dari and Pashto both are official national languages.

Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1 -2. London and New York: Routledge.

Central Intelligence Agency. 1990. "Ethnolinguistic Groups in Afghanistan." (Map number 724842 (R00434) 4-90). McClean, VA: CIA.

Crystal, D. 1987. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

MacKenzie, D. N. 1987. "Pashto". In B. Comrie, ed. The World's Major Languages, pp. 547-565. New York: Oxford University Press.

_____. 1992. "Pashto." In W. Bright, ed. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Vols. 3:165-170. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Payne, J. R. 1987. "Iranian Languages." In B. Comrie, ed. The World's Major Languages, pp. 514-522. New York: Oxford University Press.

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