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Number of Speakers: Seven million

Key Dialects: The Baluchi language divides into two main dialects: Eastern Baluchi and Western Baluchi. Within the Western dialect are three further key sub-dialects, Rakhshani and Sarawani (spoken in northern areas) and Makrani (spoken in the south). The Western dialect is the primary dialect and is used in literary Baluchi. Some scholars differentiate a third dialect, Southern Baluchi. However, most linguists agree that Southern Baluchi does not constitute a third dialectal division and is, on the other hand, subsumed under the Western dialect.

Geographical Center: Province of Balochistan, Pakistan

Baluchi (also spelled Balochi) is the principle language of Balochistan, a province of Pakistan. It is not, however, a national language nor does it have official status. It is spoken in a number of other regions including Iran, Afghanistan, India, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and East Africa. Baluchi is classified as an Iranian language of the Indo-European language family. It is closely related to Kurdish and Persian (Farsi). Other related languages include Pashto, Dari, Tajik, and Ossetian.

Baluchi is an Indo-European language classified as a member of the Northwestern branch of the Western Iranian group of the Indo-Iranian language family.

The Eastern and Western dialects of Baluchi are sufficiently distinct, yet for the most part mutually intelligible. The Western dialect is strongly influenced by Persian, although the two languages are not intelligible. The dialect has both considerably borrowed from and influenced a number of neighboring languages including Persian, Arabic, Pashto, and Turkmen. Western Baluchi is much less linguistically homogeneous than Eastern Baluchi, as there are three distinct sub-dialects within the Western dialect (Rakhshani, Sarawani, and Makrani) and no further notable subdivisions concerning the Eastern variant. Eastern Baluchi has also borrowed from and influenced nearby languages such as Sindhi and Pashto, although to a lesser degree than the Western dialects.

Prior to the 19th century, Baluchi was an unwritten language. The British introduced Baluchi in written form during the 19th century with a Roman script. In the late 19th century, a substantial sect of scholars adopted the Naskh or Arabic script, thus dividing the language community. Today, there is no standard orthography. In Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, Baluchi is written using the Arabic/Urdu orthography. The Roman script is widely employed by Baluchi speakers outside these countries.

The phonology of Baluchi is characterized by a phoneme inventory consisting of eight vowels, three diphthongs, and twenty-five consonants. Among the vowels, a long/short distinction exists and is contrastive in the language. The use of retroflex articulations (gestures involving the tongue tip raised or curled towards the back of the mouth) is a characteristic property of the Baluchi sound system and is likely to have been influenced by the languages of India, especially Urdu and Sindhi.

The word order of Baluchi, like many other Indo-Iranian languages, is SOV. The verbal system of the language is comprised of two voices (active and passive), four moods (indicative, interrogative, imperative, and subjunctive), two tenses (past and present/future – nb. morphologically, there is no formal distinction between present and future forms in all verb forms with the singular exception of the copula ‘to be’), and two aspects (perfect, imperfect/continuative). Verbs agree with their subjects in person and number. Complex or so-called “light” verb constructions are productive in the language. In this construction, a nominal, adjectival, or verbal element is followed by an auxiliary verb such as ‘come’, ‘become’, ‘do’, etc. In this way, the number of independent/monomorphemic verb forms in the language is reduced somewhat.

Five cases are attested: nominative, accusative, dative, oblique, and vocative. Linguists, however, disagree on the status of the Baluchi case-marking system. Although in most circumstances, the assignment of case mirrors that of a Nominative-Accusative language (subjects of both transitive and intransitive verbs surface in the nominative case), in the past tense, case marking is more akin to that of an Ergative language. In this way, Baluchi patterns with other Iranian languages that show a tense-related Nominative-Ergative split in their case-marking system (e.g. Pamir (Payne 1980) and Kurdish (Bynon 1980)). More specifically, the nominative case may mark the subject of any intransitive verb in any tense. Likewise, subjects of transitive verbs in the present/future tense show up in the nominative form. However, in the past tense, the subject of a transitive verb must be marked with the oblique case and not the nominative. In other words, an Ergative-like case-marking pattern is found exclusively in the past tense. Furthermore, transitive verbs in the past tense agree only with objects and not with their subjects, as is typically the case. Most dialects of Baluchi, however, are on the way towards abolishing the ergative construction. The varieties of Baluchi spoken in Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, for instance, have neutralized this distinction already.

Gender and definiteness are not grammatically encoded in the morphology. Prepositions, postpositions, and circumpositions (adpositional-like morphemes that appear both pre-nominally and post-nominally) are all attested, another distinguishing grammatical property of the language. Dialects influenced by Persian tend to favor the use of prepositions over postpositions, while those dialects in direct contact with Indian languages prefer postpositions. At present, the use of postpositions is more prevalent than the use of prepositions.

Among the countries in which Baluchi is spoken (Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and the Arab Gulf states), it is neither considered an official language nor (for the most part) taught in the country’s educational system. In 1989, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto gave permission for the use of Baluchi (among other languages) in primary education in Balochistan. Despite this move, Baluchi language education has encountered numerous difficulties. There is a severe lack of teachers; many parents object to Baluchi instruction, demanding their children learn more practical languages like English, Urdu, and Persian; and there is pressure from outside language groups seeking to have their languages taught instead. In this way, education in Baluchi is effectively education in a second language. The language is thus principally one of the home and the local community. At present, courses in Baluchi language and literature are offered at the Balochistan University in Quetta, the provincial capital. There are also several Baluchi language publications in Pakistan, the two most prominent being Balochi (published in Quetta) and Labzank (published in Karachi), in addition to several newspapers. Additionally, there is a Baluchi Academy that publishes literary works in Baluchi and supports the work of literary organizations. The Academy, however, receives limited government funding. As a consequence, the creation, maintenance, and enforcement of a single standardized language for all Baluchi people has proven problematic. Literacy rates are quite low across the board (roughly 1-5% of Baluchi are literate in the written language (Western Baluchi)). The media, however, plays a significant role in the standardization of the language and the intelligibility of Baluchi among speakers of different dialects. Radio Zahedan broadcasts a daily Baluchi language program from the capital of the Sistan-va-Balochistan province, Zahedan.

The Baluchi language is said to have its origins in a lost language related to those of the Parthian and Median civilizations, sometime between 200 B.C. and 700 A.D. Baluchi historical scholars have concluded that Baluchi’s ancestor was neither Parthian nor middle Persian, but rather a lost language that shared a number of properties with both. In this regard, Baluchi has no real affinity with the languages of the Indian subcontinent and is quite distinct from other Iranian languages of the Indo-European language family.

Baluchi was used solely as an oral language up until the 19th century. Prior to this time, it was generally regarded as a dialect of Persian and there was no tradition of using it in writing. Prior to 1947, Persian and English were used as official languages in Balochistan. In 1947, the independent Khanate of Balochistan announced Baluchi as an official and national language. However, in 1948 with the incorporation of Balochistan into the newly created Pakistan, Baluchi was replaced by Urdu as the national language. Today, Baluchi is spoken in several different countries, but neither enjoys official status nor is used in the education systems of the countries in which it is spoken.

Barker, Mohammed Abd-al-Rahman and Aqil Khan Mengal. 1969. A Course in Baluchi. Montreal: McGill University.

Bynon, T. 1980. From Passive to Ergative in Kurdish Via the Ergative Construction. In E.C. Tsugott, R. Labrum, and S. Shephard (eds.), Papers from the 4th International Conference on Historical Linguistics, 151-161. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Collett, Major N.A. 1983. A Grammar, Phrase Book, and Vocabulary of Baluchi. Great Britain: Burgess and Son (Abingdon) Ltd.

Farrell, T. 1995. Fading Ergativity? A Study of Ergativity in Balochi. In D.C. Bennet (ed.), Subject, Voice, and Ergativity: Selected Essays, 218-243. London: School of Oriental and African Studies.

Gilbertson, Major George Waters. 1923. The Balochi Language. A Grammar and Manual. Hertford: Stephen Austin and Sons Ltd.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Jahani, Carina. 2000. Language in Society – Eight Sociolinguistic Essays on Balochi. Universitatis Upsaliensis (Uppsala University).

Khan, Naseer. 1984. The Grammar of Balochi Language. Balochi Acadamy Quetta.

Payne, J.R. 1980. The Decay of Ergativity in Pamir Languages. Lingua 51: 147-186.

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