Languages

There are few places in the world that can claim to have served as the crossroads of civilizations, but Afghanistan's strategic situation between the Middle East, the Asian Sub-Continent and Central Asia defies any challenge to such a claim. Infamous and legendary conquerors such as the Greeks, Mongols, Huns, Arabs and Turkish Muslim Ghaznavids have all passed through the lands of Afghanistan at various times in history with many establishing settlements. Each group left its mark on the landscape. Alexander the Great constructed military forts in cities like Herat in order to create safe havens for his people during uprisings such as the Sati Barzan rebellion. On a more peaceful note, the territory served as a large tract of the routes that comprised the Silk Road. The term itself was coined by the 19th century German scholar, Ferdinand von Richthofen. Along with the precious commodities of silk, ivory, gold and exotic animals, the trade route also had linguistic and cultural impacts upon the region. Many of the traders would end up staying in the region adding to its complex ethnic structure. In fact, when Babur conquered Kabul in 1504, he was astonished that more than 10 languages were spoken there.

The geography not only helped to form the diversity of Afghanistan's peoples, it also served to strengthen the individuality of each group. While the country was traversed time and again by foreigners, the steep mountain ranges and vast gorges also provided protection from outside influences. Once the Silk Road was replaced by increased use of sea routes, groups like the Hazaras, a people of central Asian ancestry who inhabit the inhospitable Central Highlands, were able to live in near-total isolation. This allowed the customs, language and religion (a significant number of Shi'ites in this case) to rest intact even while the outside world was changing rapidly.

It is not surprising given such a history that Afghanistan today is home to more than 44 languages. The two official languages are Pashto and Dari (a dialect of Farsi), both of which are Indo-European languages. It is estimated that about 50% of the population speaks Pashto. Dialects of Pashto include Ghilzai, spoken in eastern parts, and Durrani, spoken in southern parts. The Ghilzai speakers are largely nomadic and represent 24% of the population, while the Durrani represent 20% of the national population and are primarily an urban people. Kandahari is the standard dialect of the mostly Sunni Muslim population around the south, neither southeast nor east.

These dialects of Pashto can essentially be divided into two groups, hard (kh, g) called Pakhto and soft (ah, zh) called Pashto. The line of division between the two dialects cuts right across the Durand line, the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The hard dialect is spoken in the north in Kabul and Nangarhar provinces, and in Peshawar, Pakistan. The soft dialect is spoken in the south in Kandahar, and in Quetta and Waziristan, Pakistan.

The first written records of Pashto are believed to date from the 16th century and tell the story of Shekh Mali's conquest of Swat. The 17th century Pashtun poet, Khushhal Khan Khattak is today considered one of the national poets of Afghanistan. Traces of the history of Pashto are evident in its vocabulary which includes words borrowed from adjacent languages for over two thousand years. The oldest borrowed words are from Greek, stemming from the Greek occupation of Bactria in 3rd century BC. Starting in the Islamic period during the eighth and ninth centuries, Pashto borrowed from Arabic and Persian. Additionally, because of its close geographic proximity to the Indian sub-continent, Pashto has borrowed words from Indian languages for centuries. Pashto was made one of the national languages of Afghanistan by royal decree in 1936 by King Zahir Shah.

Dari speakers are more diverse, counting Tajiks, Hazara, Farsiwan and Aimaq among their numbers. Dari is spoken by more than half of the population of Afghanistan. Dari has is roots in the Persian language Farsi, which is the most widely spoken member of the Iranian branch of the Indo-Iranic languages, a subfamily of the Indo-European languages. Due to the more recent geographic isolation of the peoples of Afghanistan, Dari is considered to be a purer form of Persian than the Farsi now spoken in neighboring Iran, though the dialect spoken by the Hazaras contains a number of Turkish and Mongolian words. Dari has a strong literary history with the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries considered the golden age of Dari poetry. Rumi's (also know as Mawlana of Balkh) Masnavi is considered to be the most profound and the greatest work of Dari literature, and perhaps of all the Islamic literature.

While Dari and Pashto are the official languages taught in the schools and used in business, the landscape of Afghanistan is dotted with a myriad of other national, regional and local languages.

Other Indo-European languages include Western Dardic (Nuristani), Baluchi, and a variety of Indic and Pamiri languages which can be found in the most isolated valleys of the northeast. A sub-family of the Altaic languages, the Turkic language is spoken by the Uzbek and Turkmen counting roughly 11% of the national population, who also generally understand Dari (Persian). Baluchi, with its many dialects spoken in the south and south-west of the country, belongs to the same family as Persian. Pashai, which is spoken in many valleys in Laghman, Kunar and Kapisa provinces in the form of many dialects, has a rich history of folklore and songs preserved by oral tradition.

Afghanistan's most recent data places the total population somewhere around 31 million inhabitants. The vast number of languages spoken within the borders is testimony to its historic place as the crossroads of civilizations and speaks to the exciting diversity of the Afghan people.

Although the languages in Afghanistan are written using adaptations of the Arabic alphabet, none is related to Arabic, which is a member of the Semitic language family, along with Hebrew, and completely different from either the Indo-European or the Altaic language families.