Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Guest Blog: How to name Universities or: Any Linguistic Problem in Afghanistan?

Lutz Rzehak 11 min

Language matters. The issue of what the ‘correct’ naming of an institution is, is just one of the linguistic debates that have become highly politicised in post-Taleban Afghanistan. Our guest blogger, Lutz Rzehak(*), looks at these issues from the point of view of a linguist who speaks three of Afghanistan’s languages and has carried out research there for several decades. In this first part of the blog, he looks at the naming issue and discussed how much, and how differently, language influenced identity among Dari and Pashto speakers. In a second part, to be published soon, he explores how particularly the country’s two main languages, Dari and Pashto, influence each other and presents some surprising findings.

In October 2008, students revolted in Mazar-e Sharif demanding that the wordpōhantūn(1) be replaced with the word dāneshgāh in the (Dari) name of their university. The students objected that pōhantūnwas a ‘Pashto word’ that had been introduced into Dari-Persian by force, whereas dāneshgāh was offered as a ‘pure Persian word’ with the meaning ‘university’. Originally the entrance of the university campus had a nameplate with two names: pōhantūn-e balkh (Dari) and də balkh pōhantūn (Pashto) both meaning ‘Balkh University’. Some students hung up another nameplate next to it saying dāneshgāh-e balkh. Revolts broke out when the new nameplate was removed by the officials.
A couple of weeks later, similar student revolts started in Kabul and during both events deaths were reported. Given the seriousness of the issue, it may not be surprising then, that no final decision has been made as to how universities should be officially named in Dari. Since that time, the Faculty of Languages and Literature of Kabul University has had no nameplate at the entrance, because the revolting students also refused the wordpōhanzai that had been previously used for ‘faculty’, on the grounds that it is a ‘Pashto word’.

These linguistic quarrels did not remain restricted to the milieu of politicised students. The new Higher Education Act cannot pass in Parliament because it is unclear which words should be used to denote the educational institutions in the Dari text. Moreover, in the Parliament the Dari names of some academic degrees were also called into question for being of Pashto origin.(2)

The situation forces some Dari speaking journalists to play linguistic tricks. When, for example, a professor of Kabul University appears in a TV talk show he is introduced as ostād-e dāneshgāh or ‘university professor’ in the subtitles, without specifying the name of the university.(3) In this case, the word dāneshgāh is acceptable because it denotes a university as a category or as a type of educational institution. If the name of the university was specified it would mean deciding for or against using the wordpōhantūn.

In a multilingual society like Afghanistan, one would expect tensions to arise on a linguistic basis, particularly with regard to one of the numerous minority languages. Language planning activities were re-activated during the last decade to develop some of them. In the new constitution of 2004, Uzbek, Turkmen, Pashai, Nuristani (what, in practice, stands for Kati), Balochi and Pamiri (what, in practice, stands for Shughni) were given the status of third official languages in regions where the majority of the population speaks one of these languages. New attempts were undertaken for some of these languages. For the first time, lexicographical works on Turkmen and Balochi were published that feature the vocabulary of these languages as spoken in Afghanistan (Rāsekh-Yāldaram 1388 and Pahwāl 1386, see list of references at the end of the text). However, in modern Afghanistan even discussions regarding non-linguistic issues are often overshadowed by the tense relationship between the two main and official languages Dari and Pashto. Language is not only a tool of communication but also a symbol and a repository of power. Hence, it is evident that these tensions reflect a changing system of power.

Conflict is a process, not a state. The historical roots of today’s quarrels about words like pōhantūn go back at least to the middle of the 20th century. In the territories(4) of modern Afghanistan, Persian has been the dominating language of culture, education and government for centuries. Along with corresponding fields of communication, Persian was used by almost everyone, no matter which ethnic group they belonged to or which language was their mother tongue. To put it another way: Persian was not identified primarily so much with a particular ethnic group, but rather with a specific culture.(5)

The Pashtun aristocracy also regarded the Persian language as a symbol of cultural upbringing. Only during the reign of Zaher Shah (1933-1973) were language planning activities introduced for the first time to facilitate the usage of Pashto in the public sphere. These activities concerned both status planning and corpus planning.(6) Since 1933, all state officials and civil servants have been required to learn Persian and Pashto. For a certain period of time, salary bonuses were paid based on the knowledge of Pashto and, sometimes, Pashto speaking people were favoured for official positions (Kiseleva 1982: 96). In 1936, Zahir Shah declared Pashto an official language together with Persian. This status was fixed for both languages in the Constitution of 1964, with Dari (darī) for the first time being used as the official name of the Persian language of Afghanistan.

In 1937, an organisation named paṣhtō ṭōlǝ́na (‘Pashto Society’) was founded. It made some basic decisions for the standardisation of (written) Pashto, published books and journals on Pashto language and literature and organised Pashto language courses for civil servants. Both official languages were introduced in schooling as compulsory subjects. For this, the territory of Afghanistan was divided according to the dominating local language in so-called Dari speaking and Pashto speaking regions, with either Dari or Pashto used as the medium of instruction and the other taught as a second language from the third class.

Modernisation always requires the development of some kind of national terminology. As a result of the development of Pashto being favoured, some Pashto words were introduced into Dari, with most of them being official terms and belonging to either higher education like pōhantūn(‘university’), pōhanzai (‘faculty’), pōhānd (‘professor’), pōhanwāl (‘assistant professor’) or to the military like dagarwāl (‘Colonel’), jagran (‘Major’), tōlai(‘company’), ghūnd (‘regiment’) and others. However, as Tariq Rahman points out, the official approach remained duplicitous: the ruling elite which was Pashtun, ‘used the apparatus of the state to increase the use of its language, thus symbolising its dominance, while privately acting according to its internalised values’ (Rahman 1995: 152), in other words, favouring Dari as a more sophisticated language, with higher prestige.

The 1990s were dominated by civil war and political chaos. The front lines often ran along borders that could be described as essentially ethnic boundaries, and the civil war took the shape of numerous ethnic wars all over the country. During the reign of the Taleban, ethnic differences were to be rejected by a very specific interpretation of Islamic order, but linguistically, there was a preferential treatment of Pashto which was mainly realized by pressure and force.

As a result of all this confusion, the ethnic factor gained in importance to such an extent that after the fall of the Taleban, it was regarded necessary to mention the ethnic composition of the country in the Constitution of 2004. Article 4 lists numerous ethnic groups and, in doing so, declares unmistakably that national unity is not to be based upon the rejection of ethnic or linguistic differences.(7) This declaration did not only reflect the ethnic dynamics of the previous decades. By establishing an ethnic nomenclature of legal relevance it also helped strengthen these dynamics in the years that followed. The official status of Dari-Persian and Pashto was reconfirmed in article 16.

Against this historical background, the revolts of some Dari speaking students in fact express a stronger ethnic consciousness and new awareness of language that some speakers of Pashto, however, also do not lack. In the recent past, numerous neologisms were introduced into Pashto to replace words which previously had been borrowed from or via Dari and belonged to the common Afghan vocabulary of Dari and Pashto, e.g.wulusmǝ́shr (‘President’), ṭōlṭākǝ́na (‘plebiscite’), (‘referendum’), plāzamī́na (‘capital’), khwadzǝ́sht and ghūrdzáng (both in the meaning of ‘movement’),zēzhī́z (‘Anno Domini)’, larwī́n (‘television’). Some of these words are used exclusively in the written language, while others were accepted into the colloquial language as well.

In defence of the word pōhantūn to be used in the official Dari names of Afghan universities, Pashtun language activists usually claim that, ‘there must be common terms for common institutions since we live in one country’.(8) However, they ignore the fact that it runs against this claim when Pashto speakers use words like wulusmǝ́shr instead of raīs-e jomhūr(both nouns in this phrase are actually Arabic in origin but the link between them – the ‘-e’ [ezāfa] – is typically Dari) that previously had been used both in Dari-Persian and Pashto.

Of course, there are still a huge number of common words in Dari and Pashto and some Pashtun authors apply very subtle methods to some to actually accentuate the differences. Pashto has retroflex sounds that do not exist in Dari. For this reason, some Pashtun authors write words of Persian origin with retroflex letters to let them appear ‘more Pashto’ or even ‘genuine Pashto’, e.g. retroflex /ḍ/ in panḍ (‘advice’) or retroflex /ṛ/ in pāṛsī́(‘Persian’).(9)

Linguistic behaviour of the kind found among some speakers of both Dari and Pashto can be characterized as politically intended linguistic divergence or as a tactic of achieving intergroup distinctiveness in search of a positive social identity. ‘By diverging one’s communicative style (…), members of an ingroup accentuate linguistic differences between themselves and a relevant outgroup on, usually, a highly valued dimension of their group identity’ (Giles 2001: 195).

In Afghanistan, the strengthened ethnic consciousness that bears the attempts of achieving more linguistic distinctiveness comes along with a paradigmatic change to the understanding of what language is. Language is first of all, less associated with a certain type of culture than it is seen as a criterion for demarcation. Accordingly, the term ‘mother tongue’ (Dari:zabān-e mādarī, Pashto: mōranǝ́i zhǝ́ba) started its political career as a highly emotionalised ideological catch-phrase.

In this respect, however, the situation is quite different for speakers of Pashto and for speakers of Dari. For most Pashtuns, the knowledge of Pashto is an important but insufficient criterion for being Pashtun. Pashtuns have maintained their tribal organization. Belonging to a particular tribe and, ideally, observing the rules of the tribal code of honour are not less important criteria than speaking Pashto. For example, in Herat and Nimroz many Pashtuns speak Dari exclusively, but all of them know which Pashtun tribe they belong to. Neither among their neighbours nor among other Pashtuns is there any doubt about their being Pashtuns. They can be regarded as ‘bad Pashtuns’ who have given up their language but, nevertheless, they are Pashtuns.(10) It can be concluded from this that tribal belonging is more important for being Pashtun than language.

The situation is completely different among Dari speaking groups. Historically, speakers of Dari-Persian identified themselves and were identified by others not as a single grouping, but by very different criteria. This could be their place of settlement or origin (like kābolīherātīmazārī,badakhshīanārdaraī, etc.), their way of life (tājīk in the meaning of ‘Persian speaking and Sunni peasant or city dweller’, aimāq or ēlāt in the meaning of ‘semi-nomadic tribesmen’), ethnic origin (like hazāra, ʿarab, jūgī (11), etc.) or a combination of these and other criteria. Though speaking Persian is a common feature of all of these groups they have never been seen as a united category. No generic term existed that consolidated all the various groups of speakers of Dari-Persian according to the criterion of language. The word pārsīwān (‘Persian-speaker’) which was much more popular 20 or 30 years ago than it is today, could be seen as a group name, but it has never been applied to all Dari-Persian speakers.

However, today the term tājīk (‘Tajik’) is being offered as a category that could consolidate almost all Dari-speakers (with the exception of the Hazara). Before the civil war, the word ‘Tajik’ was in use as an ethnic denomination in some regions in north-eastern Afghanistan. Today it is used for self-denomination by Dari-speakers in Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif and Ghazni and is applied as an official category by government agencies to Dari-speakers in many other places. Dari-speakers of Herat still have difficulties calling themselves ‘Tajik’, but when their ethnicity has to be fixed, for instance on the identity card, they will agree to go by the term ‘Tajik’. After all, herātī is not listed in the enumeration of ethnic groups within the constitution. Similarly, in many cases, Aimaq, Arabs and other Dari speaking groups and even speakers of Pamiri languages may be officially registered as Tajiks.(12) It seems Hazara are the only group of Dari-speakers to whom the term ‘Tajik’ remains inapplicable today.

While language is an insufficient criterion for being Pashtun, a new ethnic unit named ‘Tajik’ is being created in Afghanistan based exclusively on the criterion of language. This can, at least partially explain linguistic behaviour that is aimed at achieving intergroup distinctiveness in search of a positive social identity. Politically intended linguistic divergence is a result of the ethnic dynamics in modern Afghanistan.

Please read part 2 of this blog on our Chat Mat category:  ‘Inequality in Equality: Linguistic convergence between Dari and Pashto’.

This article first appeared in Orient II/2012, a special issue on Afghanistan of this academic journal based in Berlin (find its website here; this issue is not online yet). It has been shortened and edited by AAN and the author.

(*) Dr Lutz Rzehak is a senior researcher and assistant professor at the Department for Central Asian Studies at Humboldt University in Berlin. He speaks Pashto, Dari and Balochi. There he teaches languages and the cultural history of Afghanistan. He is the author of AAN’s March 2011 thematic report ‘Doing Pashto: Pashtunwali as the ideal of honourable behaviour and tribal life among the Pashtuns’. He also worked on the edition of the Balochi-Pashto-Dari-English dictionary by Pahwal (see under references).

(1) For Dari and Pashto words, a simplified system of Romanisation is used in this paper. Most characters and pairs of characters (sh, zh, ch, kh, ai, au) can be pronounced almost like in English. Following the Romanisation tables of the Library of Congress retroflex sounds are marked by a dot under a character. A macron over vowel (ā, ē, ī) shows that it should be pronounced as a long vowel. The character ә stands for a mid-central vowel sound (schwa) which is pronounced like a in English ‘separate’ (sepәrәt). The combination gh should be pronounced as guttural ‘r’ (sometimes known as French ‘r’).

(2) The Information on the events described in the first three paragraphs is based on eyewitness reports that were recorded at the same time in Mazar-e Sharif and on information provided by teachers of Kabul University in April 2011.

(3) Tolo TV on 11 April, 2011, in the talk show Kankāsh and also in other talk shows on this channel.

(4) The plural (‘territories’) relates to the fact that the frontiers have changed several times in a historical perspective.

(5) For the historical importance of Persian as the first Islamized language see Fragner (1999).

(6) Language planning can be of two kinds, status planning and corpus planning. Status planning deals with the external factors of language use and refers to all efforts undertaken to change the social functions of a language within a given society, mostly be defining its formal status as ‘official language’, ‘state language’ or as ‘language of instruction’, etc. Corpus planning is concerned with the internal structure of a selected language or linguistic variety. A central aspect of corpus planning is language standardization through the creation and establishment of a unified linguistic norm. Typical efforts include the production of grammars, dictionaries, the development of spelling rules, etc. For details see Meshtrie et al. (2009, 372 ff.).

(7) For a discussion of this list see Rzehak (2012: 137-139).

(8) Statement of a member of a Pashto language and literature circle known as the Dǝ balkh adabī khwadzəsht (‘Balkh literature movement’) as recorded during an interview taken on 8 October, 2011, in Mazar-e Sharif.

(9) The examples of this spelling given here were found in a text about language development of Pashto (Āzād 2011). On the retroflex sounds, /ṭ/ and /ḍ/ can only be found in some dialects of the Hazara.

(10) Information is based on interviews among the local population in Herat and Nimroz provinces (2003, 2005 and 2011).

(11) The Jūgī are so-called peripatetic nomads in Balkh and other provinces of northern Afghanistan, ie they offer a craft or trade, for example as barbers (ḍam) or fortune-tellers (falbīn), or are beggars. By origin they are close to the Jat in other parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Balkh they speak a variety of Persian by which they can clearly be recognized as Jūgī.

(12) Information is based on sporadic inquiries among the local population of Kabul, Herat, Balkh and Badakhshan provinces in April 2010 and September-October 2012.


Dǝ paṣhtō ṭōlәnē tārīkhcha 1316-1356, Kābul: Pashtō ṭōləna 1977 (= An history of the Pushtu Academy 1937-1977).

Āzād, Malūk, 2011, ‘Zhəbpōhānō! Paṣhtō pər khpəl sar rawāna da’ (03.04.2011), (retrieved 23 February, 2012).

Fragner, Bert G., 1999, Die ‘Persophonie’: Regionalität, Identität und Sprachkontakt in der Geschichte Asiens, Berlin: Das Arabische Buch (= ANOR 5).

Giles, H., 2001, ‘Speech Accommodation*, Rajend Mesthrie (ed.): Concise Encyclopedia of Sociolinguistics, Amsterdam et al: Elsevier, 193-197.

Kieffer, Charles M., 1983, ‘Die kleinen sprachlichen und ethnischen Gruppen Afghanistans – Gibt es ein linguistisches Problem in Afghanistan?’, Siegmar W. Breckle, Claus M. Naumann (eds.):Forschungen in und über Afghanistan. Situation der wissenschaftlichen Erforschung Afghanistans und Folgen der gegenwärtigen politischen Lage. Vorträge auf der 6. Internationalen Arbeitstagung der Arbeitsgemeinschaft Afghanistan in Bielefeld, 4.-5. Februar 1982, Hamburg: Deutsches Orient-Institut, 71-91(= Mitteilungen des Deutschen Orient-Instituts 22).

Kiseleva, Lidiya Nikolaeva, 1982, ‘Dvujazychie pashto-dari v Afganistane’,Narody azii i afriki 6, 94-99.

Lorenz, Manfred, 1990, ‘Die Entwicklung des Paschto als moderne Literatursprache’, István Fodor, Claude Hagége (Eds.), Language Reform: History and Future. Hamburg: Buske, 105-125.

Mesthrie, Rajend; Swann, Joan; Deumert, Ana; Leap William L. (eds.), 2009, Introducing Sociolinguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Pahwāl, ʿAbdorrahmān, 1386, Balōchī gālband. Qāmūs-e balōchī, paṣhtō, darī, englīsī. Ba kūshesh-e doktūr Lūts Zhehāk wa Bēdollah Nārūyī – Balochi Gālband. Balochi-Pashto-Dari-English Dictionary, edited by Lutz Rzehak and Bedollah Naruyi. Kabul: Al-Azhar Book Company [= 2007].

Rāsekh-Yāldaram, [pōhandōy] Mohammad Sāleh, 1388, Farhang-e rāsekh (torkmanī darī). Kābol: Wazārat-e omūr-e sarhadāt wa aqwām-u qabāyel. Riyāsat-e nasharāt wa omūr-e farhangī [= 2009/2010].

Rahman, Tariq, 1995, ‘The Pashto language and identity-formation in Pakistan’, Contemporary South Asia 4:2, 151-170.

Riehl, Claudia Maria, 2009, Sprachkontaktforschung. Eine Einführung, Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag.

Rishtīn, [al-hāj] Fazlullāh: Paṣhtō zhəbi sara də mōr mairē sulūk kēẓ̌ī (20.06.2011).

Rzehak, Lutz, 2012, ‘Ethnic Minorities in Search of Political Consolidation’, in Shahzad Bashir and Robert D. Crews (eds.), Under the Drones: Modern Lives in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Borderlands, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 136-152.

Thomason, Sarah G., 2001, Language Contact, Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press.


Photo by Thomas Ruttig, 2010


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