Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Guest Blog: Inequality in Equality: Linguistic Convergence between Dari and Pashto

Lutz Rzehak 10 min

Language matters. The issue of how to ‘correctly’ name institutions is just one linguistic issue which has become highly politicised in post-Taleban Afghanistan. AAN 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 second part of his blog, he looks at how Afghanistan’s two main languages, Dari and Pashto, interact.

According to the Afghan Constitution, Dari and Pashto are equal official languages but in reality they are rather unequal partners. The intended Dari-Pashto bilingualism of state officials and civil servants has never become a mass phenomenon among Dari-speakers. Dari-Pashto bilingualism is a common phenomenon in regions with a mixed population with Pashto as the local lingua franca, but it is seldom a result of successful language planning activities. Usually speakers with Pashto as their first language have a better command of Dari as their second language than vice versa. Even many Dari-speakers who have learned Pashto at school for almost ten years remain only passive speakers of Pashto.
This imbalance can partially be explained by the fact that from the point of view of learning psychology, it is, at least at a beginner level, often easier to proceed from a more synthetic language such as Pashto to a more analytical language such as Dari than vice versa.(1) At the same time, the way Pashto was taught and the content of the Pashto courses hardly met the requirements of achieving active language skills. This remains the case today. In some cases, cultural reservations can also form a psychological obstacle to the learning of Pashto.(2)

As a result, in many ministries and other public authorities, correspondence and accounting are held mostly or exclusively in Dari. For example, it is reported that in the Foreign Office, 95 per cent of all letters are written in Dari and that even Pashtun executives write their letters according to the Dari drafts because there are no professional secretaries in the Ministry who would be able to prepare a letter in Pashto. Even in the province of Nangarhar where the majority of the population is Pashtun, official correspondence is undertaken in Dari (Rishtīn 2011, see list of references at the end of the text).

Dari and Pashto are also unequal partners with regard to their degrees of standardisation. Dari has a highly sophisticated and standardised official style that has been elaborated on for centuries. A standardised form of written Pashto was developed only in the second half of the 20th century but it is still lacking a unified orthography.

Phonological differences between the Pashto dialects still result in different spellings. Thus shīdé (milk) can also appear with /ū/ in the first syllable asshūdé.(3) The perfective aspect of the verb kēdǝ́l (become) can be written both with /sh/ as shwəl and with /s/ as swəl.(4)

Dari has a colloquial spoken standard (meʿyār-e zabān-e ʿāmiyāna) with specific phonological, morphologic-syntactical and lexicological features. It is mainly based on the (old) dialect of Kabul, promoted in the media and held in high prestige all over the country.

By contrast, there is no spoken standard of Pashto that would be accepted all over Afghanistan. The north-eastern dialects (around Nangarhar) and the south-western dialects (around Kandahar) have developed separate standards, and smaller dialects like those of the Taṇī́, Dzādzī́ or Wazīrī́ do not belong to any of them.

Dari and Pashto are also thought about differently. In rural areas, it is often said of a person who speaks the colloquial standard of Dari: asrī gap mēzana (‘he speaks the modern way’). In fact, in a particular context speaking asrī (modern) can express a corresponding way of living and thinking. No spoken variety of Pashto is viewed as having similar attributes. Here the attribute adjective asrī is sometimes applied to a person who uses too many English loanwords, but not to somebody who, generally, follows a particular standard.(5)

In a society where two or more languages are used together and where bilingualism is not only an individual but a collective phenomenon, code-copying is a typical phenomenon. Code-copying means that speakers transfer lexical and grammatical features from one language to another. Most obvious are lexical copies (borrowings or loanwords), but the more stable a contact situation is and the closer two languages appear in everyday life the more such phenomena of code-copying can affect other linguistic levels like morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics. In such processes of code-copying, basically all languages in contact can appear as ‘giving’ or as ‘receiving’ partners, but usually the language which is more dominant in public communication (or at least in the relevant fields of communication) offers more models that are copied into the language which is less dominant in communication. Thus, code-copying often reflects a particular asymmetry of the linguistic settings.

Besides official terms, like those which are under discussion today, only few Pashto words were incorporated into the active vocabulary of Dari-speakers in everyday communication, e.g. gadwad (‘mixed’), kezhdi(‘nomad tent’), or powanda (‘nomadic tradesmen’). Some Pashto words are used in a rather humorous way, thus for example, the adjective landai(‘short’) that sometimes is used to create a nickname like shēr-e landai(‘little Sher’). There is no Pashto influence on Dari at any other level other than vocabulary.

On the contrary, colloquial Pashto shows the ever-increasing influence of Dari at all levels of the language. Phonological influence can be seen in the fact that initial /h/ is occasionally omitted as is regularly the case in colloquial Dari, e.g. ǝ́lta (‘there’), áġa (‘that’), alǝ́k (‘boy’), ājī́ (‘Hajji’). Numerous copies of Dari expressions can be observed in the word pool but also in morphology and syntax. Examples(6) show that Dari influence on Pashto is not a phenomenon that would be limited to persons with insufficient language awareness.

Processes of code-copying can be interpreted as processes of linguistic convergence. On the level of spoken language and in the register of informal speech, linguistic behaviour in Afghanistan is characterised by strong processes of linguistic convergence in which Dari presents numerous models that are copied in Pashto. This shows that politically intended linguistic divergence in the more formal and official registers of language as described above goes hand in hand with processes of linguistic convergence in the less formal register of colloquial speech.

In these processes of linguistic convergence, Dari presents much more and a wider variety of model codes that are copied into Pashto than vice versa. One can hardly deny that Dari is more dominant in public communication or at least in the perception of numerous speakers.

Linguistic tensions between Dari and Pashto are strengthened by the fact that both languages have unequal partners outside Afghanistan. In the recent past, historical interrelations between the Dari-Persian language of Afghanistan and the Persian language as spoken in Iran, on the one hand, and Pashto of Afghanistan and Pashto of Pakistan, on the other hand, were essentially intensified due to mass migrations to neighbouring countries and due to the development of new media. In Iran, Persian has national language status and enjoys all conceivable forms of support from the authorities. It is promoted in almost all kinds of modern mass media and is even used in highly specialized fields of science and knowledge. In Pakistan, Pashto has no official status and it is not even used for primary education.(7) As a result, one can observe numerous cases of code-copying in which Iranian Persian appears as the ‘giving’ and Dari-Persian as the ‘receiving’ language. Especially in some Afghan media and in the field of commerce, one comes across numerous terms that qualify as copies of Iranian Persian. These are lexemes like rasanahā for ‘media’, nehād for ‘[political] institution’, behdāsht for ‘hygiene’ or the composite hawāpaimā-ye bedūn-e sarneshīn for ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’, ‘drone’.

Not all words and expressions of this kind, which are offered to Dari-speakers of Afghanistan today, are perceived as something that would be really one’s own in a linguistic perspective. Nevertheless, these copies circulate the Afghan ‘linguistic market’ and some of them like rasana ‘media’ were also incorporated into the vocabulary of Pashto and some minority languages. If there is any influence of Pashto of Pakistan on the linguistic situation in Afghanistan it is restricted to the Pashto speaking community.

This blog takes the subject (and the partial title) of a paper that the linguist Charles M. Kieffer presented to an international workshop held by the German Arbeitsgemeinschaft Afghanistan in 1982. Kieffer gave a detailed overview of the sociolinguistic situation in Afghanistan and he came to the conclusion that from a pure linguistic point of view there were no problems. On the one hand, problems arise ‘from the power relations between families, clans and tribes’ and on the other hand ‘from the necessity to provide guidance for a healthy linguistic ecology in a poly-ethnic and multilingual country’ (Kieffer 1983: 78). This statement is based on the general idea that language and social life are inextricably linked and as such, this conclusion is still acceptable some 30 years later.

The events analysed mainly in part 1 of this blog of the recent past point to some serious problems with the linguistic ecology in the multilingual Afghan society. Today, linguistic problems arise first of all with regard to the two main languages of Afghanistan Dari and Pashto. They were caused by the ethnic dynamics of the civil war that were later enshrined in the new Constitution of 2004. A strengthened ethnic consciousness and new language awareness go hand in hand with politically intended processes of linguistic divergence in the more formal registers of language. However, the less formal registers of language are characterized by simultaneous processes of linguistic convergence in which Dari proved to be the more dominant language as compared to Pashto. The asymmetry of the linguistic setting inside Afghanistan is strengthened by intensified processes of language contact with the unequal language partners of Persian in Iran and Pashto in Pakistan.

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, however). It has been slightly shortened and edited by AAN. 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’).

(*) Dr Lutz Rzehak is a senior researcher and assistant professor at the Department for Central Asian Studies at Humboldt University in Berlin. 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’.

(1) In linguistic typology a synthetic language is a language with a rather sophisticated system of inflection like, for example, French, Russian, or Arabic, as opposed to languages with a more simple system of inflection like, for example, English what is called an analytic language.

(2) This is due to the high cultural prestige of Persian as described in part one of this blog.

(3) The pronunciation of etymological /ī/ as /ū/ and vice versa can be found in various dialects.

(4) The pronunciation with initial /s/ as swəl is characteristic of some central dialects in Afghanistan, e.g. in Ghazni or in the dialect of the Kākaṛ.

(5) Information based on own observations and on interviews with the teaching staff of the Pashto Departments at Kabul and Herat Universities (April and October 2011).

(6) Lexical copies include not only content words but also adjectives, e.g.chap (‘left’) like in chap taráf ta (‘to the left side’) or paisadā́r (‘wealthy’) like in paisadā́r khálək (‘wealthy people’), adverbs, e.g. amēshá (‘always’) orrūzāná (‘every day’) like in rūzāná zarūrī́ chīzū́na (‘convenience goods’). Sometimes Pashto and Dari numerals are mixed up like in calōrǝ́m də shpagǝ́mē nūzdáh penjā́h-u noh (‘on the fourth [day] of the sixth [month] of 1959’). In the speech of many Pashto speakers, compound verbs are quite common where the nominal part has been copied from Dari like farāmū́sh kawǝ́l (‘forget’) or zindigī́ kawǝ́l (‘live’, ‘reside’). Some speakers also happily embed Dari participles in various phrases, e.g. nārasīda (‘not having reached’) like in háġə larġám ta nārasīdá dəi (‘this [place] lies before Largham’), or tālīm yāfta (‘educated’) like in paḳhtānǝ́ chī tālī́m yāftá ná-wī(‘Pashtuns who are not educated’), or bāqīmānda (‘remaining’) in combination with the Dari enclitic pronoun -ash (‘his’, ‘her’, ‘its’) like in dā bāqimāndḗ-sh kōm ke da darī́-zhǝ́bī dī (‘the rest of it are Dari-speaking’).

The latter example shows that not only single words but complete expressions can be copied. Most of them are lexicalized in Pashto, i.e. they are treated like lexical units. Here numerous ezāfa-constructions can be mentioned as well, e.g. the province name in zə də afġānistā́n wilāyát-e paktiyā́ kē paidā́ shǝ́wai yǝ́ma (‘I was born in the province of Paktia of Afghanistan’), the institution name in háġə pōhanzái-ye tib khalā́s kǝ́ṛai dəi(‘he graduated from the medical faculty’) or political buzzwords like jāmeʿe-ye jahānī (‘world community’) like in lə jāmeʿé-ye jahānī́ sara ʿamál kawū(‘we act together with the world community‘). Sometimes even verbs are created with a Dari ezāfa-construction, e.g. dai ihsā́s-e haqārát kawī (‘he feels degraded’). On the level of morphology and syntax Dari influence can also be seen in prepositions that copy the word order of a corresponding Dari preposition, e.g. pə dākhíl də afġānistā́n kī (cf. Dari: dar dākhel-e afġānistān) (‘inside Afghanistan’), or in comparisons nisbát (wu) … ta (cf. Dari: nesbat ba) (‘than’) like in də miʿyāritṓb pə prōsá kī fārsī́ nisbát wu paṣhtṓ ta məkh kī da (‘in the process of standardization Persian has progressed more than Pashto’). Some speakers of Pashto gladly replace the negative form of the copula nəshta with its colloquial Dari form nī́sta like in dā́sē kǝ́lī kī zhrandá nísta (‘there is no mill in this village’).
Pashto has no modal verb with the meaning ‘can’, ‘be able to’. A special mood (potential) of the main verb is used instead, e.g. garzēdǝ́lāy shəm (‘I can walk’).
In Dari the modal verb tawānestan [tawān] ‘can’, ‘be able to’ is combined with the conjunctive form of a main verb. Constructions of this type have already been copied into Pashto for a long time by combining the potential mood of kawǝ́l (‘do’, ‘make’) with the conjunctive of a main verb, e.g.kawǝ́lāy shəm che wúgarzəm (‘I can walk’). These forms are so common today that most speakers of Pashto do not even realize that they follow the model of corresponding Dari constructions. On the top of that, today one can even hear phrases where the Dari verb tawānestan was directly copied as tawānēdə́l into Pashto, e.g. darī́ zhǝ́bī bā́yad tawānēdǝ́lī dī chī pašṣhtṓ zhǝ́ba zda kī ōs (‘Dari speaking persons must be able to learn Pashto now‘).

The last phrase was recorded during an interview with a teacher in the Pashto Department of Herat University. The other sample phrases in this paragraph were taken from various interviews with people from various education levels, which I took between 2002 and 2011, in various parts of Afghanistan. All informants speak Pashto as their first language. Some phrases belong to recordings of talk shows broadcasted by Tolūʿ TV in 2011.

(7) For details see Rahman (1995: 160 ff.).


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Dari Language Pashto