Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Pashto Mashto – what’s that? Read it!

Thomas Ruttig 4 min

The following blog starts our new non- but not a-political blog category called Pashto Mashto. It will not deal with daily political affairs but with issues related to Afghan languages and, more generally, culture(s).

Cultural issues in the broader sense are often only covered at the margins by media (including bloggers) but are, at the same time, important to understand Afghanistan and Afghans – the country’s human terrain if I may use this term appropriated by the military. (But one can try to appropriate it back.) This means that this blog tries to be a bit educational but hopefully not too educational and also entertaining, in a respectful way.

As the title suggests, this blog will not only deal with Pashto or Pashtun culture… (It also does not try to poke fun of Pashto as some people might think.)

The idea came to me when I spent some days with an Afghan Pashtun friend in Kandahar in 2008. We were passing the evening hours in the rose garden of a local guesthouse talking to each other about what we like to read, which music we listen to, reciting poetry (mainly him) – and discussing the languages we were using: Pashto, Dari, English, German…

And although I had spent five years at university in the early 1980s to learn Pashto (with a lot of good teachers indeed), it was him who – with his encyclopedic knowledge of his mother-and-father tongue and its literature – opened my eyes about how rich Pashto is (if you only knew it properly). He knew the names of all kind of birds and gave me the real Pashto terms when I used Dari words which have migrated also into the Pashto of Afghans – but he did not do it in the purist way I had experienced with some university teachers. He showed also me how tolerant, open-minded Pashtun people could be if they were really anchored in their own culture without being chauvinistic because they are really educated.

The title of this blog itself is a wordplay, an onomatopoeia (dt.: Lautmalerei, i.e. ‘painting with words’) used to describe a somewhat unclear, fuzzy category of things related to each other without defining this category specifically. (African languages and Bahasa Indonesia double words to create a plural in not too un-similar way: orang-orang for ‘people’ or pagi-pagi for ‘very early’.) ‘Pashto Mashto’ means: Pashto and things like this – like my first (Khosti) Pashto teacher used to say when we students suggested to have the conversation course in the university club. He would answer: Xhe, radzey che dzu au coffee-moffee (or: chay-may) wu-tsekhu! – Okay, let’s go and have coffee (tea) or something – using the English word which sounds better in this construction than the ‘pure’ Pashto – well, it’s Arabic – qahwa.

You find similar constructions in other languages. In German, we saykuddelmuddel when we talk about a ‘mess’ or a (slight) ‘chaos’ orholterdipolter if something or someone is falling down the stairs, head over heels. In English, this would be helter-skelter (before The Beatles, Wikipedia tells me, Jonathan Swift used this as title for a poem).Kuddelmuddel even has the ‘m’ like Pashto, to create this wordplay.

The funny thing is that Pashto is still such a ‘living’ language that you can construct expressions this yourself and everyone would understand what you mean – even if you wouldn’t be able to find the new ‘word’ in a dictionary. I tried quite often and it worked – like: ‘Hey guys, I am very hungry, let’s get some dodey-modey (bread or so) from the bazaar.’

By the way, how rich Pashto’s bandwidth of sounds is shown by the strange ‘xh’ in my former teacher’s sentence quoted above. It has 39 consonants – more than other Indo-European languages (to which it belongs) like German (25) or English (27). Okay, there are some that are written differently but pronounced the same way (the four different ‘z’, coming from Arabic) which makes it less complicated than it sounds. (Next time, I show you a sentence that is made from all letters of the Pashto alphabet but used only once and still makes – well, a bit Dadaistic – sense.)

‘Xh’ also gives Pashto the option to have a word that consists of a single consonant only. (Try to find this in English or German; in French, you have ‘y’ which looks like a consonant but is spoken like a vowel.) So, it can happen that you sit talking with a Pashtun and he answers ‘xh, xh…’ to what you’re saying – because xh means ‘good, okay’ – which of course isxhə in standard Pashto. (But which one is the standard?)

The ‘xh’ brings us back to Pashto which – actually – should be writtenPaxhto. Because that consonant in the middle is neither a ‘sh’ – although it is pronounced like this in the Southern Kandahari dialect – but also not a ‘kh’ (the German ‘ach’-Laut English speakers have so much difficulty with), as it is pronounced in the Eastern Peshawari dialect. But actually, it is in the middle of both and sounds almost (but not exactly the same) as the German ‘ich’.

And, finally, it is Pashto, not Pasht– although it is Pashtun, for the member of this ethnic/linguistic group. (To add to the confusion, the correctPashto/Paxhto plural of Pashtun – or Paxhtun – is Pashtāne – or Paxhtāne. Which might be the reason why the Britishers and Pakistani calls the Pashtane ‘Pathans’.) Pashto has seven vowels: ā (a long a), a (the short one), e, ə (that would be ‘ı’ in Turkish), i, o and u – and the last ones should not be confused. Just watch the lips when a Pashtun says ‘Paxhto’.

Finally, we would like to kindly invite you to follow and also to contribute to our new column ‘Pashto Mashto’. Xhe rāghlāst! Har kela rā-shey!

(The photo shows a Pashto inscription at the Kandahar shrine for the Prophet’s Holy Cloak – Kherqa-ye Mubarak – in Kandahar.)

PS (and something completely different but cultural…)
I just found a report about the ‘first Afghan indie rock band’. It was founded in 2009, resides in Kabul and is currently playing a gig in Delhi about which the BBC reports here. The three – an Uzbek, a Tajik and a Pashtun – are called Kabul Dream. The guys have some videos and free streams available here and here:

And even free MP3 downloads on Dig it.


Language Pashto