Pushto is one of the national languages of Afghanistan (Dari
Persian is the other), and the home language of Pushtuns living
in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, and many Pushtuns
living in Baluchistan (Iran and Pakistan). Major Pushto speaking
cities in Afghanistan are Kandahar (Qandahar), Kabul; and
Peshawar in Pakistan. There are 8 million speakers of Pushto in
Afghanistan (50% of the population) and almost 9 million in
Pakistan (13% of the population).
Pushto is one of the East Iranian group of languages, which
includes, for example, Ossete (North Ossetian, south Ossetian,
Caucusus Soviet Socialist Republic) and Yaghnobi
East Iranian and West Iranian (which includes Persian) are major
sub-groups of the Iranian group of the Indo Iranian branch of the
Indo European family of languages. Indo-Iranian languages are
spoken in a wide area stretching from portions of eastern Turkey
and eastern Iraq to western India (see Crystal 1987 and Payne
1987). The other main division of Indo- Iranian, in addition to
Iranian, is the Indo-Aryan languages, a group comprised of many
languages of the Indian subcontinent including Sanskrit,
Hindi/Urdu, Bengali, Gujerati, Panjabi, and Sindhi.
There are two major dialects of Pashto: Western Pashto spoken in
Afghanistan and in the capital, Kabul, and Eastern Pashto spoken
in northeastern Pakistan. Most speakers of Pashto speak these
two dialects. Two other dialects are also distinguished: Southern
Pashto, spoken in Baluchistan (western Pakistan and eastern Iran)
and in Kandahar, Afghanistan; Central Pashto spoken in northern
The variation in spelling of the language's name (Pashto, Pukhto,
etc.) stems from the different pronunciations in the various
dialects of the second consonant in the word; for example, it is
a retroflex [sh] in the Kandahari dialect, and a palatal
fricative in the Kabuli dialect. The major dialect divisions
themselves have numerous variants. In general, however, one
speaker of Pashto readily understands another. The Central and
Southern dialects are more divergent. The Kandahari dialect is
reflected in the spelling system, and is considered by some to be
the "standard" for that reason.
Pushto has been written in a variant of the Persian script (which
in turn is a variant of Arabic script) since the late sixteenth
century. Certain letters were modified to account for sounds
specific to Pushto. Until the spelling system was standardized
in the late eighteenth century, the representation of these
consonants varied greatly. The Pushto alphabet, which has more
vowel sounds than either Persian or Arabic, represents the vowels
more extensively than either the Persian or the Arabic alphabets.
With the adoption of Pushto as a national language of
Afghanistan, some revisions of the spelling system have been made
in the interest of clarity. In Pakistan, the classical spelling
standard is not always followed. There is a tendency to
substitute the Urdu forms of letters.
Pushto has a seven vowel system. There are retroflex consonants
sounds pronounced with the tongue tip curled back--which were
presumably borrowed from nearby Indo-Aryan languages. Unlike
other Iranian languages, such as Persian, Pushto allows consonant
clusters of two or three sounds at the beginning of a
Pushto distinguishes two grammatical genders as well as singular
and plural. There are generally two nominal cases in Pushto,
although the vocative case is still used with singular nouns.
Case is marked both with suffixes and with changes in the vowel
of the noun stem and stress. Verbs agree with their subjects in
person, number, and grammatical gender as well as being marked
for tense/aspect. Past tense transitive sentences are formed as
ergatives: in these, the object rather than the subject agrees
with the verb, and weak pronoun objects rather than subjects are
omitted if they are not emphatic.
Word order, which is very rigid, is subject-object-verb.
A high number of words in Pakistani Pushto are borrowed from
Urdu, which is to be expected given that the majority of Pashtuns
in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan speak at least
some Urdu. As the language of an Islamic people, Pushto also
contains a high number of borrowings from Arabic; among educated
speakers, the Arabic plurals of borrowed nouns are frequently
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In Afghanistan, Pushto is second in prestige to Dari, the Persian
dialect spoken natively in the north and west. Because of the
political power of the Pushtuns, however, Pushto has been a
required subject in Dari medium schools, and as an official
language has been one of the languages of the government. For
practical purposes, however, Dari is the language of business and
higher education, and so Pushtuns learn Dari. Very few Dari
speakers have a good command of Pushto. In Pakistan, Pushto has
no official status; it is not taught in schools and Pushtun
children learn Urdu as their language of education and activities
outside the home.
Pushto has an extensive written tradition. There are a number of
classic Pushtun poets, most notably Khosal Khan Khattak. Modern
Pushtun written literature has adapted those modern western
literary forms, like the short story, that match forms from
traditional Pushto oral literature. Pushtun folk literature is
the most extensively developed in the region. Besides stories
set to music, Pushtun has thousands of two and four line folk
poems, traditionally composed by women. These reflect the day to
day life and views of Pushtun women.
The first written records of Pushto are believed to date from the
sixteenth century and consist of an account of Shekh Mali's
conquest of Swat. In the seventeenth century, Khushhal Khan
Khatak, considered the national poet of Afghanistan, was writing
in Pushto. In this century, there has been a rapid expansion of
writing in journalism and other modern genres which has forced
innovation of the language and the creation of many new
Traces of the history of Pushto are present in its vocabulary.
While the majority of words can be traced to Pushto's roots as
member of the Eastern Iranian language branch, it has also
borrowed words from adjacent languages for over two thousand
years. The oldest borrowed words are from Greek, and date from
the Greek occupation of Bactria in third century BC. There are
also a few traces of contact with Zoroastrians and Buddhists.
Starting in the Islamic period, Pushto borrowed many words from
Arabic and Persian. Due to its close geographic proximity to
languages of the Indian sub-continent, Pushto has borrowed words
from Indian languages for centuries.
Pushto has long been recognized as an important language in
Afghanistan and Pakistan. Classical Pushto was the object of
study by British soldiers and administrators in the nineteenth
century and the classical grammar in use today dates from that
In 1936, Pushto was made the national language of Afghanistan by
royal decree. Today, Dari Persian and Pushto both are official
Pushto is taught at very few universities in the United States
and Canada. The most consistent program offered is at the
Diplomatic Language Services in Arlington, Virginia.
Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1
-2. London and New York: Routledge.
Central Intelligence Agency. 1990. "Ethnolinguistic Groups in
Afghanistan." (Map number 724842 (R00434) 4-90). McClean, VA:
Crystal, D. 1987. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language.
Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue: Languages of the World.
Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
MacKenzie, D. N. 1987. "Pashto". In B. Comrie, ed. The World's
Major Languages, pp. 547-565. New York: Oxford University
_____. 1992. "Pashto." In W. Bright, ed. International
Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Vols. 3:165-170. New York and
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Payne, J. R. 1987. "Iranian Languages." In B. Comrie, ed. The
World's Major Languages, pp. 514-522. New York: Oxford University
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