The Pushtu language, also sometimes referred to as Pashto, is the native language of the Pushtun people.
Today the Pushtu language is concentrated primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan; however, significant Pushtu-speaking communities also can be found in Tajikistan, the United Arab Emirates and even the United Kingdom. The lack of records concerning early Pushtu and the enormous variety of influences exhibited in the Pushtu language have made it nearly impossible for scholars to agree on the origins of this intriguing language, and its exact roots remain a mystery.
Classification of Pushtu: An Indo-Iranian Language
The Pushtu language is classified as a member of the Iranian subgroup of the Indo-Iranian group, part of the Indo-European family of languages. The Indo-Iranian language family is generally classified into three developmental phases: old, middle and modern. Scholars have only been able to identify two languages from the Old Iranian period, although it is believed that others existed.
The first, Old Persian, became the basis for modern Farsi, and Farsi dialects developed. The other, Avestan, served as the language for the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. The earliest known written evidence of Old Persian exists in the form of cuneiform inscriptions from the Persian Achaemenid Dynasty, dating from circa 550 to 330 BC. Examples of the now-extinct Avestan language can be found in the Avesta, a text of ancient Zoroastrian scriptures.
Obscure Origins of the Pushtu Language
Although Pushtu is now classified as a member of the Iranian language subgroup along with Farsi and Dari, little is known about the precise origins of the Pushtu language. While the roots of the Farsi language can be traced back to the Old Persian of the 6th century BC, Pushtu’s roots remain unclear and scholars have long debated the language’s origins.
Diversity Within the Pushtu Language
Part of the mystery of Pushtu’s origins stems from the fact that the Pushtu language exhibits a wide variety of influences and includes many traits common to Indo-Aryan languages as well as other Indo-Iranian languages. Based on the characteristics of Pushtu evident today, it is apparent that Pushtu had contact with a number of ancient languages in its early development, including Greek, Parthian and Persia.
This diversity of influences makes it extremely difficult for contemporary scholars to locate the geographic area where early Pushtu may have developed. The only thing that can be known for sure is that Pushtu had contact with these various linguistic groups and borrowed extensively from all of them.
Influences on the Pushtu Language
In more recent history, Pushtu has borrowed extensively from a number of other languages, such as the northwestern Indian languages of Prakrits and Sindhi. Pushtu vocabulary includes approximately 5,500 loanwords from Indian languages like these.
Modern Pushtu also includes a significant number of loanwords from Tajik, a dialect of Persian, and the Turkic language of Uzbek. The language has also absorbed a number of Arabic words or Persianized versions of the Arabic language (which has had an enormous influence on the development of Persian).
Pushtu in Pakistan
Pakistan is a linguistically diverse country and Pushtu is just one of many languages found in the country, in addition to Urdu, Punjabi and Sindhi, among others. Pakistan’s various language-speakers are largely divided along regional lines, and Pushtu is found primarily in the North-West Frontier Province.
Pakistan is also home to a number of government-monitored tribal areas. Here, Pushtun tribes are permitted to govern themselves according to Pushtun custom. Many of these areas are along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and Pushtun migration between the two countries is not uncommon.
Pushtu in Afghanistan
Since 1936, Pushtu has served as one of the official languages of Afghanistan. The country’s other official language is Dari, a dialect of Farsi (Persian) also known as Afghan Persian. Approximately 40 percent of the Afghan population speaks Pushtu, compared to the estimated 50 percent who speak some type of Farsi dialect.
Although the Pushtu language is commonly associated with the Pushtun ethnic group, it is important to note that not all Pushtu speakers are of Pushtun origin – and that not all Pushtuns speak solely Pushtu. There are a great variety of ethnic groups in Afghanistan, and ethnic and linguist divisions do not always correspond.
Modern Pushtu Language and Dialects
The modern Pushtu language is commonly split into two primary dialect groups: southern and northern. While the southern dialect has preserved a more ancient pronunciation that emphasizes “sh” and “zh” sounds, the northern dialect has evolved to utilize more “kh” and “gh” sounds instead.
An estimated 2.6 million Pushtu speakers can be counted in Afghanistan and Pakistan combined. Smaller Pushtu-speaking communities can also be found in countries such as Iran, Tajikistan and the United Arab Emirates. Interestingly, a significant community of Pushtu language speakers can also be found in the United Kingdom.
Written Pushtu Language and Literature
The Pushtu language is written using a modified Arabic alphabet. The earliest known example of literary Pushtu is poetry dating from as early as the 8th century. In 1728, a collection of early Pushtu verse was released in Mohammad Hotak’s “Pata Khazana” (“The Hidden Treasure”). Throughout the 18th century, a number of Pushtu language works appeared, both religious and secular texts. During this time, a great number of Persian literary texts also appeared in Pushtu translation.
The greatest known Pushtu language poet is Khushhal Khan Khatak, the national poet of Afghanistan. Writing during the 17th century, Khatak is now known as the father of Pushtu poetry; he essentially founded the genre of Pushtu language poetry. His powerful lyric poems, many of them written during a period of imprisonment, are known for their dramatic emotional power. Khatak is also noted for his skill in translating Persian literature into the Pushtu language.
Pushtu Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Pashtu, Pushto, Pashto, Quetta-Kandahar Pashto
Language Family: Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, Iranian, Eastern, Southeastern, Pashto
Spoken by Approximately 2,674,000 people
Spoken In: United States
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