Afghanistan is a complicated country. In the continual geopolitical furori that have thrust an unassuming, ruggedly beautiful land with few resources a thousand miles from any major capital into the global spotlight, it is easy to forget that it is notable for anything besides war.
But Afghanistan has a fascinating linguistic heritage, reflecting the diversity of Central Asia and holding a unique place in the patrimony of one of the world’s great languages. Modern Afghanistan’s two official languages, Dari and Pashto, are members of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. They are cousins of Farsi, all of them being descendants of the Middle Persian of the old Persian Empire.
Dari, the traditional administrative language and lingua franca of the country spoken as a first or second language by over three quarters of the population, is mutually intelligible with Farsi. In fact, until the Pashtun-dominated government defined it as a separate language in 1964, it was considered a dialect of Persian. Many of its speakers still consider it as such; the label confusion has caused headaches for uninformed foreigners operating in the country. It can, however, play well to the linguistically-inclined: the polyglot US politician Pete Buttigieg brags that in seven months in Afghanistan he learned both Farsi and Dari, which is impressive, but sounds considerably more so to foreigners than to Afghans.
Pashto is the native language of about half the population, making Pashtuns the largest group in Afghanistan by a significant margin. The Pashtuns have dominated Afghan politics since the country was just a province of the Safavid Empire of medieval Persia.
More than any other group, they identify themselves with Afghanistan’s ancient record of resisting invading empires. When the mighty Persian Empire collapsed at the feet of Alexander the Great, they held strong (though small communities of Greek settlers survived for centuries). In the past century and a half, they have worsted the British, the Soviets, and now the Americans.
One might expect that a people whose heritage revolves around resisting foreigners would have a pretty conservative language, and Pashto does not disappoint. It retains much ancient Persian vocabulary and grammatical complexity that was lost in Farsi. Its standing in the Indo-Iranian family is similar to in Germanic languages of Icelandic, another isolated tongue that gives us the closest glimpse of how everyone spoke a millennium ago.
Other major Persian ethnic groups include the Tajiks, who, as one might expect, live near Tajikistan, and Hazaras, who were viciously persecuted by the Taliban in the 1990s and unfortunately probably will be again.
Uzbeks, who compose about 10% of Afghanistan’s population, are different. They speak a Turkic language closely related to those of other “-stan” countries (except Tajikistan), and more distantly to that of their jumped-up cousins who made a grand name for themselves in Anatolia. Outside the big hitters, German-Finnish linguist Harald Haarman estimates that Afghanistan is home to more than three dozen minor languages and around 200 dialects. Probably the most eccentric is Brahui, whose closest relatives are in southern India. Big languages other than Dari and Pashto were recognized as regional languages under Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution, but in the resurrected Taliban emirate, their official future is unclear.
Many Afghans are multilingual, and despite their famous resistance to foreign conquest, many do apply themselves to learning foreign languages. About 5% speak English, whose presence in Afghanistan dates to British involvement in the region as part of their 19th Century Great Game against Russia; it has piqued a lot of interest in more recent years, for obvious reasons. Many learn Urdu, the language of neighbouring Pakistan, which shares Indo-Iranian kinship, the Persian script, and much Persian vocabulary with Dari and Pashto. Russian never really caught on, but in the past month, Mandarin has dipped a toe over the mountainous Sino-Afghan border.
Arguably Afghans’ favourite foreign language is one that less than 1% speak. Arabic is hard to learn, but observant Muslims cannot help but pick some up. Arabic has held its small but sturdy foothold since the early Middle Ages, when Khorasan (as the country was known then, and is still today by the Islamic State’s now-infamous chapter there) was Islam’s home away from home in stubbornly Zoroastrian Persia.
In recent years, many Afghans have also been learning Modern Standard Arabic to benefit from job opportunities in or connected to rich Gulf states that have few of the West’s compunctions about fundamentalist Islam. Afghanistan may be the graveyard of empires, but at least one foreign language has put down roots in the fresh-turned earth.