Sep 7, 2021 • 34M

What Do They Speak in Afghanistan?

Almost every Afghan speaks one of two main languages — and you may never have heard either.

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Dari and Pashto are the two major, official languages of Afghanistan, and are even siblings in the Iranian subfamily of Indo-European languages. One, says John McWhorter, is “disarmingly approachable” while the other is “deliciously intimidating.”



From Booksmart Studios, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I'm John McWhorter and here is our question for this episode. What do they speak in Afghanistan? Notice my melody. I put Afghanistan on the low pitch. I didn't say, what do they speak in Afghanistan? I don't mean that precisely. I mean, what do they speak in Afghanistan? The low pitch means that it's a concept that we already know. And by that I mean that we know why I'm talking about Afghanistan and that the reasons are extremely unfortunate. But because this is a language podcast, it occurs to me that we might want to cover, among all the sorts of things that we're thinking about Afghanistan, what is it that the locals there speak? What do they speak in Afghanistan?

You might reasonably suppose that it's Arabic. If I were a layman, I think that's the first thing that I would think. As a matter of fact, I remember when the Taliban first started making the news a good long time ago, I kind of wondered what language is all of that taking place in? And it isn't anything that kept me awake at night, but I didn't know as much of the time and I thought Arabic, I guess. But if you're looking at scenes in Afghanistan, no, they're not speaking Arabic, but then they're not speaking Afghan or Afghani either. Properly, there is no such language. You might think there was because, say, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan. In Turkmenistan, they speak Turkmen, among other things. In Kazakhstan, they speak the language Kazakh. But it's not always like that. So, for example, in Pakistan — our sister podcast Banished, which is hosted by Amna Khalid happens to come to mind — Aman Khalid is Pakistani. Originally, she speaks not some language called Paki, which doesn't exist to my knowledge. She speaks Urdu. She doesn't speak Paki. Same thing with Afghanistan. There is no Afghani language. Noticed that you've never heard of it. Have you ever heard anybody say, well, my original language was Afghan? There's a reason, there is no language like that. And that's because there are two main languages in Afghanistan. And, you know, we can go through our whole lives and never hear them if we don't happen to be people who live in Afghanistan or somewhere close to it. The two languages are Dari and Pashto, Dari and Pashto. Most people in Afghanistan, whatever they spoke on their mama's knee, speak Dari. About half of the population of Afghanistan speak Pashto. A great many people, of course, speak both. And there are other languages. But the big two, the official ones and the ones that almost anybody knows one of and quite possibly both are Dari and Pashto. And what in the world are those? I would say that I've met one Dari speaker in my life and I'm pretty sure I have never met anybody who spoke Pashto, not in any real way. And yet millions and millions and millions of people speak these two languages. What are they? As it happens, they come from the same linguistic family, technically subfamily. And as it happens, the two languages teach us a lesson because they're on opposite poles of the family in terms of an interesting contrast in the ways that languages can be languages. So let's take a look at Dari and Pashto, because that's what the people who we’re seeing in the news are speaking. They're not speaking Arabic.


Dari is Persian. I think we all know where Persian is spoken, in terms of its central location, but there are two other places that have truly massive numbers of speakers of Persian. It's just that it isn't called that there. So if you're speaking Persian in Afghanistan, it's called Dari. If you're speaking Persian in Tajikistan, then it's called Tajik. But Persian, Dari and Tajik are the same language. They are different dialects of the same language. No one would call them separate languages. They're all Persian. Of course, there are differences in vocabulary from place to place, differences in pronunciation, and sometimes a little bit more than that. But they are all the Persian language. It's a little lesson in how languages and nations do not have perfectly corresponding boundaries. Persian is spoken in a big giant splotch, and Iran is only one place where it's spoken. All languages, unless they're very small, are bundles of dialects. And so unless the language only has, say, a few million speakers, you can be pretty sure that it's not going to be spoken the same way in place A as it is in place B, and then there's going to be a different flavor of it in place C. Sometimes these different dialects will have different names. And so, for example, I've mentioned on this show and in many other places that really, in perfectly objective eyes, if no one knew anything about geography or history, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are one language you might call mainland Scandinavian. But for various reasons of history and culture, they are called the three separate languages of Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. So we have Persian, Dari and Tajik. They are all the same basic thing. And Persian, or Dari or Tajik, is interesting because it is a disarmingly streamlined language if you're trying to learn it. It's truly surprising to encounter Persian, or if you encounter it in its Dari or Tajik form, it's the same thing, and to find that you don't have the challenge that you associate with learning just about any other language that you've had to deal with. And so I remember way back before I knew anything about Persian, in the mid 90s, there was an elderly gentleman who was caught in the rain outside of my apartment. What you do is you let that gentleman in and what you do when you have absolutely nothing in common with someone, if you're me, is that you see what language they speak originally if you notice that they speak English with an accent. Turned out that he was a Persian speaker. And so we just started talking about how his language worked because I was genuinely interested. And that was about all we were going to manage a conversation with, given what looked like was going to be a long time because he had locked himself out of the apartment next door.


So the first thing that I noticed is that this language doesn't have gender. Like, of course, there can be a difference between a bull and a cow, but it doesn't have that business of silly gender that so many European languages and beyond have. No, you know, hat is masculine and moon is feminine, like in Spanish, just none of that at all. IT just struck me as unusual, given that Persian is an Indo-European language. It was different. But, you know, we all have our quirks. You never know what's going to happen. I, for example, I don't own a single hat, never have. Not since I was a kid when people would impose them on me. I don't wear hats. I'm not afraid of them, but I don't think I look very good in them. And I have never found myself thinking, oh, goodness, my head sure is cold. It's not my head that gets cold, it's my fingers, etc. So I don't own a hat. That's my quirk. Well, Persian doesn't have the gender, but then it kind of went on. So I said, well how do you do the plural? And he said, well often you don't. And so I was thinking, well what do you mean? Because an Indo-European language usually is quite anal about saying that you're not seeing leaf on the trees, you're seeing leaves, even though the chances of you only seeing one damn leaf on a tree are very small, you have to say leaves. And some of you may know that if you go beyond Indo-European, languages often are not that persnickety about plural. If you're doing Chinese or Japanese, you see leaf on the trees. Only if you're really being picky are you going to say that you see leaves because it's so obvious. Usually you mark something with plural when it's either human or when it's definite, and you really need to specify that there's more than one. That's the way a great many languages are. You don't have to be as draconian about marking that there's more than one of something that there almost always is in a great many languages beyond Indo-European. But all of a sudden you have Persian acting like it's Chinese or Japanese. And you might think, well, there's something about the air in Asia or something like that. But no, I knew that there was something really unusual when we started doing the verbs, and so what you want to know is how you conjugate verbs and you're thinking it's going to be like Spanish with the hablar. Why can't I use an accent, hablar “to speak,” comer “to eat” — COMER — and then vivir “to live.” You have to have those three classes and the endings are kind of different. So I'm just waiting for that because it would pass the time, because it kept raining and raining. And so I buy, mikharam, okay. You buy, mikhari, okay. He, she, it buys, mikharad, okay. And you just had these, these endings, so boom boom boom. Okay, that's good. Now what's, is there another flavor. That's buy. But what about one where it's going to be like instead of am, i, ad, it's going to be something like em, e ed, you know because all languages are going to be like Spanish. And he said no, that's it. And I said, well yeah, how about the past? You know, and the past is usually, you know, some shit show in a language of this family. And well, mikharam, that's “I buy.” Now then “khar” is the “buy,” the “mi,” you drop that off. And so, “kha,” and then if it's “I bought,” you say “kharidam.” So it's that same “am” from “I buy,” mikharam, but you stick an “id” in between the verb and that ending. So kharidam, “I bought.” Okay well if “i” is the “you” ending, I said I'll bet it's kharidi. And he said yes you are right, you are talented. I don't think that demonstrated any talent, but I could see a pattern coming. And then it turned out that if you want to say, “he, she, it bought” then you just say kharid, and you don't have anything. Well, okay, and I kind of prodded him. I said, is that really it? Because this is just not the way Indo-European languages really are.


And you know what Persian is a lot like? It's a lot like English. If English and Persian were people and they met, they would bond. They would feel like they were similar cases amidst the norm of how Indo-European language works. And so, for example, here and there, I say English is the only Indo-European language in Europe that doesn't have crazy gender. Now, it's easy to listen to me saying that or read me saying that, and miss the Europe part. And smarty-pants always writes in or, you know, says something on Twitter where they say, no, no, you know, Persian doesn't have gender either and it’s Indo-European. I said in Europe, but they missed that. But the fact is, in Europe, it's English. Anywhere else it's Persian. They have that in common. And it's because of Persian, like English, having gotten beaten up, if I may. English is the way it is because, starting in 787 A.D., Scandinavian Vikings came to England and beyond in great numbers, married native English speaking women and Dad spoke funny English. And in a time when there is virtually no literacy, no such thing as school for all but very few people, no such thing as the media, language is all oral. The way Dad spoke his funny English affected the way new generations learned English. And that means that I'm right now speaking really shitty Old English in a way because it lost so much. And I shouldn't say shitty because there's nothing remotely shitty about Persian. But Persian is the same story in that Old Persian was much, much more complex. But Persian was a language of empire. And in order to build especially various monuments and various municipalities within Persia, Persia imported people from a great many other places. And one thing about those people from other places is that because they were from the other places, they did not speak Persian. And as a result, they came up with a simpler kind of Persian and passed that down the generations in a society that largely did not have literacy. And next thing you knew, you had a streamlined kind of Persian such as you have today. So both Old English and Old Persian went through the same process, and the result was the disarmingly approachable, for a foreigner, versions of the languages that you have today. So Persian has always fascinated me in that way. And by the way, some of you may be thinking, why isn't he saying Farsi? And the reason I'm not saying Farsi is because I don't call French Francais and I don't call Finnish Suomi. That's what it would be like. You may choose to do that, but Persian is what the language is called in English. Farsi is what it's called in the Persian language. And so in the interest of consistency, if you don't say I'm going to learn some Español, and you mean it outside of quotation marks, you don't say you're going to learn some Farsi either. I know that opinions may differ on that in some places, but that's actually what I was taught by a Persianist, and so I am going with him. But in any case, what this means is that you're learning Persian on a rainy day and you're finding that it's smooth, it's sweet, it's lovely. It reminds you of a song, say, of 1931. You knew it was coming. And the song was called Sweet and Lovely. I remember one day when I was living on the Lower East Side in grinding poverty as a grad student, I was walking my way to NYU and for reasons I don't even understand now, there was a 1920s band playing a 1931 arrangement out there on those Lower East Side streets. Why they chose there, I don't know. I remember it was a crisp fall day and all of a sudden this beautiful song is being played by this authentic band. And I remember I'm not that old. This is 1987. So this is already an antique sound. I don't mean: I remember how the bands used to sound. That's not what Imean, it was just like, wait a minute. And I loved the chords in this song, Sweet and Lovely. So I'm giving you Sweet and Lovely. The lyrics, frankly, are just treacly. Forget the lyrics, listen past the words and listen past the fact that that high tenor was fashionable at the time. It's a pretty tune. It reminds me of poverty, autumn and the Reagan administration.

Music: Sweet and Lovely


Dari has what we could call the bully pulpit in Afghanistan, in that it is the one that most people speak, you know bully pulpit reminds me that the other sister podcast of Lexicon Valley here at Booksmart is Bully Pulpit with Bob Garfield. Subscribe to Lexicon Valley, please, but don't forget Amna Khalid’s Banished and also Bob Garfield's Bully Pulpit. That just happened to come to my mind. In any case, what about Pashto? Well, you know, let's go back to English to understand how Pashto works. And so, Proto-Germanic was a language that was very complicated. It's got case endings all over the place. The verbs are so complicated you barely believe anybody could actually use them. There were those old Indo-European languages, like Sanskrit, like Latin, like Proto-Germanic. That language hits the continent and it spreads around and that language gets learned by lots of other people. And the result is, at the extreme, English, where Vikings beat it into the quote unquote, easy language that it is today. But even elsewhere, there were similar stories. And so, for example, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are all a lot like English in that way, not quite to that extent, but they’re a lot like it. And that's because speakers of Low German, which unfortunately is spoken above what is called High German and is really a different language. Speakers of Low German came to the Scandinavian area and they beat up the Old Norse that those languages originally were, which was one of these early Proto-Indo European languages. They beat it up in the same way as Vikings beat up old English. And so, Swedish and Danish and Norwegian are very approachable languages, Danish less so because of some eccentric things that have happened to its sound system. But those are, you know, relatively streamlined languages, as grammar goes. Dutch is a lot the same way and German could be worse compared to — it's no accident that the version of Proto-Germanic that’s spoken way up on a remote island like Iceland remains still that complicated. Icelandic is like Latin, Icelandic — it's not as difficult as Sanskrit, but it's that sort of thing because almost nobody bothered it. Some people. But for the most part, over the years, if you weren't a native Old Norse speaker up there, well, you didn't have much influence on the language. Same thing in the Faroe Islands, actually, but Icelandic is better known. So that's the sort of thing that happens where you'll have the easy member of the family. English is the extreme in Germanic compared to Icelandic. They both are descended from the same ancestor. Icelandic didn't fall far from the tree. English went to, like, Jupiter. There's Persian, then Persian has a sister, not a sister podcast, but a sister language. And that sister is none other than Pashto. Pashto is the Icelandic of the family that Persian and Pashto belong to. And it's not that Pashto went to Jupiter, but Pashto has not been learned by non-native speakers, not been learned by the naïve, over the age of 15 or 16 foreigner, to the extent that Persian was way back in its history. And so what happens is that Pashto suddenly is complicated the way languages normally are. So if the guy I had, you know, rescued from the rain had been a Pashto speaker, we'd still be sitting there figuring it out today. So, for example, Persian kind of doesn't want to mark the plural. And when it does, it does it with this one suffix. Well, in Pashto, the plural could make a grown man cry, like eyelashes, banugon. Okay? Hands, las, not gon, not lasgon, lasuna. Wolves, [native pronunciation], mothers-in-law, [native pronunciation]. I like that word too — [native pronunciation]. All those different plural endings depending on, you know, what gender and then what all sorts of other things. There are all sorts of plural endings and Pashto to an extent you just have to know. But then to an equal extent there's just a lot you have to know to know which one to use. And then, you know, don't even get into the verbs. And so, for example, fell, like I fell from the roof. So I fell, luedum. Okay, luedum. So the um is the I. No I didn't fall, you fell. Okay, luede. Okay, so far so good. Now, he fell, lueda. What happened there is that now the lued doesn't have the accent and you just have to know. It's not luEDa, it's luedA, and then it's this weird a sound. So I fell, luedum. You fell, luede. He fell, lueda. And then, you don't get away with he, she and it the way you do in Persian, you have to have a “she” of its own. And so luedella, she fell. And this sort of thing goes on and on. There all sorts of different flavors. It's deliciously intimidating. And on top of that, in Pashto, you've got case and so nouns are different depending on whether you're just using them in the vanilla way or whether they're possessive. And so, you know, something like the book's cover or if you want to say something like it's on the book, then it's a whole different form. If you want to say, oh, oh book — then it's the vocative. Usually you use it with people, something like Oh Cow! Or, Jared! Well, you have to use an ending. So you've got case in this language. Pashto is a completely different thing than Persian. It is related to it. It comes from the same original language, but it's a whole different thing because it has not been touched by non-natives’ grubby mitts the way Persian was. At Columbia, where I teach, there's a program called General Studies and General Studies is where students come and they get their undergraduate degree after having spent their late teens and into their 20s and sometimes beyond doing other things. And sometimes the other thing is, you know, being a ballet dancer. Sometimes the other thing, actually frequently the other thing, is serving in the military. And I have had a few students, more than a few GS, as we call them, students who served in Afghanistan. And unbidden, two of them independently told me that in their language training, they found that Dari was cherry pie. They didn't use that expression. But that Dari’s easy. And with Pashto, actually, one of them said, just forget it. And the other one just shook his head and looked out the window like he'd been through something awful. So Persian, real easy, but Pashto just insurmountable. And that's because of this difference between the two of them, Dari and Pashto.


Let's pull the camera back. They’re a family. It's actually a subfamily of Indo-European, is Iranian. There are languages spoken in, big surprise, Iran and also in Afghanistan and also Tajikistan. And this is the Iranian group. So we've talked about Germanic and there's Slavic. Iranian is another one. And the thing about the Iranian subfamily and the reason that I've never done a show explicitly dedicated to it is because most of us have never heard of any of the languages except Persian, you know, not even Pashto, really. Beyond Persian and Pashto, the one that you may have heard of in the news is Kurdish or if anything, you hear about the Kurds and their fate as a technically stateless group. They speak a language called Kurdish. And Kurdish is very interesting in terms of its difficulty. It would be in between Persian and Pashto. Then with the others, just forget it. They’re languages that you have no reason to have heard of beyond where they're spoken. The next biggest one is Balochi, for example. They have great names often. Yazgulyami is my favorite. Wakhi is fun to say. Ossetian. There's something fun about every one of those languages, but for me to talk about it would be to just give you a list of languages and factoids. And that's not teaching. That's just recitation. And I don't want to do that to you, but if you want to learn more about them, you have to know where to look because a lot of the description of these languages is in French or Russian. It can be tough to really get a hold on Iranian. I remember when I decided I needed to because of a project I was doing about 15 years ago, so much was in French or Russian. It was as if the whole group were just saying, fuckya. My father used to tell this story of how he watched — there was a woman that they were trying to evict from her apartment and she kept on opening the door and saying, fuckya, just fuckya. And the languages, I thought, you know, if you only read English, then they're just saying, fuckya. But the truth is, they are really a fascinating story. And you find that Persian is the easy one and Pashto, it’s like it's trying to be hard, and the rest are all in between. And by the way, of course, Pashto has gender. It divides things into, you could say, guys and dolls and, you know, Guys and Dolls was and is and will always be a Broadway musical. There was a delightful revival in 1992, beautifully recorded, unlike the original. The original Guys and Dolls in 1950, the Broadway recording sounds like it was done in somebody's basement. You get no sense of why people love the show so much. But in 1992, it just jumps, quote unquote, off of the turntable. This is just the title song, which I love. And, you know, one of these guys singing is J.K. Simmons. This is just before he becomes the favorite that we know him as in, you know, from the Coen Brothers films, et cetera. One of these people is him singing and what a great little song.

Guys and Dolls


Finally, what they're not speaking in Afghanistan. We have to go back to that because it's so easy, given the situation to not be clear on this. And, you know, people don't talk about it much. They're not speaking Arabic. Arabic is a Semitic language, as we've seen in this series. Semitic belongs to this Afro-Asiatic family, but Arabic is related to, for example, Hebrew, not to mention Amharic over in Ethiopia. But, the people who are in Afghanistan, they're Muslim, but they don't speak Arabic, because, as we know, all Muslims do not have Arabic as a native language. Now, what makes it even more confusing is the common idea that a language is what it's written in, that the script is the language. And Persian and Pashto are written in variations on the Arabic script. But that doesn't mean that they are Arabic or that they're even related to Arabic in the family sense. And so if you see German or Czech on the page, you don't think, well, that's some kind of English. Same thing here. So, without a doubt, Dari written and Arabic written, if you don't know either one of them — and sometimes if you're kind of familiar with both — they look like the same thing on the page because of that script, but they're completely unrelated things. Then what about Turkish? You might think, you know, based on, you know, aspects of physiognomy and the geographical contiguity — how does Turkish fit into this? Well, they're not speaking Turkish in Afghanistan either. And the thing is that you might think it because there's Uzbekistan and there's Kazakhstan, there's Turkmenistan and there's Tajikistan. They frustrate me. I learned my countries as a Montessori kid back in the early 70s with these wonderful maps, with puzzle pieces so you learned it in a tactile way. But my geography, to an extent, is frozen then. And those new Stans, that wonderful blossom of countries, well, there were no puzzle pieces of that. And so they're never in my mind as much as everything else. So Afghanistan to me, that is, you know, ABC. But Tajikistan, where is it? But, if you look at the map and you see those well, as it happens, Uzbek and Kazakh and Turkmen, those languages are all closely related to Turkish. And so you might kind of think, well, Afghanistan, well, maybe there's this Turkish language, Afghani or something like that. But actually, Turkish is a whole separate thing. Turkish is not related to Arabic either. Turkish is the sort of head honcho language of what's really a bunch. They're almost a kind of stripe. Turkish Uzbek, Uiger is another one, then there's Kazakh, there's Kirgiz, there's Turkmen, there's a bunch of them. And all of them are kind of like Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. They kind of run into one another. They all have very similar grammars. So that's Turkic, as it's often called, because sometimes it could be hard to figure out where the line is between Turkish and this one and that one and that one. But, Turkish is not Persian, Turkish is not Pashto and Turkish is not Arabic. Now, what makes this even more confusing is that Turkish is full of Persian words. And wouldn't you know, Turkish is also full of Arabic words because Persian is full of Arabic words and Turkish inherited the Arabic words from Persian as well as the Persian words. So Turkish has a very mixed vocabulary, used to be much more mixed. But even now you've got all this Persian and then Arabic stuff in it. And so you're thinking, well, these languages must be related, but no. Turkish’s grammar, the way you put the words together, is completely different from what's going on in Persian or Pashto or Arabic. And so Turkish is this language where the verb always comes at the end, where it's all about having not prepositions, but postpositions. It's a very interesting way of putting words and sounds together, completely different from Dari, Pashto or Arabic. And so, it's easy to think, even if you happen to be a Turk, that your language is related to Persian because it's got all those words. But it's just like with the script, the words is not the family relationship. So, for example, if I say: Officially, concerts present various problems. Officially, concerts present various problems. None of those words are originally English. And yet obviously that was a sentence in English. It wasn't in French, wasn't in Latin. That's the issue with Turkish. And so Turkish is itself in terms of what most of the words are, by most counts, and in terms of the grammar, even though it's got lots of Persian and Arabic words in it, Turkish is a whole different thing. And this Turkic group is part of a whole family called Altaic, which is different from Iranian, Indo-European and Semitic and Afro-Asiatic. And Altaic is not only Turkic, but as you move rightward, eastward across Asia, it's Mongolian and its friends. Then there's a language called Manchu and it has a few friends. And then possibly Altaic is Japanese and Korean. Now, in some circles, you could be banished. You can be banished from the room for insisting that Altaic is actually a family. Some people prefer to think of Turkic and Mongolian and the Manchu group and Japanese and Korean as separate families. And they think that all of these languages have very similar grammars just because they have been in contact with each other. I don't have a dog in that fight, but to the extent that anybody would ask me, which they shouldn't, there is an Altaic family and that's what Turkish is part of. So what do they speak in Afghanistan? They speak Persian, except it's called Dari there. And they speak a language called Pashto, which is a lot like what Persian would be if Persian hadn't gone through something similar to what English went through back in antiquity, when before there was much writing, a language could be profoundly changed by a certain critical mass of people learning it who were not natives. Dari and Pashto, that's what they are.

If you'd like to leave a comment, check out our other great podcasts, Banished and Bully Pulpit, or subscribe, please visit Our producers are Matthew Schwartz and as always, Mike Vuolo. And our theme music. Don't you like it? I like it. It was created by Harvest Creative Services. And I am John McWhorter.