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Pashto language

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Pashto language

The word Pashto written in Pashto (Nastaliq style)
Native to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Pashtun diaspora
Ethnicity Pashtun
Native speakers
45–60 million  (2009)[1][2][3]
Standard forms
Central Pashto (Ghilzai)
Yusufzai (Northeastern)
Kandahari (Southern)
Dialects 17 dialects
Pashto alphabet
Official status
Official language in


 Pakistan (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa)
Regulated by Academy of Sciences of Afghanistan
Pashto Academy (Peshawar, Pakistan)[5]
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ps
ISO 639-2 pus
ISO 639-3 pusinclusive code
Individual codes:
pst – Central Pashto
pbu – Northern Pashto
pbt – Southern Pashto
wne – Waneci
Glottolog pash1269[6]
Linguasphere 58-ABD-a

Pashto (پښتو Pax̌tō ; alternatively spelled Pukhto, Pakhto, or Pushtu), also known historically as [7] Pathānī,[8] is the native language of the Pashtun people of South-Central Asia. Pashto is a member of the Eastern Iranian languages group.[9][10][11] Pashto is one of the two official languages of Afghanistan.[4][12][13] It is also the second-largest regional language of Pakistan mainly spoken in the west and northwest of the country,[14] and the main language among the Pashtun diaspora around the world. The total number of Pashto-speakers is estimated to be 45–60 million people worldwide.[1][15][16][16][17]

Pashto belongs to the Northeastern Iranian branch of the Indo-Iranian language family,[18][19] although Ethnologue lists it as Southeastern Iranian.[20] The major differences between Pashto and other Indo-Iranian languages suggests that the situation may be more complex than allowed by these classifications.[21][22]

Geographic distribution

As a national language of Afghanistan,[23] Pashto is primarily spoken in the east, south and southwest, but also in some northern and western parts of the country. The exact numbers of speakers are unavailable, but different estimates show that Pashto is the mother tongue of 35–60%[24][25][26][27] of the total population of Afghanistan.

In Pakistan, Pashto is a provincial language, spoken as a first language by about 15.42%[28][29] of Pakistan's 170 million people. It is the main language of the Pashtun-majority regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and northern Balochistan. It is also spoken in parts of Mianwali and Attock districts of the Punjab province as well as by Pashtuns who are found living in different cities throughout the country. Modern Pashto-speaking communities are found in the cities of Karachi and Hyderabad in Sindh.[30][31] [32][33] [33]

Other communities of Pashto speakers are found in Tajikistan,[34] and further in the Pashtun diaspora. There are also communities of Pashtun descent in the southwestern part of Jammu and Kashmir.[35][36][37]

In addition, sizable Pashto-speaking communities also exist in the Middle East, especially in the United Arab Emirates,[38] Saudi Arabia, northeastern Iran (primarily in South Khorasan Province to the east of Qaen, near the Afghan border)[39] as well as in the United States, United Kingdom,[38] Thailand, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Qatar, Australia, Japan, Russia, New Zealand, etc.

Official status

Pashto is one of the two official languages of Afghanistan, along with Dari (Persian).[40] Since the early 18th century, all the kings of Afghanistan were ethnic Pashtuns except for Habibullah Kalakani.[41] Persian as the literary language of the royal court[42] was more widely used in government institutions while Pashto was spoken by the Pashtun tribes as their native tongue. Amanullah Khan began promoting Pashto during his reign as a marker of ethnic identity and a symbol of "official nationalism"[41] leading Afghanistan to independence after the defeat of the British colonial power in the Third Anglo-Afghan War. In the 1930s, a movement began to take hold to promote Pashto as a language of government, administration and art with the establishment of a Pashto Society Pashto Anjuman in 1931[43] and the inauguration of the Kabul University in 1932 as well as the formation of the Pashto Academy Pashto Tolana in 1937.[44] Although officially strengthening the use of Pashto, the Afghan elite regarded Persian as a "sophisticated language and a symbol of cultured upbringing".[41] King Zahir Shah thus followed suit after his father Nadir Khan had decreed in 1933, that both Persian and Pashto were to be studied and utilized by officials.[45] In 1936, Pashto was formally granted the status of an official language[46] with full rights to usage in all aspects of government and education by a royal decree under Zahir Shah despite the fact that the ethnically Pashtun royal family and bureaucrats mostly spoke Persian.[44] Thus Pashto became a national language, a symbol for Afghan nationalism.

The status of official language was reaffirmed in 1964 by the constitutional assembly when Afghan Persian was officially renamed to Dari.[47][48] The lyrics of the national anthem of Afghanistan are in Pashto.

In Pakistan, Urdu and English are the two official languages. Pashto has no official status at the federal level. On a provincial level, Pashto is the regional language of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Federally Administered Tribal Areas and northern Balochistan.[49] The primary medium of education in government schools in Pakistan is Urdu[50] but the Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have placed more emphasis on English as the medium of instruction as of April 2014.[51] English medium private schools in Pashto-speaking areas, however, generally do not use Pashto. The imposition of Urdu as the primary medium of education in public schools has caused a systematic degradation and decline of many of Pakistan's native languages including Pashto.[52] This has caused growing resentment amongst Pashtuns and they also complain that Pashto is often neglected officially.[53][54]


According to 19th-century linguist [55]

Pashtuns are sometimes compared with the Pakhta tribes mentioned in the Rigveda,[56] the same as a people called Pactyans, described by the Greek historian Herodotus as living in the Achaemenid's Arachosia Satrapy as early as the 1st millennium BC.[57] The Rigveda is believed to be composed between 1500 and 1200 BC— with additions and subtractions being made as the time went on— from this it can be safely assumed that Pashto is as old as the Vedic Period or perhaps even older.[58]

Strabo, who lived between 64 BC and 24 CE, explains that the tribes inhabiting the lands west of the Indus River were part of Ariana and to their east was India. Since the 3rd century CE and onward, they are mostly referred to by the name "Afghan" ("Abgan")[59][60][61] and their language as "Afghani".[7]

Scholars such as Abdul Hai Habibi and others believe that the earliest modern Pashto work dates back to Amir Kror Suri in the eighth century, and they use the writings found in Pata Khazana. However, this is disputed by several European experts due to lack of strong evidence. Pata Khazana is a Pashto manuscript[62] claimed to be first compiled during the Hotaki dynasty (1709–1738) in Kandahar, Afghanistan. During the 17th century Pashto poetry was becoming very popular among the Pashtuns. Some of those who wrote poetry in Pashto are Khushal Khan Khattak, Rahman Baba, Nazo Tokhi and Ahmad Shah Durrani, founder of the modern state of Afghanistan or the Afghan Empire.

In modern times, noticing the incursion of Persian and Persianised-Arabic there is a strong desire to purify Pashto by restoring its old vocabulary.[63] [64] [65]


Pashto is a subject–object–verb (SOV) language with split ergativity. Adjectives come before nouns. Nouns and adjectives are inflected for two genders (masc./fem.),[66] two numbers (sing./plur.), and four cases (direct, oblique I, oblique II and vocative). There is also an inflection for the subjunctive mood. The verb system is very intricate with the following tenses: present, simple past, past progressive, present perfect and past perfect. The sentence construction of Pashto has similarities with some other Indo-Iranian languages such as Prakrit and Hindustani. The Pashto noun comes after the adjective and the possessor precedes the possessed in the genitive construction. The verb generally agrees with the subject in both transitive and intransitive sentences. An exception occurs when a completed action is reported in any of the past tenses (simple past, past progressive, present perfect or past perfect). In such cases, the verb agrees with the subject if it is intransitive, but if it is transitive, it agrees with the object,[23] therefore Pashto shows a partly ergative behavior. Like Kurdish, but unlike most other Indo-Iranian languages, Pashto uses all three types of adpositions – prepositions, postpositions and circumpositions.

Verb and subject

Present indefinite and continues

In Pashto, the subject of the verb is expressed within the verb by adding suffixes, in a similar way to Persian. Some of the common Pashto suffixes are shown in the following table that represent the application of subject suffixes to a verb:
suffix(Pashto Alpha) English (Alpha) For with verb "Kaw"(Doing) Description
م am I Kawam (I doing) Example
و ū we Kawū (We doing) Example
ې e You Kawe (You doing) Example
ئ ai you (plural) Kawai[You (plural) doing] Example
ي i He/She/it(absent) kawi(he doing) Example
ي ee they (absent) kawee (they do) Example



Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e ə o
Open a ɑ

Pashto also has the diphthongs /ai/, /əi/, /ɑw/, /aw/.


Labial Dental Alveolar Retroflex Post-
Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasal m n ɳ
Stop p b t̪ d̪ ʈ ɖ k ɡ q ʔ
Affricate t͡s d͡z t͡ʃ d͡ʒ
Fricative f s z (ʂ ʐ) ʃ ʒ (ç ʝ) x ɣ h
Approximant l j w
Rhotic r ɺ̢

The phonemes /q/, /f/ tend to be replaced by [k], [p]. The sounds /q/, /f/ are non-native Pashto sounds and appear in borrowed words [67]

The retroflex lateral flap /ɭ̆/ (ɺ˞ or ) is pronounced as retroflex approximant [ɻ] when final.

The retroflex fricatives /ʂ/, /ʐ/ and palatal fricatives /ç/, /ʝ/ represent dialectally different pronunciations of the same sound, not separate phonemes. In particular, the retroflex fricatives, which represent the original pronunciation of these sounds, are preserved in the southern/southwestern dialects (especially the prestige dialect of Kandahar), while they are pronounced as palatal fricatives in the west-central dialects. Other dialects merge the original retroflexes with other existing sounds: The southeastern dialects merge them with the postalveolar fricatives /ʃ/, /ʒ/, while the northern/northeastern dialects merge them with the velar phonemes in an asymmetric pattern, pronouncing them as /x/, /ɡ/ (not /ɣ/). Furthermore, according to Henderson (1983),[68] the west-central voiced palatal fricative /ʝ/ actually occurs only in the Wardak Province, and is merged into /ɡ/ elsewhere in the region.

The velars /k/, /ɡ/, /x/, /ɣ/ followed by the close back rounded vowel /u/ assimilate into the labialized velars [kʷ], [ɡʷ], [xʷ], [ɣʷ].


In Pashto, most of the native elements of the lexicon are related to other Eastern Iranian languages. However, a remarkably large number of words are unique to Pashto.[18] Post-7th century borrowings came primarily from the Persian and Hindustani languages, with some Arabic words being borrowed through those two languages.[69][70] Modern educated speech borrows words from English,[1] French,[1] and German.[1]

Here is an exemplary list of Pure Pashto and borrowings:
Pashto Farsi Arabic Meaning
خدمت Service
کوشش Effort/Try
فيصله Decision
دوست Friend

Writing system

Pashto employs the Pashto alphabet, a modified form of the Persian alphabet, which in part is derived from the Arabic alphabet. It has extra letters for Pashto-specific sounds. Since the 17th century, Pashto has been primarily written in the Naskh script, rather than the Nasta'liq script used for neighboring Persian and Urdu.

The Pashto alphabet consists of 44 letters and 4 diacritic marks. The following table gives the letters' isolated forms, along with the Latin equivalents and typical IPA values:

The Pashto alphabet
ā, —
/ɑ, ʔ/






ǵ (or ẓ̌)
/ʐ, ʝ, ɡ/
(or ṣ̌)
/ʂ, ç, x/


w, ū, o
/w, u, o/
h, a, ə
/h, a, ə/
y, ī
/j, i/
ay, y
/ai, j/
əi, y
/əi, j/


Pashto has two main dialects: a 'softer' dialect spoken in the south, and a 'harsher' dialect in the north. The softer dialect is further divided into southwestern and southeastern dialects, and the northern into northwestern (also called central) and northeastern dialects. There are also other minor dialects. The variation between the four main dialects is dominated by the geographical spread of the shift in the pronunciation of these five consonants:

Southwest [ʂ] [ʐ] [ts] [dz] [ʒ]
Southeast [ʃ] [ʒ] [ts] [dz] [ʒ]
Central [ç] [ɡ]/[ʝ] [ts] [z] [ʒ]
Northeast [x] [ɡ] [s] [z] [dʒ]

The morphological differences between any of the four main dialects are comparatively few and unimportant, and their criteria of dialect differentiation are primarily phonological.[71]


Pashto-speakers have long had a tradition of oral literature, including proverbs, stories, and poems. Written Pashto literature saw a rise in development in the 17th century mostly due to poets like Khushal Khan Khattak (1613–1689), who, along with Rahman Baba (1650–1715), is widely regarded as among the greatest Pashto poets. From the time of Ahmad Shah Durrani (1722–1772), Pashto has been the language of the court. The first Pashto teaching text was written during the period of Ahmad Shah Durrani by Pir Mohammad Kakerr with the title of Ma'refa al-Afghāni ("Introduction of Afghani [Pashto]"). After that, the first grammar book of Pashto verbs was written in 1805 in India under the title of Riāz al-Muhabat ("Training in Affection") through the patronage of Nawab Mohabat Khan, son of Hafiz Rahmat Khan, chief of the Barech. Nawabullah Yar Khan, another son of Hafiz Rahmat Khan, in 1808 wrote a book of Pashto words entitled Ajāyeb al-Lughat ("Wonders of Languages").

Poetry Example

An excerpt from the Kalām of Rahman Baba:

زه رحمان په خپله ګرم يم چې مين يمه
چې دا نور ټوپن مې بولي ګرم په څه

Za Rahmān pa xpala gram yam chē mayan yama
Chē dā nor ṭopan me bolī gram pa t͡sa

'I Rahman, myself am guilty/rebuked that I am a lover,
On what does this other universe/world call me guilty.'

Matalūna [proverbs]

Pashto also has a rich heritage of proverbs or matalūna.[72] An example matal [proverb]:

اوبه په ډانګ نه بېليږي

'Water does not separate with a pole [hitting it]'

This matal philosophically means that things which by their nature are destined to be united, force can not separate them.

See also


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