A Brief Introduction to Pashto Language


Pashto is the language of Pashtuns. They are, historically, inhabited mainly in Afghanistan ; Pakistan ’s North West Frontier and Balochistan. Population is estimated around twenty five millions. Based on Fairly reliable sources, while 52.9 percents speak Pashto in Afghanistan , ethnically Pastuns make up 60 to 65 percents of the population.      Based on a theory that attributes Pashuns to Israelite origin, Pashto had been considered a language of Semitic group. That theory is recorded in great details in Makhzani Afghani, a book written by Niamatulla Herawi in the eleventh Hejri century (17th A.D.) and is widely used as a reference source by Afghan scholars and non-Afghan orientalists in favor of the Israelite theory of Pashtuns.


At the early nineteenth century, when European scholars became interested in Pashtuns’ origin, some accepted the Israelite theory, but others deemed the theory wrong and called Pushtuns to be Arians. (Sir William Jones, Alexander Burnes, William Moorcroft  subscribe to the Israelite theory. On the other hand, Mountstuart Elphinston, John Malcolm, Bernard Doren, and James Darmsteter believe in Arian origin of Pashtuns.) Scholars favoring the Israelitic theory, believe that Pashto is like Arabic and Hebrew a Semitic language. On the other hand, those who accept the Arian origin of Pahtuns, relate Pashtu to Indo-European language group.


At present, based on scientific research in Philology and History, most Afghans as well as foreign scholars agree that Pashto belongs to the Northeast Arian branch of Indo- European language group and its kinship with ancient (Avista and Saka ) languages is considered a proven fact. Ancient forms of the language can be found in the (Zand and Avesta).” The late Norwegian scholar, Georg Morgenstierne (1892-1978) accepts the Indo-European and North-east Arian origin of Pashto language but instead of it’s relation with (Avesta), he believes Pashto is of (Saki) origin.*


As a consequence of life in mountainous areas, weak socio-economic inter-relations, along with other historic and linguistic reasons, there are many dialects in Pashto language. However, as a whole, Pashto has two main dialects: soft or western dialect and hard or eastern dialect. The difference between these two dialects is in the use of some vowels and two sounds: (sh, gh to be added in Pashto alphabet).


Like Pashtuns are called “Afghans” by non-Pashtuns; Pashto is called “Afghani.”  Based on Ghaznavid era literature, written history of the word “afghan” extends to more than a thousand years. The name “ Afghanistan ”, as documented in the History of Herat (12th A.D.) has a history of more than 700 years. In the Indian Subcontinent, Pashtuns are called “Pathan” which scholars think is the Hindi variation of Pashtun.


Pashto alphabet is made Arabic letters. The numbers of sound letters (Phonemes) reaches to forty, of which eight sounds are distinctly Pashto, and the rest are the same as Arabic sounds. Although, we don’t have much definitive information regarding the kind of letters used in written Pashto before the present Arabic based letters. Form coins, earthenware and inscriptions, discovered in various parts of Pashtunhkwa, areas where Pushtuns historically lived, it can be guessed that at some point of time, Pashto was written in “Kharoshti”. But as of today, scholars have not made a lasting judgment on the subject of ancient Pashto alphabet.

With regards to the formation of contemporary Pashto alphabet, it is generally said, that in the era of Gaznvid Sultan Mohmud, his wazir Khwaja Hassan Maiwandi, instructed Qazi Saifullah to develop alphabet for Pashto language. After hard work and many improvements the present form of Pashto alphabet was adopted. But Baizid Roshan, a Pasthun religious and political leader, (931-980), prides himself for inventing Pashto letters, superimposing them on Arabic and thus creating Pashto alphabet. Anyhow, Pashto alphabet has gone through a series of changes introduced by such prominent Pashtuns as Roshan’s peer Baizid Ormar, Nangarhari Akhund Darviza (939-1048), Khushal Khan Khatak (1022-1100) and latter on by Wazir Mohamma Gul Khan, Khan Abdul Samad Khan, and Qalandar Momand. But the present form of Pashto alphabet, initiated by Pashto Tolana (official English name), rectified and agreed upon by scholars in Afghanistan and Pahtunkhwa, has become popular and is widely accepted for writing Pashto.


Pata Khazana or Hidden treasure, compiled by Mhammad Hotak (1728) traces Pashto literature’s poetic samples as far back as the 2nd Hijri Qamari (7th A.D.). Tazkiratul-Awlia, written in Pashto by Suliman Maku in 1215, extends the history of Pashto prose to about 800 years. After Roshani era or 10th century Hijri Qamari (16th A.D.) Pashto written literature, till present day, has had a steady continuity. The era of Khoshal Khan, his sons and his grandsons is considered the golden age of Pashto literature. We will have a headless body, as the saying goes, if Landie and Khoshal Khatak are taken awy from Pashto literature.   


Today, Pashto literature’s active cultural domains are Kabul , Kandahar , Gandahara ( Nangarhar and Peshawar area) and Quetta ( Baluchistan ) and numerous Pashtun men of letters, poet and writers are moving forward with the world cultural caravan.s.