Indo-Âryan-Speaking Peoples of the Hindu-Kush Region

Indo-Aryan Languages of the Hindu Kush

Name: Indo-Âryan, designating one of the Indo-Âryan languages or a speaker thereof. The Indo-Âryan languages constitute the largest sub-group of the Indo-Iranian (Âryan) group of Indo-European languages.

Other Names: for the region covered on this website, Kohistâni (from Persian kôhestâni 'highlander') and Dard or Dardic (from Sanskrit darʹad- 'a people adjoining Kashmir'), a name extended by Western scholars (without linguistic justification1) from its original designation for inhabitants of Indus Kohistân to include all the Indo-Âryan groups covered here. It is not used in the modern languages of the region.

Location: Indo-Âryan speakers extend from the southern slopes of the Hindu-Kush mountains in northeastern Afghânistân through Pâkistân, India, and Nepâl to Bangaladesh in the east and to Sri Lankâ in the south, and as émigrés in communities outside of this area. The purview of this website covers the northwesternmost Indo-Âryan linguistic communities that occupy the higher watersheds of the Panjshir, Tagâw, Laghmân, Kunar-Chitral, Panjkora, Swat, and Indus Rivers in Afghânistân and Pâkistân.

Population: perhaps around 1,000,000 for all ethnic groups in the region delimited above.

Languages and Ethnic Groups: The Indo-Âryan languages of the region fall into groups based primarily on their geographic locations (native names appear in italics):2

Linguistic Position of the Indo-Âryan Languages: Within the Indo-European linguistic family the Indo-Âryan languages constitute the major sub-group of the Indo-Iranian (Âryan) group, alongside the Iranian and Nuristâni sub-groups. The Indo-Âryas conserved the glottal accentual process of "aspiration", which produces an accompanying acoustic noise on a consonant, while aspiration was lost in the other Indo-Iranian sub-groups. Tendencies of long-term Indo-Âryan phonological development include the spreading of the backed-tongue position of r ("retroflexion") to adjacent consonants and the abrupt releasing of syllable onsets, producing open syllables with single-consonant syllable onsets.

History: Recent and current archaeological research substantiates that around the beginning of the 2nd millennium B.C. equestrian tribesmen bearing the Indo-Âryan branch of the early Âryan culture spread south over the Caucasus from their homeland between the Black and Caspian Seas, to engulf much of the Middle East from Syria to the Iranian Plateau. As the region desiccated, these Indo-Âryas spread east, via Fârs and Seistân into Baluchistân and Sindh toward the south and into Margiana and Bactria toward the north (Sarianidi 1999). Via a central route some Indo-Âryas followed the Helmand basin and crossed the watershed into the Kâbul River basin, reaching Swat as early as 1800 B.C. Pressing onward, southern waves of Indo-Âryas drove toward the Deccan and at some point became maritime, reaching Sri Lankâ and the Maldives, while central waves pushed into the Panjâb and across northern India as far as Bengal and Assam.

By the end of the 2nd millennium B.C. the northern Indo-Âryas of Margiana and Bactria were overwhelmed by Âryas of the Irânian branch of the early Âryan culture, who arrived via the Âmu Daryâ from their probable homelands north of the Indo-Âryas, on the lower Volga and adjacent regions of the northern coast of the Caspian Sea. These early Irânians from the north eventually submerged all the Indo-Âryas to the west of the longitude of central Afghanistân, and their descendants spread east throughout the region from the Hindu-Kush Range in the north to the Makrân Coast in the south, right up to the Indus Valley.

The modern Indo-Âryan speakers of the region treated here are the westernmost surviving Indo-Âryan communities. They derive from the earliest waves of Indo-Âryas who settled the alluvial flatlands of the Kâbul River basin. In the absence of historical and archaeological records from the region, we rely on comparative linguistic data to sketch the early spread of these peoples. The common linguistic heritage of the region's Indo-Âryan languages descends from the Old Indo-Âryan speech of the early Indo-Âryas. In time their language differentiated into clusters of regional dialects along the major tributaries of the Kâbul and further, up the Indus. Beyond some general changes of the Middle Indo-Âryan period, no single linguistic feature has united these regional dialects into a common group; and they have remained beyond many of the later linguistic innovations that radiated out of the Indian Midlands toward the northwest (see note 1). During the past millennium, the region's ancient lowland Indo-Âryan tongues have been overwhelmed by the Pashto of invading Afghâns, while the Indo-Âryan languages of the highlands have survived. The Afghân expansion into Dir and Swat in the 15th and 16th centuries A.D. forced the speakers of today's Kohistâni languages into their present communities in the highlands of the Dir, Swat, and Indus Kohistâns.

Pashto continues to displace Indo-Âryan and Nuristâni speech in the bottom lands of the Laghmân, Kâbul, and Indus Basins. The displacement process derives largely from marriage alliances that indigenous men form with Pashto speakers. A native man's Pashto-speaking wife rarely learns his language, largely because of the general chauvinistic attitude of Pashto speakers, and his children grow up speaking Pashto as their primary ("mother") language.


1. Morgenstierne pointed out the lack of common phonological innovations necessary to place these languages into a phylogenetic subgroup of the Indo-Aryan languages:

There is not a single common feature distinguishing Dardic, as a whole, from the rest of the I[ndo-]A[ryan] languages ... Dardic is simply a convenient term to denote a bundle of aberrant hill languages, which in their relative isolation ... have been in a varying degree sheltered against the expanding influences of IA Midland (Madhyadeša) innovations, being left free to develop on their own. (1961: 139)
I reiterated this point in Strand 1973 (p. 298). In particular, the classificatory scheme of Grierson (1919), which includes all the languages under discussion here in one single "Dardic" branch of Indo-Iranian, has long since been superseded; yet it continues to be followed by a few unenlightened scholars. The problematical history of the term "Dardic" has recently been addressed by Mock (1997-2000)

2. The table of languages presented in Strand 1973 (p.302) suffered from an unfortunate lapse in the editor's responsibility to correct the numerous typographical errors that appeared in the page proofs of that article. Most seriously, Pashai and Kashmiri were incorrectly listed as subgroups of my "Kunar Group" (renamed here "Pech Valley Group") and "Ṣiṇâ Group", respectively. Although this error would be apparent to anyone familiar with the linguistic literature on the region, it has crept in to more widely used sources, such as Masica (1991), Grimes (1996), and Ruhlen (1987). I regret any confusion arising from these errors, which were beyond my control.