Irânian-Speaking Peoples of the Hindu-Kush Region

Iranian Languages of the Hindu Kush

Name: Irânian, in the linguistic rather than the political sense, designating one of the Irânian languages or a speaker thereof. The Irânian languages constitute the second largest sub-group of the Indo-Iranian (Âryan) group of Indo-European languages.

Location: Irânian speakers extend from eastern Turkey through Irân and Afghânistân to Tâǰikistân in the north and Pâkistân in the east, and in a few communities beyond this area. The purview of this website covers the easternmost Irânian linguistic communities that surround the region of Nuristân in northeastern Afghânistân.

Population: Some 3.5 million for all Irânian-speaking ethnic groups in the provinces surrounding Nuristân.

Languages and Ethnic Groups: The Irânian languages of the region include the following, listed according to their phylogenetic position (native names appear in italics):

Linguistic Position of the Irânian Languages: Within the Indo-European linguistic family the Irânian languages constitute a major sub-group of the Indo-Iranian (Âryan) group, alongside the Indo-Âryan and Nuristâni sub-groups. Irânian speakers distinguished themselves from other Indo-Iranian speakers by progressively applying stronger frontal muscular tensing to the laryngeal-lingual complex, thereby progressively tightening the anterior vocal folds and raising the larynx to produce high-pitched vocalization with acoustic noise, while pushing up the root of the tongue to produce vowel fronting ("palatalization") and "prognathizing." The progressive strengthening of frontal laryngeal tensing during the early development of the Iranian languages triggered a cascade of phonological changes:

Among the early Irânian dialects two innovating groups stand out: Eastern Irânian and Southwestern Irânian. A more conservative Northwestern group comprises the remaining dialects. Included in the latter group are Parači and Baraki ("Ormuṛi"), which Morgenstierne (1929b) placed in a "South-Eastern" group.

The Eastern Irânian languages show a continuum of phonetic development that followed the Âmu Daryâ (Oxus) into ancient Khwârezm, Sogdia, Bactria, and the Pâmir Mountains. From Bactria there was a probable further dispersal of Eastern Irânian languages spoken in Afghânistân: the extinct Bactrian of the Surkh Kotâl inscription near Baghlân (2nd Century A.D.) and the modern languages Iškâšmi, Munǰi, and Pashto. A characteristic of the development of the Eastern Irânian languages was

The Southwestern Irânian languages center on the southern Zâgros Mountains and Fârs in southwestern Irân. The most influential of them, Persian or Fârsi, spread from there in ancient times, under the Achaemenian and Sasanian empires, through Irân and northern Afghânistân as far as Central Asia and Tâǰikistân. Southwestern Irânian speakers distinguished themselves through a progressive strengthening of consonantal occlusion, increasing acoustic noise through voiceless spirancy or voiced plosion; e. g., in Old Persian *ć [ts] > θ [a voiceless dental spirant] and *ź [dz] > d, with occlusive strengthening probably caused by increased prognathizing. Similarly, *dv >d. Acoustic noise becomes prominent in the progression of Indo-European *gd > Irânian *ǧd > xt. A later prognathized strengthening of Indo-Iranian *ǰ (< Indo-European *gʷi/e) produced *ź again, which in a later phase lost acoustic noise to become z. Similary, θ later lost noise to become h, and medial voiceless stops became voiced (-t- > -d-, etc.). Within Modern Persian the dialects of Afghânistân preserve the eight-vowel sytem of early Modern Persian, which is reduced to six vowels in Irân and Tâǰikistân. The dialects of Irân show an accentual tendency toward lingual fronting, while in Tâǰikistân lingual backing with lip rounding is an accentual feature; thus a in Afghân Persian becomes [æ] in Irân, while â ([å]) in Irân and Afghânistân becomes o in Tâǰiki.

Within the Irânian-speaking area the polarizing of certain phonological features differentiates linguistic subgroups. Primary is the polarizing of consonantal acoustic noise, strengthened in Southwestern Irânian, reduced in Eastern Irânian. Within Persian, polarization appears as fronted lingual accent in Irân versus backed lingual accent in Tâǰikistân. Dentalized prognathizing, probably expressing defensive belligerency (as it does today in some types of Pashto), appears cyclically throughout the Iraniân region, whence it spread throughout much of the Indo-European-speaking world.

History: The Irânian languages stem from the speech of the northern Âryas, whose probable homelands were on the lower Volga and regions adjacent to the northern coast of the Caspian Sea, north of their linguistic cousins, the early Indo-Âryas. Throughout much of the 4th millennium B.C. the northern Âryas, represented by the Yamnaya archaeological complex, spread east and west across the steppes, reaching as far as central Europe in the early 3rd millenium B.C. Following the Âmu Darya (Oxus) southeastward, they spread into the oases of Central Asia and further eastward along the mountains as far as today's Sinkiang Province of China by the 2nd millennium B.C. By the end of the 2nd millennium B.C. they had overwhelmed the Indo-Âryas of Margiana and Bactria, who had come south and east through the Caucasus and Irân several hundred years earlier. The Irânians of this period spread west and south into Irân and eventually submerged all the Indo-Âryas to the west of the longitude of central Afghanistân. Later waves of Irânian speakers 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.

With the rise of the Persian empire in the 5th century B.C., the Southwestern Irânian language of the Persian homeland of Fârs (Old Persian) began its spread eastward as a lingua franca along the trade routes to Central Asia. It evolved along these routes through a Middle Persian stage under the Sasanian empire into Modern Persian (Fârsi), the earliest forms of which appeared in Afghânistân from the 8th to 11th centuries A.D.

Although some traditions of the Afghâns trace their roots to King Saul of ancient Israel, the clearly Eastern Irânian pedigree of their language belies the Islâmic propaganda behind this origin myth. The Afghâns were probably Saka ("Scythian") tribes that migrated south from Bactria over the major mountain ranges, occupying the lands from Fârâh east to the Sulaimân Mountains by at least the 10th century A.D. Some centuries earlier they apparently amalgamated in the east with Turkish descendents of the Hephthalites (5th century A.D.), who later adopted Pashto and were grafted on to the Afghân tribal descent charter as the ǧalǰi ("Ghilzai") branch (Caroe 1965).

Afghâns from the eastern borderlands filled up the regions of the Kâbul River basin that were left depopulated after the Ghaznavid Turkish conquests of the 11th century A.D. In the succeeding centuries indigenous Indo-Âryan- and Northwestern Irânian-speaking ("Ormuṛ") peoples of the mountains from Paktyâ to Peshâwar (the grafted-on Karâṇi branch of the Afghân descent charter) adopted Pashto. It is typical of these peoples to claim that they are paxt'un but not afǧ'ân, as I myself have verified for Mïšwâṇi tribesmen in upper Kunar.

In the 15th and 16th centuries A.D the Khâkhay branch of Afghâns, which includes the Yusufzi and Tarkâṇi tribes, intruded into the Laghmân, Swât and Panǰkora Basins, displacing the indigenous Indo-Aryan speakers of those regions.

The spread of the Pashto language and culture toward the northeast resulted as much from the adoption of Pashto by peoples who formerly spoke other languages as from the invasions of Pashto-speaking Afghâns. 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.

A similar process of "Fârsification" occurs on the west of Nuristân, where Fârsi is displacing the Nuristâni and Pashai languages in their westernmost valleys of Řâmgal and Fârazhghân.