Languages of Afghanistan

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Languages of Afghanistan
Ethnolinguistic groups of Afghanistan in 1997 (Hazaragi and Tajik are dialects of Persian)[1]
OfficialDari Persian, Pashto
RegionalUzbek, Turkmen, Balochi, Pashayi, Nuristani
MinorityArabic, Gujari, Urdu, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Sindhi
ForeignEnglish (c. 5%)[2]
SignedAfghan Sign Language
Keyboard layout
Persian keyboard (ISIRI 9147)
Sign in Paktika Province with Pashto text

Afghanistan is a linguistically diverse nation, with upwards of 40 distinct languages.[3][Note 1] However, Dari[Note 2] and Pashto are two of the most prominent languages in the country, and have shared official status under various governments of Afghanistan. Dari, as a shared language between multiple ethnic groups in the country, has served as a historical lingua franca between different linguistic groups in the region and is the most widely understood language in the country.[4][5] Pashto is also widely spoken in the region; but the language does not have a diverse multi-ethnic population like Dari, and the language is not as commonly spoken by non-Pashtuns.[6][Note 3] Dari and Pashto are also (in a linguistic sense) "relatives", as both are Iranian languages.[7][8][9][10]

According to CIA World Factbook, Dari Persian is spoken by 78% (L1 + L2) and functions as the lingua franca, while Pashto is spoken by 50%, Uzbek 10%, English 5%, Turkmen 2%, Urdu 2%, Pashayi 1%, Nuristani 1%, Arabic 1%, and Balochi 1% (2021 est). Data represent the most widely spoken languages; shares sum to more than 100% because there is much bilingualism in the country and because respondents were allowed to select more than one language. The Turkic languages Uzbek and Turkmen, as well as Balochi, Pashayi, Nuristani, and Pamiri are the third official languages in areas where the majority speaks them.[11]

Both Persian and Pashto are Indo-European languages from the Iranian languages sub-family. Other regional languages, such as Uzbek, Turkmen, Balochi, Pashayi and Nuristani, are spoken by minority groups across the country.

Minor languages include: Ashkunu, Kamkata-viri, Vasi-vari, Tregami and Kalasha-ala, Pamiri (Shughni, Munji, Ishkashimi and Wakhi), Brahui, Arabic, and Pashai and Kyrgyz, and Punjabi.[12] Linguist Harald Haarmann believes that Afghanistan is home to more than 40 minor languages,[3] with around 200 different dialects.


The Persian or Dari language functions as the nation's lingua franca and is the native tongue of several of Afghanistan's ethnic groups including the Tajiks, Hazaras and Aimaqs.[13] Pashto is the native tongue of the Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan.[14] Due to Afghanistan's multi-ethnic character, multilingualism is a common phenomenon.

The exact figures about the size and composition of the various ethnolinguistic groups are unavailable since no systematic census has been held in Afghanistan in decades.[15] The table below displays estimates of the major languages spoken in Afghanistan per sample statistics:

Spoken Languages in Afghanistan
Language 2006 (as L1)
(out of 6,226)[6]
2006 (as L2)
(out of 6,226)[6]
(out of 9,260)[5]
(out of 13,943, L1+L2)[16]
Dari 49% 26% 48% 77%
Pashto 40% 5% 25% 48%
Uzbek 9% 2% 9% 11%
Turkmen 2% 3% 3% 3%
Balochi 0% 0% 1% 1%
Pashayi 0% 1% 1% 1%
Nuristani N/A N/A 1% 1%
Arabic 0% 2% 1% 1%
English 0% 8% 5% 6%
Urdu 0% 7% 2% 3%

Statistics vary considerably from source to source, the amount of total Dari (L1+L2) speakers tends to be the most consistent (77-80%). Between sources the amount of L1 speakers of Pashto and Dari vary considerably. With Encyclopedia Britannica estimating that roughly 1/2 of the population of Afghanistan speaks Dari natively, and "more than" 2/5 of Afghanistan speaking Pashto natively. While estimating a lower amount of native Pashto speakers then other sources, Britannica estimates that roughly 20% of the population spoke Pashto as a second language (an estimate higher that most other sources). Britannica also notes that many Pashtuns (particularly in urban areas) speak Dari as their first language, so the quantity of first language speakers is not a reliable indication of ethnicity.[17] Other sources may give higher estimates for L1 Pashto speakers but lower estimates for L2 speakers, and may give varying estimates for Dari depending on whether regional varieties of Dari such as Hazaragi and Aimaq are counted as languages or dialects. Encyclopedia Iranica estimates that 50-55% of Afghanistan speaks Pashto as their native language, but estimates few second language speakers (no estimate was given, only that the amount of L2 speakers was "less than 10%"). Iranica also estimated 25% of Afghanistan natively speaking Dari[18] but also categorized varieties of Persian spoken in central Afghanistan as different languages as Dari, and gave no estimates to the percentage of non-Dari Persian speakers. Iranica also made no reference to how many ethnic Pashtuns spoke Dari as their first language.

A sizeable population in Afghanistan, especially in Kabul, can also speak and understand Hindustani due to the popularity and influence of Bollywood films and songs in the region.[19][20]

Language policy[edit]

The official languages of the country are Dari and Pashto, as established by the 1964 Constitution of Afghanistan. Dari is the most widely spoken language of Afghanistan's official languages and acts as a lingua franca for the country. In 1980, other regional languages were granted official status in the regions where they are the language of the majority.[21] This policy was codified in the 2004 Afghan Constitution, which established Uzbek, Turkmen, Balochi, Pashayi, Nuristani and Pamiri as a third official language in areas where they are spoken by a majority of the population.[22]

Language families[edit]

Afghanistan Language Families[23]
language percent
(Nuristani, Indo Aryan, Dravidian)

Since Afghanistan is predominantly located on the Iranian plateau, the majority of spoken languages belong to the family of Iranic languages. Turkic languages are spoken sparsely at the northern intersection of the plateau with Central Asia. Similarly, Nuristani languages and Dravidian languages are spoken sparsely at some regions where the plateau intersects with the Indian subcontinent.

Endangered languages[edit]

Until 2004, Dari and Pashto were the only languages promoted by the government. Though policy has since changed, it has still harmed many minority languages of the country. The table below shows endangered languages spoken in Afghanistan that are recognized by UNESCO.[24][25] UNESCO recognizes 23 endangered languages in Afghanistan, 12 of which are exclusively spoken in Afghanistan and one having gone extinct after UNESCO's survey.

Language UNESCO Status Language Group Language Family Native to Speakers (All Countries)
Ashkun Definitely endangered Nuristani (Indo-Iranian) Indo-European Afghanistan (exclusively) 40,000 (2011)
Brahui Vunerable Northern Dravidian Dravidian Afghanistan, Pakistan 2,864,400 (2018)
Central Asian Arabic Definitely endangered Semitic Afro-Asiatic Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan 6,000 (2003)
Gawar-Bati Definitely endangered Indo-Aryan (Indo-Iranian) Indo-European Afghanistan, Pakistan 9,500 (1992)
Kamkata-vari Definitely endangered Nuristani Indo-European Afghanistan, Pakistan 40,000 (2017)
Moghol Moribund(i) Moghol(ii) Mongolic Afghanistan (exclusively) 200 (2003)(iii)
Munji Severely endangered Iranian (Indo-Iranian) Indo-European Afghanistan (exclusively) 5,300 (2008)
Nangalami Severely endangered Indo-Aryan Indo-European Afghanistan (exclusively) 5,000 (1994)
Ormuri Definitely endangered Iranian Indo-European Afghanistan, Pakistan 6,000 (2004)
Parachi Definitely endangered Iranian Indo-European Afghanistan (exclusively) 3,500 (2009)
Parya Severely endangered Indo-Aryan Indo-European Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan 2,600 (No Date)(iv)
Pashayi Vunerable Indo-Aryan Indo-European Afghanistan (exclusively) 400,000 (2011)
Rushani Definitely endangered Iranian Indo-European Afghanistan, Tajikistan 18,000 (1990)
Savi Definitely endangered Indo-Aryan Indo-European Afghanistan (exclusively) 9,000 (2017)
Sanglechi Severely endangered Iranian Indo-European Afghanistan, Tajikistan 2,200 (2009)
Shughni Vunerable Iranian Indo-European Afghanistan, Tajikistan 75,000 (1990)
Shumashti Severely endangered Indo-Aryan Indo-European Afghanistan (exclusively) 1,000 (1994)
Tirahi Moribund(i) Indo-Aryan Indo-European Afghanistan (exclusively) 100 (undated)[26]
Tregami Severely endangered Nuristani Indo-European Afghanistan (exclusively) 3,500 (2011)
Kalasha-Ala Definitely endangered Nuristani Indo-European Afghanistan (exclusively) 12,000 (2011)
Wakhi Definitely endangered Iranian Indo-European Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan 58,000 (2012)
Wasi-Wari Definitely endangered Nuristani Indo-European Afghanistan (exclusively) 8,000 (2011)
Wotapuri-Katarqalai Extinct (no living speakers left) Indo-Aryan Indo-European Afghanistan (formerly) 0
  • ^(i) lit. "verge of death" Language has so few speakers, it is unlikely to survive unless immediate action is taken to preserve it
  • ^(ii) Moghol is the only language in its branch
  • ^(iii) Possibly Extinct
  • ^(iv) Language has died or gone extinct in Afghanistan, but survives elsewhere.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The 1997 CIA World Factbook Afghanistan" (PDF).
  2. ^ "Language data for Afghanistan".
  3. ^ a b Harald Haarmann: Sprachen-Almanach – Zahlen und Fakten zu allen Sprachen der Welt. Campus-Verl., Frankfurt/Main 2002, ISBN 3-593-36572-3, S.273–274; Afghanistan
  4. ^ The Asia Foundation. A Survey of the Afghan People: Afghanistan in 2019.
  5. ^ a b The Asia Foundation. Afghanistan in 2013: A Survey of the Afghan People.
  6. ^ a b c The Asia Foundation. Afghanistan in 2006: A Survey of the Afghan People.
  7. ^ "Documentation for ISO 639 identifier: prs". 18 January 2010. Retrieved December 5, 2014.
  8. ^ "The World Factbook: Afghanistan". Retrieved July 20, 2020.
  9. ^ R. Farhadi and J. R. Perry, Kaboli, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition, originally in Vol. XV, Fasc. 3, pp. 276–280, 2009.
  10. ^ "Uncommon tongue: Pakistan's confusing move to Urdu". BBC News. 11 September 2015.
  11. ^ The World Factbook
  12. ^ Wahab, Shaista; Youngerman, Barry (2007). A Brief History of Afghanistan. Infobase Publishing. p. 18. ISBN 9781438108193. Afghan Hindus and Sikhs speak Hindi or Punjabi in addition to Pashto and Dari.
  13. ^ "Languages of Afghanistan". Encyclopædia Britannica. 31 July 2023.
  14. ^ "Ethnic groups". BBC News. Retrieved 7 June 2013. Pashtun: Estimated to be in excess of 45% of the population, the Pashtuns have been the most dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan.
  15. ^ O'toole, Pam (October 6, 2004). "Afghan poll's ethnic battleground". BBC News. Retrieved 2010-09-16.
  16. ^ The Asia Foundation. Afghanistan in 2018: A Survey of the Afghan People.
  17. ^ "Languages of Afghanistan". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 12 August 2023.
  18. ^ "AFGHANISTAN v. Languages". Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 12 August 2023.
  19. ^ Hakala, Walter N. (2012). "Languages as a Key to Understanding Afghanistan's Cultures" (PDF). National Geographic. Retrieved 13 March 2018. In the 1980s and '90s, at least three million Afghans--mostly Pashtun--fled to Pakistan, where a substantial number spent several years being exposed to Hindi- and Urdu-language media, especially Bollywood films and songs, and being educated in Urdu-language schools, both of which contributed to the decline of Dari, even among urban Pashtuns.
  20. ^ Krishnamurthy, Rajeshwari (28 June 2013). "Kabul Diary: Discovering the Indian connection". Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Retrieved 13 March 2018. Most Afghans in Kabul understand and/or speak Hindi, thanks to the popularity of Indian cinema in the country.
  21. ^ "AFGHANISTAN v. Languages". Ch. M. Kieffer. Encyclopædia Iranica. Retrieved 2012-04-08. A. Official languages. Paṧtō (1) is the native tongue of 50 to 55 percent of Afghans... Persian (2) is the language most spoken in Afghanistan. The native tongue of twenty five percent of the population, it is split into numerous dialects.
  22. ^ "What Languages are Spoken in Afghanistan?". 2004. Retrieved June 13, 2012. Pashto and Dari are the official languages of the state. are – in addition to Pashto and Dari – the third official language in areas where the majority speaks them
  23. ^ "Afghanistan: Country data and statistics".
  24. ^ Evans, Lisa (2011-04-15). "Endangered languages: the full list". the Guardian. Retrieved 2022-09-05.
  25. ^ Retrieved 2022-09-05. {{cite web}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  26. ^ "Tirahi". Ethnologue.


  1. ^ Many of Afghanistans languages are quite small, with many being on the verge of extinction. See Languages of Afghanistan § Endangered languages
  2. ^ Dari is the official name of the variety of Persian language spoken in Afghanistan. It is often referred to as Afghan Persian, although still widely known as Farsi (Persian: فارسی; "Persian") to its native speakers, the name was officially changed to Dari in 1964 by the Afghan government. Dari has been the preferred language of government for centuries, despite the domination of politics by Pashtuns, whose native language is Pashto.
  3. ^ See Languages of Afghanistan § Overview

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]