Language of the “Mountain Tribe”: A Closer Look at Hazaragi

Dec 12, 2011 by

BY ROBERT RYAN (“Languages of the World”)

The Hazara are an intriguing people, with a rich culture and mysterious origins. Their history is one fraught by religious persecution and political oppression. Yet they have managed to keep their language and culture relatively intact for thousands of years. Hazaragi is currently spoken by about 2.21 million people, mainly in Afghanistan (about 1.77 million) but also in Iran and Pakistan. (Hazaragi: A Language of Afghanistan, 2009) Some linguists believe this number to be declining as Hazaragi speakers are adopting standard Persian. Relatively few studies have been published in English to enhance our understanding of the Hazara people and their language. In this analysis, I will first take a closer look at the linguistic characteristics of the language, followed by an analysis of the history that has shaped it in order to provide reasons for a decline in speakers and possibilities for the future of Hazaragi.

The Language

With this background in mind, let us now examine the state in which the language is currently. As previously mentioned, few studies have been published in English regarding the specific characteristics of Hazaragi that make it distinct from other Persian dialects. That being said, here are a few. (Note: these linguistic characteristics come primarily from the work of Charles M. Kieffer as published in the Encyclopedia Iranica of 2003. Other sources will be cited in-text.)

As an eastern Persian variety, Hazara has retained the voiced fricative [γ] and the bilabial articulation of [w]. Also it has borrowed many words from other languages, which has in turn introduced new sounds, including the retroflexes [ṭ] and [ḍ.], e.g. buṭ  meaning ‘boot’ (English loan word) vs. but meaning ‘idol’ (Persian bot); ḍal meaning ‘group’

In addition, [h] is rarely articulated in spoken Hazaragi. The following Table 1 shows the consonants of Hazaragi.

Hazaragi also has several diphthongs, with two adjacent vowel sounds occurring in the syllable. These include ay, aw, and ēw (< -ab/-āb/-ûw). The vocalic system is otherwise typical of eastern Persian. Vowels in Hazaragi are characterized by the loss of length distinction and the retention of the midvowels. Table 2 from Kieffer gives a good picture of how the vowel system of Hazaragi has changed over time from early Persian.

As in Dari, stress is dynamic and usually falls on the last syllable of a nominal form, including derivative suffixes. (Farhadi, 1975, pp. 64-67). In addition, insertion of epenthetic vowels in consonant clusters is typical, e.g. pašm > póšum ‘wool’. We also see final devoicing, as in [Khod (ḵût)] meaning ‘self, own’.

The grammatical structure of Hazaragi is practically identical to Dari, giving further credence to the notion that it is a dialect of Dari, itself also being a dialect of Farsi. (Farhadi, 1975)

Verb tenses, mood and aspect are all very different from western Persian. The basic tense system contains present-future, past and pluperfect, with some recent developments in modal paradigms. For more information regarding grammar, G. K. Dulling provides a deeper look, beyond the scope of this essay. (Dulling, 1973, pp. 35-37)

The most interesting feature of Hazaragi, and the one that distinguishes it from other eastern Persian dialects, is the lexicon. The origin of many items in the lexicon is still unclear. Dulling considers the present dialect to consist of “three strata: (1) pre-Mongol Persian, with its own substratum; (2) the Mongolian language; and (3) modern tājiki, which preserves in it elements of (1) and (2).” Dulling considers Hazaragi a dialect of modern Tajik, or rather modern Dari, but finds it “lexically distinctive enough to merit [its] local special name of Hazaragi.” (Dulling, 1973). A few examples of the vocabulary are:

Turkic: ata meaning ‘father’; kaṭa meaning ‘big, large’, and qara meaning ‘black’;

Mongolian: bêri ‘bride’, alaḡa ‘palm (of hand)’, qulaḡay ‘thief’ (Kieffer, 2003)

Studies have should that the Turco-Mongolian lexical component makes up about 10% of the lexicon, setting it apart from all other eastern Persian dialects.

To sum up, the differences between Hazaragi and other eastern Persian dialects are few but certainly not dismissable.

The People

The region most known for having a high density of Hazaragi speakers is the central mountains of Afghanistan situated between Kabul and Herat. This is the Hazarajat province. There is much debate over whether Hazaragi is a language by itself or whether it is a dialect of Farsi (even among native speakers). However it is undoubtedly part of the Indo-Iranian branch of the larger Indo-European language family.

The Hazara people are mainly comprised of Shi’a Muslims, with small minority (5%) of Sunni Muslims. This fact is critical to understanding Hazaragi’s history and more importantly its future. The Hazara people are commonly believed to have ties to the Mongolian empire, due to genetic and physical similarities as well as strong lexical connections. Some scholars, namely linguist Sayed Askar Mousavi, have found compelling evidence that a strongly Mongol-Turkic community, closely resembling modern Hazaras, already inhabited the area long before the Genghis Khan and his armies invaded. (Mousavi, 1998) The term hazāra is derived from the Persian word hazār (thousand), which was originally translated from the Mongolian term ming (‘thousand’) which referred to a military unit of the Mongol armies. (Kieffer, 2003) This term took on new significance in Persian around the 15th century to mean ‘mountain tribe’ after the Hazara were forced to retreat to the mountains of Hazarajat due to persecution by other groups, mainly Sunni Pashtun tribes. Originally used by outsiders, the name was eventually adopted as the self-designation of the Hazara tribes.

As a religious minority in the region, the Hazara have always faced persecution. They are constantly oppressed by the Pashtun tribes, particularly those in political power. They have attempted to revolt multiple times, each leading to death and more oppression, even to the point of entire tribes being annihilated in jihads (‘holy war’) against the Sunni Hazaras. (Mousavi, 1998) Based on the Shi’a—Sunni relations, the persecution has continued to this day in the Taliban regime. Even into the 1970’s, some Suuni Pashtun clerics taught that “killing Hazaras was a religious service.” (Canfield, 2002)

As one would expect, Hazaragi is therefore spoken by many refugees. Most of these refugees are seeking asylum in Iran and Pakistan from Pashtun and Taliban persecution. This oppression has driven as many as 4 million Hazaragi-speaking refugees into neighboring countries. On top of this, severe droughts between 1998 to 2001 led to a spike in refugees in these countries, so much so that Iran had to enact strict regulation in order to control the influx of Hazara people. (Canfield, 2002) This increasing retreat of Hazaragi speakers undoubtedly has led to the steady decline in the number of native speakers. As refugees arrive in new their new homes, they must adapt to survive. Suddenly the people around them speak a different language, and so they must sacrifice their own. This leads to convergence and desertion of the native tongue. It is interesting that persecution first drove the Hazara into the mountains, which in turn protected the integrity of the language. Now persecution compels them to descend and flee, thereby jeopardizing it.

On top of the increasing outflow of Hazaragi speakers from the Hazarajat region, those who stay have an increased incentive to also adopt the language of the majority. Hazaragi is considered by many, both speakers and non-speakers, to be a low-prestige language. The Ethnologue reports that the majority of Hazaragi speakers today are laborers, civil servants, tradesmen, shopkeepers and traders. (Hazaragi: A Language of Afghanistan, 2009) We can easily expect people, whether by choice or by coercion, to learn a presumably more prestigious dialect and in turn converge with it. One student states in his response to a blog question asking whether Dari or Hazargi is the language of the Hazara, “Dari is the language we have to learn in order to interact with other Afghan and Persian speakers.” (What is our Real Language: Hazaragi or Dari???, 2008)

One interesting study has already shown a convergence of the [u] sound with other Persian dialects. It reports that the subjects tested showed consistent patterns of convergence, particularly in words ending in /-an/, which are realized with final [-u], e.g. ميدان /maydān/ meaning ‘plaza’ pronounced [maydu]. (Miller & Strong, 2011)

Final Thoughts

Yet there may be hope! Another recent study showed that about half of the educated Hazaragi speakers surveyed considered it to be a language (rather than a dialect of Dari). When asked if these speakers want their children to understand Hazaragi, about 92% said “Yes.” Slightly fewer reported that they want their children to speak Hazaragi. Overall, the majority of participants demonstrated a commitment to maintain Hazaragi and to speak it throughout their lives. With regards to domains of use, Hazaragi was considered “most suitable for casual settings and with friends” while Dari is best for formal contexts, such as university lectures or a government office. (Jamal, 2010)

Hazaragi, though the language of the oppressed, appears to still have devoted speakers who hope to maintain their “mountain tribe” heritage, even in the face of asylum-seeking, on the one hand, and education on the other. Time will tell if this fascinating language will withstand the new obstacles it now faces.

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Works Cited

Canfield, R. L. (2002). “Hazara”, from Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Supplement. Retrieved from Gale Virtual Reference Library.: http://myclass.peelschools.org/sec/11/34287/Resources/Hazaras Gale Virtual Reference Library.doc
Dulling, G. (1973). The Hazaragi Dialect of Afghan Persian: A Preliminary Study. London: Central Asian Monograph.
Farhadi, A. R. (1975). The Spoken Dari of Afghanistan: A Grammar of Kāboli Dari (Persian), Compared to the Literary Language. Kabul.

Hazaragi: A Language of Afghanistan. (2009). Retrieved from Ethnologue: Languages of the World: http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=haz

Jamal, A. (2010, April 5). Attitues Toward Hazaragi. Retrieved from http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1224&context=theses

Kieffer, C. (2003). Hazara iv. Hazaragi dialect. Retrieved from Encyclopedia Iranica: http://www.iranica.com/articles/hazara-4

Miller, C., & Strong, R. (2011). Mapping Convergence on [u] in several dialects of Persian. Retrieved from https://www.fbcinc.com/LEARNPersian/presentations/convergence.pdf

Mousavi, S. A. (1998). The Hazaras of Afghanistan: An Historical, Cultural, Economic and Political Study. Richmond, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

What is our Real Language: Hazaragi or Dari??? (2008, June 18). Retrieved from Hazara Network: http://www.hazaranetwork.com/forum/topics/1992280:Topic:57851?id=1992280%3ATopic%3A57851&page=4#comments

Windfuhr, G. L. (n.d.). Persian Phonology. In A. (. Kaye, Phonologies of Asia and Africa, Vol. 2 (pp. 675-689). Winona Lake, IN.


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