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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  • John Cowan

    Well, that will mean diglossia, which is not in itself a bad thing, though in my opinion less desirable than a fully developed vernacular.

    I note that būt is Urdu for 'idol', ultimately from Persian, of course. Perhaps the form the word takes in Hazaragi is the result of borrowing from Urdu followed by the loss of length?

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Thanks for your comments, John!

  • Pingback: Hazaragi | Language Professionals Sydney Pty. Ltd.()

  • Rahmatullah Mowahid

    Good study. However, if more resources were used, the outcome could be greater. Because deeply looking in the words used by Hazara people; we can find more Turkish words comparing to Mongolian. Also looking back to the history of Afghanistan, we can find that for more than 2 centuries Turkish empires were ruling Afghanistan (Ghaznavids, Seljuk, Kharizma…) and if we look at the ethnic roots of other Afghanistan residents (Pashtun and Tajik), none of them has Turkish blood. Therefore the only tribes with Turkish bloods are Hazara, Turkmen and Uzbek (Uzbek have more Mongolian bloods, also they strongly believe the Timur was their ancestor), who had been living in Afghanistan for centuries before the invading of the area by Mongol.
    It also worth mentioning that most of the Hazara people call them “Azra” which is a Turkish word and we have many other Turks who have the word “Azra” or “Azer” in their identity such as Azerbaijan (a country), Azeri (people of Azerbaijan).
    In addition, Ptolemy (centuries before Mongol invade) called the people living in centre of Afghanistan Ozalla which has been changed to Hazara after Islam and more influence of Persians (believed by some researchers such as Mr. Habibi).

    • Har Al

      (PLEASE READ ALL THIS. I PUT EFFORT TO IT. THANKS)

      As a Hazara myself, we do have significant Turkic influence in our language and culture but not as much in genetics. This is because many Turkic empires would often impose their language to the conquered local people in other words, Turkifying them. Therefore, people who speak Turkic or have Turkic influences in their language doesn’t necessarily mean they are genetically Turkic. For instance, Mexicans speak Spanish but genetically they aren’t Spanish. Sudanese people speak Arabic but genetically they aren’t Arab. Haitians speak French but genetically they aren’t French. The Mongol Empire in contrary had no interest of imposing their language, religion, nor culture since it was forbidden by their khans. Their interest was to serve trade and ecological purposes. Unlike Turks, Mongols would often learn the languages of the conquered local people instead of forcing them to speak Mongolian. Therefore, the locals under Mongol rule would have almost no Mongol influence in their languages. And if you examine the Hazaragi language, it still has Mongol influence and had a bigger influence before the War of Hazarajat (1891-1893). Hazaras also spoke Mongolian few centuries before that time as Babur himself witnessed and recorded it in his journal (which I will talk about in the third paragraph). German scholar Michael Weiers also witnessed few Hazaras in Herat speaking a Mongolic language in the 1970s known as Mogholi (Mongolian).

      Mongols themselves became very Turkified after conquering and migrating to Central Asia. Both the Mongols of the Golden Horde and the Chagatai Khanate gradually began to adopt Turkic names and languages and introducing them in their courts. However, they still managed to preserve some of their native Mongol words which is why today, many Turkic languages in Central Asia such as Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Uyghur, and especially Kazakh are comprised of a fair amount of Mongol vocabulary. The Mongols of the Ilkhanate experienced the same phenomenon but were becoming more Persianized than Turkified. Therefore, even if Hazaras speak a language with only some Turkic words, it does not mean they are Turkic by genetic. Most Turks who settled in Hazarajat was BEFORE the Mongol conquest. And when the Mongols first came, they wiped out the entire indigenous population in Bamiyan, including its surrounding regions since Genghis Khan was outraged by his grandson’s death in Bamiyan (Mutukan). The Turkic Qajars later occupied Hazarajat but most withdrew during their decline in power since their main settlements were located in Persia.

      Our language and culture may be more Turkic than Mongol, but our genetic is more Mongol than Turkic because 1) W.H.O DNA Analysis has proven that the predominant y-DNA of Hazaras is haplogroup c-m217, which is very common with other ethnic Mongols; 2) Hazaras and Mongolians have the highest chance of being born with the blue mark compared to any other race or tribe; 3) Majority of the Hazara tribe names derive from Mongolian (Besud, Dai Zangi, Dai Kundi, Dai Chopan, Dai Khitai, Dai Mirdad, Dai Zinyat, Dahla, Nikudari, Poladha, Maskat, Nekpai, etc); 4) Mongols have always migrated to Hazarajat from the 13th to 15th centuries in significant numbers; 5) Babur himself witnessed and recorded in his “Baburnama” in the early 16th century that most Hazaras lived in gers (Mongolian tents) and spoke Mongolian; 6) Babur himself worked hard to become a Mughal emperor and attempted to unite all Mongols to justify his Mongol leadership, but most Hazaras rejected him because he was Turkic from his father’s side and not a pure or a predominant Mongol. Hazaras during that time knew very well they were Mongol. This changed by the late 19th century when Hazaras suffered a defeat in the War of Hazarajat. This caused them to become scattered and influenced by foreign customs thus, forgetting their Hazara Mongol identity.

      LINKS:
      http://www.hazara.net/downloads/docs/the_inquiry_into_hazara_mongols_of_afghanistan-ee_bacon.pdf
      http://www.hazara.net/downloads/docs/genetic_legacy_of_mongols.pdf
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haplogroup_C-M217