Pashto (/ˈpʌʃt/,[9][10][11] rarely /ˈpæʃt/;[Note 1] پښتو / Pax̌tō, [ˈpəʂt̪oː]), sometimes spelled Pukhto,[Note 2] is a language in the Eastern Iranian group of the Indo-European family. It is known in Persian literature as Afghani (افغانی, Afghāni)[14] and in Hindustani literature as Pathani (پټاني / Paṭhānī).[15] Speakers of the language are called Pashtuns (historically known as ethnic Afghans or Pathans).[16][17][18][19] Pashto and Dari are the two official languages of Afghanistan.[20][5][21] Pashto is also the second-largest regional language of Pakistan, mainly spoken in the west and northwest of the country.[22][23] In Pakistan, it is the main language of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the northern districts of Balochistan. Pashto is the primary language of the Pashtun diaspora around the world. The total number of Pashto-speakers is estimated to be 45–60 million people worldwide.[2][24][25][26]

The word Pax̌tō written in the Pashto alphabet
Pronunciation[ˈpəʂt̪oː], [ˈpʊxt̪oː]
Native toAfghanistan and Pakistan
RegionSouth Asia, Central Asia
Native speakers
58 million (2019)[1][2][3][4]
Standard forms
Dialects~20 dialects
Perso-Arabic script (Pashto alphabet)
Official status
Official language in
Recognised minority
language in
Regulated byAcademy of Sciences of Afghanistan
Pashto Academy, Pakistan[7]
Language codes
ISO 639-1ps – Pashto, Pushto
ISO 639-2pus – Pushto, Pashto
ISO 639-3pus – inclusive code – Pashto, Pushto
Individual codes:
pst  Central Pashto
pbu  Northern Pashto
pbt  Southern Pashto
wne  Wanetsi
Glottologpash1269  Pashto[8]

Pashto belongs to the Northeastern Iranian group of the Indo-Iranian branch,[27][28] but Ethnologue lists it as Southeastern Iranian.[29] Pashto has two main dialect groups, "soft" and "hard", the latter locally known as Pakhto or Paxto.[16]

Geographic distribution

As a national language of Afghanistan,[30] Pashto is primarily spoken in the east, south, and southwest, but also in some northern and western parts of the country. The exact number of speakers is unavailable, but different estimates show that Pashto is the mother tongue of 45–60%[31][32][33][34] of the total population of Afghanistan.

In Pakistan, around 35-40 million people speak Pashto, according to the 2017 census, which is over 15% of Pakistan's population, however, this figure does not include those Pashto-speakers who live outside of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and northern districts of Balochistan in Pakistan. Most of these people are in the northwestern areas of the country, comprising Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and northern Balochistan. There are also many Pashtun speakers in the major cities of Pakistan.[35]

Other communities of Pashto speakers are found in Tajikistan,[36] and further in the Pashtun diaspora. There are also communities of part Pashtun descent in India, including Bollywood families and Indian Film Cinema such as Khans. Pashtuns are of ancient Iranian origin and lived in Afghanistan years before other ethnic groups in Afghanistan.[37][38][39]

In addition, sizable Pashto-speaking communities also exist in the Western Asia, especially in the United Arab Emirates,[40] Saudi Arabia, northeastern Iran (primarily in South Khorasan Province to the east of Qaen, near the Afghan border).[41] The Pashtun diaspora speaks Pashto in countries like the United States, United Kingdom,[42] Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Qatar, Australia, Japan, Russia, New Zealand, etc.


Pashto is one of the two official languages of Afghanistan, along with Dari.[43] Since the early 18th century, the monarchs of Afghanistan have been ethnic Pashtuns (except for Habibullāh Kalakāni in 1929).[44] Persian, the literary language of the royal court,[45] was more widely used in government institutions while the Pashtun tribes spoke Pashto as their native tongue. King Amanullah Khan began promoting Pashto during his reign (1926-1929) as a marker of ethnic identity and as a symbol of "official nationalism"[44] leading Afghanistan to independence after the defeat of the British Empire in the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919. In the 1930s a movement began to take hold to promote Pashto as a language of government, administration, and art with the establishment of a Pashto Society Pashto Anjuman in 1931[46] and the inauguration of the Kabul University in 1932 as well as the formation of the Pashto Academy Pashto Tolana in 1937.[47] Although officially supporting the use of Pashto, the Afghan elite regarded Persian as a "sophisticated language and a symbol of cultured upbringing".[44] King Zahir Shah (reigned 1933-1973) thus followed suit after his father Nadir Khan had decreed in 1933 that officials were to study and utilize both Persian and Pashto.[48] In 1936 a royal decree of Zahir Shah formally granted to Pashto the status of an official language[49] with full rights to usage in all aspects of government and education - despite the fact that the ethnically Pashtun royal family and bureaucrats mostly spoke Persian.[47] Thus Pashto became a national language, a symbol for Afghan nationalism.

The constitutional assembly reaffirmed the status of Pashto as an official language in 1964 when Afghan Persian was officially renamed to Dari.[50][51] The lyrics of the national anthem of Afghanistan are in Pashto.


In Pakistan, Pashto is spoken as a first language by about 35-40 million people – 15.42%[52] of Pakistan's 208 million population. It is the main language of the Pashtun-majority regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa[16] and northern Balochistan. It is also spoken in parts of Mianwali and Attock districts of the Punjab province, areas of Gilgit-Baltistan and in Islamabad, as well as by Pashtuns who live in different cities throughout the country. Modern Pashto-speaking communities are found in the cities of Karachi and Hyderabad in Sindh.[35][53][54][55][55]

Urdu and English are the two official languages of Pakistan. Pashto has no official status at the federal level. On a provincial level, Pashto is the regional language of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and northern Balochistan.[56] The primary medium of education in government schools in Pakistan is Urdu,[57] but from 2014 onwards, the Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has placed more emphasis on English as the medium of instruction.[58]

[59] This has caused growing resentment amongst Pashtuns, who also complain that Pashto is often neglected officially.[60][61]


A number of linguists have argued that Pashto is descended from Avestan or a variety very similar to it.[19][27]. However, the position that Pashto, or any other Iranian language, is a direct descendant of Avestan is not agreed upon. What scholars agree on is the fact that Pashto is an Eastern Iranian language sharing characteristics with Eastern Middle Iranian languages such as Khwarezmian, Sogdian and Bactrian.[62]

Strabo, who lived between 64 BC and 24 CE, explains that the tribes inhabiting the lands west of the Indus River were part of Ariana and to their east was India. This was around the time when the area inhabited by the Pashtuns was governed by the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom. From the 3rd century CE onward, they are mostly referred to by the name Afghan (Abgan)[63][64][65] and their language as "Afghani".[14]

Scholars such as Abdul Hai Habibi and others believe that the earliest modern Pashto work dates back to Amir Kror Suri of the early Ghurid period in the eighth century, and they use the writings found in Pata Khazana. However, this is disputed by several modern experts such as David Neil MacKenzie and Lucia Serena Loi.[66][67] Pata Khazana is a Pashto manuscript[68] claimed to be written by Mohammad Hotak under the patronage of the Pashtun emperor Hussain Hotak in Kandahar. Pata Khazana claims to contain an anthology of Pashto poets from the early Ghurid period up to the Hotak period in the eighteenth century.[67]

From the 16th century, Pashto poetry become very popular among the Pashtuns. Some of those who wrote in Pashto are Bayazid Pir Roshan (a major inventor of the Pashto alphabet), Khushal Khan Khattak, Rahman Baba, Nazo Tokhi, and Ahmad Shah Durrani, founder of the modern state of Afghanistan or the Durrani Empire.

In modern times, noticing the incursion of Persian and Arabic vocabulary, there is a strong desire to "purify" Pashto by restoring its old vocabulary.[69][70][71]


Pashto is a subject–object–verb (SOV) language with split ergativity. Adjectives come before nouns. Nouns and adjectives are inflected for two genders (masc./fem.),[72] two numbers (sing./plur.), and four cases (direct, oblique I, oblique II and vocative). There is also an inflection for the subjunctive mood. The verb system is very intricate with the following tenses: present, simple past, past progressive, present perfect, and past perfect. The sentence construction of Pashto has similarities with some other Indo-Iranian languages such as Prakrit and Bactrian. The possessor precedes the possessed in the genitive construction. The verb generally agrees with the subject in both transitive and intransitive sentences. An exception occurs when a completed action is reported in any of the past tenses (simple past, past progressive, present perfect, or past perfect). In such cases, the verb agrees with the subject if it is intransitive, but if it is transitive, it agrees with the object,[30] therefore Pashto shows a partly ergative behaviour. Like Kurdish, but unlike most other Indo-Iranian languages, Pashto uses all three types of adpositions – prepositions, postpositions, and circumpositions.



Front Central Back
Close iu
Mid e ə o
Open a ɑ


Labial Denti-
Retroflex Post-
Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasal m n ɳ ŋ
Plosive p b t d ʈ ɖ k ɡ q
Affricate t͡s d͡z t͡ʃ d͡ʒ
Fricative f s z ʂ ~ ç ʐ ~ ʝ ʃ ʒ x ɣ h
Approximant l j w
Rhotic r ɺ̢ 

Phonemes that have been borrowed, thus non-native to Pashto, are colour-coded. The phonemes /q/ and /f/ tend to be replaced by [k] and [p] respectively.[73]

The retroflex lateral flap /ɭ̆/ (ɺ̢  or ) is pronounced as retroflex approximant [ɻ] when final.[74][75]

The retroflex fricatives /ʂ, ʐ/ and palatal fricatives /ç, ʝ/ represent dialectally different pronunciations of the same sound, not separate phonemes. In particular, the retroflex fricatives, which represent the original pronunciation of these sounds, are preserved in the southern/southwestern dialects (especially the prestige dialect of Kandahar), while they are pronounced as palatal fricatives in the west-central dialects. Other dialects merge the original retroflexes with other existing sounds: The southeastern dialects merge them with the postalveolar fricatives /ʃ, ʒ/, while the northern/northeastern dialects merge them with the velar phonemes in an asymmetric pattern, pronouncing them as /x, ɡ/ (not /ɣ/). Furthermore, according to Henderson (1983),[18] the west-central voiced palatal fricative /ʝ/ actually occurs only in the Wardak Province, and is merged into /ɡ/ elsewhere in the region.

The velars /k, ɡ, x, ɣ/ followed by the close back rounded vowel /u/ assimilate into the labialized velars [kʷ, ɡʷ, xʷ, ɣʷ].

Voiceless stops [p, t, t͡ʃ, k] are all unaspirated, like Spanish, other Romance languages, and Austronesian languages; they have slightly aspirated allophones prevocalically in a stressed syllable.


In Pashto, most of the native elements of the lexicon are related to other Eastern Iranian languages. Some words are related to Ancient Greek dialects. However, a remarkably large number of words are unique to Pashto.[27] Post-7th century borrowings came primarily from the Persian and Hindustani languages, with some Arabic words being borrowed through those two languages, but sometimes directly.[76][77] Modern speech borrows words from English, French, and German.[78]

Here is an exemplary list of Pure Pashto and borrowings:[79]

ملګری, ملګرې
malgaray, malgare

Writing system

Pashto employs the Pashto alphabet, a modified form of the Perso-Arabic alphabet or Arabic script.[80] In the 16th century, Bayazid Pir Roshan introduced 13 new letters to the Pashto alphabet. The alphabet was further modified over the years.

The Pashto alphabet consists of 45 letters[81] and 4 diacritic marks. The following table gives the letters' isolated forms, along with the Latin equivalents and typical IPA values:

ā, ’
/ɑ, ʔ/






ǵ (or ẓ̌)
/ʐ, ʝ, ɡ/
x̌ (or ṣ̌)
/ʂ, ç, x/


w, ū, o
/w, u, o/
h, a
/h, a/
y, ī
/j, i/
ay, y
/ai, j/
əi, y
/əi, j/


Pashto dialects are divided into two varieties, the "soft" southern variety Paṣ̌tō, and the "hard" northern variety Pax̌tō (Pakhtu).[16] Each variety is further divided into a number of dialects. The southern dialect of Wanetsi is the most distinctive Pashto dialect.

1. Southern variety

  • Durrani dialect (or Southern dialect)
  • Kakar dialect (or Southeastern dialect)
  • Shirani dialect
  • Mandokhel dialect
  • Marwat-Bettani dialect
  • Wanetsi dialect
  • Southern Karlani group

2. Northern variety

  • Central Ghilji dialect (or Northwestern dialect)
  • Northern dialect (or Eastern dialect)
  • Yusufzai dialect (or Northeastern dialect)
  • Northern Karlani group
  • Taniwola dialect
  • Khosti dialect
  • Zadran dialect
  • Bangash-Orakzai-Turi-Zazi-Mangal dialect
  • Afridi dialect
  • Khogyani dialect
  • Wardak dialect


Pashto-speakers have long had a tradition of oral literature, including proverbs, stories, and poems. Written Pashto literature saw a rise in development in the 17th century mostly due to poets like Khushal Khan Khattak (1613–1689), who, along with Rahman Baba (1650–1715), is widely regarded as among the greatest Pashto poets. Both of these poets belonged to the modern day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region of Pakistan). From the time of Ahmad Shah Durrani (1722–1772), Pashto has been the language of the court. The first Pashto teaching text was written during the period of Ahmad Shah Durrani by Pir Mohammad Kakar with the title of Maʿrifat al-Afghānī ("The Knowledge of Afghani [Pashto]"). After that, the first grammar book of Pashto verbs was written in 1805 in India under the title of Riyāż al-Maḥabbah ("Training in Affection") through the patronage of Nawab Mahabat Khan, son of Hafiz Rahmat Khan, chief of the Barech. Nawabullah Yar Khan, another son of Hafiz Rahmat Khan, in 1808 wrote a book of Pashto words entitled ʿAjāyib al-Lughāt ("Wonders of Languages").

Poetry example

An excerpt from the Kalām of Rahman Baba:

زۀ رحمان پۀ خپله ګرم يم چې مين يم
چې دا نور ټوپن مې بولي ګرم په څۀ

IPA: Zə ra.mɑn pə xpəl.a gram jəm t͡ʃe ma.jən jəm
t͡ʃe d̪ɑ nor ʈo.pan me gram pə t͡sə

Transliteration: Zə Rahmān pə xpəla gram yəm če mayən yəm
Če dā nor ṭopan me boli gram pə tsə

Translation: "I Rahman, myself am guilty that I am a lover,
On what does this other universe call me guilty."


Pashto also has a rich heritage of proverbs (Pashto matalūna, sg. matal).[82][83] An example of a proverb:

اوبه په ډانګ نه بېليږي

Transliteration: Uba pə ḍang na beliẓ̌i

Translation: "One cannot divide water by [hitting it with] a pole."

See also


  1. The only American pronunciation listed by Oxford Online Dictionaries, /ˈpæʃt/,[12] is so rare that it is not even mentioned by the American Heritage and Merriam–Webster dictionaries.
  2. Sometimes spelled "Pushtu" or "Pushto",[10][11] and then either pronounced the same[13] or differently.[10][11] The spelling "Pakhto" is so rare that it is not even mentioned by any major English dictionaries nor recognized by major English–Pashto dictionaries such as, and it is specifically listed by Ethnologue only as an alternative name for Northern Pashto, and not Southern or Central Pashto.


  1. Eberhard, David M., Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2019. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Twenty-second edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International.
  2. Penzl, Herbert; Ismail Sloan (2009). A Grammar of Pashto a Descriptive Study of the Dialect of Kandahar, Afghanistan. Ishi Press International. p. 210. ISBN 0-923891-72-2. Retrieved 25 October 2010. Estimates of the number of Pashto speakers range from 40 million to 60 million...
  3. Nationalencyklopedin "Världens 100 största språk 2007" The World's 38 Largest Languages in 2007 (39 million)
  4. Pashto (2005). Keith Brown (ed.). Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (2 ed.). Elsevier. ISBN 0-08-044299-4.
  5. Constitution of AfghanistanChapter 1 The State, Article 16 (Languages) and Article 20 (Anthem)
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  7. Sebeok, Thomas Albert (1976). Current Trends in Linguistics: Index. Walter de Gruyter. p. 705.
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  15. India. Office of the Registrar General (1961). Census of India, 1961: Gujarat. Manager of Publications. pp. 142, 166, 177.
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