The Languages of Tajikistan in Perspective


Iraj Bashiri
copyright 1997

Geography of Tajikistan

Tajikistan stretches from the west to the east between Uzbekistan and China. In the north it includes the western part of the Ferghana valley. This mostly Uzbek-speaking area, centered on the city of Khujand, was augmented in 1929; it provides the Tajiks access to the Syr Darya. The Turan lowlands are to the south of Ferghana. Irrigated by the Panj, Vakhsh, and the Kafarnihan, the lowlands are the heart of southern Tajikistan's present-day urban culture as well as the fulcrum of its government, industry, and commerce. To the east of the lowlands are the Pamirs, the Badakhshan, and the Hindu Kush mountains.

Three Fateful Events

Three major events have shaped the linguistic and cultural map of Tajikistan. The Battle of Talas fought between the Muslim forces and the Chinese on the Talas river, in present-day Kyrgyzstan, in 751 AD, a treaty signed by the Russian Emperor and the British Crown in 1873, concluding the well-know "Great Game," and the 1989 legislation that made Tajiki the official language of the republic.

In ancient times, the territory of present-day Central Asia was inhabited by Indo-European tribes. Primarily Iranian-speaking, these tribes occupied not only the Samarqand and Panjekent regions but also the areas to the east as far as Turfan and Loulan (Grousset, 1970). In subsequent centuries, Arab, Turkish, and Mongol invaders redefined the socio-political and economic dynamics of Central Asia and redesigned its religious, ethnic, and linguistic map. Even though the Muslims' progress in the east was checked by the Chinese, the Arab aristocracy continued to rule the area until the tenth century. In the process of settling down, the Arabs replaced the Zoroastrian faith with Islam and the Sughdian language with Arabic.

During the eleventh century the Turks, who displaced Arab hegemony in the region, continued the promotion of the Iranian culture which had begun under their predecessors, the Samanids of Bukhara. At the same time, they distinguished the nomadic Turks from the rustic Iranians by labeling the latter as Tajik, or non-Turkic. This politically-motivated strategy created a discriminatory process that benefited the oncoming Turkish tribes that arrived in the region from the north east. The more Turkish tribes migrated west, the more Tajiks were forced out of their settlements and the more their fields turned into pasture land for nomadic herders. The defenseless Tajiks finally found themselves in the Vaksh and Gharategin valleys of present-day Tajikistan and on the inhospitable slopes of the Pamir and Hindu Kush mountains.

The more recent history of the Tajiks is hardly different. The conclusion of the "Great Game," in 1873, affected their religious, economical, and political situation adversely. The division of the Tajik community into two separate zones and the placement of each zone in a different country--Imperial Russia and Afghanistan, respectively--made both groups vulnerable to cultural degeneration. The adverse effect of the division for the Tajiks to the north of the Panj River is documented in the annals of the seventy years of Soviet domination. In the process of Sovietization, they lost two of their major cultural centers: Samarqand and Bukhara, as well as control over their social, political, and ideological concerns. The situation of the Tajiks to the south of Panj was even worse. Surviving in a no-man's land, they are in constant conflict with the Pushtun tribes of southern Afghanistan. Their uncertain mode of living prompts them to ally themselves with their fellow Tajiks of the north. They look to the Islamic bond between the two groups to, eventually, reunite them.

There was, however, a difference. The Afghans, in general, did not tamper with the Tajiks' ethnicity. The community was allowed to live by its own rules and hold its own values. The Soviets, on the other hand, were not as generous. Both the Uzbeks and the Russians forced their will on the Tajiks of the former Soviet Union. According to Rahim Masov, the Uzbeks forced some Tajiks identify themselves as Uzbek in their official documents; the Russians going even farther, imposed both their language and their culture on the helpless community.

The most recent, the third factor, mentioned above, i.e., Tajikistan's 1989 language law and its profound socio-cultural and political ramifications will be discussed further down, after a discussion of the linguistic and ethnic composition of the republic.

Ethnic and Linguistic Composition

The imposition of the Uzbeki language on the Tajiks of Samarqand and Bukhara in the 1920's was the prelude to many changes that happened in Central Asia in the decades to come. These changes were accentuated by the influx of European Soviets into the region as well as by the imposition of the Russian language as state language in the republic. Unlike the Turks and the Mongols of the past, who had little or no interest in the mountainous region occupied by the Tajiks, the Soviets had some very specific designs for the exploitation of the abundant agricultural and mineral resources of the region, especially its tungsten, uranium, copper, and precious stones. The degree of Soviet interest in the development of the natural resources of Tajikistan is reflected in the amount of funds that they allocated for developing just the agricultural sector. Records show that 46.5 percent of Tajikistan's budget, in 1924 was contributed by the Center. By 1927, this contribution shot up so that 92.2 percent of the republic's total budget was subsidized by Moscow. As can be seen, there is hardly any room left for national, even cultural development.

When the process of establishing administrative and social relations among the immigrants and the Tajiks was complete, Tajikistan appeared the international arena as a relatively modern nation with a viable infrastructure and a burgeoning economy. A network of foreign relations bartered Tajik cotton and minerals for commodities not available in the republic. In reality, however, the Tajiks were not involved in any of these developmental plans. If at all, they were involved at the lowest levels of production.

The republic of Tajikistan is comprised of a number of ethnic groups, four are major. The dominant Tajik group occupies the lowlands, the Russians live in the urban centers, especially in Khojand (former Leninabad), Dushanbe, and Kulab, the Kyrgyz occupy the eastern half of the Gorno-Badakhshan oblast', and the Uzbeks greatly outnumber the Tajiks in the northwest, around Khojand. There are also scattered groups of Ukrainians and Germans in the republic. The influx of Soviets into Tajikistan peaked in the late 1930's and remained a constant, as shown in the following table comparing the percentage of major national groups in the republic during 1937 and 1989 (Tishkov, 1990, 47; Beenigsen and Broxup, 1983, 128):

Tajik Russian Kyrgyz Uzbek
1937 60.5




1989 62.2




Percentage of Major National Groups in Tajikistan

This general statement must be modified slightly. The rates for the urban populations have been changing more rapidly than those for the republic as a whole. As is evident from the following table, between 1959 and 1989, the percentage of Russians and Tajiks in the city of Dushanbe changed drastically (Guboglo, 1991, 31) :

Tajik Russian Uzbek
1959 18.5



1989 38.3



Percentage of Major National Groups in Dushanbe

As we shall see below, this trend, which was ascerbated by the loosening of the Russian hold, spread from the capital and the urban centers to the kishlaqs or villages. The trend itself was fueled by language laws which affected jobs in many sectors of the economy and by ideological concerns, especially the preeminence of Islam. Other influencial factors included internecine warfare among Tajik clans across the republic (north versus south) and, separately, within the south and north themselves. A discussion of regionalism, however, is outside the purview of the present study.

The languages of Tajikistan belong to the eastern (satem) branch of the Indo-European family of languages. The satem branch also includes Farsi, Pashto, Dari, Kurdish, Baluchi, and a number of other languages and dialects. The major languages of the region are Tajiki, Yaghnobi, and the languages of the Pamir and Badakhshan highlands. Tajiki proper, spoken by over ten million people, serves as the lingua franca for the peoples of the lowlands, the mountain Tajiks, and the Tajiks of the Badakhshan highlands. It is also mutually intelligible with Dari of Afghanistan and Farsi of Iran. In this larger context, including speakers of Iranian languages in India, Pakistan, and the Middle East, it has close to 80,000,000 potential users. Languages that have influenced Tajiki include Arabic, Russian, and Uzbeki. Tajiki of Afghanistan is affected by Pashtu and the languages of India. Tajiki is usually divided into southern and northern Tajiki. The two dialects, however, are not very different. The northern dialect has borrowed generously from Turkic languages, especially Uzbeki. The southern dialect is influenced by Iranian languages, especially Dari.


Yaghnobi, which was spoken by some 6,000 speakers in the high valley of the Yaghnob river on the upper reaches of the Zarafshan (northeast region of the Kuhistan), is a remnant of Sughdian, the language of the ancient kingdom of Samarqand. Even though absolutely annihilated by the Muslim invaders, Yaghnobi has survived and, indeed, flourished in the middle ages. It should be emphasized that Yaghnobi should not be confused with the languages of the Gorno-Badakhshan region discussed further below. The Yaghnobis are Sunni Muslims; they are bilingual in Tajiki and Yaghnobi. Not a written language, Yaghnobi is used for daily family communication. Most of the Yaghnobis were resettled in southern Tajikistan in the 1960's and 1970's. The change of climate affected their well-being; in fact, many died and many tried to return to their original highland homes.

The Languages of the Pamir

Distinct from Yaghnobis, there are a number of small communities in the mountains and the river valleys of the Pamirs, Badakhshan, and Takharistan that communicate among themselves in languages different from Tajiki. These languages, which are identified by the valleys in which they are spoken, include: Wakhi, Shughnani, Rushan, Yazghulemi, and Ishkashemi.

Below is a summary of the relationships between Yaghnobi, Tajiki, and the Gorno-Badakhshan group of languages:

Although, as the diagram indicates, Tajiki proper can be divided into four distinct linguistic groups, socially, the speakers of Tajiki can be divided into three groups. This grouping, it should be added, encompasses all the speakers of the language irrespective of whether they speak Tajiki as a first, second, or third language. The three groups, moving from the west to the east, are the lowland Tajiks, the mountain Tajiks, and the Badakhshan Tajiks. Here the term "lowland" subsumes roughly the northwestern and central linguistic grouping, "mountain" the southern and southeastern, and "Badakhshan" the peoples of the valleys of the Panj River.

Although all these languages belong to the eastern branch of the Iranian languages of the Indo-European family of languages, certain distinctive features set them apart from each other. It should be mentioned that, in most cases, these distinctions are not either well-defined or deep-set. They are, however, distinctions that the inhabitants of the region insist upon as ethnic and linguistic markers distinguishing their respectivie communities. The following are some of those distinctions:
  1. Archaic use of vocabulary along with degrees of pholological and morphological change.
  2. Lowland Tajiks use an extensive number of Arabic, Turko-Mongol, and Russian words. They also allow the use of the spoken language in literary creations. Mountain Tajik, on the other hand, has a smaller number of borrowings and its literary form is relatively free from spoken forms. In the 1920's and 1930's, Mountain Tajik was seriously considered as the base for the creation of a standard Tajiki language. The reason for the "purity," of mountain Tajik is, of course, the willingness of its speakers to live and work in areas that are of little interest to merchants, bureaucrats, and conquerors. Farther east, in the Badakhshan region, Tajiki is spoken as a second, often as a third language. In this mode, Tajiki is saturated with local forms of Badakhshani, sometimes to the point of incomprehensibility.
  3. Until the 1930's, the languages of the Gorno-Badakhshan, even some dialects of those languages, like Khufi and Bajui, were considered distinct languages. In the 1926 census of the USSR, however, they were demoted to dialects and were assigned to Tajiki. They have remained so and have been treated as dialects of Tajiki ever since.
  4. Due to improvements in communication, Tajiki is gradually assimilating its neighboring languages to the point of extinction. Vanji and Gorani are cases in point. These languages have been totally replaced by Tajiki, hence they are not included on the chart of living languages of the Pamir. Depending on their position on the map, the vocabularies of the Pamiri languages show indications of Tajiki, Russian, Kyrgyz, and Uighur influence.
  5. None of the Pamiri languages is written; Tajiki and Shughnani (in the case of Badakhshan) serve as the literary lingua franca for all of them.
  6. The ethnic groups that speak the languages of the Gorno-Badakhshan straddle the Panj River, the border separating Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The speakers of some of these languages, therefore, occupy both the Afghan side and the Tajikistan side of the river.
  7. All the inhabitants of the region are Muslim. Only the speakers of Yazgulemi, and those who previously spoke Vanji, are Sunni. The rest are Isma'ili Shi'ites.
  8. All those speakers who lived on the Soviet side of the Panj River have been Sovietized. And almost all have been affected by forced resettlement, especailly in the Vakhsh river vally of southwestern Tajikistan. After the break up of the Soviet Union, most of the speakers returned to their original homes, reestablishing their ancient ties.
  9. Tajiki and Russian are the languages used by the local newspapers and the rest of the media. These languages are also the medium for discussions in public meetings regulating the affairs of the local inhabitants.


The Wakhis occupy the highest valleys in the south-central region of Badakhshan. They live in the valleys of the Pamir River, a tributary of the Panj, and in the Wakhan corridor, along the Wakh River. The Wakhan Corridor, it should be mentioned, is notable for two major events. First, it served as a major link in the Great Silk Road system of roads that connected China to Europe. Secondly, it was the point where, at the end of the "Great Game," the Russian and British influences met and were forced to make a compromise regarding the fate of Central Asia and Afghanistan.

The estimated 29,000 Wakhi speakers are distributed among Tajikistan (7,000), Afghanistan (7,000), Pakistan (9,000), and China (6,000). Wakhi and its inherently intelligible dialects are not written. The Isma'ili community uses Tajiki to satisfy its literary needs.


To the west of the Wakhis is the small community of the Ishkashems. The 2,500 Ishkashems, adherents of Isma'ili Shi'ism, live on both shores of the Panj (500 in Tajikistan, 2,000 in Afghanistan) where the river takes a sharp turn north. The speakers are bilingual in Tajiki and Ishkashemi. A small Wakhi community also lives in the center of Ishkashim. Since Ishkashemi is not a written language, Tajiki serves as a literary language for the community.


The Shughnan, who also are adherents of Isma'ili Shi'ism, number about 20,000. They live to the north of the Ishkashems, in the middle valleys of the Panj and its tributaries, the Gunt Darya and the Shah Darya. Shughnani is the largest linguistic group among the six minor groups that constitute the Gorno-Badakhshan (also known as Pamir) peoples of the former Soviet Union. The Shughnans are centered on Khorog, the administrative capital of the Autonomous Republic. Their attempt in the 1920's to introduce Shughnani as the lingua franca for all the Pamir peoples and as a literary language for the region was not successful.


To the north of the Shughnans are the Rushan who occupy the valleys of the Bartang River, a tributary of Panj in the north of the Badakhshan range. A dialect of Rushan, Khuf, is also spoken there. The 20,000 Isma'ili population of Rushan is influenced by the Shughnans to their south and by the mountain Tajiks to their north and west. To communicate with their neighbors, the Rushans speak Shughnani as well as Tajiki. The latter language is likely to assimilate Rushan as it has already assimilated Vanji and Gorani. The Shughnan-Rushan group also includes the Bartang. The members of this group live in the villages along the Bartang river. The Bartangs, too, are being assimilated by the Tajiks.


A member of the Shughnan-Rushan subgroup, Oroshori is closer to Bartangi than to Sarikoli, another member of the Shughnan-Rushan subgroup. The population is small, about 2,000. They live on the upper reaches of the Bartang River. Due to the sever climate of the region, the Oroshori have been resettled twice. In 1911, a group was moved to the upper reaches of the Gunt River where they lived among the Shughnans. In 1950, a group was moved to the Vakhsh valley where they joined other resettled Soviets commissioned to develop the Vakhsh River Valley Project. See Islam and Communism: Tajikistan in Transition for detail.


Finally, the 4,000 Isma'ili Shi'ite Yazgulems occupy the valleys along the river Yazgulem, also a tributary of the Panj. Located to the north of the Rushans and exposed directly to the Tajiki language of the Mountain Tajiks, they, too, are likely to lose their language to Tajiki.

Russian-Tajik Interaction

During the 1920's and the 1930's, the first steps for eliminating Tajiki were taken. Due to an influx of Russians and European Soviets to the republic, most schools switched from Tajiki to Russian as language of instruction. Tajik children could be instructed in Tajiki at home at the discretion of their parents. Similarly, mosques and madrasahs were closed and the clergy were derobed, putting an end to the apparent vestiges of Islam. Conferences, seminars, and classes were set up in the urban and rural centers to teach the Russian language and the principles of scientific atheism. Many Tajiks participated in these efforts and accepted the change. Many others did not, even though they knew their refusal made them social outcasts and that they would be denied all amenities available to conformists.

In the 1930's, the Arabic-based alphabet of Tajiki was changed into the Latin script. The Tajiks, specially those who had given up much of their privileges as natives of the land protested, but to no avail. The change from the Arabic-based alphabet to Latin, the Tajiks were told, would bring them within the sphere of the technologically-oriented West. In reality, however, the change was meant to distance the Tajiks from the source of their ideology, i.e., Islam. It was also a means of preparing the way for the next stage in their development as Soviets. In the 1940's, the Tajiki script was changed once again, this time into the Cyrillic script. The change, it was explained was necessary because the Tajiks, in their ascent to the heights of communism, would need the help of their "Big Brother" who could only communicate with them in Russian. The change into Cyrillic, therefore, would simplify the final step, i.e., abandoning Tajiki for Russian.

Thus far, the changes had been in the realm of language, especially in the superficial aspect of it--orthography and borrowing. The reformists had stayed clear of the roots of the language where ethnicity, i.e., Tajikness, rests. For the first time, therefore, many Tajiks who had accepted the precepts of communism, woke up to the reality of losing themselves in the Soviets. Fighting Soviet power, however, was beyond their means.

Communism in the Union was now reaching its high stage of "mixing of all nationalities." The Russian language had become the sole means whereby this mixing could take place. Every other concern was subsumed in achieving the "mix". Placed at an impasse, in the mid-1970's, Tajik intellectuals and religious leaders formed a clandestine group in Qurqanteppe, a hundred miles south of the capital of Dushanbe. The Tajiks on both sides of the Soviet/Afghanistan border contributed to the effort, a stiff resistance against Communist rule. The revival of the Tajiki language was one of their most sacred goals.

Tajikistan's 1989 language law, spearheaded by the reformists mentioned above, distinguished Tajiki as the official language of the Republic and Russian as the language of international transactions. The government undertook to safeguard the welfare of the languages of the Gorno-Badakhshan region and allowed the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyzes of Tajikistan to develop their own cultural institutions (Pigolkin and Studenikina, 1991, pp. 39 ff.). It was decided that after 1995 all official business should be conducted in Tajiki (Critchlow, 1992, 21-22).

The decision to propose a new language law grew out of the frustration of the Tajiks who, for seventy years, had been deprived of the use of their native language for the free expression of their thoughts and feelings. The decision to accept and implement that law initially led to tension between the Russians and their Tajik hosts. Later on, gradually, this tension grew into a wider conflict between the communists and the democratic-minded, Muslim Tajiks. Then, on February 12, 1990, riots broke out in Dushanbe and caused the death of a number of Tajik citizens. Furthermore, the untenable situation that followed led to the departure of many Russian and other national and ethnic groups from the republic. The migration took two distinct forms. Some people moved simply to stay out of harm's way. In general, this group left the south (mostly Dushanbe) for the north (Khujand and Chikalovsk). The others left the republic permanently for Russia or the other European republics of the former Soviet Union.

Further efforts to unseat the communists, implement the language law, and revive Muslim traditions resulted in two tragedies in 1992 (May 5-10 and November 10-25). It also resulted in the departure of many more loyal Tajik inhabitants from their homeland.

The conflict that led to the 1990-92 tragedies and the departure of many able individuals could be broadly categorized as a struggle between the communist elite and the Muslim poor of Tajikistan. For over seventy years, the Russians and their sympathizer communists had developed Tajik society for their own benefit. They had harnessed its mineral resources, developed its technological and economic centers, and commanded its government and military. In the face of open hostility and discrimination, and fearing the impending loss of their lucrative positions and lives, after 1995, they fled Tajikistan, taking their expertise, equipment, and capital with them.

Within months of the departure of these expert citizens, Tajikistan's educational, medical, and military institutions broke down. Without expert cadres to run and manage them, the textile factories, the mainstay of Tajik economy, also crumbled. Further departures affected the communication, transportation, food supply, and the sanitation departments.

The tragic situation in Tajikistan provides a good case study of the role of language in the development of societies. Although as a system it is neutral, language can create conflicts when the interests of its speakers collide. These interests can be logically based, as in conflicts stemming from the clash of economic and military interests. Or they can be ideologically based, resulting in conflicts centered on regional, religious, and ethnic differences. The Tajik situation grew out of an economic and military imperative. It would not have found its solution, however, if the ideological and regional differences had not been brought to bear on the situation.


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