Indo-Âryan-Speaking Peoples of the Hindu-Kush Region
Name: Indo-Âryan, designating one of the Indo-Âryan languages or a speaker
thereof. The Indo-Âryan languages constitute the largest sub-group of the Indo-Iranian (Âryan) group of
Other Names: for the region covered on this website, Kohistâni (from Persian
kôhestâni 'highlander') and Dard or Dardic (from Sanskrit
darʹad- 'a people adjoining Kashmir'), a name extended by Western scholars (without
linguistic justification1) from its original designation for
inhabitants of Indus Kohistân to include all the Indo-Âryan groups covered here. It is not used in the
modern languages of the region.
Location: Indo-Âryan speakers extend from the southern slopes of the Hindu-Kush
mountains in northeastern Afghânistân through Pâkistân, India, and Nepâl to Bangaladesh in the east
and to Sri Lankâ in the south, and as émigrés in communities outside of this area. The purview of
this website covers the northwesternmost Indo-Âryan linguistic communities that occupy the higher
watersheds of the Panjshir, Tagâw, Laghmân, Kunar-Chitral, Panjkora, Swat, and Indus Rivers in
Afghânistân and Pâkistân.
Population: perhaps around 1,000,000 for all ethnic groups in the region delimited
Languages and Ethnic Groups: The Indo-Âryan languages of the region fall into groups
based primarily on their geographic locations (native names appear in italics):2
- The Pashaʹî dialects are found in the three major tributary systems of the western Kâbul
River basin: the Panjshir (along with the parallel Tagâw), the Laghmân-Alishang-Alingar, and the Kunar.
These often mutually unintelligible dialects fall into a Western group and an Eastern
group, divided roughly by the Laghmân-Alingar River.
- Within the Western group there is a Tagâw subgroup centered around the upper Tagâw
basin. The remaining dialects of the Western group (pašaʹî proper) constitute a dialect
group with two subdialect groups. One subdialect centers on the middle Panjshir and its tributary
Pachaghân Valley; the other subdialect, called kurmaitʹo, centers on the middle Alishang,
spilling over into the upper Uzbin Valley to the southwest and into the west side of the upper
Alingar Basin to the east.
- Within the Eastern group two dialects, Čalâsi–Kuṛangali and Čugani stand
together to form a Northeastern group, as against the rest of the dialects of the Eastern Group.
In Laghmân there may still be pockets of Laghmâni in lower Laghmân. Up the Alishang on the
east the šinganʹik (damʹenč) inhabit the Kulmân Valley, and the
sum inhabit the Sâw and Nuralâm Valleys and the area around Ebalâm, across the
Alishang. Both of these ethnic groups spill over the eastern watershed into settlements in the upper
Dara-e Nur Valley. Further up the Alishang the people of the towns of Malil and Mašpa, in a single
eastern side valley, constitute another ethnic group. Each of these ethnic groups has its own dialect. On
the east side of the Kunar are the dialects of Upper and Lower Dara-e Nur, and
degânʹo, spoken by the degʹân people in pockets on the lower Kunar
- The Pech Valley languages include gawâr-bâti, Šumâšti, and
gʹõgali (Gṛangali). Today only gʹõgali remains in the Pech
Basin, in the Digal Valley. This language was until recently also spoken in Nungalâm, at the confluence
of the Pech and Waigal Valleys. Šumâšti apparently was displaced over the Pech-Kunar watershed
(probably by Afghâns) to its present enclave in the village of Šumâšt in the upper Mazâr Valley, and the
ancestors of today's Väi Nuristânis forced the Gawâr-bâti speakers out of their earlier home in Waigal
to the Sindân region of the Kunar Valley, where they remain today.
- Kaṭâr-kalâʹi is spoken in the village of Kaṭâr-kalâ in the lower Tregâm Valley, off the lower
Pech. A similar dialect, Woṭapuri, was spoken until some fifty years ago in the village of
Woṭapur at the confluence of the Pech and the Tregâm Valleys. These stand perhaps as the last
representatives of an earlier dialect group that may have extended from the confluence of the Pech and
Kunar Rivers up into the Tregâm Valley in Pech and up to Nišagâm in the Kunar Valley.
- The Chitral languages include kalʹaṣa-mʹund/mʹandr and
khowàr. The former is spoken by the kalʹaṣa peoples in side valleys of
the Chitral (Kunar) River in southern Chitral District of Pâkistân. A dialect division splits the
kalʹaṣa-mʹund speakers of the Bumboret and Rumbur Valleys from the
kalʹaṣa-mʹandr speakers of Urtsun and other enclaves in southern Chitral.
khowàr is the language of the khów people who dominate Chitral District
today. Minor dialectal innovations distinguish the Khowàr spoken in southern Chitral from the more
conservative speech of the north.
- Tirâhi, by now perhaps defunct, is or was spoken in a few villages southeast of Jalâlâbâd in
eastern Afghânistân and in the Tirâh region south of Peshawar, Pâkistan. It may represent the last
remnant of the Indo-Âryan language spoken around the Peshawar region before the arrival of the
- The Kohistâni languages of Dir, Swat, and Indus Kohistân Districts in Pâkistân fall into a
Western and an Eastern group.
- The Western group includes Dir Kohistâni,
spoken in the upper reaches of the Panjkora basin and across the watershed into the uppermost valleys
of Swat, where it is called garvʹi. A distinct dialect of this language is spoken in the
village of Patrak, on the Panjkora. Perhaps also belonging in the Western group is
dåmia-båṣa (Dameli), spoken in the small Dameḷ Valley in southern Chitral.
Morgenstierne (1942: 147) was unsure whether to classify
this language as Nuristâni or Indo-Âryan, but the laryngeal processes of this language, including
aspiration, tones, and basic laryngeal posture, are characteristically Indo-Âryan, not Nuristâni. It is
undoubtedly Indo-Âryan in origin, with a layer of Nuristâni vocabulary.
- The Eastern group encompasses languages spoken in Indus Kohistân and upper Swat. Indus
Kohistâni ("Maiyâ˜", a name unknown to modern speakers of the language) is the major
language of this group, spoken in two dialects on the west side of the Indus: that of the Duber
and Kandia Valleys, and that of Paṭan on the Indus, with the outlying subdialect
kanyawâli spoken in a small enclave in the Tangîr Valley to the north. On the east side of
the Indus are bhaṭʹe-sa zib, spoken in Bhaṭʹera, and Chiliso and
Gowro, spoken in small enclaves to the north of Bhaṭʹera in the Shinâ'-speaking region of Indus
Kohistân. Finally, torwâli is spoken in upper Swat between the Pashto- and
- Shina (Ṣiṇâ') is spoken in several dialects in the Indus Basin from Indus
Kohistân to Ladakh. The dialect around Chilâs in the east-west portion of the Indus valley
above Indus Kohistân is probably the source of the speech that spread upstream along the Indus basin
to form the Eastern Shina dialects and downstream to form the kohistyõ dialect
of Indus Kohistan. Another dialect centers on Gilgit, with an outlying Tibetanized offshoot
(Brokskat) in Ladakh. In addition there are dispersed dialect enclaves to the west of the Indus:
ušuǰʹu, spoken beside Torwâli in the Chail Valley of upper Swat, the archaic dialects
palôlâ' and Sâwi, spoken in enclaves off the Kunar-Chitral River, and perhaps
Kalkoṭi, spoken in one part of Kalkoṭ in Dir Kohistân.
- Beyond the purview of this site is Kashmiri, traditionally counted as a "Dardic" language,
along with its regional dialects Kashtawâṛi and Poguli.
- The remainder of the Indo-Aryan languages are located to the east and south. Included in these are
Hindko and Gujuri, which appear on the linguistic
Linguistic Position of the Indo-Âryan Languages: Within the Indo-European linguistic family
the Indo-Âryan languages constitute the major sub-group of the Indo-Iranian (Âryan) group, alongside
the Iranian and Nuristâni sub-groups. The Indo-Âryas conserved the glottal accentual process of
"aspiration", which produces an accompanying acoustic noise on a consonant, while aspiration was lost
in the other Indo-Iranian sub-groups. Tendencies of long-term Indo-Âryan phonological development
include the spreading of the backed-tongue position of r ("retroflexion") to adjacent consonants
and the abrupt releasing of syllable onsets, producing open syllables with single-consonant syllable
History: Recent and current archaeological research substantiates that around the
beginning of the 2nd millennium B.C. equestrian tribesmen bearing the Indo-Âryan branch of the early
Âryan culture spread south over the Caucasus from their homeland between the Black and Caspian
Seas, to engulf much of the Middle East from Syria to the Iranian Plateau. As the region desiccated,
these Indo-Âryas spread east, via Fârs and Seistân into Baluchistân and Sindh toward the south and into
Margiana and Bactria toward the north (Sarianidi 1999).
Via a central route some Indo-Âryas followed the Helmand basin and crossed the watershed into the
Kâbul River basin, reaching Swat as early as 1800 B.C. Pressing onward, southern waves of Indo-Âryas
drove toward the Deccan and at some point became maritime, reaching Sri Lankâ and the Maldives,
while central waves pushed into the Panjâb and across northern India as far as Bengal and Assam.
By the end of the 2nd millennium B.C. the northern Indo-Âryas of Margiana and Bactria were
overwhelmed by Âryas of the Irânian branch of the early Âryan culture, who arrived via the Âmu Daryâ
from their probable homelands north of the Indo-Âryas, on the lower Volga and adjacent regions of the
northern coast of the Caspian Sea. These early Irânians from the north eventually submerged all the
Indo-Âryas to the west of the longitude of central Afghanistân, and their descendants spread east
throughout the region from the Hindu-Kush Range in the north to the Makrân Coast in the south, right up
to the Indus Valley.
The modern Indo-Âryan speakers of the region treated here are the westernmost surviving
Indo-Âryan communities. They derive from the earliest waves of Indo-Âryas who settled the alluvial
flatlands of the Kâbul River basin. In the absence of historical and archaeological records from the
region, we rely on comparative linguistic data to sketch the early spread of these peoples. The common
linguistic heritage of the region's Indo-Âryan languages descends from the Old Indo-Âryan speech of the
early Indo-Âryas. In time their language differentiated into clusters of regional dialects along the major
tributaries of the Kâbul and further, up the Indus. Beyond some general changes of the Middle
Indo-Âryan period, no single linguistic feature has united these regional dialects into a common group;
and they have remained beyond many of the later linguistic innovations that radiated out of the Indian
Midlands toward the northwest (see note 1). During the past millennium, the region's
ancient lowland Indo-Âryan tongues have been overwhelmed by the Pashto of invading Afghâns, while
the Indo-Âryan languages of the highlands have survived. The Afghân expansion into Dir and Swat in
the 15th and 16th centuries A.D. forced the speakers of today's Kohistâni languages into their present
communities in the highlands of the Dir, Swat, and Indus Kohistâns.
Pashto continues to displace Indo-Âryan and Nuristâni speech in the bottom lands of the Laghmân,
Kâbul, and Indus Basins. The displacement process derives largely from marriage alliances that
indigenous men form with Pashto speakers. A native man's Pashto-speaking wife rarely learns his
language, largely because of the general chauvinistic attitude of Pashto speakers, and his children grow
up speaking Pashto as their primary ("mother") language.
1. Morgenstierne pointed out the lack of common
phonological innovations necessary to place these languages into a phylogenetic subgroup of the
There is not a single common feature distinguishing Dardic, as a whole, from the rest of
the I[ndo-]A[ryan] languages ... Dardic is simply a convenient term to denote a bundle of aberrant hill
languages, which in their relative isolation ... have been in a varying degree sheltered against the
expanding influences of IA Midland (Madhyadeša
) innovations, being left free to develop on
their own. (1961
I reiterated this point in Strand 1973
(p. 298). In particular, the
classificatory scheme of Grierson (1919
), which includes all
the languages under discussion here in one single "Dardic" branch of Indo-Iranian, has long since been
superseded; yet it continues to be followed by a few unenlightened scholars. The problematical history of
the term "Dardic" has recently been addressed by Mock (1997-2000
2. The table of languages presented in Strand
1973 (p.302) suffered from an unfortunate lapse in the editor's
responsibility to correct the numerous typographical errors that appeared in the page proofs of that
article. Most seriously, Pashai and Kashmiri were incorrectly listed as subgroups of my "Kunar Group"
(renamed here "Pech Valley Group") and "Ṣiṇâ Group", respectively. Although this error would be
apparent to anyone familiar with the linguistic literature on the region, it has crept in to more widely used
sources, such as Masica (1991), Grimes (1996), and Ruhlen (1987). I regret any confusion arising from these errors, which
were beyond my control.