Introduction to Afghan Persian (Dari) – Part 1: General remarks and phonology

Posted  27 Oct 2020

Persian (referred to as ‘Dari’) is one of the two official languages of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, alongside Pashto. The modern territory of Afghanistan constitutes what is often referred to as ‘Greater Khorasan’ by some scholars and cultural activists and was the centre of Persian literary and cultural activities and Perso-Islamic learning right from the inception of New Persian as a literary language till pre-modern times. Situated in the middle of the contemporary Persian-speaking world, Afghan Persian is often regarded as the closest to Classical Persian in terms of both phonology and grammar, sharing characteristics with both Iranian Persian and Tajik Persian. A good understanding of modern Afghan Persian, therefore, is certainly beneficial to learners of Persian familiar only with the Iranian variety as well as native speakers of Persian from Iran.

It is of crucial importance to remember that Afghan Persian is by no means a different language from Iranian Persian and Tajik Persian (Tajik). It is a regionally standardised form that sits on the dialect continuum of Persian from Iran to Tajikistan – a region which, before the emergence of nation states, was unspoiled by national borders. Here, it is imperative to discuss the name ‘Dari’. دری Darī, in its historical use, is an alternative name for the Persian language besides فارسی Fārsī without specific dialectal, let alone national, connotation; it comes from the noun در dar, which is short for دربار darbār ‘palace, court’, referring to the status of Persian, especially literary Persian as opposed to colloquial or dialectal Persian as well as other local languages, as the court/administrative language in many dynasties of Eurasia. The terms Fārsī and Darī were to a large extent interchangeable, and Persian belles-lettres were, and still are, often endearingly referred to as دُرِّ دَری durr-i darī ‘the pearls of the courtly language’. In the academia, فارسی دری Fārsī-i darī is often employed by Iranian linguists to designate pre-modern Persian or Classical Persian, in contrast with the pre-Islamic Middle Persian (Pahlavi) and modern/contemporary Iranian Persian. In modern times, however, the obsession of western scholars with dividing their countries’ colonial subjects, compounded with nationalistic movements among the latter, resulted in the term Darī being adopted for Afghan Persian alone as a language in its own right, distinct from the Persian spoken in the modern states of Iran and Tajikistan. This logic, if applied to the west, would, for example, make British English a distinct language from American English and bestowing a separate name for each of them. Afghan Persian, in many respects, is closer to Iranian Persian than British English is to American English, and separating it from Iranian Persian makes no scientific sense.

The most striking differences between Afghan Persian and Iranian Persian, like those between British English and American English, lie in the phonology. Vocabulary is another area where Afghan Persian may differ significantly from Iranian Persian, especially in colloquial, daily speech; in formal speech and writing, however, Afghan Persian vocabulary is almost or completely identical with that of Iranian Persian. At the same time, there are only minor differences in grammar that are worth noting.

 

The phonology of Afghan Persian

It must be pointed out that, in reality, we can hardly speak of ‘one’ Afghan Persian. Although the linguistic and ethnic diversity of Afghanistan is as great as, if not more than, that of Iran, the standardisation of spoken Persian in Afghanistan is less than that in Iran. This is partly due to the decades of political unrest in Afghanistan, partly due to the lack of a centralised political and cultural space in the country, and partly due to the interethnic power dynamics in the relatively young nation-state.

Standard Afghan Persian is said to be based on the dialect of Kabul, but the reality is one can hardly speak of a unified Kabuli dialect with the same rigour as the Tehrani dialect of Iran. Kabul has not had the same cultural prestige in Afghanistan as Tehran has in Iran, as it is a relatively young capital. The Persian-speaking cultural and political elite has historically concentrated in Herat in the west, whose dialect is close to Iranian Persian especially in terms of phonology, as well as Mazar-i Sharif in the north, whose dialect is closer to Central Asian Persian (Tajik). The political elite since the establishment of the modern Afghan state in 1919, however, has been dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, whose cultural centres include Kandahar and Jalalabad, situated in the south and south-east of the country and whose mother tongue is not Persian. The political elite has vigorously promoted the Pashto language as the ethno-linguistic identity of the Afghans – a policy which, as many argue, has aimed at demoting the Persian language in order to build a distinct nation through an active ethnic and linguistic dissociation from the neighbouring Iran, an officially Persian-speaking country. This linguistic reality in the modern Afghan state has meant that, although Persian has never ceased to be an important cultural language and lingua franca among different ethnic groups of Afghanistan, it has not been as enforced in a particular standardised phonological form as Pashto. While many non-Pashtun Afghans have been taught how to speak a standardised Pashto, their Persian, whether it be their first or second or third language, has been allowed sociolinguistically to maintain strong regionalisms. With the increasing Iranian cultural influence and linguistic prestige in Afghanistan as well as the return of Afghan refugees and migrants (including students) who have grown up in Iran, many educated Afghans may speak Persian with a hint of Iranian pronunciation, especially in formal contexts, although a pronounced Iranian accent is generally mocked or even looked down upon. The significant size of the Afghan diaspora also means that second-generation Afghans may continue their parents’ accents and colloquialisms from the era when they emigrated, which may be slightly different from how people of the same generation in contemporary Afghanistan speak. Therefore, an Afghan individual’s pronunciation of Persian is heavily associated with and influenced by their ethnicity, social class, level of education, family history and personal experience (particularly, history of internal or external migration), so much so that I myself have never encountered two Afghans not from the same family who have the exact same accent in Persian, and the lack of consensus of which accent is the best means that Afghans hold on to their individual accents more readily than Iranians.

Consequently, it is difficult to present in a canonical way ‘the’ Afghan Persian pronunciation, as Persian phonology fluctuates from speaker to speaker and even in the same speaker depending on register and context. This said, it is still possible to define the parameters of Afghan Persian phonology which make all the different accents collectively distinct from Iranian Persian based on the educated speech of Tehran. I have observed the following points that I would like to share with our readers:

 

  1. Preservation of the long ē and ō of Classical Persian

In this respect, Afghan Persian is identical with Central Asian Persian (Tajik). This is to say that, in Afghan Persian, for example, there is also a difference between شیر meaning ‘milk’ and شیر meaning ‘lion’, the former pronounced as shīr and the latter as shēr, and the word for ‘day’, روز, is pronounced as rōz rather than rūz, and آرزو ‘wish’ as ār(e)zō rather than ārezū. The progressive aspect prefix می is pronounced as or even mey; the first person plural ending ایم and second person plural ending اید  (colloquially این) are pronounced as ēm and ēd (colloquially ēn) respectively. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell when a ی is pronounced as ē instead of ī and when a و is pronounced as ō rather than ū, unless one has been extensively exposed to Afghan Persian, or has substantial knowledge of Persian historical linguistics, or knowledge of other Iranian languages or Urdu or Turkic languages heavily influenced by Classical Persian. The best thing to do for learners interested in Afghan Persian is to watch out for these characteristics and commit them to memory. Many Afghans, however, under the influence of Iranian Persian, may consciously or subconsciously pronounce ē as ī and ō as ūin some daily high-frequency or formal/literary words.

 

  1. Preservation of the diphthongs aw, ay of Classical Persian

Like Tajik Persian, the classical aw and ay have stayed in the phonology, whilst they have largely become ow and ey in Iranian Persian. Thus, نو ‘new’ is pronounced as naw, and نی ‘flute’ as nay. In Arabic loanwords, this means the preservation of the original Arabic pronunciation: موضوع is therefore maw (or even mawzō, with the و reinterpreted as the Persian long ō) instead of mowzū, and حیوان is haywān rather than heyvān. Again, this is not a hard and fast rule, as some speakers may pronounce the diphthongs in the Iranian way. The word برو, ‘Go!’, however, is not the expected birawas it would have been based on historical phonology, but boro like in Iranian.

 

  1. Preservation of the short a of Classical Persian

That is, in certain contexts where the short a has become a short e in Iranian Persian (perhaps under Turkic influence), the most prominent examples being the two verbs رسیدن ‘to arrive, to reach’, pronounced as rasīdan (Ir. resīdan) and کشیدن ‘to pull, to drag’, pronounced as kashīdan (Ir. keshīdan). The numeral یک ‘one’ is pronounced as yak (Ir. yek). The present stem of the verb نوشتن ‘to write’, نویس, is pronounced as nawēs in Afghan Persian rather than neves – here, the Iranian pronunciation is closer to Middle Persian, where the vowel after n was a short i.

The past participle ending ده/ته is not pronounced as de/te as in Iranian, but da/ta: رفته rafta ‘gone’, کرده karda ‘done’, بودهbūda ‘been’, نشسته neshasta ‘sat’, etc. This is the same with other words which have this final ه which originated from an adjectival suffix in Middle Persian: روزه rōza ‘fast(ing)’, شبانه shabāna ‘nightly’, خانه khāna ‘house’, دانه dāna ‘grain, unit’, مردانه mardāna ‘manly, brave’, etc.

In colloquial Iranian Persian, the third person singular present suffix د ad is shortened to e, as in میکنه mīkone (from the formal میکند mīkonad) ‘he/she/it does’. In Afghan Persian, like in Tajik Persian, this is shortened to a rather than e, i.e. میکنه mēko(u)na, میبینه mēbīna ‘he/she/it sees’, etc. The ultra-short forms میره (from میرود) ‘he/she/it goes’ and میشه (from میشود) ‘he/she/it becomes’ are pronounced as mēra and mēsha respectively, as opposed to mīre and mīshe in Iranian Persian.

 

  1. The overwhelming presence of w

In Afghan Persian, the letter و as a consonant is overwhelmingly pronounced as w (as in the w in English, not in German and Polish etc.) rather than v in all positions in a word. If you have read my introduction to Tajik Persian, you may recall that this sound in Tajik is almost always pronounced as v, like in Iranian Persian, at the start of a word, and tends to be realised either as a v or as a w in the middle of the word depending on the speaker. In Afghan Persian, however, we have a nearly across-the-board realisation of و as w, except perhaps in Herat, where many speakers say v, due to the city’s proximity to Iran. Thus, we have و wa ‘and’, پیوند paywand ‘connection’, پروانه parwāna ‘moth’, گاو gāw ‘cow’, etc.

The word for ‘water’, آب, is consistently pronounced in colloquial Afghan Persian as āw.

 

  1. The negative particle

The negative particle is uniformly pronounced as na in Afghan Persian, whereas in Iranian, it is pronounced as ne before the progressive prefix می and na elsewhere: نمیکنم Afg. namēkonom vs. Ir. nemīkonam.

The colloquial Afghan way of saying ‘no’ is نی, pronounced as , rather than نه na.

 

  1. Elongation of the short a before h and ayn

This is perhaps the most peculiar feature of Afghan Persian. Before the h sound and the glottal stop represented by the letter ع, a great number of Afghan Persian speakers, especially in colloquial speech, pronounce the short, open a as the long, rounded ā, which can cause difficulty in understanding to someone unfamiliar with Afghan Persian. The h and the glottal stop are subsequently dropped. Thus:

  • بعد ‘after’ is almost always pronounced as bād, as if it was written as باد,
  • قهر ‘anger’ is pronounced as qār (as if it was written as قار),
  • قهرمان as qāramān (as if it was written as قارمان),
  • شهد ‘honey’ as shād (as if it was written as شاد),
  • لعنتی ‘cursed’ as lānatī (as if it was written as لانتی).
  • میفهمم, which literally means ‘I understand’ but simply denotes ‘I know’ in Afghan Persian, is pronounced as mēfāmom.
  • When it comes to the word شهر ‘city’, many speakers say shār, although the more universally Persian pronunciation shahr is equally common.

 

  1. Deletion of h

The sound h is routinely omitted in Afghan pronunciation, and this is more clearly felt when h is at the start of the word. Therefore, هفت ‘seven’ becomes aft, هشت ‘eight’ becomes asht.

The deletion of h in speech can also mean that many speakers do not ‘realise’ that there is an h in the first place, thus resulting in pronunciations such as mēkhāyom for میخواهم ‘I want’ (Ir. mīkhāham or mīkhām for short). I will explain the ending –om later.

 

  1. Deletion of word-final n

This only occurs in some words, namely من ‘I’, which becomes ma, and همین ‘this very’, which becomes amī (remember that the initial h is also omitted). این ‘this’, as you may have guessed, is pronounced as ī. The second person singular imperative of the verb کردن in colloquial Afghan Persian is کو ko, rather than کن kon, without the final n.

Combining this point with points 5 and 6, the colloquial Afghan pronunciation of من هم ‘me too’ as mām can be explained in this way: man becomes ma, which exposes the short vowel a before the h of ham, resulting in the a becoming ā and the loss of h. In the colloquial Iranian situation, i.e. manam, the h is also deleted, but man remains man, where the n connects with the remaining am.

 

  1. The treatment of the object marker را

In colloquial Afghan Persian, the object marker را is shortened to ره ra after a vowel and reduced to a short a after a consonant (compare with the Iranian situation where it becomes رو ro after a vowel and و o after a consonant). Therefore, مرا دیدی ‘you saw me’ is pronounced مره دیدی  mara dīdī (compare with the colloquial Iranian منو دیدی mano dīdī), تورا دیدم ‘I saw you’ is تره دیدم tura dīdom (compare with the colloquial Iranian تورو دیدم toro dīdam), and من سیب را خوردم ‘I ate the apple’ is مه سیبه خوردم ma sēba khōrdom (compare with the colloquial Iranian من سیبو خوردم man sībo khordam).

 

  1. The deletion of syllable-final ر

This phenomenon occurs in two instances: the preposition در ‘in, inside, at’ and the first syllable of the past tense forms of the verb کردن ‘to do’. Thus, in colloquial Afghan Persian, در کابل is pronounced as ده کابل da Kābul ‘in Kabul’ and در این ‘in this’, similarly, is not pronounced as dar īn, but as ده ای da ī, except in careful, formal speech. کردی ‘you did’ is pronounced as کدی kadī, کردیم ‘we did’ as کدیم kadēm, etc.

 

  1. ‘Here’, ‘there’

In colloquial Afghan Persian, اینجا ‘here’ is pronounced as اینجه īnja, which a short a in the end rather than a long ā, and the stress is on ī rather than a. The Iranian pronunciation, both formal and colloquial, places the stress on the unchanged ā. Similarly, the Afghan pronunciation for the colloquial اونجا ‘there’ is اونجه ūnja, with the stress on ū and the a cut short.

 

  1. To be and not to be

The present tense conjugation of هستن/بودن ‘to be, to become’ in colloquial Afghan Persian, as expected from point 6, does not include the initial h sound: astom ‘I am’, astī ‘you are’, etc. Afghans also tend to use the full form of ‘to be’, i.e. the form containing the root (h)ast– instead of the suffixed forms –am, -ī…, more frequently than Iranians. Therefore, whilst an Iranian says, for example, من شاگردم man shāgerdam ‘I am a student’, an Afghan tends to say مه شاگرد استم ma shāgerd astom, and this is true for all persons.

The negative stem, نیست, is pronounced as nēst in the majority of Afghan dialects.

The shortened form of the third person singular present, in particular, is not e like in Iranian Persian, but as: او دوستم است‘he is my friend’ in colloquial Afghan Persian is او دوستم اس ū dōstam as, whereas it is او(ن) دوستمه ū(n) dūstame in colloquial Iranian Persian (or perhaps more idiomatically in Iranian, او(ن) رفیقمه ū(n) rafighame, with the Arabic word رفیق). The contraction of است to –s after a vowel occurs in both colloquial Afghan and colloquial Iranian Persian: او در خانه است ‘he is at home’ becomes او ده خانه‌س ū da khānas in Afghan and او(ن) تو خونه‌س ū(n) tū khūnas in Iranian.

Those familiar with Tehrani Persian know that in colloquial Tehrani Persian, the third person singular present for هستن/بودن‘to exist, to be’, i.e. هست hast, often has a little element esh attached to it, resulting in هستش hastesh. The exactly meaning and grammatical function of this merits an entire volume, and I shall not delve into that in this post. The equivalent of this in colloquial Afghan Persian is استه asta, i.e. ast (or hast with the initial h dropped) plus an extra element a. I have also heard one Afghan friend consistently pronouncing this as استگ astag, which is of great linguistic interest, as –ag is the full Middle Persian form of the suffix –a; but just how widespread astag is (it is not, in my experience, and I would like to hear another person who also uses astag instead of asta) awaits further investigation.

Logically, the Iranian نیستش nīstesh is the Afghan نیسته nēsta.

 

  1. The historical و after خ

In some varieties of Afghan Persian, the w sound after kh in certain words, which was historically pronounced, has been preserved. Thus, خوار ‘abject, lowly’ is pronounced as khwār. The word for ‘sister’, خواهر, can be pronounced as khwāharby some speakers, although this is rare; the more common pronunciation of خواهر is khār, identical with the Iranian pronunciation with the exception of the dropped h and subsequently the merging of ā and a. Some speakers will even pronounce خواستن ‘to want’ as khwāstan, although this is also uncommon. خویش, the formal, literary word for ‘self’, however, is pronounced as khēsh, without the historical w, and it also seems that few people pronounce خواندن ‘to read’ as khwāndan and virtually no one says dastarkhwān for دسترخوان ‘tablecloth’. Nevertheless, Afghan Persian remains the only living variety of Persian to have retained the pronunciation of the historical w after kh, even if it is only in some instances.

 

  1. The first person singular ending –om

Another prominent feature of Afghan Persian is the consistent pronunciation of the first person singular ending as –om, in contrast with the Iranian –am. We have seen a few examples of this above. Thus: رفتم is raftom, دیدم ‘I saw’ is dīdom, میرم ‘I go (colloquial)’ is mērom, میشوم ‘I become’ is mēshawom, میکنم ‘I do’ is mēkonom, etc.

 

  1. No palatalisation of k and g before e and a

Those familiar with Iranian Persian must have noticed that when Iranians pronounce the sounds k and g before e, and a, they say them as if there was a little y sound attached to it: kyardan ‘to do’, kyerm ‘worm’, agyar ‘if’, gyerd ‘circle’, etc. This is further exaggerated in Azerbaijan, where کردن sounds almost like چردن. In linguistics, this is called ‘palatalisation’ – the tongue is too close to the upper palate when pronouncing ک and گ, therefore producing a ی like quality or even making the ک sound like چ and گ sound like ج.

This phenomenon does not exist in Afghan Persian. Some varieties in western Afghanistan, near Iran, may possess this feature, but it is not typical of Afghan Persian as a whole.

 

  1. No merger of ق and غ

Like in Tajik Persian, Afghan Persian has retained in full the distinction between q and gh, which have been confused in Iranian Persian. In Iranian Persian, both letters are pronounced as q at the beginning and the end of a word, and gh in the middle a word or between two words pronounced too closely together. This does not happen in Afghan Persian. In Afghan Persian, whenever you see a ق, it is pronounced as q, and whenever you see a غ, it is gh. This said, some speakers may realise ق as خ before ت, namely in the word وقت, pronounced as waqt or wakht.

 

  1. The short e and o

The short e and o in Iranian Persian evolved from the short i and u of Classical Persian respectively (I have mentioned this in my post about Tajik Persian). Whereas in Iranian Persian they are consistently pronounced as e and o, in Afghan Persian their realisation fluctuates and shows a great variety of inconsistencies. Some speakers will say e and o in some words but the historical i and u in others, and it is difficult to pinpoint when exactly to expect the historical pronunciation. The general observation, however, is that the Afghan short e and o are ‘more like’ their historical forms, i.e. the e is pronounced more like an i and o more like an u, both ‘narrower’ than their Iranian equivalents.

The izafa, therefore, can be realised as a short i like in Tajik Persian and Classical Persian, or as an e like in Iranian Persian, or any phonetic hue in between. When the izafa comes after the vowel a, however, the two vowels tend to merge in colloquial speech and become e, e.g. خانه تو khāna-i(e) tu > khāne tu ‘your house’.

 

  1. The ā does not become ū

Similar to Tajik Persian, the Iranian (or more precisely, Tehrani) phenomenon of the long ā becoming the long ū before a nasal (n and m) does not exist in Afghan Persian. Thus, مهمان ‘guest’ is always mehmān (never mehmūn), نان ‘bread’ is always nān (never nūn), آسمان ‘sky, heaven’ is always ās(e)mān (never āsemūn). The shortened version of میتوانم ‘I can’ is mētānom in Afghan Persian (never mītūnam); similarly, میخوانم ‘I read’ is mēkhānom (never mīkhūnam). خانه‌مان ‘our house’ is khānamān (never khūnemūn), and میدانم ‘I know’ is mēdānom (never mīdūnam; in fact, for ‘I know’, the more idiomatic Afghan expression is میفهمم mēfāmom, of which the phonology is mentioned in point 6).

 

  1. The indefinite ی

The ی representing indefiniteness in Persian is mostly pronounced how it was in Classical Persian, i.e. as ē. آهنگی ‘a (certain) song’ is therefore āhangē, rather than the Iranian āhangī. However, nowadays many Afghan Persian speakers have started pronouncing the indefinite ی in the Iranian way, but this depends on which word is used and also the speaker’s background.

 

  1. Hand

This is a minor point, but دست ‘hand’ in colloquial Afghan Persian is often pronounced as something that sounds like the English word ‘dust’, rather than with a fully open a.

 

To conclude this week’s post, I would like to invite you to train your ears by listening to a TV interview with a famous Afghan filmmaker, صحرا کریمی Sahraa Karimi, on the Afghan TV programme قاب گفتگو Qāb-e Goftogō. Karimi grew up in Iran and her Persian pronunciation is rather mixed. Note how she sounds more Afghan when talking about informal topics but more Iranian when speaking on more formal subjects. Also pay attention to the differences between her accent and the hosts’ accents. Try to identify the points addressed in this post:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIiCf5nFArk&t=2990s&ab_channel=QabeGoftogo (Karimi’s interview starts at 15:33).

 

For the music lovers among us, I propose a Qurban Eid concert done by the famous Afghan singers آریانا سعید Aryana Saeed and جواد کریمی Jawad Karimi in 2011. Between songs, the singers chat with the host in a semi-informal way. All three speak clearly and it is a good opportunity for you to practise your listening skills and to get used to Afghan Persian pronunciation:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2NjDBWueOk&ab_channel=TOLOTV

 

Iskandar Ding

 

Featured image: Ka firoushi, bird market in Kabul. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kabul#/media/File:Bird_Market_Kabul.jpg