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Home » Linguistic Geography, Myth of the Nation-State

Further Problems with the “Ethnolinguanymic State” Concept: The Case of Afghanistan

Submitted by on November 17, 2011 – 1:47 am 28 Comments |  
Map of Underfit StatesLast Saturday’s post on “ethnolinguanymic states” generated pointed criticisms, especially from Maju, whose frequent comments on GeoCurrents are much appreciated. I realized afterward that the main problem was a lack of clarity in the initial post. The ultimate point was not to argue that “ethnolinguanymic” countries (those whose names incorporate the names of their main language) should be regarded as solid nation-states, with a close match between state boundaries and national identity. If anything, it was to argue the opposite: although ethnolinguanymic states might seem to form solid nation-states, reality is often quite different. Hence the framing of the concept in the English language: I am interested here primarily in misconceptions that I commonly see circulating in the English-language media and among my English-speaking students.

The case of Spain, discussed intensively in the GeoCurrents forum, illustrates the central issue well. American students generally expect to find a high degree of linguistic commonality and national solidarity in Spain, assuming that virtually all citizens of Spain are Spanish-speakers Spaniards who identity themselves as such. But that is not the case, given the strong sense of separate national identity found among the Catalans and Basques, and to some extent the Galicians as well. In my experience, students who have spent time in Barcelona or the Basque country participate enthusiastically in classroom discussions on this topic, often stressing how surprised they were to find such strong anti-Spanish-national sentiments in these areas.

The identification of the Spanish (or Castilian) language with Spain is further challenged by the fact that most native Spanish (or Castilian) speakers reside not in Spain but in Latin America. Ibero-Americans, of course, do not identify themselves with the Spanish nation. In general terms, national identity in the Western Hemisphere did not develop on ethnolinguistic grounds, although in the officially “plurinational” state of Bolivia, current-day “nations” are defined on such a basis.

In the Eastern Hemisphere, several “ethnolinguanymic” countries are potentially challenged by the fact that a higher percentage of the people in the ethnolinguistic group on which the state is supposedly founded live in a neighboring country, a phenomenon introduced in a previous GeoCurrents post under the label of the “underfit nation-state.” Each case has its own complexities and deserves a post of its own. For the sake of simplicity, I will note here only that more Mongols live in China (mostly in “Inner Mongolia”) than in Mongolia itself, more Lao live in Thailand than in Laos (to the extent that Isan is synonymous with Lao), more people who speak Malay as their mother tongue live in Indonesia than in Malaysia, more Azeris (or Azerbaijanis) live in Iran than Azerbaijan, and more Southern Sotho speakers, Swazi speakers, and Tswana speakers live in South Africa than in Lesotho, Swaziland, and Botswana respectively.

Map of Ethnic Groups in AfghanistanAfghanistan is doubly compromised on this score. “Afghan” is generally taken to be synonymous with Pashtun (or Pakhtun, in the “hard” dialect of the Pashto language), yet more Pashtun people live in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. By the same token, more members of the Tajik ethnic group live in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan. The latter imbalance is even more striking if defined on strictly linguistic grounds. The Tajiks of Tajikistan supposedly speak Tajik whereas those of Afghanistan supposedly speak Dari, but Tajik and Dari are merely different names of the same language. Two other major ethnic groups of Afghanistan, the Aimaks and Hazaras, also speak Dari, and Dari has long been the prestige language as well as the main language of inter-ethnic communication across the country. Taken together, Afghans who speak Dari probably outnumber those who speak Pashto, perhaps by a substantial margin. And to add to the confusion, Dari itself is a dialect of Persian, inter-intelligible with Farsi as spoken in Iran. In fact, as stated in the Wikipedia, “native-speakers of Dari usually call their language Farsi. However, the term Dari has been officially promoted by the government of Afghanistan for political reasons…”

Map of Major Languages by District in AfghanistanAfghanistan is thus merely a seeming ethnolinguanymic state; in actuality, the name of the country does not follow the name of the majority ethnolinguistic group, as the country has no majority population. And as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post, the identification between the term “Afghan” and the modern country called Afghanistan is further challenged by geo-historical considerations.

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  • “If anything, it was to argue the opposite: although ethnolinguanymic states might seem to form solid nation-states, reality is often quite different”.

    I did not think that was the case at all but fair enough.

    • This is one of the central tenets of this blog though–the often overlooked reality-distorting facade of nation-states–so you can just about chalk up the thinking behind any of MWL’s articles to have reflected this.

  • “Afghans who speak Dari as their mother tongue almost certainly outnumber those who speak Pashto as their mother tongue, perhaps by a substantial margin” — based on the Ethnologue figures, I am not sure this is the case, as all the different varieties of Persian in Afghanistan (including Eastern Farsi, which itself includes Tajiki in Afghanistan, Hazaragi, Aimaq, as well as smaller languages of Darwazi and Pahlavani) account for some 7.9 million out of 25 million total (that’s an older figure, but the other figures in this Ethnologue page are also relatively old). But it is certainly a significant minority.

    In fact, the linguistic situation in Afghanistan reminds me of that in DRC: not only there are four major languages (lingua francas, in the case of DRC): Lingala, Swahili, Tsiluba and Kikongo in DRC; Dari, Tajik, Uzbek and Pashto in Afghanistan — but all of these languages are perfect examples of “cross-border languages”, cut in two by geopolitical borders.

    And I do like your point that “most native Spanish (or Castilian) speakers reside not in Spain but in Latin America”. Again, according to the Ethnologue, only 8% of Spanish speakers reside in Spain. This same can be said about Portuguese: although it is clearly the predominant language in Portugal, only 6% of Portuguese speakers live in Portugal (with Portuguese speakers in Brazil alone outnumbering those in Portugal by the ration of 16 to 1).

    • Anonymous

      Would this be true of the English – there are more native English speakers in the USA than in England, plus there’s Canada, NZ & Aus, Gib, and the Falklands. Oh and the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland

      • Good point! Although “the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland” are within the same state, the UK. But the rest, yes.

        • Anonymous

          “”the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland” are within the same state”

          Well that’s moot, unless you believe the UN is blessed with divine providence. [political point ;)]

          • Political indeed. However, I am not sure it’s moot to the extent that the discussion revolves around the concept of a nation-state (most of which really aren’t).

    • Thanks for bringing up the Ethnologue figures, which do indeed indicate a minority status for Persian-speakers. Other sources, however, give very different numbers. The Wikipedia article on “Languages of Afghanistan,” for example, claims that “Dari Persian” is spoken by 50% and Pashto by 22% of the people of Afghanistan (the same article also claims, however, that 20% speak “Turkish” [not “Turkic languages”], which is nonsensical). The Wikipedia article on “Ethnic Groups of Afghanistan” puts the combined Tajik/Hazara/Aimak  Persian-speaking population at 40%, just below the 42% figure given for the Pashtuns.  

      Bilingualism is a major issue here. Most Afghans are reputed to be bilingual to some degree, and Persian is spoken as a second language more extensively than Pashto. As a result, I think that it is fair to say that Persian is the most important language of Afghanistan. Of course. I could be wrong: the quality of linguistic information for Afghanistan is low, and I think that a lot of guess-work is involved in all estimations. It is also true that the original post used the term “mother-tongue,” which may be unwarranted. I will edit the post accordingly.

      But I also think that Persian has been systematically slighted in favor of Pashto in English-language accounts of Afghanistan. Today’s post explores this issue to some extant, and the next GeoCurrents post will do the same. The government of Afghanistan also seems to slight Persian, insisting, for example, that it be called “Dari” rather than Farsi. 

      • I agree that figures from various sources differ so much that neither is probably completely reliable. The issue of bilingualism indeed only complicates matters further because sources tend to omit whether figures are for native speakers, mother-tongue speakers, fluent speakers etc. In Afghanistan, the issue of mother-tongue (vs. father-tongue) may not be that prominent (is there a lot of intermarriage between Persian- and Pashto-speaking groups?), but in other places it might be more of an issue.

        As for calling Uzbek (in Afghanistan) a “Turkish” rather than “Turkic” language, it’s a common enough (if unfortunate) mistake. Maybe even a typo for some people, one that a spell-checker wouldn’t catch… In fact, in your “The Myth of Continents” (p. 13) you refer to the Uyghur-speaking northwestern quadrant of China as “Turkish-speaking”…

        • Coskunr

          The word “Turkic” is invented as a “political apparatus”. Historically all Turkestani and Turani languages are simply Turkish… Political naming of languages does not make any differences in linguistics terms.

          • I would say that calling anything but Turkish itself “Turkish” rather than “Turkic” is “political naming”. It’s about as sensible as calling all Germanic languages German. As a much more reasonable taxonomy, in my opinion, is having a separate label for each distinct (and not mutually comprehensible) language, and a separate label for the group as a whole, the latter being “Turkic” and not “Turkish”. That, say, Uzbek and Turkish are indeed distinct languages, with different grammatical structures, can be seen, for example, from the fact that Turkish but not Uzbek feature vowel harmony.

      • Anonymous

        Martin – should the word “Persian” be used in this context, I thought that the only people who’ve used the label ‘Persia” are the ancient Greeks and their cultural descendants, and even with them it’s fallen out of favour. 

        Would Aryan be a better label to capture Dari, Farsi, Luri as a dialect group

        • Actually, the label “Aryan” (or “Indo-Aryan”) is typically used for the Indic branch of the Indo-Iranian family/grouping of languages. So using “Aryan” for Iranian languages like Dari, Farsi, Luri etc. would not be appropriate. Moreover, in (historical) linguistics the term “Persian” is used in connection with the older stages of the Farsi/Dari/etc., as in “Old Persian” (not “Old Farsi”). So Martin’s use of “Persian” here is fully correct.

          • Anonymous

            Asya, I raised the topic because I’ve been frowned at and chastised by Iranians when I’ve used “Persian” in the context of art and/or culture, as in “you’re being an arrogant Orientalist, again..”

            I just peeked ahead to Martin’s “The Dream…Greater Iran” post and spotted “Parsa”, I might try that next time 😉

            As always thanks for the feedback, really appreciated

          • Phil_Daniels: You may be right that the term “Persian” has a different connotation in linguistics vs. art/cultural studies. But since we are talking about languages/dialects here…

          • KhorasanZendeBad

            “Dari”, “Tajiki” and “Farsi”(western Persian) are just accents of Persian Language like British English and American English.

            Luri is a Persian Dialect since Old Persian split into, Parsi (Persian) and Lori.

            PS: Aryan can be used for two groups:

            1. Iranic people (kurds, Persians, Pashtuns, Baluch etc)

            2. Indic people (Punjabis, Sindhi, Hindi, Gujarati etc)

          • I am afraid your use of the terms “dialect” and “accent” is different from how most people use them, at least in the technical sense. “Accents” typically refers to varieties only different in vocabulary and pronunciation, so British and American English would not count as “accents” but as “dialects”: there are grammatical differences between them. Similarly, Luri is not mutually comprehensible with Persian so it is considered a distinct language. But languages can well descend from the same ancestor, as for example is the case for French, Italian, Spanish—all descendants of Latin.

          • KhorasanZendeBad

            I just try to say, that as a Dari-Persian Speaker I have no problem to understand a Farsi- or Tajiki-Persian speaker. For example Tajiki-Persians just sounds a bit different from Farsi-Persian. Between them is no grammatical different or differents in the pronunciation. About Luri I can say that Persian and Luri are both south western Iranian Languages and have the same antecedents – Old Persian. Luri is the closest Iranian Language to modern Persian.

          • If there’s no differences in grammar or pronunciation, how is it that they sound different?

          • KhorasanZendeBad

            Let me explain. In the Dari or Tajiki accent of Persian language. The speakers often add the “o” insetad of the “â” in certain word. For example insetad of saying “Man âmadam”(I come) they say “Man Omadam”. This is what I mean “sounding different” – the words are the same, the grammatic is the same. In a formally lettersor anything else, we all write standart persian.

          • So there are differences in pronunciation. Or possibly morphology, which is grammar. Which makes these different dialects, at least.

          • KhorasanZendeBad

            No, They are no Dialects. Dari and Tajiki and P/Farsi are ONE LANGUAGE. The Grammatic is the same, The words are the same as I said. The people just have different accents like americans pronounces “th” different than Brits from England.

            Luri is for example a Persian dialect

          • Being two dialects doesn’t mean they are not the same language. English is a bad example, as there’re grammatical differences between british and American English. As I suspect there are between Tajik and Farsi, on a closer inspection. But such grammatical differences are typically “invisible” for non linguists, and ideological claims of dialect or language distinction obfuscates the matter further.

        • Definitely not.  Iran has an Academy of Persian Language and Literature (that’s its name in English) and recommends that the official language of Iran be called “Persian” in English.   An English version of this recommendation can be found on the Wikipedia page for the Academy.

  • Guararapes1648

    Brazilian Portuguese outnumbers European Portuguese in a 20 to1 ratio. That’s a case of conquest, colonization and peopling of a new frontier. There are almost 10 times more Portuguese Y DNA in Brazil than in Iberia ! Brazilian Portuguese was a language of war. 

    • “Brazilian Portuguese was a language of war.” — I am not sure what’s that supposed to mean?!

      • H Klang

        It means that Portuguese spread to Brazil by violence, it is not intended as a statements about the internal (linguistic) characteristics of the language. The author does not give a complete argument for his position

  • KhorasanZendeBad

    Persians(tajiks) and Hazaras and Uzbeks and other non-Pashtuns were never and will never be Afghan. When the literal term of a word obviously means something you are not why would you be crazy enough to fight for the right to be called one?

    Afghanistan means the land of Afghans, Awghan, Patans or Pashtoons also spelt as Pashtun. These names are variants of one name, Afghan. However, the modern day Afghanistan is a mosaic of various ethnicities and the name Afghanistan is misleading and possessive. It is not representative of all..

    About 75% of “Afghans” speak Persian, but only 20% speak Pashto as their mother tongue.

    Afghanistan should be shared in “Khorasan” and Pashtunistan/Afghanistan.

    Persian People of Khorasan = ♥♥♥ Hazara ♥♥♥ Tajik/Persian♥♥♥ Uzbek ♥♥♥ Aimaq ♥♥♥ Qizilbash ♥♥♥ We are all united Persian people of khorasan. United we Stand, Divided we Fall.