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Overview: Pashto is the language of the Pashtun people, also known as Afghans (in Persian) or Pathans (in Hindi/Urdu). The exact number of people who speak Pashto, whether as a mother tongue or a secondary language, is unknown but estimated to be above 50 million in most cases. These estimates can vary widely from source to source, as censuses in the countries where Pashto is most often spoken–Afghanistan and Pakistan–are often unreliable or simply don’t exist. Pashto is one of the official languages of Afghanistan (along with Dari, or Persian) and is spoken by a significant minority in Pakistan.
Roots of the language: The ancient origins of the Pashtun people are a true sociological mystery. Although clues have been gleaned from many sources, from the references present in the historical literature of other cultures to the oral history of the Pashtun themselves, scholars of all nationalities agree that the truth has yet to be determined. Generally speaking, the words “Pashtun” and “Afghan” are considered to refer to members of the same ethnic and cultural group, such that the terms are frequently used as synonyms. One commonly accepted definition of a Pashtun, although there are others, is that it refers to a person from in or around Pakistan or Afghanistan who speaks Pashto as a first language and who adheres to the social code of Pashtunwali.
Linguistically, Pashto is part of the Eastern Iranian language subgroup, and is the most widely-spoken living language among them. As one of the Iranian languages, it is also related to Persian and Kurdish. The ancestor to all these languages is sometimes theorized to have covered much of Central Asia and the Middle East, stretching all the way from present-day Egypt into western China, but this proposal is much debated among linguists. Modern Pashto has many foreign loanwords, borrowed from such disparate sources as medieval Persian conquerors and modern English-language media.
Language characteristics: Pashto is divided into many smaller dialects, the two main groupings being known as “Pashto” (the gentler southern dialect) and “Pakhto” (the more staccato northern dialect). Most varieties of Pashto have a rather high degree of mutual intelligibility, with accent being the main giveaway as to which region a speaker comes from.
The language is grammatically intricate, modifying words according to gender (masculine or feminine), number (singular or plural), case (direct, vocative, or two kinds of oblique), and verb tense (additional rules apply to verbs conjugated in any of the four past tenses). Pashto is an archaic language that has retained many grammatical structures from ancient times while incorporating newer ones, leading to occasional inconsistencies.
Written form: It is not known whether or not Pashto had a written form prior to the introduction of the Arabic script, which its people probably acquired at the same time that they converted to Islam in the Middle Ages. The oldest confirmed works written in Pashto date back to the seventeenth century, but there have been claims of much earlier writers that have yet to be fully brought to light. The Pashto version of the Arabic alphabet has been enhanced with additional characters to represent certain distinctly Pashto sounds.
Poetry has played a major role in the history of the Pashtun people, remaining a popular form of expression into the modern era. A rich oral tradition that has been ever-present in their culture laid the groundwork for a number of literary contributions. Pashto writing, like others that use the Arabic alphabet, places a strong emphasis on beautiful and creative calligraphic forms.