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Language vitality and development among the Wakhi People of Tajikistan

Author: Katja Müller, Elisabeth Abbess, Calvin Tiessen, Gabriela Tiessen
Title: Language vitality and development among the Wakhi People of Tajikistan

The Wakhi homeland spans four countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, and Tajikistan. The research presented in this paper deals with the results of sociolinguistic research conducted in 2003 and 2004. This research was carried out in two stages. Our goal in the first stage was to assess language vitality of different Wakhi communities. In the second stage of research, we concentrated on levels of proficiency in Tajik and access to Tajik. We tried to identify different levels of Tajik proficiency throughout the community and factors that influence levels of proficiency in Tajik.

Wakhi is found to be a highly vital and strong language in most of the communities in which it is spoken. The only communities in which the use of Wakhi is declining are those in which ethnic Wakhi are a minority. Currently, this is the case in only three out of twentythree communities. In the other twenty communities, Wakhi is the language of the community and those who come to live in these communities learn it.

Tajik is respected as the national language but in Wakhi-dominant or homogenous Wakhi communities Tajik plays only a minor role in the daily life of the people. Though most speakers of Wakhi between the ages of 31 and 55 have attained professional or full proficiency in Tajik, these levels have not been passed on to the younger ones.

Paper: PDF (533 KB, 25 pages)
Language: Tajiki, Wakhi

Source: http://www.sil.org/silesr/abstract.asp?ref=2008-011


Ethnic minorities and marginality in the Pamirian Knot: survival of Wakhi and Kirghiz in a harsh environment and global contexts.

Publication: The Geographical Journal
Publication Date: 01-SEP-03
Format: Online – approximately 8811 words
Delivery: Immediate Online Access

Article Excerpt

The remote valleys and plateaux of High Asia are well known for their inhabitants who survive under harsh conditions at high altitudes. For example, the ecologically defined upper limits of wheat and barley are found here. In addition, people who have chosen to live here are…

…frequently identified as inhabiting ‘regions of refuge’ (Skeldon 1985) because conventional thinking suggested that only external pressures, persecution and poverty could drive people to live at the highest possible locations. The refuge concept is based on agrarian strategies and interrelated subsistence production by explicitly excluding supra-regional exchange relations. It is argued that this search for security is responsible for seclusion from the outside world and for the creation of unique communities characterized by their religious belief systems, relict or archaic languages, and certain behavioral patterns. According to the refuge concept these communities have chosen their lifestyle, but are also marginal groups in the context of nation states and market participation. In contrast, this paper argues that strategies for ‘security enhancement’ (Thompson 1997) in remote locations can be based on agro-pastoral strategies with a high degree of self-support, but which, at the same time, incorporate non-agrarian income opportunities such as mining, trade, porterage, smuggling and raiding. Nevertheless, the agricultural sector – either in supplying goods for domestic consumption or for barter trade and markets–has undergone tremendous changes initiated mainly by external socio-political developments in a similar manner as all other means of survival (cf. Funnell and Parish 2001; Humphrey and Sneath 1999; Kreutzmann 1998 2003; Ortner 1989; van Spengen 2000). One of the key areas of overlap between the remoteness of mountain livelihoods and integration into world markets seems to be the Inner Asian mountain belt.

Our knowledge about the people of the Pamirs, Hindukush and Karakoram is based on contemporary narratives, and is influenced by travelogues from early nineteenth-century ‘explorers’ and subsequent travellers who personally faced the difficult environmental conditions by traversing the roof of the world (bam-e dunya). In addition, archived documents from colonial administrators, messengers, surveyors and spies exist which need to be interpreted in the context of imperial interests in ‘spheres of influence’. Two ethnic groups predominantly feature in these reports: the Wakhi and the Kirghiz. In the most remote locations they provided transport by yaks (Bos grunniens), Bactrian camels (Camelus bactrianus) and horses to the rare travellers and trans-montane traders to safeguard their journeys across high passes. Geographical research in the Pamirs has a long tradition, especially during colonial times and during the ‘Great Game’ when this area was the focus of the then two super powers – Russia and Great Britain (cf. among others Bobrinskiy 1908; Gordon 1876; Dunmore 1983; Jaworskij 1885; Olufsen 1904; Snyesreff 1909; Wood 1841). Lord Curzon published, in The Geographical Journal, a three-piece treatise on Tire Pamirs and the source of the Oxus (Curzon 1896) in which he summarized the state of knowledge at the end of the nineteenth century, highlighting the remoteness, the harsh living conditions and the geopolitical characteristics of the area. For a long period his advocacy of the ‘forward policy’ influenced the basis of imperial dealings with this part of the world. His compilation was of special interest to the Foreign Office in London due to the establishment of Pamirski Post, the Russian outpost in the Pamirs, in 1891. This garrison was partly given up in June 2002 when Russian soldiers were meant to evacuate Murghab – the modern name for Pamirski Post. Most recent developments in the wake of the Iraq War suggest that their presence on the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border might continue.

Nearly a century ago Ellsworth Huntington (1905 1907) identified the inhabitants of Central Asia, and especially the Kirghiz nomads, as the antipodes of Western civilization:

So low are they in the scale of civilization that they know almost nothing of manufacturing, science or art… According to our standards the Khirghiz are dirty, lazy, and unprogressive… On the south the great deserts of Chinese Turkestan and the huge desolate plateau of Tibet separate the Khirghiz from India and all outside influences in that direction. On the east and west they are also shut in by deserts so that they come in contact only with nomads like themselves. Huntington and Cushing 1924, 12

Consequently they feature prominently as non-modern people when it comes to progress:

Among nomads like the Khirghiz education and science are even less developed than government… The absence of contact with outside people and their own lack of inquisitiveness prevent the Kirghiz from making scientific discoveries… Thus civilization remains stationary. The Khirghiz are not savages, but the gulf between them and the more enlightened nations is growing wider. The influence of European civilization has begun to reach them, but their mode of life will probably change only a little so long as they depend chiefly upon grass of the plains and high plateaus. Huntington and Cushing 1924, 21

Huntington was one of the first geographers to do fieldwork among the Kirghiz and placed their case quite prominently in a textbook (Huntington and Cushing 1924). His assessments influenced theories about remoteness and development in the mountainous periphery, although he visited the area at the peak of the ‘Great Game’.

The aim of this paper is to challenge the thesis that physical remoteness goes hand in hand with the absence of political interference and negligible commercial exchange relations. The varied spectrum of possible developments is exemplified in five brief case studies from Afghanistan, Tajikistan, People’s Republic of China (hereafter China) and Pakistan in which structural developments are emphasized in an environment that experienced international boundaries for the first time a little more than a century ago, but where ecological conditions are not that variable across these borders. To contrast earlier views the local actors are the Wakhi and Kirghiz mountain dwellers who have responded in different ways to external pressures and their incorporation in nation states (Figure 1). The twentieth century brought even stronger ‘winds of change’ than the previous century. The standards of living, mobility and levels of political and commercial participation were modified by sociopolitical systems which significantly influenced lifestyles, levels of educational attainment and survival conditions in remote mountain locations such as the Pamirs. The ‘Cold War’ created hermetically closed frontiers and stifled exchange across borders. Separate societies with affiliated cultural expressions and economic options came into being. Only after 1989 did regular exchange and communications appear in the frameworks of independence and globalization.


The communities represent the two major language groups Iranian and Turkic – of this part of Central Asia. Wakhi is a branch of the eastern Iranian languages within the Indo-Iranian group, while Kirghiz is a Turkic language belonging to the Altaic group. While Kirghiz has a written Cyrillic form, Wakhi still only exists as a non-written language and is limited to phonetic notation. Today 50 000 Wakhi live in remote parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Xinjiang (China). There are about the same number of Kirghiz in the study area, but in China and in the Turkic-speaking Central Asian Republics, most notably in Kyrgyzstan, there are about three million ethnic Kirghiz. This article focuses on the Kirghiz and Wakhi living in the high mountains separating Central and South Asia. Besides language differences, Wakhi and Kirghiz follow different belief systems. Kirghiz communities traditionally comprise Sunni Muslims, while the Wakhi almost exclusively belong to the Shia Ismaili sect which acknowledges the Aga Khan as their spiritual head. The religious practices influence daily life and local cultures as religious festivals and rituals play prominent roles beyond rites of passage. Kirghiz culture is characterized by the lifestyle of migrating pastoralists including transitory dwellings in the form of the round felt-covered yurts displaying artifacts of local folklore (cf. Dor and Naumann 1978; Shahrani 1979). In contrast, Wakhi houses are built of stone and mud-plastered walls and are scattered among the village lands in irrigated mountain oases. Wakhi herders migrate to…

Source: http://goliath.ecnext.com/coms2/gi_0199-3258747/Ethnic-minorities-and-marginality-in.html


The Voice of the Nightingale:
A Personal Account of Wakhi Culture in Hunza

Sabine Felmy

Oxford University Press 1996

A book review by Danny Yee © 1999 http://dannyreviews.com/
From the Wakhan Corridor, the long extension of Afghanistan reaching eastwards to touch China, the Wakhi have migrated into China, Pakistan, and Tajikstan: some 30 000 are split fairly evenly between the four countries. Felmy’s The Voice of the Nightingale is a brief sketch of aspects of Wakhi culture, based on visits over more than two decades, mostly to Ghujal (in northern Hunza, in Pakistan) but also to the Yarkhun and Ishkoman valleys and to Xinjiang. Combining personal experiences, the life stories of informants, and some research, it is broad rather than deep: lacking any kind of theoretical or comparative perspective, it will primarily appeal to those with a prior interest in the region.Felmy begins with a sketch of the history of the Wakhi and the relationships of the Wakhi community in Ghujal with surrounding states, as well as of early European encounters with Wakhi culture and language and modern attempts to protect and preserve them. An account of domestic life and the layout and contents of a typical Wakhi household is followed by a glance at elements of religious and spiritual belief: the traditions surrounding a local shrine, the role of the village khalifa or religious leader (the Wakhi are predominantly Ismaili Muslims), and meetings with a shaman or fortune-teller and local healers. Also covered are agriculture and its link with the village calendar and celebrations (including an account of polo and its significance in northern Pakistan generally) and education. As a result of encouragement by the third Aga Khan (the Ismaili spiritual leader) education is highly valued and in Ghujal (relatively) accessible at both primary and secondary level: there is even a “mini-diaspora” created by Wakhi students travelling to the lowlands for higher education. In a final chapter Felmy gives some examples of Wakhi bulbulik (triplets sung by female shepherds), quatrains, lullabies, proverbs, and riddles.

December 1999

Source: http://dannyreviews.com/h/Voice_Nightingale.html


Wakhi Vocabulary and Pronunciation

1. Data Presented

We started collecting the present vocabulary in a unique manner in 2003 summer in Gulmit where there is a reasonable hotel while any hotel or lodge does not exist in Sisuni a little more than one-hour’s walk away. Murad Shah and Ali Rehmat offered Wakhi words utilizing <X̌ikwor Alifbe (Wakhi Alphabet)> prepared by Fazal Amin Beg. Our two informants at this stage tried to offer as many words starting with a sound in question as possible; it naturally follows that many items outside ‘basic vocabulary’ kept coming into our data. This may explain the peculiarities of the present vocabulary which contains not a few non-basic items.
It is only in our second year of fieldwork that we started gathering words by means of a basic vocabulary list; we used, applying necessary emendations and corrections, Shiro Hattori’s Research Files of Basic Vocabulary (Kiso-goi Chousa Hyou) compiled on 1957, a long-established nevertheless not so satisfactory but faute de mieux still de facto standard working tool in Japanese.

2. Informant

Our informant is Mr. Murad Shah. While collecting the vocabulary we have also relied on other native speakers one of whom is Mr. Ali Rehmat above-referred to; our final recording which is presented here in CD, however, was conducted throughout with Murad Shah. He was born in 1970 at Sisuni village, as second son of two brothers and two sisters. After finishing junior high school of Gulmit he spent 2 years in Gilgit for high school and 8 years in Karachi for university. He has an excellent command of both Urdu and English; he is a trilingual of Wakhi, Urdu and English. He can handle Burushaski fairly well and has some basic knowledge of Persian as he took Persian class in his schooldays. Our medium of communication is English often braced by Persian and Urdu whenever suitable and available.
more detail at source.
Xikwor Zik (Book) Written by Mr. Haqiqat Ali (Late) 1985
The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers by M. Nazif Mohib Shahrani (Paperback – 1979)
La langue wakhi (Textes de recherche) by Aleksandr Leonovich Griunberg (Unknown Binding – 1988)
The Wakhi Language (2 vols) by D.L.R. Lorimer (Hardcover – 1958)
Ethnizitat im Entwicklungsprozess: Die Wakhi in Hochasien by Hermann Kreutzmann (Hardcover – 1996)
Dictionary of Some Languages and Dialects of Afghanistan (Journal of Indo-European Studies Monograph Series, Number 48) by Hamid Badhghisi, A. Richard Diebold Jr., and Shah Abdullah Badakhshi (Paperback – 2004)
Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (Paperback – Jan 30, 2007)
A note on yak-keeping in Hunza (Northern areas of Pakistan) by Hermann Kreutzmann (Unknown Binding)Import
Social and Economic Change in the Pamirs, Tajikistan by Frank Bliss (Hardcover – Dec 19, 2005)
 International Encyclopedia of Linguistics: 4-Volume Set by William J. Frawley (Hardcover – May 1, 2003)
 Footprint Northern Pakistan by Dave Winter (Paperback – Oct 2004)
by Stefano Bianca (Paperback – Sep 25, 2006)
 Socio-Geographical Study of Hussaini Village, Gojal By Ali Rehmat Musofer
 Wakhan & the Afghan Pamir, a 16-page tourism brochure with descriptive text, route information and detailed two-page route map, published by the Aga Khan Foundation-Afghanistan (June 2006).Read more about our activities in the Wakhan Corridor and the Afghan Pamir.

John Mock and Kimberley O’Neil returned to Wakhan for the second consecutive summer. They worked as consultants for the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) and Aga Khan Foundation-Afghanistan producing a report, Tourism Promotion in Wakhan District, Badakhshan, Afghanistan (Kabul, Afghanistan, November 2005) that will be used to begin opening Wakhan and the Afghan Pamir to worldwide tourism.

At the end of their fieldwork, they trekked across the Irshad Uween, a pass from the Little Pamir to the Chapursan Valley in Pakistan’s Northern Areas, their second consecutive legal international border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan made with the full permission of both governments.

John Mock and Kimberley O’Neil traveled to Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. Their successful expedition to the source of the Oxus River in the Wakhjir Valley and across the Dilisang Pass to Misgar in Pakistan was supported by the 2004 Shipton/Tilman Grant awarded by W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc. Read the expedition report. Play the expedition slide show.


search “Wakhan” in AKDN web about Badakhshan/Wakahn relted reports, research papers, and press release.


Karim Khan,

“Parlons Wakhi” (Let’s speak Wakhi) published in French and Wakhi language

La Langue wakhi: Essai grammatical et dictionnaire wakhi-français, Volume 2

 By Aleksandr Leonovič Grûnberg, Ivan Mihailovič Steblin-Kamenskij

Neue Entwicklungen in der Wakhi-Sprache von Gojal (Nordpakistan): Bildung …

 By Beate Reinhold

Local Researchrs:

Mr. Haqiqat Ali (Late), Mr. Asmat Ullah Mushfiq, Mr. Ahmed Jami Sakhi, Mr. Ghulam Amin Beg, Mr. Ali Qurban, Mr. Aman Ullah, Mr. Fazal Amin Beg, Mr. Aejaz Karim, Mr. Murad Shah

Foriegn Researchers:
Prof. Steblin Kamenskiy, Dr. John Mock, Mr. Peter Bergstrom, Prof. Koji KAMIOKA, Prof. Dr. Satoko, Dr. Hermann Kreutzman


Social Activits, Pakistan:

Mr. Ghulam ud Din, Mr. Ali Baqa (Late), Mr. Rehbar Khan, Mr. Ali Johar, Mr. Abuzar Khan, Mr. Ali Aman Gojali, Mr. Nazir Ahmed Bulbul, Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Khan




1. Rahim Khon - PM000000120000004830 7, 2008

Very important site for Wakhy research work, great job By Ali Mosofir. The research must not remain inside the pages it should become part of our living life. Even we have our own language to speak and listen but ‘Afsus’ no one can read & write in it despite the research work. Lets start from Aliefbe/Aabaca, as it practically started at Al-Amyn Model School Gulmit Gojal Hunza. Please support the school with your wisdom, knowledge and skill. School will need your research work on curriculum of Wakhi language & literature, Qoida, lughat, IT programming etc.

2. Fazal Rahman - AM000000110000004730 7, 2008

Today the Wakhi Language is in the Red Book of UNESCO and we still are sleeping or we done any work and dont want to show anyone else. This is very important to bring some written materials of the researchs and the vocabulary to our youth. So they may do something to remove the name from the Red Book and bring the Wakhi back to its real form. We are very thankful to you all that you are sincerely trying to do some better for our language.
Thank you

3. Fayeem Avzl - PM00000020000005231 7, 2008

Thats really a nyce step sir……..we r wid yo!

4. Numan - PM00000030000005131 7, 2008

i want to know wakhi language. i want friendship with wakhis. i have a new sicript for wakhi language. plz contect 0331-5281733. from multan.

5. Baig Ali Toojik - PM000000120000004831 7, 2008

Dear Murad Shah and Ali Rehmat,

I don’t have word to appreciate the work done YOU people—-But how to deliver this to the YOUTH is a question mark for all of us. As, u paved this path and I do hope YOU ud seek that way also. It is very essential to reach these informations to the YOUTH of our time. Very very essential and requirement of the time. If u linked these and other sites with PT and face book and twitter that ud contribute a lot in propagation of the WAKIX language, the grammar and phoenix.

I am also thankful to all the Reserarchers whom given time and knowlege for the WAKHIX PEOPLE AND THEIR LANGUAGE

6. Darjat - PM000000110000001731 7, 2008

thanks to the individuals and institutions for your putting your time and other resources to complement the efforts in working on this vital theme!

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