Inventing Hazaragi.

Ingrid Piller, Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, has a post on Language on the Move (a sociolinguistics research site created by her and Kimie Takahashi) about an interesting situation in Australia, the attempt to create an official language out of the dialect of Persian spoken by the Hazara of central Afghanistan (many of whom have emigrated to Australia). She begins with this attention-getting paragraph:

An objection that is commonly raised against Esperanto and other auxiliary languages is that they are “invented.” Somehow, being “invented” is assumed to give Esperanto a shady character: it’s just not natural. The problem with this view is that – in being invented – Esperanto is not unique. And I don’t just mean that there is also Klingon and Volapük. In fact, each and every language with a name is an invention. We may not always be able to identify the inventors – in fact the trick of the inventors of English, Chinese, German, Spanish and all the others – has been not to let themselves be identified as language inventors. Instead, they pose as teachers, priests, bureaucrats, academics, poets or scientists. The invention of major national languages such as these gets obscured by time (although Standard German with its origins in the 19th century is not much older than Esperanto), and it is a rare opportunity to see a language invented before our own eyes.

She goes on to say that Hazaragi “is currently being invented in Australia and linguists from around the world might wish to pay close attention how this process unfolds.” It seems the process is somewhat skewed:

Again, the process of invention is dissimulated: the language spoken in the mythical place of origin, Hazaristan (incidentally, there is also a little identity war going on over whether that region should be called “Hazarajat” or “Hazaristan,” the latter supposedly being “more modern”) is normalised whereas language use that shows traces of the influence by other locations, particularly cities, is penalized, presumably because someone got it into their head that such influence is “incorrect.”

This particular invention – Hazaragi as the language of rural Hazaristan – is rather baffling: from an Australian perspective, the language spoken by “an average Hazara person living in Hazaristan” is entirely irrelevant because even if such persons were to exist in Afghanistan, they do not in Australia.

She concludes: “Hazaragi has always been a contact variety – its main claim to distinction from Persian is the relatively higher number of Mongol loan words – and, in all likelihood, will continue to be a contact variety for a long time to come. It’s hard to see how inventing boundaries and a standard for this variety will do any good to anyone.” That sounds reasonable to me, but of course all I know about the situation is what she’s told me.


  1. Well, there are at least two pieces of nonsense in the article: the claim that Standard German is a product of the 19th century (certainly not true of its written form), and the idea that “Iranic, not further defined” and “Iranic, not elsewhere classified” might mean the same thing. It is evident that the first means that a generic term was used, whereas the second means that a specific term not appearing in the standard list (namely, “Kurdish,” “Pashto,” “Balochi”) was used.

    In any case, the article is mostly a description of how one standardizes a language variety, but there is not a word of explanation why this variety of Persian is unfit for standardization.

  2. I didn’t get the impression she thinks it’s necessarily unfit for standardization so much as that the way they’re going about it makes no sense. But I agree the piece was rather slapdash (of course, it is a blog post and not an article in a journal).

  3. I was struck by one of the comments to the blog post: For Iranians, Afghans (including Hazaras) and Tajiks, Ferdowsi is the father of their language!

    Strong statement that, and since I’d never heard of Ferdowsi, I immediately looked him up. Wiki says:

    “Ferdowsi is one of the undisputed giants of the Persian literature. After Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh a number of other works similar in nature surfaced over the centuries . . . but none . . . could quite achieve the same degree of fame and popularity as Ferdowsi’s masterpiece.

    “Ferdowsi has a unique place in Persian history because of the strides he made in reviving and regenerating the Persian language and cultural traditions. His works are cited as a crucial component in the persistence of the Persian language, as those works allowed much of the tongue to remain codified and intact. . . .Many modern Iranians see him as the father of the modern Persian language.”

    A quote on that page from Britannica: “Though written about 1,000 years ago, this work is as intelligible to the average, modern Iranian as the King James version of the Bible is to a modern English-speaker.”

    Has Farsi changed so little in a millennium? There are good reasons why written Arabic and Hebrew have changed little over that period. But that’s twice the jump to Shakespeare, and those who studied Chaucer, never mind Beowulf, know how much language changes in but a few hundred years. What gives?

  4. Oops. Missed a close italic command. Hat to the rescue, please!

  5. Here’s a Kurdish-language website that uses the Latin alphabet. Dandy for seeing how much you can decipher without knowing the Arabic alphabet.

    Somebody at the Hattery may have linked to an article there recently. If so, I’ve forgotten and apologize for the duplicate reference.

  6. It’s not whether it’s invented, but how it’s invented: coming out of intellect, or coming out of life.

  7. Shelley, I think that captures it. Another way of putting it is whther the langauge comes out of a culture and a community or is the idiosyncratic construct of an individual. When it comes to developing a language with the full range of function, five million heads really are better than one.

  8. Hazaragi? Yawn. If I were a Hazara-Australian (which, I have to admit, I am not) I would be pushing for a standard spoken form of Mogholi …

  9. David Marjanović says

    Has Farsi changed so little in a millennium?

    The one thing I can say is that the writing system hides the changes in the vowels.

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