Linguistic and Ethnic Groups

Pakistan Table of Contents

Language is an important marker of ethnic identity. Among the more than twenty spoken languages in Pakistan, the most common ones--Punjabi, Sindhi, and Urdu--as well as Pakhtu or Pashto, Balochi, and others, belong to the Indo-Aryan branch of the IndoEuropean language family. Additional languages, such as Shina and other northern-area languages, are related to the Dardic branch of Indo-European and the early Dravidian language family. Brahui is one such language; it is spoken by a group in Balochistan.

The Indo-Aryan vernaculars stretch across the northern half of the Indian subcontinent in a vast range of related local dialects that change slightly from one village to the next. Residents of fairly distant communities typically cannot understand one another. Superimposed on this continuum are several types of more standardized literary or commercial languages. Although based on the vernaculars of their representative regions, these standardized languages are nonetheless distinct.

Nearly half of all Pakistanis (48 percent) speak Punjabi. The next most commonly spoken language is Sindhi (12 percent), followed by the Punjabi variant Siraiki (10 percent), Pakhtu or Pashto (8 percent), Balochi (3 percent), Hindko (2 percent), and Brahui (1 percent). Native speakers of other languages, including English, Burushaski, and various other tongues account for 8 percent.

Although Urdu is the official national language, it is spoken as a native tongue by only 8 percent of the population. People who speak Urdu as their native language generally identify themselves as muhajirs. A large number of people from educated backgrounds (and those who aspire to upward mobility) speak Urdu, as opposed to their natal languages, in their homes, usually to help their children master it.

The Urdu language originated during the Mughal period (1526- 1858). It literally means "a camp language," for it was spoken by the imperial Mughal troops from Central Asia as they mixed with speakers of local dialects of northern India. Increasingly, elements of Persian, the official language of the Mughal administration, were incorporated until Urdu attained its stylized, literary form in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Devanagari script (used for Sanskrit and contemporary Hindi) was never adopted; instead, Urdu has always been written using the Persian script. These two literary languages, Urdu and Hindi, arose from colloquial Hindustani, the lingua franca of modern India before partition.

South Asian Muslims have long felt that Urdu symbolizes their shared identity. It has served as a link among educated Muslims and was stressed in the Pakistan independence movement. Christopher Schackle writes that "Urdu was the main literary vehicle of the Muslim elite of India." At independence, the Muslim League (as the All-India Muslim League was usually referred to) promoted Urdu as the national language to help the new Pakistani state develop an identity, even though few people actually spoke it. However, because many of the elite were fluent in English, English became the de facto national language. The push to elevate Urdu was unpopular in East Pakistan, where most of the population speaks Bengali (officially referred to as Bangla in Bangladesh since 1971) and identifies with its literary heritage. Language riots in Dhaka occurred in the early 1950s, leading to the elevation of Bengali as a second national language with Urdu until the secession of East Pakistan in 1971; when Bangladesh became independent, Bangla was designated the official language.

Instruction in the best schools continued to be in English until the early 1980s. Mastery of English was highly desirable because it facilitated admission to good universities in Britain, the United States, and Australia. Then, in a move to promote nationalism, the government of Zia ul-Haq declared Urdu to be the medium of instruction in government schools. Urdu was aggressively promoted via television, radio, and the education system. Private schools in urban centers (attended by children of the elite) were allowed to retain English, while smaller rural schools could continue to teach in the provincial languages.

Punjabi, spoken by nearly half of the population, is an old, literary language whose early writings consist chiefly of folk tales and romances, the most famous being the eighteenth-century Punjabi poet Waris Shah's version of Heer Ranjha (the love story of Heer and Ranjha). Although Punjabi was originally written in the Gurmulki script, in the twentieth century it has been written in the Urdu script. Punjabi has a long history of being mixed with Urdu among Muslims, especially in urban areas. Numerous dialects exist, some associated with the Sikhs in India and others associated with regions in Pakistan. An example of the latter is the variant of Punjabi spoken in Sargodha in central Punjab.

The ethnic composition of Pakistan in the mid-1990s roughly corresponds to the linguistic distribution of the population, at least among the largest groups: 59.1 percent of Pakistanis identify themselves as Punjabis, 13.8 percent as Pakhtuns, 12.1 percent as Sindhis. 7.7 percent as muhajirs, 4.3 percent as Baloch, and 3 percent as members of other ethnic groups. Each group is primarily concentrated in its home province, with most muhajirs residing in urban Sindh.

More about the Population of Pakistan.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress