Originally posted on the now defunct Tajikestan.com  


 The foreign ministers of Tajikistan, Iran and Afghanistan have gathered in Dushanbe for a two-day meeting to exchange their views on political issues, cultural and scientific cooperation and the ways of widening collaboration in the field of joint projects between the three Persian-speaking countries, news agencies reported. Although some regional variation of the countries’ common language has been officially recognized (Tajiki, Farsi, Dari), still referring to the troika as ‘the Persian-speaking states’ is commonplace. The reason is quite simple: in spite of enormous efforts by certain political movements to divide Persian-speakers into separate linguistic communities the language remains mutually intelligible for all three countries. Unlike at Turkic-speaking gatherings no interpreters are hired for Persian-speaking meetings. The following article explores the reasons of the artificial division between the three dialects of the same language.

As recently as late 1920s the most common language in Transoxania, Afghanistan and Iran had a single official name: Persian (Farsi). Only in 1928 the Soviets renamed it to ‘Tajik’, while in both Iran and Afghanistan it was still recognized as Persian. The Pashtun King Zaher’s Afghanistan followed the Soviet path to distance the language of his country’s lingua franca from Iranian Persian by renaming it to ‘Dari’ in 1964.

Disadvantages of Being a Majority

According to Stalin’s definition of the concept of nation, a single nation had to be a polity that enjoys linguistic and territorial unity. But even this concept was based on a more complex political theory. “The potential adversaries were Turkey in the Caucasus, and Iran in relation to Azerbaijan and Tajikistan”, explains Olivier Roy. “The Soviets favoured ethnic groups which were in minority situation on the other side of their borders, all the more so since the establishment of the nation-state model of Ataturk in Turkey and the Shah in Iran led to resentment among those who linguistically fell outside the official state language. So the Soviets were to favour Azeri, Turkmen, Kurdish and Laz identities to the detriment of Persian or Turkish ones. Since there were no Azeri, Turkmen or Uzbek states outside the USSR, the development of these national identities would inevitably suit Moscow’s interests.” (Oliver Roy, The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations).

Later misfortunes of Central Asian Persians derived from the disadvantage of having a vast majority of siblings on the other side of the Soviet borders. As a result, Tajikistan emerged as an autonomous republic within the Uzbek Soviet Republic in 1924 only to become a Union state in 1929, important parts of Persian-speaking areas were deliberately excluded from the Tajik Soviet Republic and historical centres of Central Asian Persians, namely Samarqand and Bokhara, emerged as parts of Uzbekistan. A single city was not left for the Tajik autonomous republic and its administration was based in the village of Dushanbe. “The isolated capital city of Dushanbe, once the site of a small market, had little attraction for Tajik intellectuals whose absence severely hampered the subsequent development of Tajikistan and contributed to Tajik-Uzbek tension for years to come,” says Thomas M. Leonard in his Encyclopaedia of the Developing World.

The very interpretation of the concept of nation contributed to further prosperity of Pan-Turkism that had been imported by Ottomans to Central Asia before the Red Army took over the region. “For example, because the more Persianized Tashkent (or eastern Turkic) dialect was adopted as the standard for the modern Uzbek language over more distant dialects, it was easier for Uzbeks (who had the upper hand anyway) to claim that Bukharan Tajik was really Uzbek (Turkic) with more Persian elements.” (David I. Kertzer and Dominique Arel, Census and Identity).

Tajik’ as a Nation

Some scholars believe that the creation of the Tajik Soviet Republic might have been related with bitter struggles for power in Afghanistan between Tajiks and Pashtuns at the time. Bacha-i Saqqao (Habibullah Ghazi), a Tajik, amir of Afghanistan, was overthrown by Pashtuns in 1929 after a brief reign. Perhaps the very event prompted the Soviets to promote Tajikistan to the status of a Union republic in the same year in order to show Afghanistani Tajiks another possibility of having their own state by annexing to the Soviet Union.

After inventing the ‘Uzbek language’ (known as Turki-i Chaghatai before that) the Soviet authorities started manufacturing a ‘new language’ for Tajikistan. Here they faced a crux of their nation interpretation, since the Persian language and culture were not ‘formerly backward’ as the Turkic cultures and languages were described by Russians who believed in their mission to create proper languages for ‘backward tribes’. The Persian language and culture were the most highly developed and ancient in origin in the region. Central Asian Persian intellectuals like Sadriddin Ayni succeeded to promulgate Persian as the official language of the Tajik autonomous republic, but the name did not meet Russians’ intentions and it was renamed ‘Tajiki’ in 1928. A medieval synonym of the word ‘Persian’ was given a titular status according to the Soviet nationality policy.

The term ‘Tajik’ is not well defined even now as ‘Tajiks’ possess all cultural and ethnic features of other Persian-speakers in Iran and Afghanistan. Only recently some Russian and Western scholars suggested constructing Tajik identity based on a combination of language and religion. This concept defines any Sunni Muslim Persian-speaker as Tajik.

But even this concept fails to pose a clear and cohesive definition of Tajik ethnic identity as not all Tajiks’ native language is Persian and some of them are neither Sunni nor Muslim. On the other hand, not all Sunni Persians identify themselves as ‘Tajik’.

“Generally, the difficulty of establishing a Tajik identity is the principal obstacle to developing a strong sense of Tajik nationalism among Tajikistan’s population. In many respects, this also explains the persistence of a strong regional loyalty that has bedevilled the nation-building process in post-Soviet Tajikistan.” (Thomas M. Leonard, Encyclopaedia of the Developing World).

The enigma was born of the Soviet artificial nation-building that had chosen a synonym of ‘Iranian’ or ‘Persian’ as the name of a ‘new nation’ of Central Asian Persians.

The Birth of ‘Tajik’ AlphabetsIn order to deepen ‘Tajik’s distinction’ from other Persian-speakers beyond the Soviet borders, a year later (1929) Moscow changed also the Perso-Arabic alphabet of the language.

“They first changed it to Latin,” writes Mehdi Marashi, the author of Persian Studies in North America. “By discontinuing education in Perso-Arabic alphabet they effectively restricted access to materials printed in Persian outside the Soviet territory. This change also broke the most basic connection with the Islamic world by separating general literacy from the text of the Koran. Later, in 1940, the alphabet was changed to a modified Cyrillic, thus reinforcing the political relationship with Russia and the other Soviet republics”.

The prominent French orientalist Oliver Roy states that engineering a separation between ‘Tajik’ and Persian is the most notorious case of the Soviet language policy. “The Tajiks used literary Persian as their written language – and still today there is perfect comprehensibility between the literary languages current in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan”, he says. “Needless to say, in their daily lives the Persian-speakers of Central Asia use dialects which vary considerably: those of Ferghana are very Uzbekized, not only in their vocabulary which contains a higher proportion of Turkish words than one finds in Iran, but also as regards identifiable influences on grammar (postposition instead of preposition, as in shahr-ba instead of ba shahr, ‘towards the city).

“As for the pronunciations, it is very close to that of classical Persian”, continues Roy, “which is very different from Iranian Persian (Tajik maintains the distinction between the long ‘e’ and the long ‘i’, between ‘q’ and ‘gh’ etc). The relationship between Iranian and Tajik Persian is akin to the relationship between Parisian French and Quebecois. Russian linguists were required to formalize and fix differences and to invent a ‘modern literary Tajik language’ known as ‘Tajik’. Instead of taking as their standard one of the existing Tajik dialects, an artificial language was manufactured combining characteristics from different regions: they kept the phonological system of Old Persian, but adopted grammatical variations which heightened the difference with Iran.” (Oliver Roy, The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations).

These grammatical variations were borrowed from Russian to a large extent.
And most of the agents of ‘Tajikisation’ of the Persian were non-‘Tajik’. Sadriddin Ayni who is considered as the founder of the Tajik Cyrillic alphabet never used it and the originals of all his poems and novels were written in Perso-Arabic script.

For drawing a distinctive line between ‘Tajik’ and Persian the Soviet language-makers fabricated the history of the language as well. A myth was created about the divergence of ‘Tajik’ and Persian in the sixteenth century and all Persian authors from Rudaki to Sa’adi went under the rubric of ‘Farsi-Tajiki’. “As a result of this operation, all the Persian-speakers of Central Asia, past or present, thus found themselves defined as members of a ‘Tajik ethnic group”, concludes Roy.

While there is no evidence that any Central Asian Persian-speaker had referred to his mother tongue as ‘Tajiki’ before the Soviet invasion.

Linguistic Internationalization

The process of the differentiation between Persian and ‘Tajiki’ in Soviet Central Asia lasted longer than thought. In spite of renaming the language and changing its script, its obvious oneness with Persian of other lands remained vivid.

In the spirit of ‘internationalism’ a massive stream of Russian and other foreign borrowings flowed into the language replacing their Persian equivalents, and specific Russian characters were introduced in the newly-modified Cyrillic alphabet. The upshot was tremendous. Even the name of the state changed from “Jumhuri-i Shuravi-i Sosialisti-i Tajikistan” to “Respublikai Sovetii Sotsialistii Tojikiston”.

The Linguistic Conference of 22 August 1930 in Stalinabad (Dushanbe) chaired by the Russian Orientalist Aleksandr Semenov came to the following conclusions:  

  • the new Tajik language should emerge from the existing language of Tajik newspapers, journals and books and not be completely re-invented;
  • this language should be comprehensible for all Tajik speakers in the Soviet Union. The necessary simplification of the language could be achieved by approaching the language spoken by Soviet Tajiks;
  •  the language would have to abandon certain forms which until then had been common characteristics of the Persian/Tajik written language both inside and outside the Soviet Union (Paul Bergne, The Birth of Tajikistan: National Identity and the Origins of the Republic).

Those ‘certain Persian forms’ were abandoned indeed, but survived in the masses’ spoken language. For instance, the Persian subjunctive prefix ‘be-’ (‘bi-’) excluded from the ‘modern literary Tajik’ survived the Soviet linguistic hurricane among ordinary Tajik people and it is still in use. Numerous Turkic elements such as “-mi” question particle and broken sentence structures penetrated the ‘new language’ to alienate it from the language of Persians abroad.


Andreas Kappeler and Edward Allworth, the authors of the Muslim Communities Re-emerge, believe that all those measures (to establish a ‘normative Tajik language’) were aimed at neutralizing “Pan-Iranism” among Tajik intellectuals, that is, “the consciousness of deep commonality of the cultural and linguistic heritage of the Central Asian Persian-speakers with the people of Iran and Afghanistan.” Sadriddin Ayni’s self-designation as “farsi” (ma farsiyan) in one of his articles heightened the new authorities’ concern. Ayni’s compendium of Tajik literature (Namunai Adabiyate Tajik) gave rise to intense debate and some Russian ‘scholars’ rejected Tajiks’ claim for any kind of literature prior to their Soviet history. The compendium contained poems by Rudaki, Ferdowsi, Hafez, Sa’adi, Nezami, Kamal Khojandi, Sayf Isfaragi and many others.  

“By 1930 the Namuna had been banned and in many cases destroyed,” says Paul Bergne in his book. Sadriddin Ayni was labelled as a “reactionary monarchist” by authorities. To prove his loyalty to the Soviets Ayni had to publish unassailably pro-Soviet novels Odina and Dokhunda in 1930. In return, all poets mentioned in Ayni’s Namuna were recognized as Perso-Tajik classic literary figures. But their heirs in Central Asia were to be kept in minority.

“Did all the Tajiks die?”  

Soviet census is a painful issue that would absorb hundreds of pages, if we choose to write about it. But it should be mentioned here that Tajiks, who had no allies in the new Slavo-Turkic union, were among the main victims of the Soviet population counts and their number decreased drastically between 1917 and 1926 censuses. The chief secretary of the Tajik Committee of the Uzbek Communist Party at the time believed that the ‘biased and unfair’ 1926 census was a tool of Uzbekization. As a result, millions of Tajiks in Samarkand, Bukhara, Surkhan-Darya and other Persian-populated areas of Uzbekistan turned into Uzbeks overnight.”According to Shotemur, soon after the delimitation of 1924, Uzbek newspapers claimed that Tajiks could be found only in the Pamir (in the Tajik ASSR), and that “people who believe there are Tajiks in the rest of Central Asia are insane.” Shotemur described how Uzbeks engaged in the systematic “persecution of Tajiks and the Tajik language.” The situation became so bad, he argued, that at the time of 1926 census “it was impossible to step forward and say that Tajiks existed in Uzbekistan,” let alone tell a census taker that you were one. Other Tajik leaders agreed that such circumstances had led to false census totals. Bukhara and Samarkand were famous throughout the east as Tajik cities, but the 1926 census showed them to be Uzbek. “Did all the Tajiks die?” asked Abdurahim Hajibayev (another Tajik Communist leader –twc). “If so, it must be as a result of un-Soviet policies.” (Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union).
Awakening InterruptedNevertheless, prevailing anti-Persian sentiments of the Soviets failed hamper Tajiks’ affinity towards their Persophone brethren on the other side of the border. Later, in 1970s, academician Babajan Ghafurov (Bobojon Ghafurov), the former First Secretary of the Communist Party of Tajikistan, contended that, in fact, Central Asia was the cradle of the medieval Persian language and culture. According to him, ” Tajik had already acquired its main characteristics and was spoken in Central Asia, north-eastern Iran, and northern Afghanistan before the Arab conquest began in the seventh century, although the language was called “Persian” rather than “Tajik”. In the centuries following the Arab conquest, Persian displaced a number of other Iranian languages spoken in Central Asia. These displaced languages had a lasting influence on the vocabulary and pronunciation of the Persian dialects spoken there, making them markedly different from dialects spoken further west. It was only these eastern dialects which first bore the name “Persian”. (Jo-Ann Gross, Muslims of Central Asia: Expressions of Identity and Change).

Ghafurov succeeded to prove Tajiks’ pivotal role in the creation of Persian civilization in his great work Tojikon.Tajik academics went further while defining their new identity or rather tracing back their real ethnic designation. The author of Muslims of Central Asia describes the Persophile upsurge in the post-perestroika Tajikistan:”A Tajik professor, writing in a large-circulation newspaper, has defined “Iran” as not only the name of a particular twentieth-century state but also the much larger area, from the Indus and Syr Darya to the borders of what are now Turkey, Iran, and Syria, that formed the original homeland of all the Iranian peoples, including the Tajiks (Dodkhudoev, 1986). A related argument is that the Tajiks were a large and powerful people in the past, inhabiting north-eastern Iran, Afghanistan, Xinjiang, and other areas, in addition to Central Asia (Siddiqov, 1984)… The head of Tajikistan’s Academy of Sciences until recently, Muhammad Osimi (Russian spelling: Asimov) has stated that Persian, Dari (Kabul Persian, a lingua franca in Afghanistan) and Tajik are essentially a single language despite numerous differences in specialized vocabularies and spoken dialects, adding that, “our classical literature, which was written in Dari Persian language is the common property of the Iranians, Afghans and Tajiks alike” (Rajabi, 1987:4)” (Jo-Ann Gross, Muslims of Central Asia: Expressions of Identity and Change, 1992).This sentiment reached its culmination in 1989, when Tajikistan became the first Central Asian republic to formulate a language law. It was the fourth such law in the entire Soviet Union preceded only by those in the three Baltic States. The law passed on July 22, 1989 under the pressure of massive demonstrations that demanded the main language of the republic to replace Russian as the official language. The law granted the language its original name ‘Persian’ in brackets – tajiki (farsi).According to the law, the Foundation for Tajik Persian was established in the same year. The Cyrillic was also supposed to be replaced by the Perso-Arabic script by 1996. Even now Tajik intellectuals recall that day as a golden moment of their cultural euphoria in the 20 th century. Indeed, it was just a moment not meant to last forever.A five-year bloody civil war (1992-1997) interrupted Tajik cultural upsurge. Provincial neo-Communist forces came to power not without the Russian and Uzbek support and the process went backwards. An anti-Persian mood became prevalent and all Persian writings were wiped off the streets. In 1994 the Tajik parliament amended the 1989 Language Law, stating that the name of the state language was now called only Tajik (tojiki). And the plan to return to the Perso-Arabic script was abandoned indefinitely.Pashtunisation, a Stalinist method

As mentioned earlier, Pashtunisation in Afghanistan is a mirror image of Uzbekisation in vast areas of Central Asia with a mere difference in subjects involved in the two processes. Uzbekisation accompanied by a strong element of Russification had been designed to weaken the Persian language of Central Asia and alienate it from other Persian-speakers on the other side of the border. Whereas Pashtunisation is led by speakers of another less developed eastern Iranian language (Pashto) at the expense of other languages spoken in Afghanistan, primarily Persian that has remained as the lingua franca of the country, spoken and understood in all but the remotest settlements.According to I.M. Oranski (1977), Persian was the only official language of Afghanistan until 1933, “but during the 1930s, a movement for promoting the status of Pashto to the official level began to take hold.” (Ulrich Ammon, Sociolinguistics). 

Musahiban pioneers of Pashtunisation have sought to elevate their vernacular Pashto to the status of a vehicular language by downgrading the main language of the country – Persian. Their far-fledged ideas have been hindered by impossibility of developing Pashto into a comprehensive self-sufficient language in short term. But they have to some extent succeeded in damaging and mutilating some Persian linguistic norms in Afghanistan. Tajikistanweb has provided the details of the process earlier based on declassified American documents. Here some more details and observations will be added to complete the picture by drawing parallels between the two anti-Persian movements on both sides of the Oxus. The Pashtun King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan (1933-1973) had similar concerns as the Soviets in 1920s. He was anxious about the rise of Iranian cultural and political influence in the region as well what prompted him to rename Persian to Dari (a medieval literary synonym for Persian meaning ‘the language of Court’) in 1964. The process of segregation was finally accomplished to bring about the most contradictory linguistic fact of the modern world: three nations speak three ‘languages’ under different names (Persian, Tajiki, Dari) but nevertheless comprehend each other perfectly. In the same spirit administrative measures were put in place with the target of publishing 50 % of written material in Pashto. 

As in the Tajikistani case, the process of linguistic alienation in Afghanistan is being nourished by non-Tajik elements. Even the latest incident of punishing journalists for using Persian words brought a Pashtun minister (Abdul Karim Khurram) into the limelight. Khurram was nervous about the ‘un-Islamic’ influence of Persian over ‘Dari’, while authentic speakers of Persian in Afghanistan raised their voices to emphasize the oneness of ‘Dari’ and the Persian of Iran. Thus, non-Persians, namely Pashtuns, renamed a language that does not natively belong to them and are still trying to enforce their own version of Persian in the country. The picture is reminiscent of what had happened in Soviet Central Asia. 

Pashto ‘Universal’ Terms

Going back to 1960s, Mehdi Marashi writes in his “Persian Studies in North America”:   

“Although literacy in Pashto was still negligible at the time and still lags behind Persian within Afghanistan, a number of institutions were given Pashto names to be used irrespective of language, such as “pohantun” for university, making official dari immediately divergent from farsi.” ‘Universal’ Pashto terms like pohantun, pohanzay (faculty), saranwali (prosecutor-general’s office), roghtun (hospital) and others had been coined by an institution called Pashto Tulana (the Pashto Academy). The Academy established in 1936 wielded an exceptional power in imposing words and terms on all languages spoken in Afghanistan, while their equivalents already existed in languages like Persian. One of its main tasks was to artificially distinguish ‘Dari’ from the Persian of Iran. In the same year Pashto was imposed as the language of education with a little success.”A further problem was that the intelligentsia and the court spoke and wrote in Persian, the traditional language of culture. King Zahir himself had only rudimentary Pushtu” (Gilles Dorronsoro, Afghanistan: Revolution Unending, 1979-2002).According to Amin Saikal, “in the mid 1960s, feverish attempts were made to hammer out a literary Pashtu based on its southern (Paktiya) dialect. A flurry of publications in the influential journal of the Afghan Academy, Kabul, authored mainly by an inveterate Pashtun chauvinist Rishtin (the head of Pashto Tulana – twc), extolled Pashtu as the language that had matured on the territory of Afghanistan long before the advent of Islam, but was subsequently suppressed by various conquerors and despots” (Amin Saikal, Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival). Similar allegations have been made in Central Asia against the Persian.   

The apartheid Pashtunisation policy had a far-stretching agenda. During 1950s and 1960s the Afghan army recruited mainly Ghilzai and eastern Pashtuns into the military colleges as the government wished to use it as a tool for the Pashtunisation of the country. By 1970s the overwhelming majority of young officers were Pashtun. Hazaras and Uzbeks were actually excluded from military. During a more aggressive phase of the process in 1970s radio broadcasts in many vernacular languages were cancelled. By the mid 1970s, 70 percent of top and middle-level positions in Afghanistan’s civil and military hierarchies were occupied by Pashtuns (Amin Saikal, Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival). In a multiethnic country like Afghanistan the chauvinistic policy of Pashtunisation certainly contributed to the exacerbation of ethnic tensions. As put by a Soviet writer, “The policy of Pashtunisation… gave definite advantages first of all to Pashtuns, and then to those who had mastered the language.”

Seemingly, the process has revived under the Karzai administration and the Afghan Culture Ministry has replaced Pashto Tulana as a vehicle of further Pashtunisation in the country.

Persian, Still Persian

However, enormous efforts by colonial and chauvinistic forces have failed to practically divide the Persian language into three separate linguistic branches. Persian remains the main language for all public purposes in all three Persian-speaking countries. Native speakers pay a little significance to the idea of a separate identity in “Dari” and “Tajiki”. The world media refers to the three countries as the ‘Persian-speaking community’. Persian continues to be a community language for millions more in other parts of Central Asia, South-West Asia and the Persian Gulf. And it is one of the main sources of word-building in other languages of the area.Mehdi Marashi believes that the language is still known mostly as ‘Persian’ (farsi, parsi). But now as Tajikistani Persians “become aware of the significance of their unexpected independence and renew relations with their Persophone neighbours, they are faced with a new dilemma. Should they keep the Cyrillic alphabet, in which they were educated (either in tojiki or, in the case of many of the intelligentsia, in Russian), or switch back to the Perso-Arabic alphabet? To stay with Cyrillic would defeat their purpose of rejoining their historical community, the only community fully open to them. But if they switch and the neighbouring republics do not, they will have cut themselves off from the tojiki-speakers of Samarqand, Bokhara, and the rest of Central Asia. There are no reliable census figures for these other Central Asian Persian-speakers, but they could easily equal the Persian-speakers of Tajikistan in number!” (Mehdi Marashi, “Persian Studies in North America”).Within Tajikistan itself academics have called for return to Perso-Arabic script blaming the cultural crisis of the country on the Cyrillic alphabet that has restricted Tajiks’ access to Persian writings published abroad. It seems as the only feasible and inevitable way to protect and develop the Persian of Central Asia by bringing it out of prolonged isolation. 

The recent Persophone foreign ministers’ meeting in Dushanbe and their plans to establish a union of Persian-speaking countries have triggered some concern in Russia. “Iran considers Tajikistan a part of ‘the Greater Iran’, writes Moscow’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “Dushanbe’s aspiration toward Tehran could be explained by the geopolitical law of the weaker’s inclination to the stronger. Furthermore, they are kinfolks with a common language, shared culture and history.”

As Lena Jonson suggests in her book Vladimir Putin and Central Asia (2004), Tajikistan’s reorientation towards its ethnic kinfolk in future seems completely logical:

Nonetheless, with a Persian language, in contrast to the other Turkic-speaking Central Asian states, and with a large group of ethnic kinfolk in northern Afghanistan, Tajikistan also seemed to have the potential for a future foreign policy reorientation away from Russia.”