An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Overview. Dardic languages are prevalent in the mountainous regions of the Hindukush and Western Himalayas. Except Kashmiri, they are all small minority languages that subsist in isolated valleys. Situated next to Iran and in the confluence of South and Central Asia, they have been influenced by their Indo-Aryan relatives as well as by Iranian, Tibetan and the Dravidian Burushaski. On the other hand, they preserve many archaic phonological and morphological features.

Distribution. Northwestern India (Jammu & Kashmir), northwestern Pakistan (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, formerly North-West Frontier), and northeastern Afghanistan (Nuristan, Kunar, and Laghman provinces).

External Classification. Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, Modern Indo-Aryan, Northwestern. Dardic languages are now considered different from the Nuristan (or Kafiristan) languages which are classified as a third, separate, branch of the Indo-Iranian branch (Iranian, Nuristani, and Indo-Aryan). Other Indo-Aryan languages of the northwestern group are Punjabi, Sindhi, Lahnda, and Pahari.

Internal Classification and Speakers. Close to 9 million people speak Dardic languages which are generally divided into six subgroups:

1. Pashai (c. 400,000-450,000)

  1. Pashai or Pashayi  in Afghanistan, NE of Kabul. Slightly less than half a million speakers.

2. Kunar (c. 21,000)

  1. Dameli  in the Damel Valley, Chitral district, Pakistan with 5,000 speakers estimated in 2001.

  2. Gawarbati in the Chitral Valley of Pakistan and bordering areas of Afghanistan (Kunar valley). Might be 10,000 speakers.

  3. Shumashti west of Kunar river, in Afghanistan. 1,000 speakers in 1994.

  4. Grangali in the Pech river valley, Afghanistan. 5,000 speakers in 1994.

3. Chitral (c. 400,000)

  1. Khowar (Chitrali, Chitrari, Arniya) in Chitral, Pakistan. Around 250,000 speakers in 1992.

  2. Kalasha in the remote valleys of Urtsun, Bumburet, Birir and Rumbur, next to the town of Chitral, in Pakistan. Around 5,000 speakers estimated in 2006.

4. Kohistani (c. 400,000-500,000)

  1. Indus Kohistani, west bank of Indus River in Kohistan district, Pakistan. 220,000 speakers in 1993.

  2. Bateri, east bank of Indus River, in Kohistan district, Pakistan. 29,000 speakers in 2000.

  3. Chilisso, east bank of Indus River, in Kohistan district, Pakistan. 1,000 speakers in 1992.

  4. Kalam Kohistani or Kalami, in the Upper Swat River valley, Pakistan. 100,000 speakers estimated in 2004.

  5. Torwali, Swat River Valley, Pakistan. 60,000 speakers in 1987.

  6. Tirahi, southeast of Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Perhaps 100 speakers.

  1. 5.Shina (c. 800,000)

  2. Brokskat, Jammu and Kashmir (particularly in Ladakh and Kargil districts), India. 10,000 speakers estimated in 2001.

  3. Shina, south of Indus River in Pakistan. 337,000 speakers (1998 census), plus a further 34,400 in India (2001 census).

  4. Shina Kohistani, east bank of Indus River, Pakistan. 200,000 speakers in 1981.

  5. Phalura or Palula, east side of the Lower Chitral Valley in Pakistan. 10,000 speakers in 2008.

  6. Kalkoti, Kohistan district, Pakistan. 6,000 speakers in 2006.

  7. Ushojo, Bishigram valley in Swat Kohistan, Pakistan. 2,000 speakers in 1992.

  8. Sawi or Savi in a village off the Kunar River, in Afghanistan. 3,000 speakers in 1983.

6. Kashmiri (6,500,000)

  1. Kashmiri in the Vale of Kashmir and the surrounding hills of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, and adjacent areas of Pakistan. An estimated 6.5 million people speak the language.


  1. Phonology

  2. Most Dardic languages have retained the three sibilants of Old Indo-Aryan: palatal ś [ʃ], retroflex ṣ [ʂ] and dental s [s]. Others, like Kashmiri and Grangali, retained only two of them (ś and s).

  1. Many Dardic languages have lost the aspiration of voiced stops; a few, like Pashai and Grangali, have also lost the aspiration of voiceless stops.

  1. One major innovation is the development of retroflex affricates, probably an areal influence (from the isolate Burushaski and/or Dravidian languages formerly spoken in the region).

  1. Some Dardic languages developed voiced fricatives, which are absent in Old Indo-Aryan and in most Modern Indo-Aryan languages, exhibiting contrasting pairs of voiceless and voiced alveolars (s/z), and sometimes of voiceless and voiced velars (x/ɣ).

  1. They have preserved much more Old Indo-Aryan consonant clusters than the languages spoken in the lowlands.

  1. Some Dardic languages developed tones. Among them, Kalam Kohistani (5), Torwali (4), Kalkoti (4), and Shina Kohistani (3). Others have a pitch accent system (Shina, perhaps Khowar).

  1. Vowel systems have experienced substantial change, becoming quite complex. Kashmiri, for example, has a fifteen-vowel inventory, and Kalasha a twenty-vowel inventory.

  1. Morphology

  2. Most Dardic languages have ergative systems. Shina is fully ergative but the majority is split ergative (ergativity is restricted to certain categories and contexts). A few, like Kalasha and Khowar are not ergative at all (nominative-accusative type).

  1. Some languages have pronominal affixes that may be attached to verbal forms to indicate  direct or indirect objects.

  1. Inherited gender has been partially (Brokskat) or totally lost (Kalasha, Khowar) in some Dardic languages. But most mark feminine gender by a change in vowel quality or consonant palatalization.

  1. A three term-deictic system of demonstrative pronouns is the norm (‘this, that, that yonder’), in contrast with the more usual two-term system of New Indo-Aryan.

  1. In contrast to the prevailing decimal counting system of Indo-Aryan, many Dardic languages have evolved vigesimal ones. Kashmiri is an exception retaining the decimal system.

  1. Syntax

  2. Most Dardic languages, with the remarkable exception of Kashmiri, are Subject-Object-Verb (SOV), the same word order existent in other Indo-Aryan languages. In Kashmiri, however, word order is quite free though SVO is more frequent. Postpositions are employed to indicate syntactical relations and when they are used the nominals preceding them take an oblique case.


Only Kashmiri developed a written literature, starting in the 13th century.


Kashmiri, Shina and Khowar use a modified version of the Arabo-Persian script. The other Dardic languages are not normally written.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Dardic'. E. Bashir. In The Indo-Aryan Languages, 905-990. G. Cardona & D. Jain (eds). Routledge (2007).

  2. -'Dardic'. S. Munshi. In Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, 282-284. K. Brown & S. Ogilvie (eds). Elsevier (2009).

  3. -The Indo-Aryan languages. C. P. Masica. Cambridge University Press (1991).

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Dardic Languages

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