Linguistic Diversity in Pakistan

By Lina Bhatti

Growing up, Urdu reverberated throughout my household. Its melodic tones passed through my ears as I struggled to get the accent correct. I grew up not knowing that my parents actually communicated in two languages – Urdu and Punjabi. I always thought Punjabi was “slang” Urdu. This discourse was one that was not instilled in me, but rather, one that was crafted through the dominance of Urdu and its position as an elite and literary language. After reaching a certain age, I realized that Punjabi and Urdu are two strictly different languages. And the dominance of Urdu has caused not only the perversion of Punjabi, but also the decline of Punjabi speakers. This is not only the case with Punjabi, but with all ethnic languages of Pakistan.

Pakistan is a multinational country. There are four provinces and several semi-autonomous regions. Provinces are based around ethnolinguistic identities. These provinces include Balochistan, Sindh, Punjab, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan are semi-autonomous areas. During the colonial area, literate Muslims in the Indian subcontinent spoke Farsi, a language that dominated Mughal courts, politics, literature, and arts of society. When the British colonized and occupied the subcontinent, they imposed Hindi-Urdu, which they called Hindustani, as a lingua franca. As a result, Muslim migrants who moved to Pakistan during the partition of the Indian subcontinent and the gruesome population exchange spoke Urdu. Urdu is a military language that originated in Lucknow, in modern-day India. Migrants who moved into Pakistan settled in Karachi, a city on the coast of the Indian ocean, spoke Urdu as a native language. Karachi is located in the province of Sindh, however, the majority of people in Karachi speak Urdu as a first language, where the rest of Sindh speak different ethnic languages, such as Sindhi. Karachi is a multi-ethnic city and Pakistan’s most populated metropolis.

The dominance of Urdu started after the conception of Pakistan as a nation-state. Pakistan is multi-ethnic, so where does the conception of identity come from? Pakistan has funded huge nation-building projects. Although people are from different areas, topographies, cultures, and even ethnicities, they are able to identify and live with the nationality of a “Pakistani.” There is no such thing as an ethnic Pakistani, but rather, people are from different ethnolinguistic communities. For the rest of this analysis, I will go over each province/district of Pakistan, the ethnolinguistic communities present, history of language movements, and the actual linguistic breakdown of each language itself. There are dozens of dialects and languages spoken across Pakistan, so it will be difficult to cover all of them – as a result, I’ll be going over the main ethnolinguistic communities according to the population.

The majority of languages spoken in Pakistan are indigenous to the subcontinent and to the boundaries of modern-day Pakistan. Languages are branched into trees, representing a language family, and branches, representing specific strains of relativity. For example, Urdu is an Indo-European language. The Indo-European language family includes languages like English, German, Urdu, Farsi, and French. Urdu is under the specific language branch of Indo-Aryan languages, German is under the Germanic branch of languages which includes German, Dutch, and English. Farsi is specifically an Indo-Iranian language, under the branch of Indo-Aryan languages. The picture followed shows an example of what a family tree looks like. Most of the languages spoken in Pakistan are Indo-European, specifically Indo-Aryan and Indo-Iranian. Under Indo-Aryan, languages include Landha languages, Rajasthani languages, and Dardic languages, which are spoken in mountainous areas. Indo-Iranian languages spoken in Pakistan include Western and Eastern Iranian languages.

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Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province and encompasseses high linguistic diversity. The main languages of Balochistan are Balochi, Pashto, and Brahui. Upper Balochistan is heavily inhabited by the Pashtun people. Mid to lower Balochistan is mainly inhabited by the Baloch people, with pockets of Brahui and other ethnic minorities. Balochistan’s landscape is rugged, desert-like, with mountains and hills. Balochi is a Western Indo-Iranian language related closely to the modern languages of Kurdish and Farsi. Brahui is a Dravidian language; Dravidian languages are usually found in southern India. Many historians speculate that the Brahui people came to the area of modern-day Balochistan through an invasion from central India, bringing their language with them. Brahui people are found throughout Balochistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. Brahui is one of the only Dravidian languages found in Pakistan.


Sindh is separated from Balochistan through the Indus River. The name Sindhi is derived from the local word for the Indus – Sindhu. Sindhi is an Indo-Aryan language and is spoken throughout the Sindh province, as well as migrant communities in other parts of Pakistan.The major language of Sindh is Sindhi. It is a language that is derived from the Northwestern branch of Indo-Aryan languages, closely related to Kachchi and Jadgali.  Other languages spoken in Sindh include Marwari and Dhatki, Rajasthani languages, and Jadgali, a language closely related to Sindhi and spoken in Balochistan, Iran, and Oman by Jadgali and Jadgali-Baloch people.

Urdu is also spoken by native Urdu-speakers in the city of Karachi, which is located in Sindh. Urdu is spoken by around 8% of the population in Pakistan as a first language. It is mainly spoken by the Muhajjir, who migrated to Pakistan from Indian during the partition of the two states in 1947.


Punjab’s topography is very diverse, from the Suleiman mountains in the south to the Margalla Hills to deserts and fields. Known as an agricultural district because of the rivers that pass through Punjab, languages spoken in Punjab are rough, tonal, and soulful.

Punjabi has many dialects and transitional languages; in southern Punjab, Seraiki is spoken, which is mainly seen as a dialect of Punjabi, but recently, has been gaining traction to be defined as its own language. Punjabi and Seraiki fall under the Northwestern zone of Indo-Aryan languages. Pahari is a transitional dialect of Punjabi that is mainly spoken in the Potohar Plateau, in northern Punjab. Hindko is a transitional language between Punjabi and Pashto spoken mostly in the northernmost area Punjab along the border of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is comprised of numerous hilly areas and valleys, which translates to a wide variety of different languages and dialects. More geographical barriers translate to potentially more dialectical and linguistic diversity. The main language spoken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is Pashto; there are two dialects, northern and southern, that are spoken mainly by the Pashtun people. However, Pashto and Urdu are both used as lingua francas in this region. Pashto is an Indo-Iranian language. People in the Chitral Valley speak Khowar, a Dardic language of the Kho people, and Kalasha, a language spoken by the Kalash people, located in the Kalash Valley within Chitral. Hindko is also spoken by the Hindkowan as a transitional language between Pashto and Punjabi. Torwali was spoken in the Swat Valley, however, it is rapidly becoming less spoken due to the dominance of Pashto and Urdu. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa encompasses Upper Kohistan, which is an area where Dardic languages are spoken – Khowar, Torwali, etc.

Linguistic Diversity Pakistan


Upper Kohistan is also a part of Gilgit-Baltistan. As a result, Dardic languages such as Torwali, Khowar, and Shina are spoken in Gilgit-Baltistan. Dardic languages are indigenous languages in mountainous areas of the Himalayas and Karakoram. Gilgit-Baltistan is the meeting point of four mountain ranges, the Himalayas, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, and Pamir. The linguistic diversity of this region is immense, and not easily tracked. Burushaski is a language spoken in Hunza and the Ghizer districts, and is a language isolate, meaning that it is not related to any other languages, and has become a language completely through isolation. Wakhi is an Indo-Iranian language closely related to Farsi, spoken in the uppermost Gilgit-Baltistan, in the Hunza Valley Gojal, by the Wakhi people – an ethnic group present in Pakistan, the Wakhan Corridor, and the Gorno-Badakhshan province in Tajikistan.

Balti is a language spoken in the Baltistan part of Gilgit-Baltistan. Balti is a Dardic-influenced Tibetan language spoken by the Balti people. Balti is closely related to Ladakhi, which is spoken in the Indian-occupied Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir. Balti is written in the Yagi script in addition to the Persian alphabet.

Azad Kashmir

Languages spoken in Azad Kashmir include Punjabi, Pahari, Gojri, and Kashmiri. Kashmiri is a Dardic language spoken by ethnic Kashmiris in the Neelum Valley of Azad Kashmir. There are not many ethnic Kashmiris living in Azad Kashmir, rather the most prominent groups include Gujjars, Sudhans, and Mirpuris. Languages spoken here are dependent on what ethnicity you are, with Urdu being a lingua franca for groups living in Azad Kashmir.

From all of this, one can see that Pakistan is a haven for linguistic diversity; however, it is of utmost sadness that Urdu is considered the main language of Pakistan. Urdu’s influence dominates over the dozens of ethnic languages spoken in Pakistan, and as a result of this dominance, the importance of ethnic languages is not only diminished, but the amount of speakers of each language rapidly depletes as well. Many languages have died in Pakistan over the course of the last couple of decades, and there is an inherent need to preserve the languages that remain. Languages not only include the form of communication for a specific group of people; they provide a glimpse into history, into culture, and into lost traditions. The way a language has developed screams multitude of which groups interacted with one another, who invaded who, who ate what kind of food, and what kind of religion that group practiced. There is so much to be told by the way our tongues move, with every word reflecting hundreds of years of history, hundreds of years of ancestry, and hundreds of years of perseverance.

It is imperative to start to preserve these languages; some groups in Pakistan are already doing so, but it is not seen as an importance to the government, nor to people living in Pakistan. Mindsets are determined upon Urdu being the elite tongue we all should speak, to the point that our ethnic tongues are sliced, forgotten, and refused. This mindset holds us back from progress and from the elemental understanding of ourselves. How can you be proud if you don’t know where you come from. If you don’t know why you speak the way you do?

If you don’t know yourself?