With approximately 40,000 speakers worldwide, Wakhi is a language of the Pamir mountains, spoken by small populations similar in size—all under 10,000—in adjacent, remote regions of Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China. The Wakhi area in Afghanistan is primarily in the Wakhan Corridor; in Pakistan, it is the northernmost part of the Gilgit-Baltistan region; in China, it is the southwest corner of Xinjiang Province; in Tajikistan, it is part of Gorno-Badakhshan. There is substantial dialect diversity, though also mutual intelligibility, both between the different national communities cut off by political borders and in some cases within them.
Wakhi is usually classified as a Pamir language within the Southeastern Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family, closely connected to the Yidgha, Munji, Sanglechi-Ishkashimi, and Shughni languages spoken in neighboring areas, but its relationship to the Pamiri group has been questioned by more recent work. At least seven Wakhi dialects, with a relatively high degree of mutual intelligibility, have been reported in the linguistic literature: Gojal (Pakistan), Ishkoman, Yasin, Yarkhun, Central Wakhi, Western Wakhi, and Eastern Wakhi. There is also a high degree of variation even within some of these dialects — within the Gojali dialect, for instance, there is variation by village and region.
Although Wakhi remains a vital language, still learned by community members of all ages, use of the language may be declining in areas where the Wakhi are a minority. In Tajikistan, Tajik is the respected national language, Russian is a secondary lingua franca and a language of higher education, and Shughni plays a role as a lingua franca in the region of Gorno-Badakhshan. Outside migration into the Pamirs and the disruptive effects of Tajikistan’s civil war represent threats to the language. In Pakistan, Wakhi speakers now typically also speak Urdu and English and may have contact with speakers of Burushaski and Shina.
Traditionally the language has not been written, with Persian serving as a “high culture” written standard in the region. In recent years, activists and researchers working to preserve and write the language have developed Wakhi orthographies using Arabic, Cyrillic, and Roman letters. The diversity of writing systems reflects the four different countries where Wakhi speakers live, with the Cyrillic system used only in Tajikistan, for instance. ELA is working with an orthography based on Roman letters, similar to the Wakhi writing already increasingly appearing online and in social media, with the goal of making materials accessible in all four countries and beyond.
Publishing texts, a lexicon, and a sketch grammar in 1876, British traveler and diplomat Robert Shaw was the first outsider to study Wakhi in detail. In the mid-20th century, the publications of David Lockhart Robertson Lorimer were an important landmark, though an important manuscript of his has never been properly published and made more widely available, which ELA has been working on. Much significant linguistic work on Wakhi was done by the Russian scholars Valentina Sokolova, Tatiana Pakhalina, and Ivan Steblin-Kaminski, as well by the Norwegian linguist Georg Morgenstierne.
Contemporary Wakhi linguists working on behalf of their language and publishing in various others are the late Boghsoh Lashkarbekov, Saodatsho Matrobov, Mir Ali Wakhani, Fazal Amin Baig, and Sherali Gulomaliev, among others. Important current work is being done by linguists Beate Reinhold, Jaroslava Obrtelová, and ethnomusicologist Richard Wolf.
ELA has been working on Wakhi in various ways for over a decade, thanks largely to the dedication of Project Coordinator Husniya Khujamyorova, a native speaker originally from Murghab, Tajikistan but now in New York, though dozens of other speakers have also participated. The results so far include a large and diverse set of recordings, many of them transcribed, translated, and analyzed as part of a Fieldworks (FLEx) corpus of over 100 texts with a substantial lexicon, still in a work in progress but already available through Kratylos. Many of these texts have been painstakingly digitized, re-transcribed, fixed, and translated into English from Russian publications now difficult to find. ELA’s own recordings of Wakhi stories, songs, oral histories, and other materials have been seen hundreds of thousands of times, especially by Pamiris worldwide, through Youtube and Facebook.
In 2011-12, ELA Executive Director Daniel Kaufman led a field methods class at Columbia University, investigating two Wakhi dialects with speakers now living in New York: Nazir Abbas, who speaks the Wakhi dialect of Gulmit, Pakistan, and Husniya, who speaks the Murghab variety.
In the summer of 2016, Husniya Khujamyorova traveled throughout Tajikistan to record older native speakers telling traditional stories, folk tales, oral histories, and songs (ruboi, bilbilik, and lalajik), especially in Wakhi but also in Shughni and Bartangi.
In 2018, with support from the National Geographic Society, Khujamyorova, filmmaker Nicole Galpern, and ELA Co-Director Ross Perlin spent much of the summer in the Pamir region, making recordings in Wakhi and a number of other languages. Since then we have been continuing to transcribe, translate, publish, and archive those recordings. We have also recorded other Wakhi speakers in New York about their efforts to preserve language and culture thousands of miles from home. ELA’s focus has been on Wakhi varieties in Tajikistan and Pakistan, because of the presence of speakers in New York, but ELA also aims to share materials whenever possible from the more isolated communities in China and Afghanistan.
In New York, there are some six or seven Wakhi families from the Hunza area of Pakistan and a small number of Wakhis from the Pamir region of Tajikistan. All maintain some connection with the Ismaili community centered on the jamatkhana, or religious center, on Woodhaven Boulevard in Queens. Wakhi speaker Husniya Khujamyorova, originally from Murghab (Tajikistan) but now living in Brooklyn, has worked extensively on her language and other Pamiri languages with the Endangered Language Alliance since 2010, including fieldwork in New York, Tajikistan, and China.
Learn more here about ELA’s Wakhi children’s book, part of our Pamiri Stories series.