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Languages of Pakistan

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Languages of Pakistan

Languages of Pakistan
Official languages English, Urdu
National languages Urdu
Main languages Punjabi (44%), Pashto (15%), Sindhi (12%), Urdu (8%), Balochi (3.6%)
Main immigrant languages Arabic, Dari, Bengali, Gujarati, Memoni
Sign languages Indo-Pakistani Sign Language
Common keyboard layouts
Urdu keyboard

Pakistan's national language is [1] The country is also home to several regional languages, including Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi, Kashmiri, Brahui, Shina, Balti, Khowar, Dhatki, Marwari, Wakhi and Burushaski. From among these, four (Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, and Balochi) are provincial languages.

Most of Pakistan's languages belong to the Indo-Iranian group of the Indo-European language family.


  • History 1
  • Statistics 2
  • National language: Urdu 3
  • Provincial languages 4
    • Punjabi 4.1
    • Pashto 4.2
    • Sindhi 4.3
    • Balochi 4.4
  • Regional languages 5
    • Kashmiri 5.1
    • Brahui 5.2
    • Hindko 5.3
    • Shina 5.4
    • Saraiki 5.5
  • Other languages 6
    • English (official language) 6.1
    • Arabic (religious language) 6.2
    • Persian (literary language) 6.3
    • Turkic languages (literary language) 6.4
    • Minor languages 6.5
  • Classification 7
    • Indo-European 7.1
    • Other 7.2
  • Writing systems 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • Further reading 11
  • External links 12



Following are the major languages spoken in Pakistan, by number of people that speak them as their first language.

Numbers of speakers of larger languages
Language 2008 estimate 1998 census Areas of Predominance
1 Punjabi 76,367,360 44.17% 58,433,431 44.15% Punjab
2 Pashto 26,692,890 15.44% 20,408,621 15.42% Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa
3 Sindhi 24,410,910 14.12% 18,661,571 14.10% Rural Sindh
4 Saraiki 18,019,610 10.42% 13,936,594 10.53% Southern Punjab
5 Urdu 13,120,540 7.59% 10,019,576 7.57% Urban Sindh
6 Balochi 6,204,540 3.59% 4,724,871 3.57% Balochistan

National language: Urdu

An example of the Nastaʿlīq script used for writing Urdu

Urdu (اردو) is the national language (قومی زبان), lingua franca and one of two official languages of Pakistan (the other being English). Although only about 8% of Pakistanis speak it as their first language, it is widely spoken and understood as a second language by the vast majority of Pakistanis. It was introduced as the lingua franca upon the capitulation and annexation of Sindh (1843) and Punjab (1849) with the subsequent ban on the use of Persian. The decision to make the language change was to institute a universal language throughout the then British Raj in South Asia as well as minimize the influence of Persia, the Ottoman Empire, Afghanistan and Central Asia on this transitional region. Urdu is a relatively new language in the contemporary sense but has undergone considerable modifications and development borrowing heavily on the traditions of older languages like Persian, Arabic, Turkish and local South Asian languages all of which can be found in its vocabulary. According to the linguistic historian Tariq Rahman, however, the oldest name of what is now called Urdu is Hindustani or Hindvi and it existed in some form at least from the 14th century if not earlier (Rahman 2011). It was probably the language of the area around Delhi that absorbed words of Persian and Arabic and, to a much lesser extent, Turkish—the same process that created modern English. This language, according to Rahman, is the ancestor of both modern Hindi and Urdu. These became two distinct varieties when Urdu was first Persianized in the 18th century and then Hindi was Sanskritized from 1802 onwards.

The name Urdu is a short form of 'Zuban-e-Urdu-e-Mualla' i.e. language of the exalted city. In India the term Urdu, although it means 'military camp' in Turkish, was used for the capital city of the king. In other words, the language of the king's capital was a Persianized form of the language usually called Hindi. This was shortened to 'Urdu' and this term was used for the first time in written records by the poet Mushafi in 1780 (Rahman 2011: 49). The British called this language 'Hindustani' and wrote it in both the Perso-Arabic and the Devanagari script. It is widely used, both formally and informally, for personal letters as well as public literature, in the literary sphere and in the popular media. It is a required subject of study in all primary and secondary schools. It is the first language of most Muhajirs (Muslim refugees who fled from different parts of India after independence of Pakistan in 1947), who form nearly 8% of Pakistan's population, and is an acquired second language for the rest. As Pakistan's national language, Urdu has been promoted to promote national unity. It is written with a modified form of the Perso-Arabic alphabet—usually in Nastaliq script—and its basic Hindustani vocabulary has been enriched by words from Persian, Arabic, Turkic languages and English.

In the last 150 years, and especially the last 60-70 years, the Urdu spoken in what is now Pakistan has gradually been influenced by many of the native languages, such as Pashto, Punjabi and Sindhi, in terms of intonation, as well the incorporation of terminology from those languages. As such, the language is constantly developing and has acquired a particularly "Pakistani" flavour that distinguishes it from the language spoken in older times. The first poetry in the history of Urdu is attributed to Farid Ganjshakar of Pakpattan (1175-1265) and the poet Amir Khusro (1253–1325), but, since the actual writing of the manuscripts is of a later date, this cannot be said with certainty. Lines in what may be understood as Urdu are scattered in the Persian biographies and conversations of saints (Rahman 2011: 61-65) and the first book of Pashto Khairul Bayan, probably written by Bayazid Ansari between 1560 and 1570, has some pages in the Perso-Arabic script that are written in this language. The image of these pages is displayed by Rahman in his book From Hindi to Urdu (2011: 134-135). The language was later on adopted by Mughal emperors, such as Aurangzeb Alamgir (1658–1707), who spoke it fluently—as did his descendants—while his ancestors mostly spoke Persian and Turkish.

Provincial languages

Life in Pakistan


Punjabi (پنجابی) is spoken as a first language by more than 44% of Pakistanis, mostly in Punjab. The exact numbers of The number of Punjabi speakers in Pakistan is difficult to ascertain since there are many dialects, such as Saraiki and Hindko which some regard as part of Punjabi and others regard as a separate languages. If both are included then 60% of the population speaks Punjabi which is the exact population proportion of Punjab province to the overall population of Pakistan. The standard Punjabi dialect is from the Lahore, Sialkot, Gujranwala and Sheikhupura districts of the Pakistani Punjab, as was used by Waris Shah (1722–1798) in his famous book Heer Ranjha and which is also nowadays the language of Punjabi literature and music.Punjabi language in Pakistan is written in Shahmukhi script with the Urdu alphabet.

Punjabi is descended from Prakrit (spoken Sanskrit) in the Vedic period (1700 B.C.). Punjabi literature has been principally spiritual in nature and has a very rich oral tradition. It is also spoken in the Indian state of Punjab where it is written in the standard Gurmukhi script.


Pashto (پښتو) is spoken as a first language by more than 15.42% (c. 29 million) of Pakistanis, mainly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and in northern Balochistan as well as in ethnic Pashtun communities in the cities of Karachi, Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Lahore. Karachi is one of the most Pashto speaking cities in the world.[2] Pashto is also widely spoken in neighboring Afghanistan where it has official language status.

Pashto has rich written literary traditions as well as an oral tradition. There are three major dialect patterns within which the various individual dialects may be classified; these are Pakhto, which is the Northern (Peshawar) variety, and the softer Pashto spoken in the southern areas. Khushal Khan Khattak (1613–1689) and Rahman Baba (1633–1708) were famous poets in the Pashto language. In the last part of 20th century, Pakhto or Pashto has produced some great poets like Ghani Khan, Khatir Afridi and Amir Hamza Shinwari. They are not included in the overall percentage.


The Sindhi language (سنڌي) is spoken as a first language by at most 14.5% of Pakistanis, mostly in Sindh province, parts of Balochistan, Southern Punjab and Balochistan. It has a rich literature and is taught in schools. It is an Indo-Aryan (Indo-European) language, derived from Sanskrit, and Arabic languages;But here it must be noted that some Sindhi scholars such as Dr. Nabi Bux Khan Baloch, Dr. Bheru Mal MehrChandani, Dr. Ghulam Ali Alana, Sirajul Haq Memon, have different notion for the origin of Sindhi language. Nabi Bux Khan Baloch said that Sindhi is derived from Sami languages, Dr. Bheru Mal gave his notion that Sindhi is derived from Sanskrit; whereas other said that Sindhi is sister language of Sanskrit, Pali Language. Siraj Memon said Sindhi is not derived from Sanskrit but Sanskrit is derived from old Sindhi language. The Arabs ruled Sindh province for more than 150 years after Muhammad bin Qasim conquered it in 712 AD, remaining there for three years to set up Arab rule. Consequently, the social fabric of Sindh contains elements of Arabic society. Sindhi is spoken by over 53.4 million people in Pakistan and some 5.8 million in India as well as some 2.6 million in other parts of the world. It is the official language of Sindh province and is one of the scheduled languages officially recognized by the federal government in India. It is widely spoken in the Lasbela District of Balochistan (where the Lasi tribe speaks a dialect of Sindhi), many areas of the Naseerabad, Rahim Yar Khan and Dera Ghazi Khan districts in Sindh and Jafarabad districts of Balochistan, and by the Sindhi diaspora abroad. Sindhi language has six major dialects: Sireli, Vicholi, Lari, Thari, Lasi and Kachhi. It is written in the Arabic script with several additional letters to accommodate special sounds. The largest Sindhi-speaking cities are Karachi, Hyderabad, Sukkur, Shikarpur, Dadu, Jacobabad, Larkana and Nawabshah. Sindhi literature is also spiritual in nature. Shah Abdul Latif Bhita'i (1689–1752) is one of its greatest poets, and wrote Sassi Punnun and Umar Marvi, folk stories, in his famous book "Shah Jo Risalo" and the book was written by Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai.


Balochi (بلوچی) is spoken as a first language by about 4% of Pakistanis, mostly in Balochistan province. Rakshani is the major dialect group in terms of numbers. Sarhaddi is a sub-dialect of Rakshani. Other sub-dialects are Kalati (Qalati), Chagai-Kharani and Panjguri. Eastern Hill Balochi or Northern Balochi is very different from the rest. The name Balochi or Baluchi is not found before the 10th Century. It is one of the 9 distinguished languages of Pakistan. Since Balochi is a very poetic and rich language and has a certain degree of affinity to Urdu, Balochi poets tend to be very good poets in Urdu as well and Ata Shaad, Gul Khan Nasir and Noon Meem Danish are excellent examples of this.

Regional languages


Kashmiri (كأشُر) is an ancient Dardic language spoken in Azad Kashmir, Gilgit–Baltistan and Punjab provinces of Pakistan. There are over 100,000 [3] Kashmiri speakers in Pakistan.


Brahui (براھوی) is a Dravidian language of central and east-central Balochistan. The language has been influenced by neighboring Balochi and to a lesser extent by Sindhi and Pashto. 1–1.5% of the Pakistani population has Brahui as their first language. It is one of the nine distinguished languages of Pakistan. The Brahui people have traditionally been taken as a relict population, suggesting that Dravidian languages were formerly more widespread but were supplanted by the incoming Indo-Aryan languages.[4] However, this idea has fallen out of favor; Brahui appears to have migrated to Balochistan from central India after 1000 CE, as evidenced by the absence of Avestan loanwords. The main Iranian contributor to Brahui vocabulary, Balochi, is a western Iranian language like Kurdish that moved to the area from the west only around 1000 CE.[5]


Hindko (ہندکو) name is derived from Hindukush mountains. It is mainly spoken in this mountain range in the districts of Haripur, Abbottabad, Mansehra, Peshawar, Kohat, Nowshera, Swabi, the lower half of Neelum District and Muzafarabad District of Kashmir by an estimated 2.2 to 4 million people.. It is very similar to northern dialects of Punjabi.


Shina (شینا) (also known as Tshina) is a Dardic language spoken by a plurality of people in Gilgit–Baltistan of Pakistan. The valleys in which it is spoken include Astore, Chilas, Dareil, Tangeer, Gilgit, Ghizer, and a few parts of Kohistan. It is also spoken in Gurez, Drass, Kargil, Karkit Badgam and Ladakh valleys of Kashmir. There were 321,000 speakers of Gilgiti Shina in 1981. Current estimate is nearly 600,000 people.


Saraiki (سرائیکی) is spoken in southern Punjab, which comprises Multan, Lodhran, Bahawalpur, Bhakkar, Mianwali, Layyah, Dera Ghazi Khan, Muzaffargarh and Rahim Yar Khan districts. It is also spoken by majority of population of Dera Ismail Khan district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (خیبر پښتونخوا) province, kachi plain of Balochistan, northern parts of Sindh, and also spoken by few people in the cities of Hyderabad and Karachi. More than 18 million Saraiki live in Pakistan, and nearly 100 thousand Saraiki live in other countries specially India, UAE and Saudi Arab.[6]

Other languages

English (official language)

[1] of Pakistan and is widely used in the executive, legislative and judicial branches as well as to some extent in the officer ranks of Pakistan's armed forces. Pakistan's Constitution and laws are written in English. It is also widely used in schools, colleges and universities as a medium of instruction. Amongst the more educated social circles of Pakistan, English is seen as the language of upward mobility and its use is becoming more prevalent in upper social circles often spoken alongside native Pakistani languages.

Arabic (religious language)

Arabic (عربي) is the religious language of Muslims. The Quran, Sunnah, Hadith and Muslim theology is taught in Arabic with Urdu translation. The Pakistani diaspora living in the Middle East has further increased the number of people who can speak Arabic in Pakistan. Arabic is taught as a religious language in mosques, schools, colleges, universities and madrassahs. A majority of Pakistan's Muslim population has had some form of formal or informal education in the reading, writing and pronunciation of the Arabic language as part of their religious education.

Persian (literary language)

Persian (فارسی) was the official and cultural language of the Mughal Empire, a continuation since the introduction of the language by Central Asian Turkic invaders who migrated into the Indian Subcontinent,[7] and the patronisation of it by the earlier Turko-Afghan Delhi Sultanate. Persian was officially abolished with the arrival of the British: in Sindh in 1843 and in Punjab in 1849. It is today spoken primarily by the Dari speaking refugees from Afghanistan and the Hazara community of Quetta.

Turkic languages (literary language)

Turkic (ترک) languages were used by the ruling Turco-Mongols (Mughals) and earlier Sultans of India . There are small pockets of Turkic speakers found throughout the country, notably in the valleys in the countries northern regions which lie adjacent to Central Asia, western Pakistani region of Waziristan principally around Kanigoram where the Burki tribe dwells and in Pakistan's urban centres of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. The autobiography of Mughal emperor Babur, Tuzk Babari was also written in Turkish. After returning from exile in Safavid Persia in 1555, Mughal emperor Humayun further introduced Persian language and culture in the court and government. The Chaghatai language, in which Babur had written his memoirs, disappeared almost entirely from the culture of the courtly elite, and Mughal emperor Akbar could not speak it. Later in life, Humayun himself is said to have spoken in Persian verse more often than not.

A number of Turkic speaking refugees, mostly Uzbeks and Turkmens, from Afghanistan have settled in Pakistan.

Minor languages

Other languages spoken by linguistic minorities include the languages listed below, with speakers ranging from a few hundred to tens of thousands. A few are highly endangered languages that may soon have no speakers at all.[8]



Most of the languages of Pakistan belong to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. They are divided between two major groups: Indo-Aryan (the majority, including Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Hindko, and Saraiki, among others), and Iranian (including Pashto, Dari, Balochi, and Khowar, among others).

Some of the important languages in the Indo-Aryan group are dialect continuums. One of these is Lahnda,[9] and includes Western Punjabi (but not standard Punjabi), Northern Hindko, Southern Hindko, Khetrani, Saraiki, and Pahari-Potwari, plus two more languages outside of Pakistan. The other is Marwari, and includes Marwari of Pakistan and several languages of India (Dhundari, Marwari, Merwari, Mewari, and Shekhawati).[10] A third is Rajasthani, and consists of Bagri, Gujari in Pakistan and several others in India: Gade Lohar,[11] Harauti (Hadothi), Malvi, and Wagdi.

There are several dialects continuums in the Iranian group as well: Balochi, which includes Eastern, Western and Southern Balochi;[12] and Pashto, and includes Northern, Central, and Southern Pashto;[13]


The following three languages of Pakistan are not part of the Indo-European language family:

Writing systems

Chalipa panel, Mir Emad

All languages of Pakistan are written in Nastaʿlīq, a modified Perso-Arabic script. The Mughal Empire adopted Persian as the court language during their rule over South Asia as did their predecessors, such as the Ghaznavids. During this time, Nastaʿlīq came into widespread use in South Asia. The influence remains to this day. In Pakistan, almost everything in Urdu is written in the script, concentrating the greater part of Nastaʿlīq usage in the world.

The earliest Sindhi manuscripts written during the Abbasid Era

The Urdu alphabet is the right-to-left alphabet. It is a modification of the Persian alphabet, which is itself a derivative of the Arabic alphabet. With 38 letters, the Urdu alphabet is typically written in the calligraphic Nasta'liq script, whereas Arabic is more commonly in the Naskh style.

Sindhi adopted a variant of the Persian alphabet as well, in the 19th century. The script is used in Pakistan today. It has a total of 52 letters, augmenting the Urdu with digraphs and eighteen new letters (ڄ ٺ ٽ ٿ ڀ ٻ ڙ ڍ ڊ ڏ ڌ ڇ ڃ ڦ ڻ ڱ ڳ ڪ) for sounds particular to Sindhi and other Indo-Aryan languages. Some letters that are distinguished in Arabic or Persian are homophones in Sindhi.

Balochi and Pashto are written in Perso-Arabic script. The Shahmukhī script, a variant of the Urdu alphabet, is used to write the Punjabi language in Pakistan.

Usually, bare transliterations of Urdu into Roman letters, Roman Urdu, omit many phonemic elements that have no equivalent in English or other languages commonly written in the Latin script. The National Language Authority of Pakistan has developed a number of systems with specific notations to signify non-English sounds, but these can only be properly read by someone already familiar with Urdu.

See also


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ "Demographic divide". Zia Ur Rehman, a journalist and a researcher based in Karachi. thefridaytimes. July 15–21, 2011. Retrieved 2013-01-05. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ (Mallory 1989)
  5. ^ J. H. Elfenbein, A periplous of the ‘Brahui problem’, Studia Iranica vol. 16 (1987), pp. 215-233.
  6. ^ HEC, Islamabad Pakistan. Letter No. 20-/R7D/09 -5243 Dated 20-01-2010.
  7. ^ "South Asian Sufis: Devotion, Deviation, and Destiny". Retrieved 2 January 2015. 
  8. ^ Gordon, Raymond (2005). "Languages of Pakistan". Retrieved 2009-03-17. 
  9. ^ ISO 639 code sets. Retrieved on 2011-01-14.
  10. ^ ISO 639 code sets. Retrieved on 2011-01-14.
  11. ^ Ethnologue report for language code: gda. Retrieved on 2011-01-14.
  12. ^ ISO 639 code sets. Retrieved on 2011-01-14.
  13. ^ ISO 639 code sets. Retrieved on 2011-01-14.
  14. ^ WALS – Sino-Tibetan. Retrieved on 2011-01-14
  • Rahman, Tariq (1996) Language and Politics of Pakistan Karachi: Oxford University Press. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2007.
  • Rahman, Tariq (2002) Language, Ideology and Power: Language-learning among the Muslims of Pakistan and North India Karachi: Oxford University Press. Rev.ed. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2008.
  • Rahman, Tariq (2011) From Hindi to Urdu: A Social and Political History Karachi: Oxford University Press.

Further reading

  • "Why is Pakistan swapping English for Urdu?" (Archive). Al Arabiya. 16 July 2015.

External links

  • Pakistan census statistics by population
  • List of Pakistani Languages at Ethnologue
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