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A Local’s Guide to Many Languages of Pakistan

Having Pakistani roots from my father’s side, whenever my friends in Germany hear me speak Urdu they are fascinated and in awe with the sound of it. And that’s for a reason. 

Urdu is said to be one of the most beautiful languages of the world known for its sweetness, explicit respect, manners, and love.

That’s why people find it so delightful to hear Urdu conversations, poetry, or music. Yet, Urdu is not the only language spoken in Pakistan.

Due to Pakistan’s rich history and early influences by many empires and dynasties, it offers an impressive diversity in languages. How many languages do you think are spoken in Pakistan? Any guesses?

70 to 80 different languages are spoken in Pakistan.

The major languages are Urdu, Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Saraiki, and Balochi. Urdu is the lingua franca, yet Urdu is the native language of 7,65% of Pakistani people.

Urdu and English are Pakistan’s official languages. 

LanguageNative SpeakersMain Areas where the language is spoken
1.      Punjabi38.78 %Punjab
2.      Pashto18.24 %Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), northern district of Balochistan
3.      Sindhi14.57%Sindh and adjacent Las Bela district of Balochistan
4.      Saraiki12.19%South Punjab and adjacent areas of KPK, Sindh, and Balochistan
5.      Urdu7.08%All over Pakistan, with dominance in Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi, and Faisalabad.
6.      Balochi3.02%Balochistan
Source

But this is only the tip of the iceberg.

If you want to learn more about Pakistani languages, as a local, I have all the information you need to know.

Pakistan is a country that I love. Click to check my other articles on Pakistan. I also linked them all at the end of this article.

Map of Languages in Pakistan Source Wikipedia

The languages of Pakistan

Pakistan is a country of cultural diversity and many ethnicities thus, resulting in a colorful blend of languages spread all across Pakistan’s corners.

Living in Pakistan, I have encountered many languages. My family from my father’s side are all Urdu and Punjabi speakers. My late grandfather, who used to work in Peshawar (KPK) and Saudi Arabia, was also fluent in Pashto and Arabic. 

Also, some aunts of mine are from Quetta, Balochistan, and therefore, made me more familiar with Pashto and Balochi.

Pakistan is home to nearly 228 million people and 74 languages. The main languages are Urdu, Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Saraiki, and Balochi.

Despite such abundance in languages, almost all languages belong to the Indo-Iranian group of the Indo-European language family.

Urdu is Pakistan’s official national language and lingua franca, followed by English.

Suggested Reading: What to Wear When Visiting Pakistan? A Local Answers

Urdu Language – Pakistan National Languages

Urdu is an Indo-Aryan language of the Indo-Iranian language family. The Urdu Language was developed in the 12th century after the Muslim conquest.

Since there were so many early influences of great empires and dynasties, Urdu is heavily shaped by Persian, Arabic, Hindi, and Turkish. 

That’s why it was given the name Urdu, a name derived from the Turkic word “Ordu” or “Orda” which means “army”.

The Urdu language originated in the army camps of the Mughals, hence the name “Zaban-e-Ordu” or commonly “Lashkari Zaban” (the language of the camp/army).

Urdu is Pakistan’s official national language and bridge language between national speakers whose first languages are different.

Yet, Urdu is written and spoken in all provinces and areas of Pakistan despite people from different regions having other native languages.

70 million Pakistani people speak Urdu as their first language, and more than 100 million speak it as their second language.

Today, there are significant Urdu-speaking communities in the UK, US, Canada, UAE, and Saudi Arabia.

Interestingly, Urdu has been recognized as the 10th most widely spoken language in the world and the 21st most spoken language in the world.

Badshahi Mosque is a fine example of how Pakistani, Persian, and Turkish architectural designs come together. Just like the languages of Pakistan.

Urdu vs Hindi Language

Due to Pakistan and India sharing the same historical background, Urdu and Hindi are similar languages.

Yet, Urdu has more loanwords from Persian, Arabic, and Turkish, whereas Hindi draws its vocabulary from Sanskrit.

Additionally, Urdu is written from right to left based on a “Persianized“ Arabic style while Hindi is written in the Devanagari script. 

Written Urdu. Urdu uses Arabic letters but it is more cursive and flowing than Arabic.

Why is Urdu the Lingua Franca and the National Language of Pakistan?

During the times of British India, Urdu and Hindi became religious and social means of establishment for Muslims and Hindus, respectively. 

Because so many different languages were spoken throughout Pakistan, an immediate need for a uniting language emerged. 

Urdu was intended to create a Muslim identity and unification as “The Islamic Republic of Pakistan“ or natively, “Islami Jumhuriya Pakistan”.

Thus, in 1947 Urdu was chosen as Pakistan’s lingua franca and national language as the Urdu language was already a symbol of unity among Muslims in British India.

Pakistani Fashion and Weddings are as colorful as Pakistan’s languages. Click to learn more about Pakistani Fashion and Pakistani Weddings.

Provinces of Pakistan

Provincial languages in Pakistan

While Urdu is a language uniting all Pakistanis, Pakistan is home to 6 provinces. and each province has its own regional or dominating language.

Punjabi is spoken in Punjab, Pashto in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochi in Balochistan, Sindhi in Sindh, Shina in Gilgit-Baltistan, and Pahari-Pothwari in Azad Kashmir. 

Additionally, Pakistan has a national language uniting all different ethnicities, it does not have a national script.

Many Pakistani languages feature their own script which are all versions of the Perso-Arabic script.

The local alphabets only slightly differ from the Urdu alphabet. These regional modifications are meant to make it easier for each language to write out its individual sounds and way of speech.

Punjabi

Punjabi is the most dominating language of Pakistan’s provincial languages. Punjabi is spoken by more than 106 million people including my family and makes up about 39% of Pakistan’s population.

The term “Punjab” is made up of the Persian words “punj” meaning “five” and “ab” meaning “water” and basically translates into “five waters” or “the land of five waters”.

The Punjab name was given by the Turko-Persian conquerors of the Indian subcontinent and refers to the five rivers crossing through Punjab; Sutlej, Chenab, Jhelum, Ravi, and Beyas.

Punjabi is a language of the Indo-Aryan language group and is specifically present in areas of Pakistan and India. Punjabi is written in the Shahmukhi script.

Nowadays, there are many Punjabi-speaking communities even outside of the Southeast Asian region. The most significant ones are present in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States.

Pashto

Pashto (also sometimes called Pakhto), is the regional language of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and northern Balochistan. 

Pashto is spoken by more than 18% of Pakistan’s population. There are also many Pashto-speaking communities found in different cities all across Pakistan.

Pashto is an Eastern-Iranian language belonging to the Indo-European language family.

Not only is it spoken by ethnic Pashtuns in Pakistan, but Pashto is also one of Afghanistan’s official languages. Moreover, Pashto is also known as “Afghani” in Persian literature.

Even though Pashto is the mother tongue of many Pakistanis, the primary language in educational institutes remains Urdu. This makes it often challenging for Pashto native speakers to fully understand educational material in Urdu.

Pashto uses the Pashto alphabet, a modified version of the Perso-Arabic script.

The Pashto language is also famous for its rich literary tradition and famous poets like Rahman Baba, Khushal Khan Khattak, Ghani Khan, and Khatir Afridi.

Sindhi

Sindhi is spoken in the historical region of Sindh which is known for “Mohenjo-daro”; one of the largest ancient Indus civilizations and one of the world’s earliest major cities.

Sindhi is recognized as the Sindhi province’s official language.

As one of the major Pakistani languages, Sindhi is an Indo-Aryan language and is spoken by more than 30 million people in the country.

Sindhi is also spoken by many native speakers in India.

Balochi

Another provincial language of Pakistan is the Balochi language.

Balochi is mainly spoken by people residing in Balochistan and makes up 6.3 million people of Pakistan’s entire population.

Balochi is an Iranian language and belongs to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family.

Interestingly, the initial homeland of the Balochi homeland is believed to be around the central Caspian region.

Besides Pakistan, Balochi is also spoken in its neighboring countries Iran and Afghanistan as well as in Turkmenistan, Oman, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and East Africa.

Shina

Shina is the language spoken by the majority of the people in Gilgit-Baltistan as well as in parts of the Kashmir region.

Shina is one of the languages of the Dardic subgroup of the Indo-Aryan language family. Only a few Dardic languages have a written form; one of them is Shina.

Shina was an unwritten language until the 1960’s when the first attempts at Shina’s orthography were made. 

However, there is still no uniform writing style for the different varieties of the language.

Today, there are around 600,000 Shina speakers in Pakistan.

Pahari-Pothwari

Although Urdu is the official language of Azad Kashmir, most of its population are native speakers of other languages.

The most widely spoken language is Pahari-Pothwari which is spoken by about 68% of the people in Kashmir followed by Gori and Kashmiri. 

These languages too belong to the Indo-Aryan language family. Pahari-Pothwari features many dialects which are closely related to Punjabi and Hindko spoken in Punjab.

Let me give more background information about Pakistan. Please read “Is Pakistan part of the Middle East or Asia “

Other languages spoken in Pakistan

Even I, as a local, still get surprised by Pakistan’s rich linguistic diversity.

Besides Pakistan’s major languages, including Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Saraiki, and Balochi, there are numerous other languages spread over all directions of Pakistan.

However, these languages are not as dominant as the provincial ones. Some of them include Hindko, Brahui, Balti, Burushaski, Gujari, Khowar, Marwari, Haryanvi, and many dozens more.

Many minority languages like Dari, Wakhi, Koli-Kachi, or Kalasha are spoken by speakers ranging from a few hundred to tens of thousands.

Also, since Pakistan is a Muslim country and Arabic is considered the language of the Muslims, Arabic plays an important role in religious education in Pakistan.

Most schools even feature Arabic as a subject which I still remember from my school time.

Many people in Pakistan who study the religion of Islam on a formal level are even fluent in Arabic.

To your surprise, the Pakistani National Anthem or natively “Qaumi Tarana” itself isn’t Urdu either, rather, it is in Farsi.

Farsi language is native to Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and even Russia.

Arabic vs Urdu

Pakistan’s Writing system

Pakistan’s writing system is an extension and modified version of the Persian alphabet which itself is an extension of the Arabic alphabet.

This writing style is called Nasta’liq, which is used to write the Perso-Arabic script and originated in the 13th century from Iran. Arabic, on the other hand, is commonly written in the Naskh style.

As you already may know, languages like Arabic, Persian, or Kurdish are read and written from right to left, so is Urdu. After the Mughal conquest, Nasta’liq became the chosen writing style and can be easily distinguished by its cursive and flowing way of writing. 

Moreover, Arabic is the language of the Prophet Muhammad and is vocalized in the revelation of the Quran. For these reasons, Arabic holds great spiritual importance and power.

Therefore, the Muslims of later Pakistan took up a modified version of the Perso-Arabic script.

Learn more about the ethnicity of Pakistan. Click to read Is Pakistan an Arab Country?

Urdu alphabet

حHeچCheجJeemثSeٹTeتteپPeبBeاAlifآAlif Madda
شSheenسSeenژzheزZeڑReرreذZaalڈDaalدdaalخKhe
گGaafکKaafقQaafفFeغGhainعAinظZoyطToyضZuadصSuad
ےBari YeیChoti YeہheءHamzaوWaoنNunمMeemلLaam
Urdu Alphabet

As I mentioned above, the Urdu alphabet is a modified version of the Persian alphabet and consists of 38 letters. Urdu script is also known as an “abjad” script.

Arabic letters only show consonants and long vowels. Short vowels are not shown and have to be presumed by the reader and can only be told by the consonants’ relation to each other.

For example:

In Urdu, the word “Jawab” meaning “answer” is written like this: جواب

If you translate this into the Latin alphabet, we basically write the word like this: Jwab. As you can see, the long vowel “a” is written, but the short vowel is not.

As someone who can read this alphabet, I know there is no such thing as “Juwab”, “Jiwab”, or “Jowab”. I know the consonants’ relation and therefore, can presume the word without the short vowel being written.

It’s the same for “Bahar” meaning “Spring” – بہار – Bhar or

“Adalat” meaning “Court” –  عدالت – Adalt. The long vowel is mentioned, but the short vowel is missing. 

Even though I have Pakistani roots, I didn’t know how to speak, write, or read Urdu and learned it later on. I used to wonder how they read things without all their vowels.

But then my family simply told me: “Once you know the language, you automatically know what word it is.” They were right.

Click to read: 10 Must-Have Features of Mosques

Is Urdu easy to learn?

The answer to this is yes and no.

If you intend to learn Urdu, you will come across a lot of misconceptions about its difficulty. I am a native German speaker with Pakistani roots, and I can tell you that Urdu is not that hard, at least not all of it.

When I started to learn Urdu, I didn’t know a single word, yet I learned it relatively quickly. In my opinion, conversational Urdu is much easier than its grammar.

For someone whose language is close to or similar to Urdu, like Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Hindi, your Urdu-learning experience will be fairly easy.

However, English speakers and Europeans often tend to struggle with the different written script, grammar, and new sounds of letters like ع (‘ain), غ (ghain), ڑ (Rre), and more.

Besides its written script, the sentence structure in Urdu is also different from most languages.

Instead of the typical SVO (Subject-Verb-Object) pattern, Urdu uses the SOV (Subject-Object-Verb) pattern.

Also, everything movable and immovable has a gender. Another thing that I struggled with is that often Urdu plural forms do have completely different forms from their singular form. Here are some examples.

WordSingularPlural
BookKitabKutab
JuiceSharbatMashroob
TimeWaqtAuqaat (“Oqaat”)
LadyKhatunKhawateen

If I had to judge Urdu in terms of difficulty, I would rate it as a moderately difficult language. It might seem challenging at first, but it is definitely easier than Chinese.

As you can see, the empires and dynasties who ruled over the region left behind their traces and resulted in a rich blend of languages and cultures in Pakistan – a land of many languages.

A Local’s Guide to Many Languages of Pakistan

Is Pakistan a Third World Country?

Is Pakistan an Arab Country?

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This article is

written by Asma Schleicher and edited by Efe Genit. Asma is a creative writer with German and Pakistani roots. She is an analytical writer with a degree in business administration.

She mostly writes about cultural, travel, and fashion-related topics reflecting her real-life experiences. You can also check Asma’s profile on Upwork.

Editor’s Note: I am a Turkish native speaker and Turkish has completely different roots and is similar to Central Asian languages and even to Korean and Japanese rather than English or Urdu. For more please check my article “Is Turkish a Language? Origins of the Turkish Language”. Yet, I nearly understood all the words Asma wrote, and I was fascinated with the number of loanwords.