Linguistic and Ethnic Groups
Language is an important marker of ethnic identity. Among the
more than twenty spoken languages in Pakistan, the most common
ones--Punjabi, Sindhi, and Urdu--as well as Pakhtu or Pashto,
Balochi, and others, belong to the Indo-Aryan branch of the IndoEuropean
language family. Additional languages, such as Shina and other
northern-area languages, are related to the Dardic branch of Indo-European
and the early Dravidian language family. Brahui is one such language;
it is spoken by a group in Balochistan.
The Indo-Aryan vernaculars stretch across the northern half of
the Indian subcontinent in a vast range of related local dialects
that change slightly from one village to the next. Residents of
fairly distant communities typically cannot understand one another.
Superimposed on this continuum are several types of more standardized
literary or commercial languages. Although based on the vernaculars
of their representative regions, these standardized languages
are nonetheless distinct.
Nearly half of all Pakistanis (48 percent) speak Punjabi. The
next most commonly spoken language is Sindhi (12 percent), followed
by the Punjabi variant Siraiki (10 percent), Pakhtu or Pashto
(8 percent), Balochi (3 percent), Hindko (2 percent), and Brahui
(1 percent). Native speakers of other languages, including English,
Burushaski, and various other tongues account for 8 percent.
Although Urdu is the official national language, it is spoken
as a native tongue by only 8 percent of the population. People
who speak Urdu as their native language generally identify themselves
as muhajirs. A large number of people from educated backgrounds
(and those who aspire to upward mobility) speak Urdu, as opposed
to their natal languages, in their homes, usually to help their
children master it.
The Urdu language originated during the Mughal period (1526-
1858). It literally means "a camp language," for it was spoken
by the imperial Mughal troops from Central Asia as they mixed
with speakers of local dialects of northern India. Increasingly,
elements of Persian, the official language of the Mughal administration,
were incorporated until Urdu attained its stylized, literary form
in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Devanagari script
(used for Sanskrit and contemporary Hindi) was never adopted;
instead, Urdu has always been written using the Persian script.
These two literary languages, Urdu and Hindi, arose from colloquial
Hindustani, the lingua franca of modern India before partition.
South Asian Muslims have long felt that Urdu symbolizes their
shared identity. It has served as a link among educated Muslims
and was stressed in the Pakistan independence movement. Christopher
Schackle writes that "Urdu was the main literary vehicle of the
Muslim elite of India." At independence, the Muslim League (as
the All-India Muslim League was usually referred to) promoted
Urdu as the national language to help the new Pakistani state
develop an identity, even though few people actually spoke it.
However, because many of the elite were fluent in English, English
became the de facto national language. The push to elevate Urdu
was unpopular in East Pakistan, where most of the population speaks
Bengali (officially referred to as Bangla in Bangladesh since
1971) and identifies with its literary heritage. Language riots
in Dhaka occurred in the early 1950s, leading to the elevation
of Bengali as a second national language with Urdu until the secession
of East Pakistan in 1971; when Bangladesh became independent,
Bangla was designated the official language.
Instruction in the best schools continued to be in English until
the early 1980s. Mastery of English was highly desirable because
it facilitated admission to good universities in Britain, the
United States, and Australia. Then, in a move to promote nationalism,
the government of Zia ul-Haq declared Urdu to be the medium of
instruction in government schools. Urdu was aggressively promoted
via television, radio, and the education system. Private schools
in urban centers (attended by children of the elite) were allowed
to retain English, while smaller rural schools could continue
to teach in the provincial languages (see Education , this ch.).
Punjabi, spoken by nearly half of the population, is an old,
literary language whose early writings consist chiefly of folk
tales and romances, the most famous being the eighteenth-century
Punjabi poet Waris Shah's version of Heer Ranjha (the
love story of Heer and Ranjha). Although Punjabi was originally
written in the Gurmulki script, in the twentieth century it has
been written in the Urdu script. Punjabi has a long history of
being mixed with Urdu among Muslims, especially in urban areas.
Numerous dialects exist, some associated with the Sikhs in India
and others associated with regions in Pakistan. An example of
the latter is the variant of Punjabi spoken in Sargodha in central
The ethnic composition of Pakistan in the mid-1990s roughly corresponds
to the linguistic distribution of the population, at least among
the largest groups: 59.1 percent of Pakistanis identify themselves
as Punjabis, 13.8 percent as Pakhtuns, 12.1 percent as Sindhis.
7.7 percent as muhajirs, 4.3 percent as Baloch, and 3
percent as members of other ethnic groups. Each group is primarily
concentrated in its home province, with most muhajirs
residing in urban Sindh .
Data as of April 1994