Nuristan, Afghanistan
Chitral, Pakistan
Linguistic classificationIndo-European
  • Northern Nuristani
  • Southern Nuristani
Nuristan region, located on southern range of Hindu Kush

Nuristan Province in modern-day Afghanistan, where most speakers live

The Nuristani languages, also known as Kafiri languages, are one of the three groups within the Indo-Iranian language family, alongside the much larger Indo-Aryan and Iranian groups.[1][2][3] They have approximately 130,000 speakers primarily in eastern Afghanistan and a few adjacent valleys in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's Chitral District, Pakistan. The region inhabited by the Nuristanis is located in the southern Hindu Kush mountains, and is drained by the Alingar River in the west, the Pech River in the center, and the Landai Sin and Kunar rivers in the east. More broadly, the Nuristan (or Kafiristan) region is located at the northern intersection of the Indian subcontinent and the Iranian plateau. The languages were previously often grouped with Indo-Aryan (Dardic sub-group) or Iranian until they were finally classified as forming a third branch in Indo-Iranian.

Dameli is often thought to belong to Nuristani instead of Dardic based on its vocabulary, but its pronoun system and morphology are characteristically of Dardic origin, suggesting that the language is Indo-Aryan, with heavy Nuristani influence.


A map of Nuristani Languages by Georg Morgenstierne


The prehistory of Nuristani is unclear, except that it clearly belongs to the Indo-Iranian subgroup. However, its classification within Indo-Iranian was debated until recent research settled its position as a third branch distinct from Indo-Aryan or Iranian, though extensive Indo-Aryan influence can be detected within the Nuristani languages, pointing to prolonged contact. According to Jakob Halfmann (2023), Nuristani may have had contact with Bactrian in the 1st millennium.

The Nuristani languages were not described in literature until the 19th century. The older name for the region was Kafiristan and the languages were termed Kafiri or Kafiristani, but the terms have been replaced by the present ones since the conversion of the region to Islam in 1896. The Kalash people are very close to the Nuristani people in terms of culture and historic religion, and are divided between speakers of the Nuristani language, Kalasha-ala, and an Indo-Aryan language, Kalaṣa-mun.

The languages are spoken by tribal peoples in an extremely isolated mountainous region of the Hindu Kush, one that has never been subject to any real central authority in modern times. This area is located along the northeastern border of present-day Afghanistan and adjacent portions of the northwest of present-day Pakistan. These languages have not received the attention linguists would like to give them. Considering the very small number of people estimated to speak them, they must be considered endangered languages.

Many Nuristani people now speak other languages, such as Dari and Pashto (two official languages of Afghanistan) and Khowar.


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Reconstruction ofNuristani languages

The earliest divergence of Nuristani from the other Indo-Iranian languages may be indicated by the fact that the Ruki sound law does not apply after *u: e.g. Kamviri musa /muˈsɘ/ "mouse".

Nuristani shares with Iranian the merger of the tenuis and breathy-voiced consonants, the preservation of the distinction between the two sets of Indo-Iranian voiced palatals (which merged in Indo-Aryan), and the fronting of the Proto-Indo-Iranian primary palatal consonants. The latter were retained as dental affricates in Proto-Nuristani, in contrast to simplification to sibilants (in most of Iranian) or interdentals (in Persian). Nuristani is distinguished by the lack of debuccalizing /s/ to /h/ as in Indo-Aryan. Later on /*d͡z/ shifted to /z/ in all Nuristani varieties other than Kamviri and Tregami, while /*t͡s/ shifted to /s/ only in Ashkun.

Many Nuristani languages have subject–object–verb (SOV) word order, like most of the other Indo-Iranian languages, and unlike the nearby Dardic Kashmiri language, which has verb-second word order.

See also


  1. ^ SIL Ethnologue [1]
  2. ^ Morgenstierne, G. (1975) [1973]. "Die Stellung der Kafirsprachen" [The position of the Kafir languages]. In Morgenstierne, G. (ed.). Irano-Dardica (in German). Wiesbaden: Reichert. pp. 327–343.
  3. ^ Strand, Richard F. (1973). "Notes on the Nûristânî and Dardic Languages". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 93 (3): 297–305. doi:10.2307/599462. JSTOR 599462.


  • Decker, Kendall D. (1992). Languages of Chitral. In: Sociolinguistic Survey of Northern Pakistan 5. Islamabad: National Institute of Pakistan Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University and Summer Institute of Linguistics. ISBN 4-87187-520-2.
  • Grjunberg, A. L. (1971). K dialektologii dardskich jazykov (glangali i zemiaki). Indijskaja i iranskaja filologija: Voprosy dialektologii. Moscow.
  • Jakob Halfmann (2023). Lād "law": a Bactrian loanword in the Nuristani languages, in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, United Kingdom.
  • Morgenstierne, Georg (1926). Report on a Linguistic Mission to Afghanistan. Instituttet for Sammenlignende Kulturforskning, Serie C I-2. Oslo. ISBN 0-923891-09-9.
  • Jettmar, Karl (1985). Religions of the Hindu Kush ISBN 0-85668-163-6
  • Mallory, J. P. In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth. Thames and Hudson, 1989.
  • Mallory, James P.; Adams, Douglas Q. "Indo-Iranian Languages". In: Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997.
  • Strand, Richard F. "NURESTÂNI LANGUAGES" in Encyclopædia Iranica

Further reading

  • Degener, Almuth (2002). "The Nuristani Languages". In Sims-Williams, Nicholas (ed.). Indo-Iranian Languages and Peoples. Proceedings of the British Academy. Vol. 116. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 103–117.
  • Fries, Simon; Halfmann, Jakob; Hill, Eugen; Hübner, Denise (2023). "From noun to future tense: The functional diachrony of the l-future in the Nuristani languages and its typological background". STUF – Language Typology and Universals. 76 (1): 53–85. doi:10.1515/stuf-2023-2002.
  • Hegedűs, Irén; Blažek, Václav (2010). "On the position of Nuristani within Indo-Iranian". Paper presented at the conference Sound of Indo-European 2 (Opava, Oct 2010).
  • Hegedűs, Irén (2022). "Two plant-based numeral classifiers in Nuristani languages: grain and branch". Journal of South Asian Languages and Linguistics. 9 (1–2): 69–95. doi:10.1515/jsall-2023-1001.
  • Kuz’Mina, E.E.; Mallory, J.P. (2007). "The genesis of the dards and nuristani". The Origin of the Indo-Iranians. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. pp. 307–320. doi:10.1163/ej.9789004160545.i-763.90.
  • Rybatzki, V. (2013). "Vocabularies from the middle of the 20th century from Afghanistan Part one: Iranian, Nuristani and Dardic materials I.". Acta Orientalia. 66 (3): 297–348. doi:10.1556/aorient.66.2013.3.4. JSTOR 43282518.
  • Rybatzki, Volker (2013). "Vocabularies from the middle of the 20th century from Afghanistan Part one: Iranian, Nuristani and Dardic materials II". Acta Orientalia. 66 (4): 443–469. doi:10.1556/aorient.66.2013.4.6. JSTOR 43282530.
  • Strand, Richard F. (2022). "Ethnolinguistic and Genetic Clues to Nûristânî Origins". International Journal of Diachronic Linguistics and Linguistic Reconstruction. 19: 267–353.