A Case Study of Balochi Language

27 Feb

Azim Shahbakhsh

By: Azim Shahbakhsh
University of London

Part 1:
1.1: History
1.2: Geography and Demography

Part 2:
2.1: Language domains
2.2: Balochi problems with development in Iran




Among the many languages spoken in the world, one is Balochi meaning “Language of Baloch”. It is spoken by the Baloch people in Balochistan. For historical reasons the language has become marginalised and even for native speakers, it has become pragmatically a second language. While Balochi is probably not on the danger list of languages facing extinction, it is essential to note that the number of languages in the world is declining at an alarming rate; for instance, Crystal (1997. 286) observes that, in 1962, Trumai, spoken in a single village on the lower Culuene River in Venezuela, was reduced by an influenza epidemic to a population of fewer than 10 speakers. In the 19th century, it was thought that there were over 1,000 Indian languages in Brazil; today, there are only 200. A quarter of the world’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers; half have fewer 10,000. It is likely that most of these languages will die out in the next 50 years. Although Balochi is spoken over a vast area of the world, it seems to be in danger because it is decreasingly used by its speakers in official and educational situations. This paper is concerned with the Balochi language in Iran presenting the issues from two perspectives: The first is a descriptive history of this language, its relation to its family languages, its dialects, its development as for its orthography and standardization, and demographical and geographical factors. The second is concerned with the situation of Balochi today, in terms of linguistic domains, the situation of this language in Iran as for its legalization , and a comparison with other languages . A summary of Balochi phonemes and grammar is included in an appendix as well.

Part 1:
1.1: History

Balochi is an Iranian language. Iranian languages form a branch of the vast Indo-European family. Linguists believe the ancestral language, proto-Indo-European (PIE), was spoken around 6000 years ago, probably somewhere in western Asia or eastern Europe (Abolghassemi, 1994,5). Over time, PIE split up into several regional varieties. One of these languages, which are called Proto-Indo-Iranian, was spoken about 5000 years ago, and the best guess is that this was spoken in the east and northeast of the Caspian Sea. Then this language itself split up. One large group of people migrated toward India, where their speech eventually gave rise to the Indo-Aryan languages of India, such as the ancient Vedic and Sanskrit and the New Hindi-Urdu and Bengali. Another group migrated southward into the Iranian plateau. These people appear in history for the first time about 1000 BC, when they are mentioned in Assyrian sources (ibid. p.17).
The Old Iranian language is divided into three periods, first one them started from 1000 BC to 732Ad / 331 BC. This period is called Old Iranian; the important languages of this period are as follows: Old Persian, Medic, Avesta, and Old Saka. The second period started from 331 BC. This period is called Middle Iranian such as Pahlavi, Sogdian, middle Saka, Balkhi. The last period started from 31 HG and continues until today. Among the important languages of this period are New Persian, Pashto, Kurdish, and Balochi. These are relevant to as new Iranian languages.
There is no document of old and middle Balochi. We can only speak about New Balochi because there is much evidence of it available. Some scientists believe that New Balochi rooted from old and Middle Balochi, but no traces of those periods remain. The Balochi language is a northwestern Iranian language, in the same category as Kurdish, Taleshi, Gilaki, Iranian central dialects, Parachi, and Ormuri languages.
Linguists believe that Balochi has a wide variety of dialects. According to Elfenbein (1968,10) Balochi consists of two main groups of dialects: Eastern dialects and Western. These two main dialects are devisable into six smaller dialects as Eastern Hill, Coastal, Rakhshani, Lashari, and Kechi. The socioeconomic division of Iranian Balochistan into a northern versus central and southern part corresponds to the main Bloch dialect divisions within Iran, namely that between the northern (Rakhshani) versus the southern (Makkorani) dialects. There are, however, as noted both by Elfenbein, (1968 pp.19-20, 23) and Spooner, (1967) some dialects, which have their own very distinct features and do not readily fit into one of the two groups mentioned above. One such dialect is that of Sarawani. No Balochi dialect has been standardized, because, it is not used in education and because of racial biases which exist among different Baloch tribes. However, in Germany, Italy, and Sweden, academics are trying to standardize one of the dialects of that language which seems to be an important language in the Middle East.
The script, which is generally used in Balochi, is derived from Arabic script. The Arabic script spread with Islam, and has generally remained fairly uniform, even when has in been used for languages belonging to totally different families, for example, Semitic, Turkish and Indo-European languages, such as Farsi, Pashto, Urdu, Kurdish, and Balochi. Balochi has a very short tradition of writing. Most works written in the 19th and early 20th centuries are by Englishmen in Roman scripts. The orthography used nowadays by the Baloch people is based on the Arabic script with Persian-Urdu conventions. There is no standard written language, and no fixed alphabets. Depending on which dialect you wish to write, the Persian and the Urdu version of the Arabic script is used. The Arabic loan words in Balochi are generally spelled in accordance with their spelling in Arabic. This leads to over representation of consonant phonemes. Vowel phonemes are, on the contrary, not fully represented because there are no symbols to show short vowels. Nowadays some linguist are trying to standardize Balochi orthography, they suggest that it is better to use Roman script in Balochi, because the Roman script is able to show all phonemes correctly whereas the Arabic script is not able to show short vowels; Roman script is able to show short vowels. However, since Baloch are Moslem, it is hard for them to apply the Roman script. In other words, Baloch prefer to use Arabic script, because it is the script of the Quran. In addition, since Baloch have no authority, they cannot legalize there own preferred script.

1.2: Geography and Demography

The Baloch are a people divided between several different countries. Nowadays Balochi is spoken in the southeastern part of Iranian linguistic area. Today Balochi is spoken in southwestern Pakistan, southeastern Iran, southern Afghanistan, the Gulf States and Turkmenistan. There are also communities of Baloch people in East Africa and India, as well as several countries in the West; e.g. Great Britain and the USA. It is hard to estimate the total number of speakers of Balochi, especially since central governments such as Iranian government and Pakestanian regime do not generally stress ethnic identity in census reports. According to Jahani statistics available estimate that at least five to eight million Baloch speak the language (2000, 11). The majority live in Pakistan and Iran. It is impossible to obtain exact statistics of Baloch living in Iran. In 1998 Britannica Book of the Year the figure for Balochi speakers in Iran is given at 1 420 000. (Britannica Book of the Year 1998,772) In view of the difficulties of gathering exact statistics in a remote region like Balochistan, where rural life still predominates, and of the general tendency for a central government not to overestimate the size of minority groups, a figure of slightly more than 1.5 million Baloch in Iran probably comes close to the truth. There are also a certain number of persons who identify as Baloch, but without being able to speak Balochi.
Geographically, Iranian Balochistan is divided into the northern Sarhadd area, the central/southern parts comprising the Iranshahr-Bampur region, the Sarawan district, the Makkoran Mountains down almost to the coast, and a southern strip along the coast of the Sea of Oman.
Economically this region is also divided into mainly pastoralism in the Sarhadd, where agricultural production specializes in dates and fruit, as well as pastoralism in the central/southern areas, and fishing combined with some agriculture on the coast. In the north where nomadism is the traditional basis of economy the social organization is tribal.
Some of the major tribes in this area are the Regi, Mirbalochzahi, Somalzahi (shahbakhsh), yarmohammadzhi (shahnawazi), and Naruyi. In the central and southern parts of Iranian Balochistan, the social structure is also to a certain degree tribal, though some of the agricultural population belong to low status tribes or are non-tribal gulam “slaves”. With the introduction of education and a certain degree of urbanization in Iranian Balochistan, it is but natural that age-old socioeconomic structures are likely to undergo considerable change, a process already underway to a certain extent.

Part 2:
2.1: Language domains

One of the ways that we can see how healthy or strong a language is, is to look at where in society the language is used. So if a language is used at home, at work, in education, in business, in administration, in religion, in entertainment and in the mass media, then that language has a usage in many social domains that shows that it will continue to thrive as a language. Conversely, if we find, for instance, that elderly members of family only use a language at home, and for all other purposes a second language is used, then we can conclude that the language is weak and may even die out within a generation.
The Balochi language, which is spoken over such a vast territory, has different levels of use. In central Balochistan, it is used in almost all domains, whereas in the cities a second language-Persian- is used in a lot of areas, educational and media domains, and Balochi exists mainly as the language of home and local community. At present, it is partly lack of education that is ensuring the strength of Balochi because there are a large number of Baloch who are uneducated and have little to do with business, offices or literary activities, and thus have few domains where second language would be used. But it is good neither for the Baloch people nor the long-term health of their language. In situations of contact with major trades and official languages, people will tend towards bilingualism. In the religious domain, Balochi is used for devotional exposition in many communities, but the language of sacred text and worship is Arabic.
Woodard (1989.pp.359-360) observes that studies of minority languages have shown that for bilingual speakers where topic/domain determines which language they talk, the minority language is showing signs of weakness and decline, but where the language to speak on a particular occasion is chosen according to the participants in the exchange the minority language is not showing signs of shift to the other language. So, for example, if a Baloch feels compelled to write letters in Persian to other Bloch’s, this is a sign of retrenchment of Balochi. But if a Baloch writes letters in Persian to non-Baloch, but in Balochi to Balochs, this is a type of bilingual performance that is not a sign of language weakening.
This presents a challenge to the Baloch community, since trade, television, newspapers, and education will increasingly be a factor in the lives of more and more Baloch, bringing ever more domains in which they function in languages other than Balochi. The way to meet this challenge is clearly to extend the use of Balochi to as many of these domains as possible, and perhaps the single most powerful instrument in achieving this is mother tongue education, since mother tongue education would be a means of extending Balochi usage to many academic domains. Even if mother tongue education did not extend through the entire school curriculum, the effect of literacy and use of mother tongue in formal situations would increase greatly its domain of use.
Mother tongue education has traditionally been seen as the great hope for reversing language shift, so much so that Fishman has warned against seeing it “as a way of reviving a language unless active home use of the language is also established”(1996.p.368). So, for example, in Ireland Gaelic is taught at school and used in many government contexts, but it is still not widely used in the home or community. As a result mother tongue education cannot be expected to revive the language on its own. But Balochi is very widely spoken in the home and society. What is needed for Balochi is not so much increased use in the home, but increased use out of the home, especially in formal situations. Thus, it is hoped that with mother tongue education and literacy. Baloch will increasingly write letters, post signs, notices and bulletins, read newspapers and magazines in Balochi, as well as doing business and government administration in it.

2.2: Balochi problems with development in Iran
Minority languages often suffer from certain political restrictions, which limit their development. A suitable example to illustrate this issue is the situation of the Kurdish language in Iran, Iraq, and certain other countries. The constitution of Persia (Iran) enacted in 1906, which was powerful during the reign of the Pahlavi monarchy, had no mention about language whatsoever. (Iran, pp.51-76) . The language policy prevalent between 1925 and 1979 was, however, that of strict uniformity. There was to be one nation with one language, namely Persian. Other Iranian languages spoken within the borders of Iran were regarded as local dialects of Persian. Under such circumstances there was, of course, no provision made by the government for mother tongue education or even cultural activities or publication in the minority language.

According to the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, chapter 1, article 15, in addition to the official language Persian, “the use of the local and ethnic languages in the press and mass media is allowed. The teaching of the ethnic literature in the schools, together with Persian language instruction is also permitted”. (Constitution of Islamic Republic of Iran, 1979, pp.8-10). This means that it is in principle permitted to publish books and newspapers in Balochi, but at present there is no such publication-taking place in Iran. When it comes to teaching Balochi literature in the school, there is of course no provision being made for such a subject due to the almost total lack of Balochi literature. As for radio programmers, the situation is different, and Radio Zahedan has daily broadcasts in Balochi. In fact, these broadcasts date back at least to the 1960s, thus to the time of the Pahlavi monarchy. Although the government propagandizes that it tries to help the improvement of the Balochi language and other minority languages, it has not gone further than propagation. The fact is that it has remained as a written act and not an executed article.

All the limitations that were made by Iranian governments show that the government and Iranian nationalists are worried about the fact that the Balochi language can become a symbol of the Baloch people’s national identity. A very clear example of this is seen in the history of the Basque (euskera), and the attitude towards it by the Spanish government under Franco, from 1937 until the mid 1950s. The teaching of the language in schools was forbidden, as was its use in the media, church ceremonies, and all public places. Books in the language were publicly burnt. Basque names were no longer allowed in baptism, and all names in the language on official documents were translated into Spanish. Inscriptions on public buildings and tombstones were removed. By the early 1960s, official policy changed. Nowadays Basque is permitted in all linguistic, cultural, and political activities (Crystal, 1997.34). But the Iranian authorities appear to have learned lessons from the situation in Spain, particularly that the success of the Basque language was seen to be linked with the nationalist aspirations of the Basque people, a situation they were keen to avoid in Iran. Consequently, they are going to so pressurize the Balochs that this minority cannot ask for separation. However, this reaction is not beneficial for the Iranian government because if a culture and its people are suppressed, it will change into a dangerous nationalism, and this is why some Baloch literate are acting secretly to develop their language and culture.

In the history of the world, languages have always come and gone, but in the present time there are some factors which have never existed previously, and which threaten many of the world’s languages in a way they have never been threatened before. The first is that, with the growing world population and with ever increasing mobility, there are getting to be very few people who have had no contact with speakers of other languages, and the vast majority of people have regular contact with speakers of other languages. The second is that the spread and use of electronic media and communications are growing exponentially. At times it appears that Balochi, spoken largely by semi-nomadic shepherds or rural farmers and fishermen in the huge open expanses of Balochistan, would be unaffected by the developments in urban business and leisure communications. But it is necessary to note that among the Baloch in Iran within a single generation storytelling has been replaced by radio, then by television, then video, then satellite as a means of family entertainment. In other words, a language will not develop, according to Crystal (1998. 82) unless it is used by mass media, and also he adds that, “When we investigate why so many nations have in recent years made English an official language or chosen it as their chief foreign language in school, one of the most important reasons is that, always educational- in the broadest sense”(ibid.101). As a result, the application of a language in education is also very important in the development of that language.


As I have tried to show in the previous section, the Balochi language is one of the new Iranian languages used in Iran and has different dialects. However, due to current restricting laws, which have not allowed the Balochi language to be used in education and official contexts, this language has not developed, and the Baloch people have to use Persian, which is their second language as the official language. Practically, the Balochi language is going to be their second language. To develop this language, the laws should be changed so that it can be used in education, and mass media. Meanwhile, to standardize this language, one of its dialects should be given prior and prominent salience.

Although a great many restrictions have been imposed on this language. It has been the center of a lot of research in countries other than Iran. For instance, in Pakistan, Italy, Sweden, and Germany, academics work on it and there are even some departments giving degrees on research about the Balochi language. Hence, while in Iran this language is ignored, elsewhere there exits great interest in it. This is an unsettling situation which must change. The fear is that, Blochi will otherwise join that growing list of languages, which have died and now exist only as museum pieces.


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Crystal, D, 1997,The Cambridge encyclopedia of language, Cambridge University Press 1997.
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Fishman, J, 1989, Language and Ethnicity in Minority Sociolinguistic Perspective, Clevedon-Philadelphia.
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Woolard,K, Language Convergence and Language Death as Social Processes , pp.355-367 in Investigating obsolescence: Studies in Language Contraction and Death , N.Dorian, Cambridge 1989.


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