The “sh” and “kh” in Pashto: on Pashto dialects – and Pashto-learning materials

I’m pasting the below from the old blog. Click here to read the comments there; they might be useful for a better understanding of this dialect business.

A good Formspring question!

Who says Peshawar and who says Pekhawar? It seems some accents in Pashto say the -sh- as -kh- like I heard a song with dushman as dukhman. Tell us about Pashto dialects/accents 🙂 Thanks.

There are two (main) dialects in Pashto, soft and hard. The soft dialect is spoken in Quetta, Waziristan, Kandahar, and other southern Pashtun areas; the hard one is spoken in northern areas, like Peshawar, Swat, Mardan, Dir (in Pakistan) and Nangarhar, Kabul, Jalalabad (in Afghanistan). The map below should help with identifying the northern and southern Pashto-speaking regions.

Pashto-speaking regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan together are called Pashtunistan, highlighted in green above. P.S. This map is not perfect.
That said, the “kh” (Pekhawar, Pukhtun, Pukhto, Pakhto, kha) is used in the hard dialect. The soft dialect uses “sh” for the same words: Peshawar, Pushtun/Pashtun, Pashto/Pushto, sha.
You see, in Pashto, we have more letters than we do in Arabic. One of the ones not included in Arabic is “khin” ( ښ ), and that’s the “kh” sound you hear in the hard dialect. The “sh” sound is the same as “sheen” ( ش ). Pashto and Arabic both have the letter “kha”/”khey” ( خ ), however, so ښ does not replace kha/khey.
Me, since I’m from northern Pashtunkhwa, I use the “kh” dialect, but since “kh” is a hell of a difficult letter for most westerners or others who don’t have the letter in their languages, I prefer to use “sh” when talking to a non-Pashtun audience. With my family, though, using “sh” instead of “kh” sounds really weird.
There are other differences in the dialects, too. For instance, the soft dialect uses “zh” where the hard dialect uses “g” (e.g., mung vs muzh (both mean we)).
You may find more information about the dialects in this article called “Four Varieties of Pashto” by Michael M. T. Henderson. The article, available on JSTOR, shows that it’s actually far more complicated than innocent me is making it! But, hey, this is basically what it all comes down to, I swear.
P.S. Here are some nice sites for learning Pashto (I know it looks disorganized and you don’t really know where to begin and all, but the moment I find site that starts from the very basics, I’ll share it with you. Promise!)

 And the list below is of books and other Pashto-learning/Pashto-improvement resources.

7 thoughts on “The “sh” and “kh” in Pashto: on Pashto dialects – and Pashto-learning materials


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    • Calm down, man. Chill. Pashto, like Arabic and Persian and Urdu, has a “sheen” written the same way in these languages. Then there’s a “kh” sound that’s different from the khe/kha of Arabic/Persian/Urdu, written like a seen with a dot on top and dot on bottom. See above.


  2. It’s interesting to see how this shift from [sh] to [kh] happened in several dialects of Pashto.

    I read this is that happened in Spanish. The letter J (or G before I & E) which is pronounced as [kh] today used to be pronounced as [sh] before it shifted in the 16th century.

    A well known example is the country ”Mexico”, which originally was pronounced as [meshiko], as still is the case in Portuguese, but is pronounced as [mekhiko] in modern Castilian Spanish.

    As for why it’s spelt with an X? Here’s an explanation:

    The Nahuatl word Mēxihco (Nahuatl pronunciation: [meːshi.ko]) was transliterated as “México” using Medieval Spanish orthography, in which the X represented [sh], the equivalent of English SH in “shop”, making “México” pronounced as [meshiko].

    At the time, Spanish J represented [zh], like the English S in “vision”, or French J today.
    However, by the end of the 15th century the pronunciation of J had evolved and thus both X and J represented the same sound [sh].

    During the 16th century this sound evolved into [kh], like the CH in Scottish “loch”, and México began to be pronounced as [mekhiko].


    • Hi Chris,
      Thank you so much for this comment. How fascinating! I have in the past wondered about the way that some Spanish speakers pronounce j sometimes but never thought to explore it and see what the history and linguistics behind that are. This is why I love languages so much – the way they evolve is sometimes so similar, with common universal patterns ❤


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