Inventing languages

Excerpt from "The Haunted Lotus" by Australian-Hazara artist Khadim Ali (Source: Milani Gallery)

Excerpt from “The Haunted Lotus” by Australian-Hazara artist Khadim Ali (Source: Milani Gallery)

An objection that is commonly raised against Esperanto and other auxiliary languages is that they are “invented.” Somehow, being “invented” is assumed to give Esperanto a shady character: it’s just not natural. The problem with this view is that – in being invented – Esperanto is not unique. And I don’t just mean that there is also Klingon and Volapük. In fact, each and every language with a name is an invention. We may not always be able to identify the inventors – in fact the trick of the inventors of English, Chinese, German, Spanish and all the others – has been not to let themselves be identified as language inventors. Instead, they pose as teachers, priests, bureaucrats, academics, poets or scientists. The invention of major national languages such as these gets obscured by time (although Standard German with its origins in the 19th century is not much older than Esperanto), and it is a rare opportunity to see a language invented before our own eyes.

Such an opportunity currently unfolds in Australia with the invention of the Hazaragi language. Late last year I was invited to attend the 2013 NSW Fair Trading Think Smart Multicultural Conference. Among the many important things I learnt at that conference was the discovery of a multilingual resource for renters in New South Wales. The video “Renting a home: a tenant’s guide to rights and responsibilities” is an excellent educational resource and it is available not only in English but, additionally, in 17 other community languages. What struck me was that three of these 17 languages were the same, as far as I am concerned: there is “Dari,” “Farsi” and “Hazaragi.” Isn’t it all Persian, I thought? I was aware that “Farsi” is often used for “Iranian Persian” and “Dari” for “Afghan Persian” but I had never encountered “Hazaragi” listed as a separate language before; it is usually treated as the Persian dialect spoken by the Hazara of Afghanistan. The Hazara are Shia Muslims of Mongol ancestry whose traditional homeland are the high mountains of central Afghanistan (Farr 2007).

So, I did some research and discovered that Hazaragi is a language that is currently being invented in Australia and linguists from around the world might wish to pay close attention how this process unfolds.

To begin with, it’s imperative to identify speaker numbers because you can’t have a “natural” language without a community of speakers – and remember I’m talking about concealed invention; not something as straightforward as Ludwik Zamenhof saying “an international auxiliary language is a great idea and I’m going to create one.” In order to achieve speaker numbers, the categories of the Australian national census had to be adapted a bit over the years, as a comparison of the category for “Persian” over five consecutive censuses shows: the 1991 Census had no category for Persian nor related varieties and they were all subsumed under “Asian Languages, not elsewhere included.” Reflecting growing immigration from Iran, by the next census in 1996, “Persian” had its own category, which remained unchanged in 2001. The 2006 Census saw a significant change to the category when the language label was changed to “Iranic languages” with three distinct subcategories: “Persian (excluding Dari),” “Dari” and “Other.” “Other” was defined to comprise “Iranic, not further defined,” “Kurdish,” “Pashto,” “Balochi” and “Iranic, not elsewhere classified.” (There is no need to write in and ask what the difference between “Iranic, not further defined” and “Iranic, not elsewhere classified” might be. I don’t know.) It was not until the 2011 Census that “Hazaragi” made its debut, when it was included in the “Iranic Languages, Other” category for the first time. The table visualizes the changes in category.

Census date Language label Speaker numbers
1996 Persian


2001 Persian


2006 Iranic languages

Total: 43,772

Persian (excluding Dari)




Other (comprises “Iranic, not further defined,” “Kurdish,” “Pashto,” “Balochi” and “Iranic, not elsewhere classified”)


2011 Iranic Languages

Total: 71,933



Persian (excluding Dari)


Other (comprises “Iranic, not further defined,” “Kurdish,” “Pashto,” “Balochi,” “Hazaraghi” and “Iranic, not elsewhere classified”)


Another important aspect of instituting Hazaragi as a language in Australia is through the credentialing of interpreters. NAATI, the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters, credentials Hazaragi paraprofessional interpreters through testing. On inquiry, I have learnt that NAATI decisions about recognizing a variety as a language are based on Australian Bureau of Statistics data (see above) and “voices from the community about the designations that they use for themselves.” In fact, it seems quite impossible to find out how the decision to accord language status to Hazaragi was made. Even so, NAATI has clear guidelines as to what is correct and incorrect Hazaragi in a testing situation:

NAATI acknowledges that there are regional variations/dialects of the Hazaragi language. However, due to strong cultural and identity connections there is a high level of mutual understandability between these regional dialects.

For the purposes of NAATI testing, a candidate will not be penalised for the dialect spoken as long as what is being said would be understood by an average Hazara person living in Hazaristan.

Candidates need to be aware that the Hazaragi language spoken by Hazaras in some locations, including the major cities in Afghanistan, has been heavily influenced by other languages of those cities and areas. Any use of ‘none’ [sic] Hazargai’ [sic] words when interpreting would be penalised. (NAATI Information Booklet)

This statement is a crucial step in the invention of the Hazaragi language. After the language has been given a name, it is being codified. Again, the process of invention is dissimulated: the language spoken in the mythical place of origin, Hazaristan (incidentally, there is also a little identity war going on over whether that region should be called “Hazarajat” or “Hazaristan,” the latter supposedly being “more modern”) is normalised whereas language use that shows traces of the influence by other locations, particularly cities, is penalized, presumably because someone got it into their head that such influence is “incorrect.”

This particular invention – Hazaragi as the language of rural Hazaristan – is rather baffling: from an Australian perspective, the language spoken by “an average Hazara person living in Hazaristan” is entirely irrelevant because even if such persons were to exist in Afghanistan, they do not in Australia. The past three decades or more have been an unmitigated disaster for Afghanistan and have produced the world’s largest refugee population. Contemporary Hazara society is characterised by constant migration:

Like most Afghan groups, the Hazāras fled in large numbers after the coup of April 1978 and the Soviet intervention in 1979. Most of them went to one of the neighboring countries of Afghanistan. Migrants and refugees have thus come to overlap and can hardly be distinguished from each other. Their movements follow various patterns: thousands of farmers from the Hazārajāt migrate every winter to work in coal mines near Quetta for a few months, while young men migrate for longer periods to Iran to take on menial jobs. During the last two decades, the Hazāras have formed very efficient migratory and economic networks, based on the dispersion of relatives in Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. (Encyclopaedia Iranica)

Hazaragi has always been a contact variety – its main claim to distinction from Persian is the relatively higher number of Mongol loan words – and, in all likelihood, will continue to be a contact variety for a long time to come. It’s hard to see how inventing boundaries and a standard for this variety will do any good to anyone. Peter Mühlhäusler (2000) has an apt term for this kind of linguistics: segregational linguistics. Farr, Grant. (2007). The Hazaras of Central Afghanistan. In B. Brower & B. R. Johnston (Eds.), Disappearing Peoples?: Indigenous Groups and Ethnic Minorities in South and Central Asia (pp. 153-168). Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Mühlhäusler, Peter (2000). Language Planning and Language Ecology Current issues in language planning, 1 (3), 306-362 DOI: 10.1080/14664200008668011

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Navid

    Most Iranians, Afghans, Tajiks and Hazaras agree that all these languages are the same. The separation of these into three or 4 different languages is based on politics and not on linguistic differences.
    Here a few facts:
    -The BBC Persian TV channel broadcasts one program for all 3 or 4 dialects, most reporters are Iranian but the focus is on the three countries, Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
    -Before the 1979 Revolution in Iran, Hollywood movies were all dubbed into Persian in Iran and broadcast in Iran & Afghanistan
    -The Farsi1 TV (Murdoch’s) Channel and other satellite channels dub western movies in Afghanistan and use Iran-born Afghans with Iranian accents
    -The German refugee tribunal and police use Afghan and Iranian Interpreters for refugees from either of these two countries
    -For Iranians, Afghans (including Hazaras) and Tajiks, Ferdowsi is the father of their language!

    Probably, in the case described in the previous blog post, the emergency service was looking for an Interpreter with the right dialect…..

    Interestingly, the ABS does not divide Arabic into different languages…..Why is that????

  • Navid

    For Persian, Dari, Tajik (with Perso-Arabic script) and Hazaragi, there is only one Wikipedia
    For Arabic, there are two: Arabic and Egyptian Arabic

  • Saeed Rezaei

    Interesting post indeed!
    It might be interesting to the readers of this post to know that McNamara (2005) discusses how some visa applicants tried to pass themselves off as Hazara to obtain PR in Australia as they seem to be privileged in this case! McNamara further discusses how these individuals were interviewed and examined by language experts to check if they truly were Hazaras or from other similar language minorities in Iran or Pakistan faking their language and national identity.

    McNamara, T. (2005). 21st century shibboleth: Language tests, identity and intergroup conflict. Language Policy, 4(4), 351-370.

  • Paul Desailly

    I’ve heard of Esperanto.
    Is it an Italian or Spanish opera set in utopia?
    Pardon my humor veiled as Socratic irony!
    I’ll lose my head for that joke when my Esperanto friends hear it.
    Australia has an A! national Esperanto association and in my opinion its best author among hundreds of contenders. I wish I could say: ‘C’est moi.’
    Next month at Naw Ruz Iran will host its first national congress of Esperanto; Australia will be there. In other words, Esperanto in recent years has penetrated the Middle East, S-E Asia and Africa

    Volapuk and Klingon and a host of artificial or planned languages which over the centuries have sought acceptance as a universal language or as a universal auxiliary language are virtually extinct whereas Esperanto gains in strength in various ways although its membership hovers around one million decade after decade. An exception to that low statistic is the internet where Esperanto is among the top two dozen languages for Wikipedia, enjoys Google’s instantaneous translation service and has thousands of on line students we never actually see.

    It’s the whole notion or principle of a universal auxiliary language, what ever might eventually be selected, that merits discussion. I mean, you wont hear me complain if English is selected as a universal auxiliary language and then eventually becomes our universal language, i.e. a single planetary language setting us free from language studies altogether except for scholars who choose to pursue linguistics

  • Thanks, Saeed! Language of origin testing in asylum applications certainly contributes to essentializing Hazaragi: in asylum cases the truth of the refugee’s story is routinely questioned and subjected to all kinds of tests, sometimes including language-of-origin testing. Language-of-origin testing has been used a lot with refugees claiming to be Hazara, both in Australia and Europe, because the assumption is that (a) other Afghans who are not as persecuted as the Hazara might try to pass themselves off as Hazara; and (b) Hazara who have lived in Iran and Pakistan, where they are supposedly safe, might claim to come directly from Afghanistan. Here is a longish quote about how the procedure works (McNamara 2005, p. 363):

    The refugees are interviewed by an immigration officer through an interpreter, and the tape of the interview is sent to so-called language experts employed by private companies (as it happens, based mainly in Sweden). On the basis of the language evidence on the tape, the ‘‘experts’’ draw their inferences: they claim to be able to tell, based on features of lexical choice and pronunciation, whether the person is a Hazara from inside Afghanistan, or from Pakistan or Iran. Leaving aside for a moment the competence and the methods of the ‘‘experts’’ involved, itself a deeply problematic issue, the validity of these inferences is rendered questionable by the problematic nature of the construct underlying the test. The issue is that the boundaries of the linguistic community of speakers of the Hazara dialect do not coincide with the political border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and there is simply not the sociolinguistic information available to determine the issue accurately. Obviously, given the conditions in Afghanistan over the last 30 years, there has been no proper sociolinguistic work on the varieties concerned and their geographical distribution; and the disruption caused by the years of war, the refugee flows, the influence of teachers who are speakers of other varieties, and other factors, mean that sociolinguistically the situation is likely to be very fluid. We can thus object to the procedure, and to the quality of the inferences to which it leads, by arguing about the construct, as a group of sociolinguists, phoneticians and language testers have recently done (Eades et al., 2003).

    The document mentioned at the end of the quote, “Guidelines for the use of language analysis in relation to questions of national origin in refugee cases” (Eades et al., 2003), is available here.

  • Paul Desailly

    Hi again folks

    The Iranian Esperanto community competes with the Peoples Republic of China as to where in the world the most professional Esperanto web sites are found. Career Esperantists staff government funded institutions which produce high quality magazines along with television and short wave broadcasts several times per day . For students of Farsi the magazine archive and current interactive announcement concerning Teheran’s upcoming first national Esperanto congress are worth a perusal i m o:

    It’s no secret that these two governments among others are hedging their bets in case the American empire sets and ergo English is no longer the default defacto world business language. For example, the Chinese understand that when English encounters the same fate as my ancestors’ tongue after the Treaty of Versailles 1919, the script of Mandarin will severely hinder the latter’s universality. At that time the selection question will come under the microscope vis-a-vis true consultation en route to language rights cited in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the late 1940s

    Our own Australian Esperanto Association publishes a high quality glossy magazine four times a year

    Overarching the 100 plus national Esperanto organizations is the world centre of Esperanto and Esperantism. 20 paid staff in Rotterdam manage our most professional operation as indicated in its six language web site:

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