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