The languages of Afghanistan (and the origin of "orange")

Where did the word "orange" come from? Before we discover its origin, let's talk about the languages of a country that has been in the news in recent weeks.

A common origin

Afghanistan, like almost every country in the world, has many languages. Two of them are especially important: Persian, the language most Afghans speak (many of them as a second language) and Pashto, a language spoken in the area nearest to Pakistan (where it is also spoken).

These two languages seem very distant to us, but they have the same origin as English: Proto-Indo-European, a language spoken some 6000 years ago, which also gave rise, among others, to Sanskrit, Greek, Russian, Latin — and English.

Yes: English and Persian belong to the same language family. English is part of the Germanic sub-family, while Persian belongs to the Iranian sub-family (like Pashto and other languages, including Kurdish). We can see the common origin in many words. Just an example: “daughter”, in Persian, is “doxtar”.

Let's focus on Persian.

A language in three flavours

Persian was the language of several empires throughout history and has one of the oldest literatures in the world.

There are currently three standards for Persian: Iranian Persian, Afghan Persian and Tajik Persian. As with many languages, these standards hide a dialect continuum without fixed boundaries.

How different are these three standards? Discussions of this kind are never easy... There are lexical, syntactic, phonetic differences — not to mention differences in writing systems — but there seems to be a clear notion among Persian speakers that the language is the same regardless of the standard used.

To complicate matters, Persian has three different official names. In Iran, it is called "Farsi", in Afghanistan it is called "Dari" and in Tajikistan it is called "Zaboni Tojikī". These are the official names. Most speakers recognise "Farsi" as the general name of the language.

As for the writing system, Iran and Afghanistan use the Persian script (based on the Arabic script) while Tajikistan uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Europeans landing in Tajikistan will look around and find Cyrillic letters everywhere — the same letters we can find on euro banknotes. However, the language they are looking at is Persian…

Travelling fruit

Besides words that seem similar because of the common Indo-European origin, we also have several words that made the journey from Persian to English, many of them through Arabic (a language with a very different origin). The word "orange", for example, originated from the Persian word "nârang" (which had already come from Sanskrit) — and arrived in English passing through Arabic, Italian and French...

Interestingly, today Persian has two words for orange: "nârang" (which ended up in many European languages besides English) and also "portoqâl", which means specifically a sweet orange and comes from the name of a European country: Portugal.

This connection between the name of Portugal and oranges is found in many Eastern European and Middle Eastern languages — but not in Portuguese, where orange is "laranja", with the same origin as the English word.

There are many more English words of Persian origin: "assassin", "chess", "lemon", "magic", "pyjama", "peach" (I wonder why Persian gave English so many fruit names)... Persian also gave us the -stan suffix we find in the name of many countries, including Afghanistan.

In fact, an English speaker can hardly go a whole day without using words of Persian origin.

“Orange” was the 1st word in our 101-word series. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive the following 100 words from around the world.

I’d like to thank Jennifer King (Eurologos-Portugal) for proofreading the text. You can find a Portuguese version of the article in Certas Palavras.