Languages of Pakistan

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Languages of Pakistan
Mother Tongue by Pakistani District - 2017 Census.svg
OfficialEnglish, Urdu
MainPunjabi (38.78%); Pashto (18.24%); Sindhi (14.57%); Saraiki (12.19%); Urdu (7.08%);[a] Balochi (3.02%); Hindko (2.24%); Pahari-Pothwari; Brahui
SignedPakistani Sign Language

Pakistan is a multilingual country with dozens of languages spoken as first languages.[2][3] The majority Pakistan's languages belong to the Indo-Iranian group of the Indo-European language family.[4][5]

Urdu is the national language and the lingua franca of Pakistan, and while sharing official status with English, it is the preferred and dominant language used for inter-communication between different ethnic groups.[2][3] Numerous regional languages are spoken as first languages by Pakistan's various ethnolinguistic groups. Languages with more than a million speakers each include Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Saraiki, Urdu, Balochi, Hindko, Pahari-Pothwari[b] and Brahui.[6]

Ethnologue lists 74 languages in Pakistan. Of these, 66 are indigenous and 8 are non-indigenous. In terms of their vitality, 7 are classified as 'institutional', 17 are 'developing', 37 are 'vigorous', 10 are 'in trouble', and 3 are 'dying'.[7]


Languages of Pakistan (2017)[8]

  Punjabi (38.78%)
  Pashto (18.24%)
  Sindhi (14.57%)
  Saraiki (12.19%)
  Urdu (7.08%)
  Balochi (3.02%)
  Hindko (2.44%)
  Brahui (1.24%)
  Kashmiri (0.17%)
  Others (2.26%)
Census history of major languages
Rank Language 2017 census 1998 census 1981 census 1961 census 1951 census
1 Punjabi* 38.78% 44.15% 48.17% 56.39% 57.08%
2 Pashto 18.24% 15.42% 13.35% 8.47% 8.16%
3 Sindhi 14.57% 14.1% 12.7% 12.59% 12.85%
4 Saraiki* 12.19% 10.53% 9.54%
5 Urdu 7.08% 7.57% 7.60% 7.57% 7.05%
6 Balochi 3.02% 3.57% 3.02% 2.49% 3.04%
7 Others 6.12% 4.66% 5.62% 12.49% 11.82%

* Saraiki was included with Punjabi in the 1951 and 1961 censuses.

Official languages[edit]

Urdu (National language)[edit]

The proportion of people with Urdu as their mother tongue in each Pakistani District as of the 2017 Pakistan Census

Urdu (اردو) is the national language (قومی زبان) and lingua franca of Pakistan.[9] Although only about 7% of Pakistanis speak it as their first language, it is widely spoken and understood as a second language by the vast majority of Pakistanis.[10][11]

No region in Pakistan uses Urdu as its mother tongue, though it is spoken as the first language of Muslim migrants (known as Muhajirs) in Pakistan who left India after independence in 1947.[12] Urdu was chosen as a symbol of unity for the new state of Pakistan in 1947, because it had already served as a lingua franca among Muslims in north and northwest British India.[13] It is written, spoken and used in all provinces/territories of Pakistan, and together with English as the main languages of instruction,[14] although the people from differing provinces may have different native languages.[15]

Urdu is taught as a compulsory subject up to higher secondary school in both English and Urdu medium school systems, which has produced millions of second-language Urdu speakers among people whose native language is one of the other languages of Pakistan – which in turn has led to the absorption of vocabulary from various regional Pakistani languages,[16] while some Urdu vocabularies has also been assimilated by Pakistan's regional languages.[17][18]

English (Co-official language)[edit]

English is a co-official language of Pakistan and is widely used in the executive, legislative and judicial branches as well as to some extent in the officer ranks of Pakistan's armed forces. Pakistan's Constitution and laws were written in English and are now being re-written in the local languages. It is also widely used in schools, colleges and universities as a medium of instruction. English is seen as the language of upward mobility, and its use is becoming more prevalent in upper social circles, where it is often spoken alongside native Pakistani languages. In 2015, it was announced that there were plans to promote Urdu in official business, but Pakistan's Minister of Planning Ahsan Iqbal stated, "Urdu will be a second medium of language and all official business will be bilingual." He also went on to say that English would be taught alongside Urdu in schools.[19]

Regional languages[edit]


The proportion of people with Punjabi as their mother tongue in each Pakistani District as of the 2017 Pakistan Census

Punjabi (پنجابی) is an Indo-Aryan language primarily spoken in the Punjab province of Pakistan, with the prominent dialect being the Majha dialect, written in the Shahmukhi script. Punjabi is the most widely spoken language in Pakistan. It is spoken as a first language by almost 39% of Pakistanis.[20] It is the 11th most widely spoken language in India, and the third most-spoken native language in the Indian Subcontinent. The language is spoken among a significant overseas diaspora, particularly in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Punjabi is unusual among the Indo-Aryan languages and the broader Indo-European language family in its usage of lexical tone.[21]


The proportion of people with Pashto as their mother tongue in each Pakistani District as of the 2017 Pakistan Census

Pashto (پښتو) is an Iranian language spoken as a first language by more than 18% of Pakistanis, mainly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and in northern Balochistan as well as in ethnic Pashtun communities in the cities of Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, and most notably Karachi,[22][23][24][25] which may have the largest Pashtun population of any city in the world.[26] There are three major dialect patterns within which the various individual dialects may be classified; these are Pakhto, which is the Northern (Peshawar) variety, and the softer Pashto spoken in the southern areas such as in Quetta.


The proportion of people with Sindhi as their mother tongue in each Pakistani District as of the 2017 Pakistan Census

Sindhi (سنڌي) is an Indo-Aryan language spoken as a first language by almost 15% of Pakistanis, mostly in the Sindh province of Pakistan. The name "Sindhi" is derived from Sindhu, the original name of the Indus River.[27]

Like other languages of this family, Sindhi has passed through Old Indo-Aryan (Sanskrit) and Middle Indo-Aryan (Pali, secondary Prakrits, and Apabhramsha) stages of growth. 20th century Western scholars such as George Abraham Grierson believed that Sindhi descended specifically from the Vrācaḍa dialect of Apabhramsha (described by Markandeya as being spoken in Sindhu-deśa) but later work has shown this to be unlikely.[28] It entered the New Indo-Aryan stage around the 10th century CE.[29][30]


The proportion of people with Saraiki as their mother tongue in each Pakistani District as of the 2017 Pakistan Census

Saraiki (سرائیکی) is an Indo-Aryan language of the Lahnda group, spoken in central and southeastern Pakistan, primarily in the southern part of the province of Punjab. Saraiki is to a high degree mutually intelligible with Standard Punjabi[31] and shares with it a large portion of its vocabulary and morphology. At the same time in its phonology it is radically different[32] (particularly in the lack of tones, the preservation of the voiced aspirates and the development of implosive consonants), and has important grammatical features in common with the Sindhi language spoken to the south.[33]

Saraiki is the language of about 26 million people in Pakistan, ranging across southern Punjab, southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and border regions of northern Sindh and eastern Balochistan.[34]


The proportion of people with Balochi as their mother tongue in each Pakistani District as of the 2017 Pakistan Census

Balochi (بلوچی) is an Iranian language spoken as a first language by about 3% of Pakistanis, mostly in the Balochistan province. Rakshani is the major dialect group in terms of numbers. Sarhaddi is a sub-dialect of Rakshani. Other sub-dialects are Kalati (Qalati), Chagai-Kharani and Panjguri. Eastern Hill Balochi or Northern Balochi is very different from the rest.

Hindko and Pahari-Pothwari[edit]

The proportion of people with Hindko as their mother tongue in each Pakistani District as of the 2017 Pakistan Census

Hindko (ہندکو) is a cover term for a diverse group of Lahnda dialects spoken in several discontinuous areas in northwestern Pakistan, primarily in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. Hindko is mutually intelligible with Punjabi and Saraiki,[35] and has more affinities with the latter than with the former.[36] Differences with other Punjabi varieties are more pronounced in the morphology and phonology than in the syntax.[37] The word Hindko, commonly used to refer to a number of Indo-Aryan dialects spoken in the neighbourhood of Pashto, likely originally meant "the Indian language" (in contrast to Pashto).[38] An alternative local name for this language group is Hindki.[39][c]


The proportion of people with Brahui as their mother tongue in each Pakistani District as of the 2017 Pakistan Census

Brahui (براہوئی) is a Dravidian language spoken in the central part of Balochistan province. Brahui is spoken in the central part of Pakistani Balochistan, mainly in Kalat, Khuzdar and Mastung districts, but also in smaller numbers in neighboring districts, as well as in Afghanistan which borders Pakistani Balochistan; however, many members of the ethnic group no longer speak Brahui.[40]

Minor languages[edit]

Map showing some of the minor languages in Pakistan as of 1998.

Other languages spoken by linguistic minorities include the languages listed below, with speakers ranging from a few hundred to tens of thousands. A few are highly endangered languages that may soon have no speakers at all.[41] The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization defines five levels of language endangerment between "safe" (not endangered) and "extinct":[42]

  • Vulnerable - "most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home)"
  • Definitely endangered – "children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home"
  • Severely endangered – "language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves"
  • Critically endangered – "the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently"
  • Extinct – "there are no speakers left; included in the Atlas if presumably extinct since the 1950s"

The list below includes the findings from the third edition of Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger (2010; formerly the Red Book of Endangered Languages), as well as the online edition of the aforementioned publication, both published by UNESCO.[43]

Language Status Comments ISO 639-3
Balti language Vulnerable[42] Also spoken in: India bft
Bashkarik language Definitely endangered[42]   gwc, xka
Badeshi language Critically endangered[42]   bdz
Bateri language Definitely endangered[42]   btv
Bhadravahi language Definitely endangered[42] Also spoken in: India bhd
Brahui language Vulnerable[42] Also spoken in: Afghanistan brh
Burushaski language Vulnerable[42]   bsk
Chilisso language Severely endangered[42]   clh
Dameli language Severely endangered[42]   dml
Domaaki language Severely endangered[42]   dmk
Gawar-Bati language Definitely endangered[42] Also spoken in: Afghanistan gwt
Gowro language Severely endangered[42]   gwf
Jad language Definitely endangered[42] Also spoken in: India jda
Kalasha language Severely endangered[42]  Not to be confused with Kalasha-ala language kls
Kalkoti language Severely endangered[42]    
Kati language

Kamkata-viri language, Kata-vari dialect Kamviri dialect

Definitely endangered[42] Also spoken in: Afghanistan bsh, xvi
Khowar language Vulnerable[42]   khw
Kundal Shahi language Definitely endangered[42] Also spoken in: India  
Maiya language Vulnerable[42]   mvy
Ormuri language Definitely endangered[42] Also spoken in: Afghanistan oru
Phalura language Definitely endangered[42]   phl
Purik language Vulnerable[42] Also spoken in: India prx
Savi language Definitely endangered[42] Also spoken in: Afghanistan sdg
Spiti language Vulnerable[42] Also spoken in: India spt
Torwali language Definitely endangered[42]   trw
Ushojo language Definitely endangered[42]   ush
Wakhi language Definitely endangered[42] Also spoken in: China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan wbl
Yidgha language Definitely endangered[42]   ydg
Zangskari language Definitely endangered[42] Also spoken in: India zau

Writing systems[edit]

An English-Urdu bilingual sign at the archaeological site of Sirkap, near Taxila. The Urdu says: (right to left) دو سروں والے عقاب کی شبيہ والا مندر, dō sarōñ wālé u'qāb kī shabīh wāla mandir. "The temple with the image of the eagle with two heads."

Most languages of Pakistan are written in the Perso-Arabic script. The Mughal Empire adopted Persian as the court language during their rule over South Asia as did their predecessors, such as the Ghaznavids. During this time, the Nastaʿlīq style of the Perso-Arabic script came into widespread use in South Asia, and the influence remains to this day. In Pakistan, almost everything in Urdu is written in the script, concentrating the greater part of Nastaʿlīq usage in the world.

The phrase zubān-e-Urdū-e-muʿallā ("the language of the exalted camp") written in Nastaʿlīq script[44]
Lashkari Zabān title in Naskh script

The Urdu alphabet is the right-to-left alphabet. It is a modification of the Persian alphabet, which is itself a derivative of the Arabic alphabet. With 38 letters, the Urdu alphabet is typically written in the calligraphic Nasta'liq script.

Sindhi adopted a variant of the Persian alphabet as well, in the 19th century. The script is used in Pakistan today, albeit unlike most other native languages of Pakistan, the Naskh style is more common for Sindhi writing than the Nasta'liq style. It has a total of 52 letters, augmenting the Urdu with digraphs and eighteen new letters (ڄ ٺ ٽ ٿ ڀ ٻ ڙ ڍ ڊ ڏ ڌ ڇ ڃ ڦ ڻ ڱ ڳ ڪ) for sounds particular to Sindhi and other Indo-Aryan languages. Some letters that are distinguished in Arabic or Persian are homophones in Sindhi.

Balochi and Pashto are written in Perso-Arabic script. The Shahmukhī script, a variant of the Urdu alphabet, is used to write the Punjabi language in Pakistan.

Usually, bare transliterations of Urdu into Roman letters, Roman Urdu, omit many phonemic elements that have no equivalent in English or other languages commonly written in the Latin script.[citation needed] The National Language Authority of Pakistan has developed a number of systems with specific notations to signify non-English sounds, but these can only be properly read by someone already familiar with Urdu.


This is a series of maps which shows the distribution of different languages in Pakistan as of the 2017 Pakistan Census. These all refer to the mother tongues of individuals only.

Dominant Mother Tongue in each Pakistani District as of the 2017 Pakistan Census

See also[edit]


  1. ^ About eight percent speak it as a first language or only language. The total number of speakers make the majority percentage of the population
  2. ^ Lack of exact numbers of speakers of the language due to not being represented in the previous censuses. Upcoming 2022 Census of Pakistan will include Pahari-Pothwari as an option. Baart (2003, p. 10) provides an estimate of 3.8 million, presumably for the population in Pakistan alone. Lothers & Lothers (2010, p. 9) estimate the Pakistani population at well over 2.5 million and the UK diaspora at over 0.5 million. The population in India is reported in Ethnologue (2017) to be about 1 million as of 2000.
  3. ^ The term Hindki normally refers to a Hindko speaker and Shackle (1980, p. 482) reports that in Pashto the term has slightly pejorative connotations, which are avoided with the recently introduced term Hindkūn.


  1. ^ "Article: 251 National language". Retrieved 23 July 2018. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  2. ^ a b Ashraf, Hina (22 March 2022). "The ambivalent role of Urdu and English in multilingual Pakistan: a Bourdieusian study". Language Policy: 1–24. doi:10.1007/s10993-022-09623-6. ISSN 1573-1863. PMC 8939399. PMID 35340722.
  3. ^ a b Ashraf, Muhammad Azeem; Turner, David A.; Laar, Rizwan Ahmed (January 2021). "Multilingual Language Practices in Education in Pakistan: The Conflict Between Policy and Practice". SAGE Open. 11 (1): 215824402110041. doi:10.1177/21582440211004140. ISSN 2158-2440. S2CID 232484396.
  4. ^ Rengel, Marian (15 December 2003). Pakistan: A Primary Source Cultural Guide. The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-8239-4001-1.
  5. ^ Kachru, Braj B.; Kachru, Yamuna; Sridhar, S. N. (27 March 2008). Language in South Asia. Cambridge University Press. p. 34. ISBN 978-1-139-46550-2.
  6. ^ "POPULATION BY MOTHER TONGUE, SEX AND RURAL/ URBAN" (PDF). Pakistan Bureau of Statistics.
  7. ^ "Pakistan". Ethnologue. Archived from the original on 17 April 2019.
  8. ^ "Final Results of Census-2017". Retrieved 7 August 2021.
  9. ^ Muzaffar, Sharmin; Behera, Pitambar (2014). "Error analysis of the Urdu verb markers: a comparative study on Google and Bing machine translation platforms". Aligarh Journal of Linguistics. 4 (1–2): 1. Modern Standard Urdu, a register of the Hindustani language, is the national language, lingua-franca and is one of the two official languages along with English in Pakistan and is spoken in all over the world. It is also one of the 22 scheduled languages and officially recognized languages in the Constitution of India and has been conferred the status of the official language in many Indian states of Bihar, Telangana, Jammu, and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and New Delhi. Urdu is one of the members of the new or modern Indo-Aryan language group within the Indo-European family of languages.
  10. ^ "PAKISTAN". Official U.S. Marine Corps.
  11. ^ The World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency. 1992. p. 264.
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  13. ^ "Dec 25, 2017 | Why did the Quaid make Urdu Pakistan's state language?". Dawn Epaper. 25 December 2017.
  14. ^ "EDUCATION SYSTEM PROFILES Education in Pakistan". World Education Services. 25 February 2020. English has been the main language of instruction at the elementary and secondary levels since colonial times. It remains the predominant language of instruction in private schools but has been increasingly replaced with Urdu in public schools. Punjab province, for example, recently announced that it will begin to use Urdu as the exclusive medium of instruction in schools beginning in 2020. Depending on the location and predominantly in rural areas, regional languages are used as well, particularly in elementary education. The language of instruction in higher education is mostly English, but some programs and institutions teach in Urdu.
  15. ^ Robina Kausar; Muhammad Sarwar; Muhammad Shabbir (eds.). "The History of the Urdu Language Together with Its Origin and Geographic Distribution" (PDF). International Journal of Innovation and Research in Educational Sciences. 2 (1).
  16. ^ Ahmad, Aijazuddin (2009). Geography of the South Asian Subcontinent: A Critical Approach. Concept Publishing Company. ISBN 978-81-8069-568-1.
  17. ^ Hock, Hans Henrich; Bashir, Elena (24 May 2016). The Languages and Linguistics of South Asia: A Comprehensive Guide. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG. ISBN 978-3-11-042330-3.
  18. ^ Raj, Ali (30 April 2017). "The case for Urdu as Pakistan's official language". Herald Magazine. Archived from the original on 28 October 2019. Retrieved 28 October 2019.
  19. ^ "Pakistan to replace English with Urdu as official language – The Express Tribune". The Express Tribune. 29 July 2015. Retrieved 5 January 2016.
  20. ^ "CCI defers approval of census results until elections". Dawn. 21 March 2021. Retrieved 10 March 2021. The figure of 80.54 million is calculated from the reported 38.78% for the speakers of Punjabi and the 207.685 million total population of Pakistan.
  21. ^ Bhatia, Tej (1999). "Lexican Anaphors and Pronouns in Punjabi". In Lust, Barbara; Gair, James (eds.). Lexical Anaphors and Pronouns in Selected South Asian Languages. Walter de Gruyter. p. 637. ISBN 978-3-11-014388-1. Other tonal Indo-Aryan languages include Hindko, Dogri, Western Pahari, Sylheti and some Dardic languages.
  22. ^ Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (17 July 2009). "Karachi's Invisible Enemy". PBS. Retrieved 24 August 2010.
  23. ^ "In a city of ethnic friction, more tinder". The National. 24 August 2009. Archived from the original on 16 January 2010. Retrieved 24 August 2010.
  24. ^ "Columnists | The Pakhtun in Karachi". Time. 28 August 2010. Retrieved 8 September 2011.
  25. ^ [1] Archived 9 December 2012 at, thefridaytimes
  26. ^ Lieven, Anatol (4 May 2021). "An Afghan Tragedy: The Pashtuns, the Taliban and the State". Survival. 63 (3): 7–36. doi:10.1080/00396338.2021.1930403. ISSN 0039-6338. S2CID 235219004.
  27. ^ "Sindhi". The Languages Gulper. Retrieved 29 January 2013.
  28. ^ Wadhwani, Y. K. (1981). "The Origin of the Sindhi Language" (PDF). Bulletin of the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute. 40: 192–201. JSTOR 42931119. Retrieved 9 April 2021.
  29. ^ "Encyclopædia Britannica". Retrieved 11 May 2013.
  30. ^ "Sindhi Language – Structure, Writing & Alphabet". Retrieved 1 March 2022.
  31. ^ Rahman 1995, p. 16; Shackle 2014b
  32. ^ Shackle 1977, p. 389.
  33. ^ Shackle 2014b.
  34. ^ "Saraiki". Ethnologue.
  35. ^ Rahman 1996, p. 211.
  36. ^ Shackle 1979, pp. 200–1.
  37. ^ Shackle 1980, p. 486.
  38. ^ Shackle 1980, p. 482; Rensch 1992, pp. 3–4. See there for alternative etymologies.
  39. ^ Rensch 1992, p. 4.
  40. ^ Parkin 1989, p. 37.
  41. ^ Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (2005). Languages of Pakistan. In Ethnologue Languages of the World (15th ed.). Dallas, TX: SIL International.
  42. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad Moseley, Christopher, ed. (2010). Atlas of the World' s Languages in Danger. Memory of Peoples (3rd ed.). Paris: UNESCO Publishing. ISBN 978-92-3-104096-2. Retrieved 11 April 2015.
  43. ^ "UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in danger".
  44. ^ Naim, C. M. (1999), Ambiguities of Heritage: Fictions and Polemics, City Press, p. 87, ISBN 978-969-8380-19-9


External links[edit]