Chatterbox instructed readers earlier this week never to trust reporting or commentary that refers to the people of Afghanistan as “Afghani.” The correct word, he explained, is “Afghan.” Although “Afghani” is a real word, it refers not to the people of Afghanistan, but to their principal unit of currency. Chatterbox made an exception for the term “Afghani Arab,” which refers to an Arab who is not from Afghanistan (which is not an Arab country), but who punched his ticket fighting for Allah in Afghanistan before moving on to fight in some other war-torn place.
Chatterbox’s earlier item generated protest by a few readers who insisted they were able to find “Afghani” defined in this or that dictionary as a person from Afghanistan. One enterprising reader even pointed out that “Afghani” was so defined on Bartleby.com, whose currency chart Chatterbox linked to in the earlier item. Both the currency chart and the “Afghani” definition come courtesy of TheAmerican Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. To this, Chatterbox responds that American lexicography must have declined since 1997, the publication date of TheAmericanHeritageCollegeDictionary, Third Edition, which has no entry for “Afghani” other than a lower-case one defining it as a unit of currency. Similarly, the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook entry on Afghanistan states plainly, “Nationality: noun: Afghan(s) adjective: Afghan.”
During the last couple of days, two readers reported hearing the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, say “Afghani” on TV in a context unrelated to currency or to Arab alumni of Afghan wars. This was indeed baffling. Although Zaeef’s comments on the Taliban’s willingness to turn over Osama Bin Laden have been wildly contradictory, one would expect Zaeef to use the correct word to describe people who live in his country. Indeed, there’s no telling what horrible punishment the Taliban might impose on anyone who got this wrong. Since Chatterbox was unable to locate the offending usage in a search of the Nexis database and of video clips found on various Web news sites, he can’t be sure that these two readers heard Zaeef correctly. For simplicity’s sake, though, let’s assume they did. (It’s certainly possible Zaeef was corrected by a transcriber.) That would seem to undermine Chatterbox’s shunning of the word. After a few other readers wrote in claiming to know people of Afghan descent who referred to themselves as “Afghani,” Chatterbox found a rebel Afghan Web site, www.afghangovernment.com, that referred to the Afghan people as “Afghani.” At this point, Chatterbox realized he’d have to “drill down.”
The results of that research are as follows:
Afghanistan is a land of many ethnic groups, hence many languages. The biggest ethnic group is the Pashtuns, who speak a language called Pashto. Accounts vary as to whether the Pashtuns still constitute an outright majority of the Afghan population. But Pashtun kings ruled Afghanistan (often under heavy British influence) more or less continuously from its founding in 1780 until 1973, when King Zahir Shah was ousted and exiled to Italy. The second-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan is the Tajiks, who speak a variant of Farsi called Dari. Today, Pashto and Dari are the twin official languages of Afghanistan (although many other ethnic groups speak many other languages).
In Pashto, the word for Afghan is something that sounds very like “Afghan.” But in Dari, the word for Afghan is something that sounds very like “Afghani.” The same is true in Urdu, which is also spoken in Afghanistan.
If the people Chatterbox herded into the “Afghani” Hall of Shame had been speakers of Pashto or Dari or Urdu, he might conclude at this point that a retraction was in order. But they weren’t. Chatterbox’s hall-of-shamers were speaking English. And “the standard term in English,” according to Barnett Rubin, probably the best-known U.S. expert on Afghanistan, “is ‘Afghan.’ “