Herbert Penzl and "A Grammar of Pashto"

Any serious student of the Pashto Language will need to start from the book "A Grammar of Pashto: A Descriptive Study of the Dialect of Kandahar, Afghanistan", by Herbert Penzl, published in 1955. Penzl is the only professional linguist ever to engage in a serious study of the Pashto language. This is remarkable since the estimated number of Pashto speakers range from 16 million to as high as 40 million, which makes it one of the world's major languages.

However, the book is not suitable for a beginner or a child who wants to learn to speak Pashto. The book is directed to academics in the field of linguistics. Penzl developed an orthography for writing Pashto which will be difficult for a person not trained in linguistics to follow.

First consulting with Afghan students at The University of Illinois, Herbert Penzl (1910-1995) began his fieldwork on Pashto, the national language of Afghanistan, in the beginning of the 1940s. He later got assigned to do a job in Kandahar and there he carried out his on-site fieldwork in 1948-49, which resulted in the publication of his "A Grammar of Pashto: A Descriptive Study of the Dialect of Kandahar, Afghanistan" (1955). This work will be found in any major university library.

I met Herbert Penzl in 1981, when I was taking a graduate course in Linguistics at New York University and working on my Khowar-English Dictionary. Penzl came to the annual convention of the Society of Linguistics. I approached him and asked him about his work with Pashto. He told me that he had returned in Afghanistan in 1979, which surprised me because that was not long after I had escaped from jail there. He had gone to Afghanistan on special invitation as a guest of Hafizullah Amin, during the brief period after Amin had killed Taraki and become President of Afghanistan. Penzl told me that Amin had been "supremely confident" about his future and about the future of Afghanistan. This confidence was misplaced. Only about one month later, Hafizullah Amin was killed by a Soviet Army officer during the invasion of Afghanistan.

When I met Herbert Penzl, he was Chairman of the Department of German at the University of California at Berkeley. I was a former student at that university and had been kicked out by Dean Lemmon of the Dean of Students Office, due to my accomplishments as a student activist in the 1960s. Penzl offered to intercede and to speak to Dean Lemmon in my behalf. Herbert Penzl later told me that he did speak to Dean Lemmon and that Dean Lemmon had replied that since they had let Mario Savio back in, they would let me back in too.

The most difficult feature of the Pashto language is the gender system, which is probably the most complex system of any Indo-European Language. Indeed, for this reason, during the 19th Century, it was debated that Pashto was not an Indo-European Language at all. Finally, Linguists decided that Pashtu was an Indo-European Language and put it in the Iranian Group. However, I feel that this a mistake. I believe that Pashtu is not a single language but is a Family of Languages, much as Arabic is.

What I found surprising was that Penzl was a professor of German, not a Professor of Linguistics. German also has a complex gender system, which may be the reason why Penzl, who was born in Austria, found Pashtu so interesting.

The other great linguist who worked with Pashtu was Herbert Paper. It was often said that the world's two leading Pashto linguists were "Pencil and Paper".

Haji Mohammad Ismail Sloan

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