Identification. In the Mountain-Badakhshan District of the Tajik Republic, in the deep, high mountain valleys of the western Pamirs live the Pamirians. They call themselves "Pamirian Tajiks" to distinguish themselves from the neighboring Tajiks (the adjective "Pamirian" having acquired special ethnic meanings in recent times). Researchers have called them "Iranian tribes of the Western Pamirs," "Mountaineers of the Upper Pyandj River," "Peoples of the Pamirs," "Prepamir Peoples," and "Pamirian Tajiks."
Location. The Pamirians live in an area where many mountains rise to over 6,500 meters (Mount Communism, at 7,485 meters, is the highest in the former USSR). The Pamirs are reticulated with the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram Mountains of India and the Tianshan and Kunlun Shan ranges of China. Winters are long and cold and summers cool; annual precipitation is only 12.7 centimeters. There are several high passes through the Pamirs, one of which was used by Marco Polo in 1271.
Demography. Pamirians number about 120,000 out of a total poulation of approximately 127,000 in the district (of whom about 1,000 are Russians). Only 13 percent of the population is urban. Otherwise, Pamirians live in Afghan Badakhshan (Rushan-Shugnans but also Wakhan, Ishkamis, Zebaks, Sangliches, and Mundzhans). In Pakistan there are Wakhans, Mundzhans, and Idiqs. The Badakhshan Autonomous District also includes some Tajiks (in the Kalaikhuomsky, Wanchsky, and Ishkashimsky regions), and 7,000 Kyrgyz live scattered thinly in the eastern, Murgabsky region.
Linguistic Affiliation. Since the overall culture of the Pamirians is substantially the same, it is language and dialect that distinguish one group from another. With the exception of the dialects of the Rushan-Shugnan group, all dialects are mutually unintelligible. The Rushan-Shugnan (numbering about 50,000) live mainly on tributaries east of the Pyandj River and consist of the Bartangs, near the Bartang River (speaking the Oroshor or Omor dialect), the Rushans or Rukhni (about 15,000, speaking the Khufsi dialect), the Shugnan proper, and the Sarkolys (in Sinkiang). Wakhan or Wakhi is spoken by about 9,000 people in the highest pastures of the Pamirs near an east-west stretch of the Pyandj. About 500 Ishkamis live in the village of Ryn, and about 2,500 Yazgulis live in one narrow, isolated valley.
Owing in part to the mutual unintelligibility of these dialects and languages, it is the Western Iranian Farsi (or Forsi) language of India and the Dari language of Afghanistan that have served as lingua francas. The Pamirian languages have much in common with the other Eastern Iranian languages (Sogdian, Bactrian, Saka, and Tocharian). Linguistic features indicate connections between the Khotan-Saka language of the fifth to tenth centuries and present-day Wakhi, which suggests that the latter may be descendants of the Sakas.
The Pamirians came under the strong influence of their neighbors, particularly the Tajiks, and the assimilation of the Pamirians by the Tajiks continues. This centuries-old process has been accompanied by the development of bilingualism. Among the Pamirians living across the border, in addition to their native language (in which they are illiterate), they also, for the most part, command a second language, in which they receive their formal education: Farsi in Afghanistan, Urdu in Pakistan, Uigur in Chinese Kazakstan, and Tajik and Russian in the former USSR.
Today the Pamirians of Tajikistan are mostly multilingual: children starting school at age 7, knowing only their local language, learn Tajik and Russian and also study one other foreign language starting in the fourth grade. Their native language fully retains its functions in daily life.