Category Archives: Mini-lessons

What does this ی at the end of the word mean?

One of the trickier things about reading Dari is not knowing what a ی suffix means, and how to read it. Depending on context سیبی could mean “an apple” or “apple-y” or it could be introducing a relative clause (“the apple that I ate”). And the pronunciation changes along with the meaning, so you’ve got to understand the sentence if you’re going to read it aloud. How can you figure it out? I’ve made this one-page flow chart, which you can print out and keep with your reading materials.

What does this ی at the end of the word mean?

Although I hope the flow chart will be helpful, it’s almost humorously complex. This highlights one of the interesting things about language, which is that although it’s possible to create these mechanical descriptions of grammar, that’s now how brains actually work. It’s not as though Dari speakers go through this flow chart mentally every time they see this suffix: they read the sentence and understand it immediately, considering all the possibilities at the same time, and discarding the nonsensical ones without a second thought.

Unfortunately if you’re a new reader that’s now how your brain works… yet! When we’re learning languages we need these scaffolding tools to get started. Eventually your brain will start working things out on its own, and you’ll be able to stop thinking about it explicitly. For now, tools like this can help you through it.

Indirect communication

In a recent discussion the issue of indirect communication arose. A widespread observation among Westerners is that Afghans communicate more indirectly than do Westerners. (There is great variation in among Western nations of course, and even between regions of America and Germany, for example.) The purpose of this blog post is to show that indirect communication is not necessarily unclear communication; it is simply communication that asks for the listener to think things through.

In August 2002 I visited my grandparents in Maine (in the northeastern United States), and at the end of the visit I flew out of a small regional airport. This was after 9/11, so security was tighter, but this small airport hadn’t had all the upgrades yet, and it was a one-person airport anyway. After checking me in, the woman behind the counter said, “I’ll need to look through your bag.” I said, “All right.” She was older and small of frame, so she said, “You have to carry it down to the inspection area yourself.” So I carried the bag down and waited. She put on a pair of rubber gloves, and gave them a little snap at the wrists. I feigned nervousness and said, “You’re only going to check the bag, right?”

Now maybe you’re chuckling right now, or maybe you’re offended. (In the event, the woman laughed politely at first because she could tell I was making a joke, but then she got it and laughed a lot more.) But the point is: my joke was perfectly clear, even though it was also completely indirect.

Understanding the joke requires some background knowledge. You have to understand that rubber gloves refer metonymically in our culture to a certain examination, and that a very thorough security check might involve something similar. And of course you’ve got to realize that it’s a sort of ridiculous for someone to fear that sort of thing in a routine airport check.

Do you notice how I have told the joke, explained it, and still I have said nothing? You, as the reader, have filled in all the gaps. It’s indirect communication. I offered the spark, but the fire kindled in your mind. Note how I unambiguously invoked a fairly complex scenario with the phrase, “You’re only going to check the bag, right?” Even if you see the joke as inappropriate to begin with, imagine how much worse (and unfunny) it would have been for me to say, “I sure hope you’re not going to [blankity-blank-blank-black].” You can say a lot indirectly that you can’t say directly. You can also make a message more powerful by speaking indirectly.

Indirect communication works because of shared cultural knowledge, and an expectation that listeners will draw appropriate conclusions from what’s been said. Can you think of a situation in which that might break down? That’s right: when you’re in a new language and culture. (If you’re not familiar with much of Western culture—if indeed the relevant background knowledge is common beyond America—you’ll be confused as to why I think I just told a joke.) That’s why it’s important to learn as much culture as you can. In fact, although language is indepensible in culture-learning, culture learning is really more important. One linguist observed that, for him, it was common for him to understand what was said, without understanding why it was said.

Here is a final story, which is a kind of baby example of me learning to process indirect communication in Afghanistan.

When I was new in LOP—it was LOP back then, not LCP—I brought a pair of chaplaks to the school just to use there, and wrote my name on each shoe. About a week later, I was with an LOP teacher and a staff member, and the latter casually asked me, “So, in your religion is it okay to write your name on your shoes?” I quickly gathered that it was not in his! I asked him a bit more about this, and he explained that in Afghanistan no one would ever write their name below the level of the waist. I quickly blacked out my name on the shoes. I think this story has spread around, because now even people who were not there at the time and never saw my name on my shoes, will still refer specifically to these shoes (“Your shoes aren’t there..”) even though I’ve long since donated them to the school!

Stressed out about stress?

(With that kind of title, this post can only get better, right?)

This post will explain how word stress works in Dari. Stress has to do with emphasis on syllables. In English, if you rejéct someone, they become a réject.  If you convért somebody, they become a cónvert. If you you want to protést something, you may attend a prótest. Stress can change when you add bits to the word, like how gýrate become gyrátion. When people get the stress wrong, it makes it really hard to understand them.

In Dari, as in English, verbs work different from every other kind of word. This post will give you the rules.

Everything except verbs

The rule is: stress goes on the last syllable of the word. Examples:

  • [kɛtʌ́b] book
  • [afɣʌnɛstʌ́n] Afghanistan
  • [kɛlíd] key
  • [kʌmpjutár] computer
  • [tɛrmʊ́z] thermos

There are two systematic exceptions. The exceptions are two suffixes that never ever take stress.

The first is the ezafa marker, the handy little vowel that can seemingly join any two words:

  • [séb-ɛ sʊ́rx] red apple (NOT [seb-ɛ́ sʊ́rx])
  • [ʊtʌ́q-ɛ kalʌ́n] large room (NOT [ʊtʌq-ɛ́ kalʌ́n])
  • [ʊtʌ́q-ɛ sʊ́rx-ɛ kalʌ́n] large red room

The second suffix is the indefinite marker, the suffix that turns ‘man’ into ‘a man.’

  • [márd-e ʌ́mad] a man came (NOT [mard-é ʌ́mad])


For verbs with prefixes the stress goes on the first syllable. (The prefix will either be [me], [na], or [b].) Here are some examples:

  • [mé-r-ʊm] I’m going
  • [mé-raft-ʊm] I was going
  • [ná-raft-ʊm] I didn’t go
  • [ná-me-r-ʊm] I’m not going
  • [ná-me-raft-ʊm] I wasn’t going
  • [mé-xʌj-ʊm bʊ́-r-ʊm] I want to go

For verbs without prefixes, the stress goes on the last syllable of the root—i.e., not on the suffix.

  • [ráft-ʊm] I went
  • [ʌmád-ʊm] I came
  • [fʊrúxt-ʊm] I sold
  • [fahmíd-ʊm] I knew

The only exception is the perfect (“I had gone”), where the stress goes at the end. You must have learned about this when you learned about the perfect, but I don’t blame you for forgetting about it. Often the only difference between a present and a perfect is that the stress is at the end.

  • [raftém] I have gone
  • [raftá] s/he has gone

One wrinkle is that participles count as non-verbs: the stress goes on the end.

  • [raftá búdʊm] I had gone
  • [darwʌzá ra bastá kadá ráftʊm] I closed the door and left


If you want to speak clearly and have a less obnoxious accent, you need to pay attention to stress. Find a recording of a Dari speaker—or make one—and listen to where the stress go. Now record yourself saying the same things. Do you put the stress in the right place? If not, talk to a teacher about it.


There are weird little exceptions to these rules, but this covers 99.9% of the words. You don’t need to worry about the nitty-gritty, like how [bʌ́jad] and [ʃʌ́jad] have a verb-like stress pattern because they’re originally from the verbs [bʌjɛstan] ‘to have to’ and [ʃʌjɛstan] ‘to be proper.’ You may need to worry about dialectal variation. Stress can vary somewhat from location to location in Afghanistan.