Tribes and Dialects
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Habitat. The Yazgulami language is spoken in the Pamirs, in the valley of the River Yazgulami, the right tributary of the River Pyandzh. It is a narrow valley of some 100 kilometres northeast to southwest. It lies between two high mountain ranges, the Vandzh and the Yazgulami Mountains. The mountains are covered all year round with snow and ice. Most of the people live in the middle of the valley where the larger settlements are situated: Matraun, Bdyn, Anderbak and Dzhamak. In 1929 there were 11 Yazgulami villages (qishlaqs) in the valley. The area belongs to the Vandzhi District of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region in Tadzhikistan. A number of Yazgulamis also live in the Vakhsh valley (the Kuybyshev District). These people settled there when the villages above Dzhamak were emptied.
Population. During the census of 1926 the Yazgulamis were not counted separately. According to other statistical data of the same period the number of people speaking the Yazgulami language was 1,900, in 1939 it was 2,200 and in 1940 about 2,000.
The Yazgulami language belongs to the northern group of the Pamir languages which form a part of the Iranian group of the Indo-European family of languages. In addition to the Yazgulami language, the other Shughni-Roshani languages -- the Shughni, the Roshani, the Bartangi, the Oroshori and the Khufi languages from the West-Pamirs and the Sarikoli language from China -- belong to the group. It is probable that the Vandzh language, once spoken in the River Vandzh valley, but now extinct, also belonged to the same linguistic group.
The Yazgulami valley is almost inaccessible. The valley can only be approached at the point where the Yazgulami joins the Pyandzh. Because of their seclusion, the Europeans did not know anything about the Yazgulamis for a long time. The language was first recorded in a book by a Russian traveller G. Arandarenko (1889). The book contains 34 Yazgulami words, recorded in Darvaz and Karategin in 1882. A systematic recording of the Yazgulami language did not begin until the 20th century. In 1916 a French linguist, R. Gauthiot, took part in an expedition to the Pamirs. As a result, he published his "Notes sur le yazggoulami, dialecte iraniren des Confins du Pamir" (1916), the first ever treatment of the Yazgulami language. In this book R. Gauthiot attempts to establish the generic connection of the Yazgulami language with other Iranian languages. A number of other noted linguists for instance -- A. Grierson, W. Lenz, H. Sköld and I. Zarubin -- have also studied the language.
The Yazgulami language consists of two dialects, one of these is spoken higher in the mountains, the other lower. The differences are not significant and are limited to the vocabulary. Differences in the vocabulary are also detectable between the languages used in different villages in the lower mountains. The Vandzh language, a close relation to Yazgulami, has become extinct now. Other languages spoken in the Pamirs differ greatly from the Yazgulami language. The disparities are the largest in the vocabulary.
In 1954 the Yazgulamis from the high mountains were resettled to the Vakhsh valley, where they live dispersed among the Tadzhiks, Uzbeks, Russians and other ethnic groups. About 20 % of the Yazgulami people were forcibly resettled. The whole project was reputedly launched in order to improve the living conditions of the people. Since 1959 the population of the Yazgulami is on an increase again, although the number of villages has diminished by half. Ancient villages in the upper valley are empty, but people are gradually making their return (for example, to the villages of Zaich and Dzhamak).
In the vocabulary of the Yazgulami language the Tadzhik influence can be seen. Tadzhik has been the language of communication and the written language for all the small ethnic groups in the Pamirs for a long time. In the Soviet period, its importance increased: it is the language of schools. Through Tadzhik loans from other languages (Arabic, Russian) have entered the Yazgulami language. Some direct loans from Russian are also noticeable. The number of Turkic words is small, and they are mostly connected with everyday life. In academic literature a special "secret" code only known to and used by the Yazgulamis is noted.
History and ethnic culture. The upper part of the Yazgulami River valley is called byrgyn, the lower one poitykhta. In different parts of the valley live different kauns, clans, which is probably a remnant of patriarchy. According to legends the first inhabitants of the valley (28 clans) came from the Ashakalon village in Kartegin. Later more settlers arrived from the Afghan Badakhshan, on the left bank of the River Pyandzh. These new settlers occupied a part of the land and achieved a privileged status. Some clans came from Roshan on the Bartang, and from other localities.
The economic life of the villages at different altitudes varies considerably. Higher up apricots and mulberry trees were not grown, and the horse was practically unknown until the beginning of this century. Land was in communal use. The patriarchal system had disintegrated when the Soviets came to power.
Religion. The Yazgulamis are Muslims (the Sunni) unlike other Pamir peoples, who are Ismailites (the Roshanis, the Shughnis, the Ishkashmis, the Wakhs). Many pagan customs are still observed. The parts of a human body are still used as a sort of ancient calendar by the Yazgulamis as well as other peoples of the Pamirs. Marriages among relatives were quite frequent, one of the reasons being the avoidance of a ransom.
The habitat of the Yazgulamis is cut off from other Shughni people. The right bank of the River Pyandzh is almost impassable. In order to get to Bartang or Roshan, the Anderbaga (Bartang) and Motrauni (Roshan) passes have to be crossed, or a detour has to be made along the left bank of the River Pyandzh. The mountain passes were passable for only two or three months a year. The communication with the inhabitants of the Vandzh valley took place via Dzhamakh.
Since 1937 the Great Pamir road links the Yazgulami valley with major centres, such as Khorog and Dushanbe, the capital of Tadzhikistan. Khorog has also an air service to connect it with the rest of the world.
There is no mention of the Yazgulami valley in historical sources. It is known, that the Yazgulamis were controlled by the rulers of Darvaz and the Vandzh valley. In 1877 Bukhara conquered the mountain areas of Badakhshan, and the Yazgulamis were subjugated by the Bukhara Emirs. Like the Vandzhi people, the Yazgulamis were converted to Islam (Sunnite). This brought them closer to the Tadzhiks than the other peoples of the Pamirs.
The Yazgulamis have not had an easy life. The Soviet power in 1924--25 was established in bloody battles. They were forced to join the co-operatives in 1932 and the kolkhozes in 1936. Insubordination was not tolerated. By 1948 there were seven kolkhozes in the Yazgulami valley. People tilled land and bred animals. In spring and autumn the animals graze near the villages, in summer they are herded into uphill pastures. Arable land is scarce. The plots are tiny and it is not possible to use any machinery. Hunting is a source of extra food, the main game being the wild goat. The Yazgulami women are famed in the whole of Tadzhikistan for their knitted woollen stockings (dzhunb) patterned and bright in colour.
The Yazgulamis have no written language. Tadzhik is used in schools, radio broadcasts, books, folk songs and private correspondence. Only small children and old women are monolingual.