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Language And Politics In Contemporary Central Asia

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Multilingual nations exist in all parts of the world, and there are massive examples of it if one wants to study them. Toughness arises only when one attempts to locate a country that is genuinely monolingual.[footnoteRef:1] There appear to be no example of this type. The vast majority of the nation-states of the world have more than one language spoken indigenously within their frontiers. In some cases languages that’s spoken in a country may reach up to hundreds (well of course here is the point where problem occurs in defining what exactly language is). Central Asia is one of the linguistic areas of its kind where about 100 different nations live together[footnoteRef:2] and speak their own languages along with other languages fluently, in spite of the fact that the overwhelming dominant or major (standardized) state languages of the region. Even though there are many nationalities in Central Asia, there are not so many examples of linguistic conflict among them. Of course linguistic factors play an important role in any separatist movement where other characteristics are not significant. [1: (Trudgill, 2000)] [2: (Abazov, 2007)]

During Gorbachev’s time, he initiated a policy of “acceleration” (uskorenie) in order to speed up the reforms he brought to USSR as the Empire was already collapsing; but in reality it created chaos. New waves of reforms, adjustments, and legal changes were introduced in a rush, without creating proper implementation mechanisms, at times without completing the previous reforms, and often driven by conflicting interest groups. Altogether this produced an environment of uncertainty and anxiety.[footnoteRef:3] Languages in USSR were one of the centers of attention that could create chaos with the new reform. Although the people cheered positive changes, inconsistencies in implementing reforms and growing political and economic uncertainty and lawlessness alienated many sectors of society, which became increasingly critical of Gorbachev’s reform agenda and his ineffectiveness.[footnoteRef:4] Local communities in native republics began demanding that schools be opened that taught in their native languages; that teaching in major colleges and universities be switched from Russian to native languages; that the number of publications and television and radio broadcasts in their languages be increased; and that the native languages become the state language in their republics. [3: (Abazov, 2007, p. 50)] [4: (Abazov, 2007, pp. 50-51)]

These newly emerged states actually appear to be homogeneous nations on their own. But there are many minorities whose members are multilingual. These minorities use either Russian or the other standard state languages as a lingua franca in interacting with the other ethnic groups.

The languages of the majority of the citizens of the post Soviet Central Asian Countries come from the Turkic language group. Turkmen is largely spoken in a country what current is Turkmenistan, and by a minority group in Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. Kazakh and Kyrgyz are related languages of the Kypchak group of Turkic languages and are spoken throughout Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and as a minority language in Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Xinjiang (China). Uzbek and Uyghur are spoken in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Xinjiang (China).


The Turkic languages ( Johanson and Csató 1998) are spoken, with interruptions, in a broad belt stretching from the Balkans in the west through the Caucasus and Central Asia and into Siberia. Classification of the Turkic languages has always been problematic, in part because most of the languages are very close to one another linguistically, in part because population movements and even, in recent times, language politics have tended to overlay new distinctions on old ones.[footnoteRef:5] [5: (Mark Aronoff, Janie Rees Miller)]


Iranian languages were once spoken throughout Central Asia, such as the once prominent Sogdian, Khwarezmian (Horezm), Bactrian and Scythian languages are now extinct. Locally known as Dari (in Afghanistan), Tajik (by Tajiks in Tajikistan), Farsi (in Iran), and Bukhori (by the Bukharan Jews all over Central Asia).6

Persian spread to Central Asia from its home on the Iranian plateau during the 8th century C.E ., as the language of Iranian converts attached to the arrival of Arab Muslims. At the autonomous Samanid court of Bukhara (9th–10th centuries), Persian was patronized as the literary language and displaced the indigenous Iranian language, Sogdian (a descendent of which, Yaghnobi, survives in the mountains of western Tajikistan). As a written language, Persian of Central Asia was hardly distinguishable from Classical Persian of Iran, Afghanistan, and India up until the early 20th century. However, invasions and settlement by Turkic peoples (most recently, the Uzbeks) in the Oxus basin and its foothills interrupted the dialect continuum; spoken Persian of Central Asia evolved independently of Persian of Iran, and northern dialects in particular were strongly influenced by Turkish speech. Persian speakers of the region came to be called Tajiks (from a Middle Persian word meaning ‘Arab’), in contradistinction to Turks.[footnoteRef:6] [6: (Keith Brown, Sarah Ogilvie, 2008)]

After the Russian revolution, in accordance with Soviet nationalities policy, an ethnic Tajik republic was established and a literary language called ‘Tajik’ was engineered on a vernacular base close to the Uzbekized/Uzbekisized spoken Persian of Bukhara and Samarkand (these Tajik cultural centers, ironically, were incorporated in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic).[footnoteRef:7] [7: (Keith Brown, Sarah Ogilvie, 2008)]

During the period 1948–1988, Tajik lost much of its prestige, vocabulary, and domain of use, to Russian.

Tajiki is the overwhelmingly dominant language spoken in Tajikistan. Other Central Asian languages spoken in this country include Uzbek and Kyrgyz. There are also a number of small communities in the mountains of the Pamirs, Badakhshan, and Takharistan that speak languages belonging to the Eastern branch of Iranian languages, such as Wakhi, Shughnani, Rushan, Yazghulemi, and Ishkashemi; these languages differ significantly from Tajiki. Tajiki is a member of the Southwest Iranian family of languages, and more specifically is one of the three varieties of Persian, the others being Farsi (Iran) and Dari (Afghanistan).[footnoteRef:8] [8: (Map of Central Asia, 2012)]

a. Script and Dialect Issues:

Before 1929, Tajiki was written in an Arabic script. Latin script was introduced and adopted in the late 1920s, and was subsequently replaced by Cyrillic script in the early 1940s. Currently the Cyrillic alphabet is in use. The main dialect division in Tajiki is between the northwestern and southwestern group of dialects. The northwestern dialects, which are the basis of Standard Tajiki, are spoken in northern and western Tajikistan and southern Uzbekistan.

b. International languages:

Russian is widely used, especially in large urban centers. English has been gaining popularity among the youth since the collapse of the USSR.

Tajiki is the official language of Tajikistan.


In case of Turkmen language, almost its entire literature was in Persian till 18th century. Persian played a role of intellectual medium of communication among scholars, scientists and poets, etc. Actually it was only book language rather than being a communication mean in the Turkmen society. It was like the Sanskrit of India comparatively. After independence with the initiatives of first president of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov, “purification”/turmenization/standardization process were conducted in the country. Many literary works written by Turkmens before 18th century were translated into Turkmen to meet the necessity of Constitution with regard to the State Language and as a result of necessity of Education medium in public schools. The 1992 constitution defines it as the ‘‘official language of inter-ethnic communication.’’ Geographic names and administrative terms have been changed from Russian to Turkmen. In practice, however, Russian has maintained its importance in most spheres of public communication.[footnoteRef:9] [9: (Keith Brown, Sarah Ogilvie, 2008, p. 1117)]

The sole official language of Turkmenistan is Turkmen, a Turkic language. Turkmen in its nature is very close to Uzbek, Crimean Tatar, and other Turkic languages. And also very close to Azerbeyjani and Turkish in its structure and grammar. Its lexifiers are mostly Arabic, Persian, and Russian.

Written Turkmen has gone through a vast number of different alphabets. Prior to 1929, Turkmen was written in the Arabic script. Between 1929 and 1938, a Latin alphabet was used. Then, from 1938 through 1991, the Cyrillic alphabet became the official writing system. In 1991, a new Latinate alphabet was introduced, but it has been slow to catch on.[footnoteRef:10] [10: (Abazov, 2007, p. 56)]

Turkmen is the overwhelmingly dominant language spoken in Turkmenistan. Other Central Asian languages spoken by the minority representatives include Uzbek (9%) and Kazakh. Turkmen belongs to the East Oghuz branch of the Turkic languages.[footnoteRef:11] [11: (Map of Central Asia, 2012)]

a. Script and Dialect Issues:

Prior to 1929, Turkmen was written in a adjusted Arabic letters. Latin script was introduced and adopted in late 1920s, and was subsequently replaced by Cyrillic script in early 1940s. In 1991, the current Latin alphabet was introduced. And then it underwent some editing in 1995, and a new version of Turkmen alphabet was introduced. Elder people who were taught with Cyrillic alphabet experienced difficulty in learning new alphabet. So government organized free courses to teach people how to write and read in new alphabet. Those who do not work in government did not even bother going and taking these courses, so they were going to face some problems in reading newspapers, bank cheques, and filling form in an office, etc. The Cyrillic was no longer valid in the country, everybody who needs to read and write in Turkmen would have to learn the alphabet. Elderly people immediate learned the alphabet because this new alphabet was already the alphabet of Turkmen language during USSR in 1920s.

There is no consensus among scholars on the exact number of Turkmen dialects. Major dialects include Teke, Yomut, Salir, Sarik, Goklen, Arsari, and Chowdur. Most linguists believe that modern written Turkmen is based on the Teke and Yomut dialects. Unlike European and other Asian countries there are very less number of protest against the dominant languages in this country. It is because the governments are Authoritarian and people have experienced the freedom of speaking their own language during USSR. Additionally, Turkmenistan is the most homogeneous nation country in Central Asia. Take the case in Kazakistan, Russians are almost consisting half of the entire nation. And there has been some examples of protests against Kazakh language as a National Language.

Even though the country is homogeneous nation, dialects are very crucial in social life. A person from a rural area coming to Ashgabat (capital city in Turkmenistan) has to adjust his/her accent/dialect according to the people living in Ashgabat as a matter of what is acceptable there. Speaking a different dialect in Ashgabat may end up with social suppression, so people never mind being bilingual sometimes (Russian is preferred as a communication mean). And also, other nationalities do the same when they interact with Turkmens in the country they use Russian as lingua franca.

b. International languages:

Russian (12%) is widely used, especially in large urban centers. Other popular foreign languages are Turkish and Persian, due to their linguistic (Turkish) and geographic (Iran) proximity. Additionally, languages spoken in Turkmenistan include Uzbek (9%), Dari (Persian), Baluchi (minority group.[footnoteRef:12] [12: (Map of Central Asia, 2012)]

c. Magtymguly (Pen Name Pyragy or Fragi) (1733?–1782?)

Magtymguly is one of the best examples of the trend toward an increasing usage of the Turkic language in literature and poetry. Turkmen authors often compare Magtymguly to Shakespeare; in contemporary Turkmenistan, he is considered to be the founder of modern Turkmen poetry, literature, and language. He probably began writing his first poems at the age of 20. Many of them are devoted to his people and to humanistic ideals. He also describes the devastating effects of tragic social and political events, such as wars and tribal clashes, on the lives of ordinary people. He courageously experimented with new forms of poetry and made wide use of the simple language of ordinary Turkmens. Magtymguly’s writing significantly affected the development of the Turkmen language and the literature of his time. Many of his poems became popular songs and were widely known among Turkmens and other Turkic speaking people. Much of his work was written in the best Sufi tradition and is devoted to Love: love of woman, of the Creator, and of his country. [footnoteRef:13] [13: (Abazov, p. 89)]

A war would never catch a Turkmen unaware;

Its past hardship the country would put behind;

The roses would never wither here—among them none

Would whine about being parted with gleemen of Turkmenistan.

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The brotherhood here—tradition; and friendship—the law

Of the glorious clans and powerful tribes,

And if a battle called the people to take arms,

The enemies would tremble before sons of Turkmenistan.[footnoteRef:14] [14: (Pyragy, 1989)]

—Makhtumkuli, Goshgulary (Verses),

(Ashkhabad: Turkmenistan, 1989), p. 15.


Kazakh is the mother tongue of the majority (65%) of the population of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Until recently, Kazakh was rarely used in administration and government. However, in recent years the general attitude toward Kazakh has been changing, and government bodies have been switching to Kazakh. Other Central Asian languages spoken by minority peoples include Tatar, Uyghur and Uzbek. Kazakh belongs to the Kipchak subdivision of the Turkic languages. The distinctive characteristics of this language are vowel harmony and extensive agglutination.

1. Script and Dialect Issues:

Kazakh was written in the Arabic alphabet until the twentieth century. Latin script was introduced and adopted in late 1920s, and was subsequently replaced by Cyrillic script in early 1940s. The key dialects generally recognized within Kazakh are Northeastern Kazakh, Southern Kazakh, and Western Kazakh. According to some scholars, the dialect differences are minor.

Kazakh belongs to the northwestern or Kipchak branch of the Turkic language family, more specifically to its southern or Aralo-Caspian group. Until the early 20th century, it was called Kazak-Kirghiz, whereas Kirghiz was referred to as Kara-Kirghiz. Kazakh is primarily spoken in the Republic of Kazakhstan, a vast country situated at the center of the West Eurasian steppe zone. It borders on Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China in the south, and on the Russian Federation in the north andwest. Kazakh is also spoken by minorities in Xinjiang (China), Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, etc. The number of speakers is at least 10 million. There are more than seven million in Kazakhstan, more than one million in Xinjiang, and almost one million in Uzbekistan.

Kazakh is, along with Russian, the official language of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Kazakh–Russian bilingualism is widespread. Though Kazakhs constitute half of the population of the republic, many have a low proficiency in their mother tongue. Russians make up 37% of the population. The declaration of Kazakh as the state language in 1989 was met by protests from the non-Kazakh population. In 1995, Russian was proclaimed the language of interethnic communication. Russian has a dominant status in public life as the main language of instruction, science, business, and communication in professional domains.

Karakalpak, an independent language in the political sense, is a slightly Uzbekicized variety of Kazakh. It is spoken by c. 450 000 persons, mainly in the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan, on the lower course and in the delta of the Amudarya River. Small groups of speakers live in other regions, e.g., in the Khorezm and Fergana regions of Uzbekistan and in the Dashkhowuz region of Turkmenistan.

2. International languages:

Russian is widely spoken by the majority of the country’s population. Russian's ethnic Germans and Koreans were also deported to Kazakhstan around the time of World War II; most have either emigrated back to their homelands or adopted Russian as their main language. English has been gaining popularity among the youth since the collapse of USSR; another more or less popular spoken foreign language is Turkish.

While the current 1995 constitution defines Kazakh as the sole state language, there are two official languages – Russian and Kazakh.


Kirghiz belongs to the Northwestern or Kipchak branch of the Turkic language family, more specifically, to its Southern or Aralo-Caspian group. Until the early 20th century, it was called Kara-Kirghiz, whereas Kazakh was referred to as Kirghiz or Kazak-Kirghiz. Kirghiz is spoken in the Kyrgyz Republic or Kyrgyzstan and in parts of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China (Xinjiang), the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, etc. Its main area is the mountainous part of Western Turkistan, the plateaus of the western Tienshan south of Kazakhstan, and the Alay Mountain south of Fergana. The number of speakers amounts to about 3 million, in Kyrgyzstan over 2.5 million. In spite of the existence of a modern Kirghiz standard language, Russian has remained the dominant language of higher education, administration, and so forth in the Republic. Since Kirghiz was proclaimed the official language of Kyrgyzstan in 1989, it has consolidated its position, acquiring more social functions.

In 1996, Russian was made an official language, along with Kirghiz, in territories and workplaces in which Russian-speaking citizens predominate.

Origin and History

It is still unclear to what extent the Kirghiz of today are successors of the Old Kirghiz, the first Turkic people mentioned in Chinese sources and described there as blond and blue-eyed. This group settled on Upper Yenisey. Runiform inscriptions found on the territory of today’s Tuva indicate that the first Kirghiz state was, at the beginning of the 8th century A.D., located north of the Sayan Mountains. In 840 the Kirghiz ended the old steppe Uyghur empire and established

their own empire, which lasted until 920. Most old Turkic groups left this region at the turn of the millennium. A few groups remained in Siberia, (e.g., the ancestors of the Kirghiz and the Altay Turks).


The official language of Uzbekistan is Uzbek, a Turkic language. Uzbek is closely related to other Central Asian languages, including Turkmen, Kazakh, and Uigher (which is spoken in western China). Prior to 1922, Uzbek was written in the Latin script, but Joseph Stalin required that all the Central Asian languages switch to the Cyrillic script. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbek is officially written in Latin again. However, many people still use Cyrillic, and the deadline for a complete change-over continues to be pushed back.[footnoteRef:15] [15: (Szczepanski)]

Uzbekistan is home to 26.8 million people, the largest population in Central Asia. Eighty percent of the people are ethnic Uzbeks. The Uzbeks are a Turkic people, closely related to the neighboring Turkmen and Kazakhs.[footnoteRef:16] [16: (Szczepanski)]

Other ethnic groups represented in Uzbekistan include Russians (5.5%), Tajiks (5%), Kazakhs (3%), Karakalpaks (2.5%), and Tatars (1.5%).

Uzbek is the overwhelmingly dominant Central Asian language spoken in Uzbekistan. Other Central Asian languages spoken here include Tajiki, Kazakh and Karakalpak, spoken by Uzbekistan’s Tajik, Kazakh and Karakalpak minorities (5.5%, 3% and 2,5% respectively). Uzbek is an agglutinative language and belongs to the Qarluq branch of the Turkic languages. The vocabulary of Uzbek is influenced by Persian and Arabic, with many international words borrowed through Russian. Since late 1985, however, Uzbek vocabulary has undergone de-russification, in which the majority of Russian loanwords were replaced by native words.

Script and Dialect Issues:

A number of alphabets have been used to write the Uzbek language. Before 1928, the language was written in Arabic script. In 1929, the Arabic script was replaced by the new Latin alphabet, then in 1940 the Latin script was abolished and Uzbek switched to the Cyrillic alphabet. In 1993, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Latin script was re-introduced. Standard Uzbek is comprised of dialect varieties spoken in urban centres, such as Tashkent and Ferghana.

International languages:

As the lingua franca of the Soviet Union, Russian was overwhelmingly used in many important domains of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, particularly administration and higher education. Although Russian did not receive any official status after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is an important language for interethnic communication and still widely spoken, particularly in large urban areas. English has been gaining popularity among the youth since the collapse of USSR; another more or less popular foreign language is Turkish.

Uzbek has been the sole official language of the Republic of Uzbekistan since 1989.


Russian is widely spoken in Central Asia, though since 1991 its use has been in continuous decline. Literary Russian is based on the Moscow (central) dialect and is written in Cyrillic. Of the many Russian dialects that can be found in Russia proper, the Russian spoken in Central Asia is mostly the southern dialect of the language. But, also, Central Asian Russian speakers tend to use classical Russian, which has fewer borrowings from foreign languages, while in present-day Russia proper, the language of the streets and the mass media tends to contain more borrowed words, especially from English. The Russian language is still widely used in educational institutions across the Central Asian republics, especially at university level (with the exception of Turkmenistan).[footnoteRef:17] [17: ]


Ethnic minorities in Central Asian republics often use their own languages at home and in everyday life; for example, Germans speak various dialects of German languages, Tatars use Tatar language, and so on. Foreign languages such as English, German, and French were always popular among young people and were taught at schools and universities. In a recent trend,

there has been a sharp increase in the use of the Turkish language, as many students have received their education in the Turkish Republic and Turkey opened or supported many schools, colleges, and universities. Several private and semiprivate organizations launched newspapers in Turkish to target the Central Asian audience, with mixed results. Turkey also agreed to transmit its television and radio programs to the region, and their audience has been slowly but steadily growing. The Arabic language is also steadily gaining popularity as it is taught at all madrasas (religious Islamic schools), and many universities introduced Arabic studies in the 1990s.


  1. Abazov, R. (2007). Culture_and_Customs_of_the_Central_Asian_Republics. Westport, Connecticut • London: GREENWOOD PRESS.
  2. Keith Brown, Sarah Ogilvie. (2008). Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World. London: Elsevier Ltd.
  3. Map of Central Asia. (2012, November ). Retrieved from
  4. Mark Aronoff, Janie Rees Miller. The hand book of linguistics. Blackwell Publishers.
  5. Pyragy, M. (1989). Goshgulary (Verses). Ashgabat: Magaryf.
  6. Szczepanski, K. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  7. Trudgill, P. (2000). SOCIOLINGUISTICS. London: Penguin Books.
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