Articles on Central Asia: Variety of languages

The Soviet Union as a multilingual and multicultural socialist society has been officially committed to the development of communism on the one hand, and, on the other, to the development and growth of various languages and the ethnic groups speaking them. One requires a standardized proletarian culture and presumably also a standardized language and the other strives for some form of linguistic if not cultural pluralism. This inherent tension between centripetal and centrifugal forces in the Soviet multicultural society, has resulted in a linguistic policy which has alternately emphasized either centrism or pluralism. In turn, these changing emphases can be viewed as reflexes of the political situation at various points in modern Soviet history. The adoption of the Cyrillic script opened the door for the Central Asian languages to be influenced by Russian in the lexical, phonological, morphological, and even syntactic domains. Perhaps the most obvious influence has been the massive influx of Russian terms into these languages. Many languages in the young Soviet state, including those in Central Asia, were perceived to be deficient in the lexical domains considered to be most important in a Communist society, namely the language of Marxism, Soviet political structure, science and technology, and industrialization. Thus, it was necessary to introduce into the languages terms which expressed these concepts. Knowing Russian used to be a key to success in Central Asia.

In the 20 years since the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union became independent, the influence of the Russian language has been declining in these countries. Just two decades ago, Russian was a tongue common to Central Asians, but now many young people cannot speak it at all. One result was that local languages were marginalized, and many Central Asians lost touch with their own cultures. Independence brought an opportunity to restore the balance. That effort has been made somewhat easier by the wholesale departure of a large percentage of the Russian-speaking population. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which both have large Russian-speaking minorities, the changes have been relatively slow.

Kyrgyz is a member of the Central Turkic (or Aralo-Caspian) group of languages which also includes Kazakh and other less well-known languages. Central Turkic is a subgroup of Common Turkic which also includes Turkish, Azerbaijani, Tartar, Uighur, Uzbek, and others. The Turkic languages, and the Mongolian-Tungus (Manchu-Tungusic) languages of Siberia and northeastern China are major divisions of the Altaic family or phylum (see Ruhlen 1987).  The dialects of Kyrgyz can be divided into Northern and Southern. Standard Kyrgyz is based on the northern varieties, which have a large number of word borrowings from Mongolian languages. The Northern dialect was influenced by Kazakh, while the Southern dialect was influenced by Uzbek. Within the Southern dialect, a distinction is sometimes made between the South Eastern and the South Western dialects. The Southern dialects are also strongly influenced by such Iranian languages as Persian and Tajik.

Uzbek is the official language of Uzbekistan, where about 15 million speak it as their first language. It is also found spoken in the neighboring countries of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. Uzbek is a member of the Eastern Turkic (or Karlik) group of languages which also includes Uighur. Eastern Turkic is a subgroup of Common Turkic which also includes Turkish, Azerbaijani, Tartar, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, and others. The Turkic languages, and the Mongolian-Tungus (Manchu-Tungusic) languages of Siberia and northeastern China are major divisions of the Altaic family or phylum (see Ruhlen 1987). Some experts also consider Japanese and Korean part of this phylum, although evidence of this is debated. The Uzbeks have played an important role in their region since the beginning of the fifteenth century, when present-day Uzbek began to take shape in the fifteenth century during the modern Turkic period. At that time, a strong cultural movement advocating the use of Uzbek emerged, which led to the creation of a rich Uzbek literature, a large part of which remains unstudied. The literary language of the period has Arabic and Tajik influences especially in the area of word borrowing.

Turkmen is a member of the Southern Turkic (or Oghuz, also Southwestern) group of languages which also includes Azerbaijani, Crimean Tartar, Turkish, and other less well-known languages. Southern Turkic is a subgroup of Common Turkic which also includes Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uighur, Uzbek, and others. All of the Turkic languages are closely related and mutual intelligibility is high. Turkmen was made the state language of the Republic of Turkmenistan in May of 1990. Turkmen (sometimes along with Russian) is used for administrative, judicial, and other official proceedings. Turkmen is the medium of instruction in the majority of the schools in Turkmenistan, but a few schools in the urban areas have some instruction in Russian. In 1988 more than three quarters of pupils in day schools studied at Turkmen medium schools. Until the early 1990's most institutions of higher learning were Russian language institutions, but recently there have been attempts to develop courses taught in Turkmen. In addition, special courses designed to teach Turkmen to adults are taught in the workplace.

Tajik is  closely related to the Persian spoken in Iran and Afghanistan that Tajik is sometimes considered as a dialect of Persian. Because of intense contact with Turkic language speakers, however, and a high rate of bilingualism with Uzbek and Kyrgyz, Tajik has been more influenced by Turkic than Persian has . The vocabulary of Persian and Tajik have diverged because Tajik borrowed so many terms from Russian, especially political, cultural, and technical terms, and because Persian borrowed more from western European languages. Dari Persian (spoken in Afghanistan) is often called Tajik by Russian linguists. The main dialect division in Tajik is between the northwestern and southwestern group of dialects . The northwestern dialects, which are the basis of Standard Tajik, are spoken in northern and western Tajikistan and southern Uzbekistan. The dialects of the cities of Ferghana, Samarkhand, Bukhara, Hisar, and Karatag and of the Baysun region are all part of the northwestern group, while the dialects spoken in the cities of Matcha and Falghar seem to form their own subgroup. The most northern northwestern dialects have the most turkicized structure.

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