Friday, 1 July 2011

Xinjiang - siz Uyghurcha bilamsiz?

Uyghur is a Turkic language, one of the many spoken in a crossbow starting in Western China and finishing in European Turkey.  An estimated 180 million people are native speakers of a Turkic language.  Not surprisingly, Turkish is the most widely spoken Turkic language, with around 83 million native speakers.  Uyghur has between 8 and 10 million speakers, mostly in Western China, but also in other parts of Central Asia and parts of the world where the Uyghur diaspora has settled. 

The Uzbek connection

It really surprised me to learn that, according to modern Linguists, Uyghur is more closely related to Uzbek than it is to Kazakh and Kyrgyz.  When I lived in Uzbekistan, I had a choice of three languages to learn (Uzbek, Tajik or Russian) and I chose Russian, the safest and easiest option.  I did pick up the odd word of Uzbek and certainly got used to hearing the language spoken, in official meetings, at the University in Samarkand and on TV (although not usually at my friends' homes, where people spoke Tajik).  I also read a lot about Stalin's linguists and how they defined the Turkic languages of Central Asia in a way that gave a separate linguistic identity to the ethnic peoples of their newly-created Socialist republics.  I was left with the impression that Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Karakalpak and others were really a common language, superficially differentiated by Stalinist linguists.  I did feel that Uzbek sounded a bit different that the others, but put that down to the fact that my ear was more attuned to the intricacies of Uzbek phonetics.
Sign in Uzbek by Ole Rousing

Looking at the classifications of other 'western' linguists, I find Uzbek is included in a branch of Turkic languages called Chagatai or Southeastern Common Turkic.  Granted, Uzbek is in another separate branch within this grouping, but it still surprises me that Uzbek, despite the geographical distance from Western China, would be closer to Uyghur than Kazakh or Kyrgyz, which are right beside Uyghuristan in the geographical continuum. 

How languages are classified

Perhaps trying to decide whether Uyghur is closer to Uzbek than it is to Kazakh is splitting hairs somewhat and there are lots of other factors that come into play (historical, economic, political etc) when looking at how languages have influenced each other.  It would seem as though the Turkic group is very well-defined and the methods of classifying languages, eg. by vocabulary comparison, provide linguists with consistent and satisfying results.

A very obvious principle of historical linguistics is that the basic words for human existence, such as 'head', 'man', 'family', 'sun' should be similar in languages that share a common ancestor - whereas words for new technological developments, ie. things which might not have existed in the original culture but were introduced by other cultures, through trade or invasion, will generally result in a word that is borrowed from another language family.

Bilingual sign by Toasterhead
English is full of words that have been borrowed from French and Latin and you can imagine the English sitting on the floor eating pig with their fingers before the Norman invasion and sitting on chairs consuming pork with cutlery, after the Normans invaded!  In modern times, languages like Icelandic, German, Irish and Welsh have gone to great lengths to find more 'indigenous' ways of describing modern technological developments such as computers, television and radio.  

An analysis of Turkic vocabulary

As an experiment, I want to compare a range of words across some of the Turkic languages, to see how similar they really are.  I have included Chinese, Tajik and Mongolian to see what influence, if any, non-Turkic neighbours have had on Uyghur.  I've used Google Translate for Turkish and Chinese and there's a great website called which provided me with the translations to Uyghur that I needed.

English Turkish Uzbek Uyghur Tajik Mongolian Chinese
Man adam/erkek adam er/insan odam/inson erkin Nánzǐ
Mother Anne acha ana modar ech Mǔqīn
Sun güneş kun quayash/aptap oftob nar Yángguāng
Water su suv su ob oos Shuǐ
Finger parmak barmoq barmaq angusht khooroo Shǒuzhǐ
Dog köpek it it sag nokhoi Gǒu
Camel deve tuja töge shootoor teme Luòtuo
Rice pirinç plov gürüch birinch tutarga Shuǐdào
Arrow ok uq oq/tir tir soom Jiàntóu
Train tren poyezd poyuz poyezd galt tereg Huǒchē
Television televizyon televizor téléwiziye televizor televiziin gazar Diànshì
Computer bilgisayar kompyuter kompyutér kompyuter kompyuter Jìsuànjī
electricity elektrik svet éléktir/tok barkh tsakheelgan Diànlì
Airport havaalanı aeroport ayriport furudgokh niisekh ongotsni buudal Jīchǎng
election seçim saylov saylam intikhob songool' Xuǎnjǔ

It's obvious from this comparison that there are fundamental links between Uyghur and the other Turkic languages.  There are a few similarities with Tajik but Chinese influence isn't very apparent from this list, except perhaps with the 'w' sound in téléwiziye, which seems more like Chinese than Russian.

Interestingly, modern Turkish tends to look for more Turkic-sounding words for modern inventions, like the Turkish words for airport and computer.  The influence of Mongolian seems to have been negligible, although one of the most interesting comparisons was the word for 'water', which seems to be similar in the Turkic languages, Mongolian and even Chinese.

If you want to hear what Uyghur sounds like, I'm pasting in a video from YouTube.  The best thing I could find is a video by Christian missionaries, which is a telling insight into the extent of Western interest in modern Uyghur language. 

Image credits and references:

I have a few reference books on Linguistics, that I use when I'm researching for this blog.  One of them is  Kenneth Katzner's The Languages of the World, which is my 'bible' of language classification.

The sign written in Uzbek, warning drivers to beware of oncoming trains, is from flickuser olerousing who is from Oslo in Norway.  You can find out more about Ole on his blog

The sign showing a bilingual sign in Uyghur and Chinese is by flickruser toasterhead who is originally from Long Island but now lives in Arlington, Virginia.  You can see more on his blog:
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