LINGUIST List 2.576

Fri 27 Sep 1991

Disc: Turkic

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  1. Dan I. Slobin, Re: 2.563 Queries
  2. , Soviet Turkic languages
  3. , Re: Soviet Turkic Languages (2.563 Queries)

Message 1: Re: 2.563 Queries

Date: Fri, 27 Sep 91 00:14:40 -0700
From: Dan I. Slobin <slobincogsci.Berkeley.EDU>
Subject: Re: 2.563 Queries
Reply to John Philips on Turkish languages:
I speak Turkish fluently, and can sort of get along with
an Azeri speaker--rather like Spanish and Italian, perhaps.
There are a number of distinct Turkic languages, with
long and separate literary traditions. They all are
transparently related, as, e.g., Romance or Slavic
languages, and one can interpret a fair amount. But
they are certainly NOT mutually comprehensible. Nor was
there a common pan-Turkic language in pre-Soviet times--
unless one goes back to the sixth century or earlier, when
the population was less scattered. A good source is the
section on Turkic languages in Bernard Comrie's compendium,
_The languages of the Soviet Union_ (Cambridge University
Press, 1981). He divides the languages into five major
groups, covering a range from Siberia into the Balkans,
spoken by peoples who are Muslims, Christians, Jews,
Buddhists and shamanists.
Dan Slobin (
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Message 2: Soviet Turkic languages

Date: 27 Sep 91 16:15
From: <>
Subject: Soviet Turkic languages
I'm not an expert on Turkic languages, but I do have some first-hand
experience with other Soviet languages and the Soviet situation in general.
 In evaluating claims by speakers of Turkish that they understand Azeri or
Kazakh, one has to take into account various manifestations of a pan-Turkic
ideology that was very influential before 1917 and may become more important
in the future (witness the recent state visit of Kazakhstan's president
Nazarbaev to Ankara).
 The Soviet (or ex-Soviet) Turkic languages did not have a written form
that was in widespread use before 1917. As far as I know, the small educated
class knew Ottoman Turkish, which was close enough to their speech to be learnt
with some amount of formal instruction. It seems that the situation was quite
comparable to the Arabic diglossia today. Given such a situation, the Soviet
regime did not have to make special efforts to make the Turkic speakers'
languages maximally different, they just had to make the written languages
conform closely to the spoken varieties. It is true that the bolsheviks
did not choose to make Ottoman Turkish the standard language in all those
areas (as the pan-Turkists would have liked), but I would still maintain
that their language policies were better for the people than the czar's.
 It is also true that the Cyrillic spelling systems of the Soviet Turkic
languages present an additional obstacle to mutual comprehension, but again
I am not convinced that this must be attributed to Moscow's influence.
All Moscow had to do in 1939 (when the Turkic languages had to switch to
the Cyrillic alphabet) was not to convene a pan-Soviet Turkic conference
(as they had done in 1926, when the Latin alphabet was introduced), with the
result that the local people came up with quite different solutions. And
sometimes one gets the impression that the smaller Turkic peoples like their
unique orthographies because they make their languages look special and
different from all the others. The Turkic peoples simply did not manage
to develop a sense of unity before they were swallowed up by the Russian
Martin Haspelmath, Free University of Berlin
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Message 3: Re: Soviet Turkic Languages (2.563 Queries)

Date: Fri, 27 Sep 91 15:58:58 EDT
From: <jdbobaljAthena.MIT.EDU>
Subject: Re: Soviet Turkic Languages (2.563 Queries)
John Phillips asked some questions about the Soviet Turkic languages.
I can't answer most of them, but as regards:
"...whether their speakers consider them separate
I can provide some insight, having just returned from Kirghizstan and
Uzbekistan. Certainly the militant nationalists of any of the groups
will tell you that the languages are completely different (and often
that their language is far superior), but this is obviously a somewhat
tainted view. The people I met who did not feel as strongly about the
nationalistic divisions which have caused much of the recent violence,
though, agreed that the "languages" (eg. Uzbek and Kirghiz) were
distinct, though mutually intelligible "once you get used to it".
Phonologically, there are certain differences - some people there
tried to explain to me that the Kirghiz language sounded "harder -
more guttural" than Uzbek, and many ethnic Russians from the area can
pick up the accent differences between (at least) Kirghiz and Uzbek.
There are also some lexical differences, which I noticed on signs here
and there, and from talking to people, though for the most part it
appeared that most of the lexicon was the same.
The impression I came home with was that the "languages" are in the
fuzzy region between "distinct languages" and "different dialects".
That's something for others to argue about, but again, to answer that
part of John's question -
The speakers do consider them seperate languages.
-Jonathan Bobaljik
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