How mutually intelligible are the Turkic languages?
December 9, 2007 10:48 AM   Subscribe

How mutually intelligible are the Turkic languages? Would Turkish help me get around Central Asia?

I've always been fascinated by the Turkic languages, even more so after traveling in Xinjiang and picking up some Uyghur. I'd really like to learn Uyghur or Uzbek, but my learning resources are very limited - even in Xinjiang, there aren't very many "Learn Uyghur" books for Mandarin speakers; most of them are just phrasebooks. I have a feeling I'd like to go back to Xinjiang and see more of Central Asia, but I want to be able to speak with the locals.

I figure it won't be very difficult to learn Turkish, since there are so many books available here, but would it be useful? I'd like to see Turkey someday, but I'm way more interested in seeing the -stans for now. Assuming I learned to speak Turkish reasonably well, would I be understood in the -stans? How about Xinjiang? Tuva? Yakutia? How far can Turkish take me?
posted by pravit to Writing & Language (15 answers total)
I know the Turkic languages are close relatives compared to other language families, but I'm pretty sure people in Central Asia won't understand Turkish. You'll want to pick up the Lonely Planet Central Asia Phrasebook, which has sections on Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Pashto, Tajik, Tashkorghani, Turkmen, Uyghur and Uzbek. There's also material online: Oxus, for instance, has stuff like Mark Dickens's Introduction to the Uzbek Language. And of course if you get serious about it there are textbooks like András J. E. Bodrogligeti's Modern Literary Uzbek. Good luck!
posted by languagehat at 11:54 AM on December 9, 2007

Hey, thanks for the answer, languagehat! I've heard of the Central Asia phrasebook, but I was looking for a more systematic way of learning the Turkic languages. I guess what I'm really wondering is if there's some sort of Turkic "lingua franca" that everyone in the Central Asian countries could understand.
posted by pravit at 12:04 PM on December 9, 2007

Your Turkish will be helpful everywhere but Tajikistan. I second the Central Asian Phrasebook.
posted by k8t at 12:08 PM on December 9, 2007

I'd like to see Turkey someday, but I'm way more interested in seeing the -stans for now. Assuming I learned to speak Turkish reasonably well, would I be understood in the -stans?

It might help a little with figuring out signs and written material, but not enough and not enough to talk to people. You might still do okay with Russian for most of them, although that's a political issue.
posted by dilettante at 12:11 PM on December 9, 2007

Your Turkish will be helpful everywhere but Tajikistan.

Helpful in the sense that I could say something in Turkish and people would understand me, or helpful in the sense that it would allow me to more quickly learn to speak the local languages?
posted by pravit at 12:11 PM on December 9, 2007

There's some mutual intelligibility between Turkish and Azeri (I'm told) that actually means one could make oneself understood conversationally from one to the other. Between other forms, I can't say, though I'm sure learning any of these languages would certainly be an enormous help in learning any of the others. I also suspect that such things as decoding menus would be much easier too. Plenty of places maintain that there is a high level of mutual intelligibility between all these Turkic languages (do a Google search on "Turkic" and "mutual intelligibility"), but few of them get very specific.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:32 PM on December 9, 2007

Helpful = you'll be generally understood and you'll be able to generally figure out what people are talking about. Also people consume a lot of Turkish media in the -stans, so they level of knowledge of Turkish is pretty high.

The further east you go, the less similar the Turkic languages are to Turkish. As Dee says, Azebaijani is pretty close. Kazakh and Turkmen are pretty similar, but less so than Azeri. Uzbek is further away...
posted by k8t at 1:00 PM on December 9, 2007

I would have thought that Russian might be more of a lingua franca in the 'stans. It was when I was working in Turkmenistan ca. 1999. I know there has been a de-Russification effort (at least until old Turkmenbashi popped his clogs), but I'm not sure how successful that has been and I would suspect that folk memory would endure longer than a decade (I realise the OP was asking about the utility of Turkish).

When I was working in T'stan, people said that Turkmen was like 13th Century Turkish (presumably before it was purged of all of its Arabic and Persian influences).

My friend from Azerbaijan used to be able to fake Turkish pretty well.
posted by sagwalla at 1:11 PM on December 9, 2007

Great answers so far. I do speak Russian, although I'm unsure how much of a "stigma" it carries in the Central Asian countries, if any.

Even if I never go to Central Asia, I'm interested in learning a Turkic language for purely academic purposes. Linguists, is there one Turkic language in particular that you would consider, I don't know how to express it, an "archetypical" Turkic language? Like, relatively similar to all other Turkic languages, and not having too many peculiarities of its own?

I really want to be able to speak the language too, so I'm leaning towards learning the language which has the most accessible audio learning materials, which happens to be Turkish - there's even a free FSI course online!

I have an Uyghur phrasebook with tape that I bought in China, but the phrases aren't so helpful if I don't understand the grammar. I also have this cool book "大众维语"(Uyghur for the masses) that takes a bit more of a systematic approach, but has no tapes. I'm digesting it slowly. I'm like the last guy who would learn or not learn a language based on its usefulness, but I'm wondering if Turkish would be more useful than Uyghur if I'm really going to sit down and learn a Turkic language (I'm thinking in terms of usefulness in terms of having stuff to read or TV shows/movies to watch, too). I'm pretty good at learning languages that are very different from each other, but notoriously bad at learning similar languages, so I think I'm only going to pick one.
posted by pravit at 1:43 PM on December 9, 2007

So, just in case someone skips over it, in terms of "stigma", is speaking Russian in a Central Asian country like speaking Russian in the Baltic countries, or like speaking Russian in Ukraine?

Also, would speaking a Turkic language that's not the local Turkic language be perceived as culturally insensitive? The Kygryz I met in Xinjiang didn't seem to like it very much when I tried to speak with them in Uyghur.
posted by pravit at 1:47 PM on December 9, 2007

David just posted a truly awesome answer on my blog, which I will reproduce here, since he doesn't have an account:

Responding to your ask mefi question (I don't have an acct...)--

Although not a linguist, recently I have been doing research on Soviet language policies (from a political standpoint). In addition to the fact that Turkic languages are separate languages, Soviet policies had a "divide and conquer" effect of further separating Turkic languages. As a result, politics had the bizarre effect of actually changing local speech patterns...

Your best bet in many of these areas might be Russian (a similar percentage in many of these nations speak Russian as Europeans speak English). To be honest, I am not sure if there is a stigma attached to Russian language (as in Ukraine)-- but at least you would be intelligible.

If you are set on learning a local, non-Russian language, there are a number of issues to consider:

1) Under the principles of a dialect continuum, a centrally located language (Turkmen maybe) makes the most sense to be intelligible to the most number of people.

2) A colleague told me that the Oghuz branch of the Turkic languages is significantly mutually intelligible. This is like the sort of stories I have heard about Slavic languages -- two retirees, a Pole and a Bulgarian, speaking together in their separate native languages and still understanding 3/4 of the conversation. Incredible.

The Oghuz branch includes some of the larger languages (Turkish, Turkmen, Azerbaijani, etc.) -- making this plan easier.

3) The BEST place to learn central eurasian languages quickly is a summer workshop held at Indiana University:

It is possible to learn a typical "year" of a language in 8 dedicated weeks at the workshop, and the offerings are pretty wide.

But, it is necessary to again point out that a language is generally called a language (and not a dialect) for a reason - significant differences among spoken speech. It will be impossible, no matter what, to have a meaningful conversation with every person you meet from Turkey to China unless you learn dozens of languages.

Best of luck.
posted by pravit at 2:25 PM on December 9, 2007

I just wanted to add that that Indiana program seems really, really cool. I might go and do it. Any other Mefites thinking of going?
posted by pravit at 2:31 PM on December 9, 2007

Any other Mefites thinking of going?

I'm looking at it -- let's be in touch.
posted by fake at 4:32 PM on December 9, 2007

I did the Indiana program for Azerbaijani. It was awesome.
posted by k8t at 11:07 AM on December 10, 2007

That program looks awesome. A friend of mine (on here occasionally as 'taschenrechner') managed to teach himself some Uyghur when he was living in Shenzhen, but I don't know what he used.
posted by bokane at 8:59 AM on December 24, 2007

« Older Help me read Being and Time!   |   My TV doesn't boot Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.