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A Turkic World unto Itself

Michael Erdman is the Curator of Turkish and Turkic collections at the British Library. He is also one of our most important advisors on Central Asian history. In this concise yet dense paper, Erdman outlines the history of Turkic peoples and their various divisions. 

Despite romanticised claims that one can travel from the Balkans to China without using anything other than Turkish, the Turkic world exhibits an incredible amount of diversity. Turkic languages are believed to have originated somewhere in Central Asia – perhaps the Altai region – and then spread outward from there. Today, they are the official languages of seven different independent states, and are recognized as sub-national, regional or minority languages in a host of other countries. The languages are divided into regional branches, generally named after historic communities tied together by socio-economic bonds and lineage, such as the Oghuz or the Kipchak sub-families. A high degree of mutual intelligibility exists within these sub-families, with far less intelligibility noted between them. Chuvash and Yakut, in particular, are outliers that have not undergone many of the same diachronic changes noted in the other Turkic idioms. They, together with a number of smaller Turkic linguistic communities, are also unique in their lack of terminology borrowed from Arabic and Persian, the two dominant languages of Islam. The Muslim faith was accepted by most Turkic communities from the 9th century CE onward, paving the way for a massive influx of Arabic and Persian loanwords and grammatical structures.

From about the 14th century until the early 20th century, two literary languages dominated the Turkic world: Ottoman and Chaghatai. The former was an Oghuz dialect that became the court language of the Ottoman Empire, and thus held sway over this particular polity, as well as the regions within its sphere of influence, such as the Caucasus and Crimea. Chaghatai, on the other hand, bore greater affinity to the Kipchak languages, and was used by communities in Central Asia, Siberia, western China and northern India, especially following the collapse of Uyghur cultural dominance. To be certain, there are examples of cultural production and lexicography in other dialects, but these two languages reigned supreme in cultural production until the 19th century. By this time, a considerably large gulf of diglossia had opened up between the court or literary languages and the speech patterns of everyday speakers (Çobanzadə 1926a). This, in turn, gave birth to efforts to modify and/or simplify the languages and systems of education in order to bring the vehicles of instruction and cultural production closer to the popular idioms. In Central Asia, Siberia, the Caucasus and Crimea, this development formed part of a movement called Jadidism, from the Arabic word jadīd, meaning “new”. In the Ottoman Empire, on the other hand, intellectual circles utilized what little freedom of expression was available under the reign of Abdülhamit II in order to discuss the severity of and solutions to the language problem. These debates became fiery public disputes following the 1905 Revolution in Russia and the 1908 Constitutional Revolution in the Ottoman Empire (Atabaki 2002, 221; Kushner 1977, 15).

Before discussing these developments, a short note on the relationship between language and people. While the origin of the Turkic languages is largely accepted to be somewhere in Central Asia, the relationship between contemporary speakers and the original linguistic communities has long been fraught with controversy (see, for example, Barthold 1963, 775; Saffet 1930; Barthold 1973, 395). Language, race and ethnicity rarely overlap neatly, and this particular case is no exception. Chinese chronicles appear to contain the earliest descriptions of communities calling themselves “Turks” (from before the Common Era), but the exact meaning of this word is hazy at best. Some historians have opted to see it as an ethnonym, while other argue that it was a political or social identifier, thereby allowing its users to adopt and discard it at will. The use of the words Turkand Turkic continue to be controversial in historiographical contexts, as their application has long been co-opted by political groups on the right and left in a number of different countries. For the purpose of this study, I will use the word “Turkic” to refer only to communities in which Turkic languages are spoken, and remain agnostic regarding the saliency of its use to describe ethno-national or lineage groupings.

This issue is about more than simple heuristics; it is a longstanding one that gave rise to considerable debate among intellectuals during the latter half of the 19th century and the start of the 20th. Whereas later nationalists would seek to find the true roots of the Turkic community in an ideated pre-historic ethnic or racial group, those of the 19th century generally eschewed an interest in racial belonging in order to focus on linguistic matters. Some argued for the use of written texts in order to concretize the uniqueness and separateness of ethno-linguistic communities such as the Kazakhs or the Tatars, while other urged their compatriots to adopt a common, unifying Turkic language that would reflect both a shared heritage and a forward-looking approach to education and literacy (see Doğramacıoğlu 2010). As such, their acts of writing and publishing became intensely political manifestations of their will to make tangible the identity of their communities. This was a time before the emergence of standardized languages and idioms, and the names applied by pre-Revolutionary intellectuals often failed to resonate among the masses, for whom lineage, religion, locality and profession were more likely to feature in their auto-denomination than ethno-linguistic appellations.

All of this changed, however, with the consolidation of Soviet power. Under the dominant nationalities policy, based upon Stalin’s 1913 tract On Nationality, nations were a component of the capitalist stage of development and were defined by four characteristics: a common language; a common territory; a common economy; and a common psychological cast (I. Stalin 1913, 4). Here, the vernacular suddenly rose in importance, and was used a deciding factor in dividing up previously amorphous overlapping communities of similar but distinct socio-economic and linguistic identifiers (see, for example, Ryskulov 1984a, 120–21). With respect to periodical culture, the important point is that those who sought to use publications as a means of signalling separation and uniqueness appear to have won out. State support for distinct national identities helped shape the new aesthetics of these magazines, even if they did not necessarily give space to linguistic differences. Nonetheless, they do all feature the names of the Turkic nations and collectivities that we recognize today: Azeri, Tatar, Crimean, Kazakh, Uzbek, Bashkir. A strict, ideologically-based division of peoples would only come into force in the 1930s, but even by the 1920s the beginnings of this process of nation-naming was in full swing, and publishing was very much a part of it.