Linguistic Diversity of Uzbekistan

By Iroda Nodir

I don’t remember when exactly I started speaking Russian, but for 13 years it was the language I spoke best. I speak Uzbek, Russian, and English and I learned them in that order. After immigrating in 2008, English became my dominant language. It may be obvious by now – I am Uzbek, born and raised in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. There are many Uzbeks with stories like mine, but I do not claim to represent all Uzbeks. Still, I want to share a bit of my story and what I know about the linguistic diversity in Uzbekistan because it is important to me that people know more about my country.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is a doubly landlocked country in Central Asia that shares its borders with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan. There is only one other country in the world that is also doubly landlocked – Liechtenstein in Europe, surrounded by landlocked Switzerland and Austria.

Uzbekistan is a former republic of the Soviet Union. It is the most populated country in Central Asia with over 32.3 million people as of 2018. Most of its population consists of Uzbeks who live harmoniously with 20% of non-Uzbeks: Tajiks, Karakalpaks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz people, Uygurs, Dungan people, Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Koreans, Iranians, Armenians, Georgians, Azerbaijanis, Tatars, Bashkirs, Germans, Lithuanians, Greeks, and Turks. Are any of these surprising to you?

In terms of religion, most Uzbeks are Muslim (Sunni) but I grew up among Jews, Orthodox Christians and atheists as well. 

Linguistically, each of the ethnic groups listed above speaks their own language or dialect but most often you’ll hear Uzbek and Russian as you walk through the streets of Uzbekistan’s cities. Both are taught in schools and many are bilingual. The official language of Uzbekistan is Uzbek. 

The ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity of Uzbekistan is due to the historical events that took place on its territory, occupied by a variety of people at different times. While this would require a whole separate article to explain, I will do my best to summarize. Throughout history, migration between countries in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe was common, whether influenced by Silk Road trading routes, Soviet construction projects, or the hunger to control natural resources. During the Second World War, many families living in other Soviet republics were evacuated to Uzbekistan, including Russians, Tatars, Armenians, Ukrainians, Germans, Jews, and Belorussians. When Stalin became the leader of the Soviet Union, entire communities of Koreans, Crimean Tatars, Chechens, and others were deported to Uzbekistan.

It may be surprising, but Uzbek and Russian are nothing alike. While there was a time when Uzbek was written in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet (more on this later), Uzbek and Russian are not from the same origin and do not sound even remotely similar.

Russian

Russian is an East Slavic language and is in the same family as Ukrainian and Belarusian. Russian is written in Cyrillic script, reminiscent of the Greek alphabet. Here’s what it sounds like and this is what it looks like: “Привет! Меня зовут Ирода и я люблю своего кота.” Okay, now let’s break this sentence down. Привет means hi. Меня зовут Ирода means my name is Iroda, but if it were to be translated literally, word for word, it would be I’m called Iroda or they call me Iroda. The inverse n-looking letter, the word и means and. The last part of the sentence translates to I love my cat. It’s true, I do love my cat. But I chose this sentence to showcase a lot more than that. There is so much going on in this sentence. For example, the word своего translates to my but it also communicates to us the gender of the following word – cat. 

Russian, like most Slavic languages, has a lot of grammatical cases which is when nouns or pronouns change shape depending on their functions in sentences. This would be an example (or so I believe, oh dear god I hope my college Russian professor doesn’t ever see this). If the cat were a girl, the pronoun my would have been свою. The noun cat is also telling because it specifies that my cat is a male. Cool, right? 

Another distinctive characteristic of Russian is that nouns are assigned a gender: feminine, masculine, or neutral. For example, the word тетрадка, meaning notebook, is assigned the feminine grammatical gender. 

What Russian sounds like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cyaKqd6wbIM

Uzbek

Unlike Russian, Uzbek does not have grammatical genders. Like in English, cat means cat, and that’s that. In Uzbek, cat is mushuk.

Uzbek is a Turkic language of the Qarluq family in the Altaic group of languages, “closely related to Uyghur and Kazak,” according to the U.S. Library of Congress. Uzbek developed from the following Turkic dialects: Chagatai/Qarluq, Oguz, and Kypchak, some of which were originally written in Arabic script and were influenced by Persian, according to studies by Uzbek, Russian and European researchers. I’ve always known that Uzbek is a Turkic language, but I was reminded of it recently when my mom binge-watched 5 seasons of Diriliş: Ertuğrul, a Turkish TV show because we recognized a bunch of words despite speaking no Turkish.

It is also important to note that for some time Arabic was the language of instruction in madrassas and as a result, can be found all over Uzbekistan today. After the 1920s, the region underwent a number of reformist efforts by Muslim modernists and later the Russians. This reduced Persian and Arabic influences on the dialects spoken in the region.
The history of the Uzbek language is complex and while I am not totally equipped to break it down for you, I do want to point out one fact – the Uzbek I know is a result of Soviet colonialism. Some argue that it isn’t even Uzbek at all. Upon the formation of the USSR, the Soviets declared that everyone living in Uzbekistan was “Uzbek,” even though there were numerous ethnic groups living in the region. Then they renamed the modern Turki dialects “Uzbek” and the old Chagatai language “Old Uzbek.” To make matters worse, the Soviets required Uzbek to be written in Cyrillic script – the Russian alphabet. Here’s an example I dug up from my basement:

On the cover of this English textbook, you can see the 8-синиф учун text which means for eighth grade in Uzbek, written in Russian (Cyrillic) letters.
Another example from the same textbook. The underlined sentence directs the students to translate the English sentence from Lenin’s Letter to Uzbek and discuss with the class. This sentence is again in Russian (Cyrillic) letters.

Uzbek was not officially proclaimed the official state language until 1989, two years before the dissolution of the USSR. Uzbek adopted the Latin alphabet shortly after Uzbekistan became an independent nation and I was among the first generation of kids to learn the official language of Uzbekistan – crazy to think about it now, to be honest. 

Most of the words in Uzbek are Turkic in origin with the occasional loan-word of Arabic, Persian, Russian, or even Chinese origin. An example of a loan word is the word for car – “машина” in Russian and “moshina” (also can be spelled “mashina”) in Uzbek. Uzbek adopted the Russian word for car during the Soviet era, making it a loan word. 

Let’s take a closer look at Uzbek, at least how I remember it: Salom! Mening ismim Irodahon, va men mushugimni yahshi ko’raman. I would translate this to Hello! My name is Irodahon and I love my cat. Another way to say hello in Uzbek is Assalomu Aleykum, best used if addressing someone older than you or a stranger. There are a few cool things happening in this sentence. For one, like in Russian, there is no is in Uzbek. It doesn’t exist. 

What Uzbek sounds like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPZzVRboZEU

Uzbek Dialects

There are different dialects of Uzbek which can vary widely from region to region. Each region has its own pronunciation and special words, and meanings which you can pick up on as you travel from one major city to the next. 

For example, Samarkand and Bukhara had been historically, mostly inhabited by Tajik people, making Tajik the dominant language of those regions until Uzbekistan gained its independence. Now that Uzbek is required in all dealings with officials, business, education, and even in street signage, the Tajik language and heritage are under pressure to survive in Uzbekistan’s cultural centers. When Karimov was president, the tensions between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan worsened this situation. Only time will tell how the new president will affect the preservation of Tajik. 

There are many Bukharian Jews in Bukhara and they have their own language which is mostly like Tajik, but with some differences. In the autonomous Karakalpakstan region, Karakalpak is a state language alongside Uzbek. In Khorezm, people speak Oguz, a dialect of Uzbek. Many of the words sound like Turkmen words (Turkmenistan). 

The majority of Uzbek speakers live in Uzbekistan. Smaller groups live in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Russia, as well as approximately 20,000 Uzbeks that live in China (Xinjiang province). Those who live in China have been assimilated by Uyghurs, a group ethnically close to Uzbeks. If you’re reading this, I probably don’t have to tell you about what’s happening to Uyghurs and other muslims in China right now, but I’ll mention anyway that more likely than not, Uzbeks are among those detained in the detention camps. It breaks my heart, especially because this is the third example in this very essay of a government aggressively seeking uniformity and control of a region. What was meant to be a fun look at Uzbekistan’s diversity turned into a harsh look at how we repeat our mistakes again and again, erasing cultures and altering languages. And if you walk away with one thought from this read – I hope it’s that we have to preserve, not attack our precious heritages and those of our neighbors’. 

We have to safeguard the diversity and cultural richness of Uzbekistan and teach the younger generations our history, traditions, and cultures. One way that I hope to contribute to this is by supporting my aunt’s business – Explore Eurasia. Explore Eurasia offers informative tours to countries in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus in partnership with knowledgeable local tour guides in each country. I’m actually going on a tour to Uzbekistan with my friends and family in the spring of 2020. If you’re interested in joining my group or going on a tour, please send us an email at hello@exploreeurasia.com

Iroda Nodir (pronounced E-roh-dah Nah-deer) is currently a Digital Project Manager in NYC. In late 2017, she concluded her undergraduate education in Business Administration, specializing in Arts Management at American University in Washington, D.C. By day, she manages digital projects and client relationships, driving process improvements, and supporting her colleagues. By night, she is a singer-songwriter and dancer. In her free time, you can find her planning her next trip, writing songs, or working out. In a perfect world, she’d be living somewhere warm, singing and dancing every day, writing and producing songs, and making a career from it. She is working hard to make that happen. 

Feel free to message her on Instagram (@irodanodir) or LinkedIn anytime about anything. She is always open to conversation and meeting new people.

Featured photo by Josh Lane

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