A basic linguistic guide across the “stans”
History has marched and galloped back and forth across Central Asia – which guide books tend to describe as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikisitan, and Afghanistan – and to which I’ll add Pakistan because it’s a neighbour and shares the ‘stan ending.
Which languages are spoken? Are they all in the same family? How are they written? The short answer is: lots of languages, different families, and different, changing ways. You can find Turkic languages written in a Latin alphabet (as in Turkey), a Persian language written in Cyrillic (Tajikistan), and a Hindustani language written in Persian script (Pakistan). Welcome to Central Asia. Here is your basic run-down on languages and alphabets, clockwise from the west.
Here we have Turkmen, from the Turkic family, which happily for us English-speakers is written in a modified Latin alphabet. This means we can read things like ‘Men bilmedim’ (I didn’t know) without too much trouble. Look out for some tricky letters, though, as in ‘Siz iňlis dilinde gepleýärsiňizmi?’ (Do you speak English?). Still, this is easier than the former scripts, which included Arabic and Cyrillic. In Turkmenistan, Russian is still spoken a lot, and has infiltrated many words and phrases, especially for science and technology.
The main language, Uzbek, is another Turkic language, currently transitioning to Latin from Cyrillic script. Apparently you can find a newspaper with headlines in Latin and articles in Cyrillic. Though Russian and Tajik are also spoken, Uzbek is the official language and with 15 million speakers is the most widely spoken of the non-Slavic languages of all the former Soviet states.
Kazakh is our third Turkic language with the distinction of being the only ‘stan language still totally written in Cyrillic. That said, plans have been discussed and renewed to transition to a Latin script, and Kazakh speakers in China use an Arabic-derived alphabet like the one used for writing Uyghur. Almost everyone in Kazakhstan speaks Russian, and it is actually the first language for many Kazakhs. Street signs may be in one or both languages.
Kyrgyz is another Turkic language, currently following the trend of transitioning from Cyrillic to Latin. The issue of transition, however, “does not seem to generate the same passions in Kyrgyzstan that it does in other former Soviet republics, perhaps because the Kyrgyz Cyrillic alphabet is relatively simple and is particularly well-suited to the language,” says Wikipedia.
At last, an outlier: Tajik is Indo-European, which is actually the same family as English, Dutch, French, Kurdish, and Hindi. It belongs in the Persian group, along with Farsi, the language of Iran. Tajik is now written in Cyrillic, but there is talk of changing to the Perso-Arabic script used in Iran and Afghanistan.
The primary language of Dari is Indo-European, again the Persian group, and is written in a Persian script, which is based on the Arabic script. Apparently Dari is so similar to Farsi, that even Afghanis will often refer to it as Farsi. The main difference is that Dari takes more loan words from Arabic and Turkish.
Urdu and English are both official languages. Urdu is Indo-European, but branches away from Tajik and Dari to belong in the Hindustani group, and is very close to Hindi. The script, however, is Persian. Apparently the particular script for Urdu is notoriously difficult to typeset, and until the late 1980s, Urdu newspapers were hand-written by masters of calligraphy.