Language in Turkmenistan
By: Giustina Selvelli
Turkmen Language: Specific Features
The Turkmen language (türkmençe, or türkmen dili) is a language spoken in Turkmenistan, the southwestern most republic of Central Asia, formerly part of the Soviet Union.
Turkmen is mainly spoken in Turkmenistan by around 3.8 million people (Ethnologue 2013). Turkmen communities also live in the Russian Federation, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran - bringing the total number of speakers to around 6.7 million.
Turkmen belongs to the Eurasian family group of the Turkic-Altaic languages, which includes among others Turkish, Azeri, Tatar, Uzbek, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uyghur and Chuvash. The Turkic-Altaic languages are thus spoken not only in Central Asia but also in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East, China and Siberia.
One main feature of the Turkmen language, which is characteristic of all Turkic languages apart from Uzbek, is the so-called “vowel harmony”, corresponding to a series of constraints on which vowels may be found near each other.
Furthermore, and, in line with all other languages of the Turkic family, Turkmen is an agglutinative language, which implies that it is formed in a synthetic way (in contrast to fusional languages) by adding different (invariable) morphemes to the words in order to determine their meanings.
Although all Turkic languages (around 35 in total) share many common traits in vocabulary and grammar, and originate from a proto-Turkic ancestor language, only a few of them are mutually intelligible among their speakers.
In specific, the Turkmen language, together with Turkish, Azeri and Gagauz, belongs to the sub-branch of the Oghuz languages within the Turkic languages, and so speakers of these languages have higher chances of understanding each other.
Language in Turkmenistan
The modern Turkmen language was devised as a standard one during the early Soviet period (1928-1940), and was primarily based on the dialect spoken by the Teke tribal groups inhabiting the Southern Ahal and Mari provinces of Turkmenistan (Clark 1998: 12).
The decision of adopting such dialect as a standard was further acknowledged during the first linguistic congresses of Turkmenistan, held in Ashgabat in 1936.
Before the advent of the modern standard of the language, and beginning in the eighteenth Century, the most prominent role was played by the Chaghatay literary language, bearing influences from both Persian and Arabic.
This language, used by prominent Turkmen poet and spiritual leader Magtymguly Pyragy, had constituted the literary standard shared across Central Asian Turkic people for many centuries (see Encyclopaedia Iranica).
However, Turkmen and Chaghatay belong to different branches of the Turkic language family, the former to Oghuz and the latter to Karluk. Interestingly, in the early 1930s, during the Soviet era, the Turkmen intelligentsia was opposed to the adoption of the new Turkmen literary language, advocating a return to the old Chaghatay variant (Grenoble 2003: 155).
The modern Turkmen language is subdivided into several other dialects apart from the Teke one: Nokhurli, Anauli, Khasarli, Nerezim, Yomud, Goklen, Salyr, Saryq, Esari, Cawdur (Ethnologue 2013).
From the Arabic Alphabet to Latin
The Turkmen language is currently written with the Latin alphabet, but has been transcribed in the course of its history with other writing systems. The first written records of a Turkic language, dating to the period between the seventh and tenth centuries show that the old Turkic communities used a Runic script (Tekin 1968: 21).
This writing system was used until the adoption of Islam that took place around the tenth century. After that moment, these populations began using an Arabo-Persian script, which remained in use for almost a millennium.
During the first Soviet era, in the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (created in October 1924 (Grenoble 2003: 154) the ethnic Turkmen identity was elevated to a higher status. A stronger local awareness was encouraged under the interwar Soviet policy of 'korenizatsiya' (nativization) (Strayer 2015: 72-73), which led to the promotion of the local languages among the non-Russian population of the different republics.
In line with this ideal and in contrast to a single centralized Russian identity that had characterized the previous imperial era, in the late 1920s, Soviet authorities inaugurated a campaign of “Latinization” aimed at increasing literacy skills among the diverse population of the country.
The Arabic script was considered too difficult to learn, and incapable of representing the different vowel sounds present in the Turkic languages (Henze 1977: 379), even though in the 1910s Turkmen intellectuals had added diacritics trying to reflect in a more precise way the sounds of the spoken language (Clement 2005: 4).
In addition to this, the Arabic writing system was also considered to be ‘‘backward,’’ while the Latin alphabet was viewed as a marker of modernity and progress, linked to the new revolutionary ideology of unification and modernization that started spreading since early Soviet times (Nurmakov 1934).
Another relevant factor in the project of abandoning the Arabic script was the will of preventing the cultural, religious and political influence of Islamic clergy, a goal that was made official through a specific campaign started by the government in 1928 (Grenoble 2003: 153).
From the Latin Alphabet to Cyrillic
Following such ideological views, state authorities succeeded in imposing to the Turkmen SSR a Latin script based on the “New Turkic alphabet” developed in Baku, Azerbaigian during the “All-Union Turcological congress “of 1926.
In addition, this writing system was also introduced among Turkic speaking communities of Central Asia, Siberia and the Caucasus (Alpatov 2002: 117).
Significantly, in those same years, a very similar alphabet was adopted in Turkey by Mustafa Kemal “Atatürk” through the script reform of November 1928, acquiring a political meaning of alignment to principles of modernization, secularization and westernization. In the Soviet case, the move acquired similar implications, apart of course from the westernization ideal, which was substituted by the ideology of communism.
In 1938 however, with a clamorous retreat, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin decided to reverse the policies of korenizatsiya and latinization, opting for a campaign of Russification and “Cyrillization”. Soviet authorities were indeed worried about a possible anti-Soviet ideology of “Turkic brotherhood” and solidarity among the different people of Turkic origin that could lead to a dangerous approach with Turkey (Karpat 2004: 737).
A series of different Cyrillic alphabets were thus devised for all Turkic languages of the USSR, that were preventing closer contacts among these communities.
A Cyrillic alphabet including forty letters was thus imposed on the Turkmen population in 1940, and remained the only official script for the Turkmen language until 1991.
In contrast to this, Turkmen communities continued to employ the Arabic alphabet to write their language in both Afghanistan and Iran, a fact that is valid until today and that signifies their membership in the Muslim community.
The Turkmen Language After the Soviet Union
With Turkmenistan’s independence in 1991, language became one of the most prominent sites for the affirmation of a rediscovered national identity (Clement 2005: 163). The National Revival Movement (Milli Galkynyş Hereketi), elevated the status of the Turkmen language at the cost of Russian (Clement 2008: 172).
In this context, with the aim of distancing the country from its Soviet and Russian past, Turkmen leader Türkmenbaşy (Saparmurat Niyazov) actively promoted the reintroduction of the Latin alphabet.
This was made official through a presidential decree in 1993 (Clement 2005: 1). The new alphabet included at that time some unusual characters to mark specific sounds of the Turkmen language, such as the pound (£), dollar ($), yen (¥), and cent signs (¢).
Nevertheless, the “unconventional” letters were later replaced by characters with diacritic marks in 1999. A year later, the Turkmen government began a wide-ranging implementation of the script reform.
Actually, Turkmenistan was not the only former Soviet (Turkic speaking) country to transition from Cyrillic to Latin. Azerbaijan had successfully implemented its own script reform in the early 1990s (Voloshin 2017), followed by attempts by Uzbekistan.
The current Turkmen alphabet consists of thirty characters, some of which bear diacritics: Aa, Bb, Çç, Dd, Ee, Ää, Ff, Gg, Hh, Ii, Jj, Žž, Kk, Ll, Mm, Nn, Ňň, Oo, Öö, Pp, Rr, Ss, Şş, Tt, Uu, Üü, Ww, Yy, Ýý, Zz.
Long time was needed in order to create educational material in the new alphabet, and for many years Turkmen pupils studied without any official textbooks. Furthermore, no training was provided to educators and officials, and as a result many adult people today still struggle with poor literacy skills (Fatland 2016: 49).
Leader Türkmenbaşy also proceeded in adapting the language to his specific vision of “Turkmenness” (De Leonardis, 2017: 78), by giving precedence to “autochthonous” elements and removing traces of foreign influences.
As an example, new words for the days of the week and the months were created, substituting the previous “non-Turkmen”, Russian terms.
As a result, the new words were significantly invested with Türkmenbaşy nationalist ideology, as the word for February, “baydak”, translating as “flag”, linked to the official festivity celebrating the Turkmen flag on the 19th of February.
The first month of the year, January, bears the name of Turkmenbashi himself, while April has the name of his mom: Gurbansoltan (Fatland 2016: 53). The leader’s mother was also the inspiration for the coin of the new term for “bread”, which appears as “Gurbansoltan Edzhe” (O'Donnell 2004).
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