The Debate

The Weird Case of the Uzbek Language

Central Asia’s history under the Soviet Union resulted in distorted nomenclature and language across the region.

The Weird Case of the Uzbek Language
Credit: Creative Commons image via Pixabay

In a recent article on the renaming of towns in Tajikistan, Catherine Putz makes the argument that such an act is a waste of time. While it is true that Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries have a host of problems that deserve far more attention than renaming cities, renaming or rectifying the names of places is an act of cultural reassertion that gives formerly colonized peoples a measure of pride and joy that cannot necessarily be quantified.

For “man cannot live on bread alone,” and regardless of the political and material conditions of people, culture and history still do matter. Although criticized by many in India, there was a clear feeling of pride when Bombay was renamed Mumbai and Madras, Chennai. And former denizens of “Leningrad” immediately restored the old name of their city, St. Petersburg when the Soviet Union fell. Names are not just names. They matter because names also signify belonging and rootedness. In the case of the Tajiks, as the descendants of the original Iranic-speaking population of Central Asia before the arrival of Turkic-speaking peoples, it is reasonable that they might need to reassert their Persian (Tajik) pride, after ten centuries of Turkic and Russian domination.

Central Asia has a complex and rich history, but much of what has happened to it during the past century can perhaps only be described as weird. While there should, of course, be a focus on solving real problems, that doesn’t mean steps should not be taken to right some of these wrongs. The Soviets made a real mess of nomenclature in Central Asia, tearing apart terms from their roots, to the point where they hardly make any sense in some cases.

A case in point is the “Uzbek” language. This language is a modern continuation of the literary and prestige Turkic language of Central Asia, which was known as Turki, or Chagatai. Chagatai was a member of the southeastern, Karluk branch of Turkic languages, which are the original and highly Persianized Turkic languages of the settled, Turkic, oasis populations of the Fergana Valley and Xinjiang. Its ancestor was brought to the region by the first Turkic empire in Central Asia, the Karakhanids, in the 900s.

It later became a literary language after the Mongol conquests, when the Chagatai Khanate was established in Central Asia and became Turkified in language and culture by the time of Timur and his descendant Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire. The Timurids were conquered by the Uzbeks under Muhammad Shaybani in 1500 who founded the Khanate of Bukhara. The Uzbeks were tribes from the Kipchak, a northwesterly branch of Turkic peoples. Most of the other Kipchaks, like the Kazakhs, remained nomads and herded livestock across the Eurasian steppe.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The Uzbek language was quickly lost, and Chagatai, or its colloquial dialects, were reasserted, though the ruling class continued to be descended from the Uzbek conquerors. Yet when Soviet linguists classified Central Asian languages, they declared that everyone living in Uzbekistan was “Uzbek,” a largely extinct linguistic and ethnic group, one that most people in the region were not even descended from. Furthermore, conflating two different languages together, Soviet linguistics renamed the modern Turki dialects Uzbek and the old Chagatai language “Old Uzbek.”

Leading Central Asian historian Edward A. Allworth argued that this “badly distorted the literary history of the region.” Other strange changes occurred during this period: Soviet ethnologies got confused between Kazakhs and Kyrgyz and originally referred to the Kazakhs as ‘Kirghiz.’ The Persian-speaking population of Central Asia, who were originally called Farsi or Farsiwan (Persian-speaker), were renamed Tajiks by the Soviets for no good reason (particularly so since Tajik was a derogatory Turkic term for Persian speakers deriving from a Middle Persian word for “Arab”).

As stated earlier, the roots of these designations and how the Soviets used them represents a huge historical distortion. While it is an unlikely and huge thing to ask the Uzbeks to rename themselves and their country, Central Asians should and are already looking at rectifying much of the ahistorical nomenclature they are saddled with.