How Mutually Intelligible Are the Turkic Languages?

Turkic languages distribution mapI was skeptical the first time I heard that a Turkic journalist had managed to interview Uyghur Urumqi locals using only Turkish.  I’m still skeptical – but because there’s enough leeway between languages and lexicon that took on slightly different shades of meaning  for one to really achieve the certainty needed for accurate reporting.  But could this man understand the locals, through their hometowns be over 6,000 kilometers apart?  Sure.

So how close are the Turkic languages? Speaking one, can you actually understand another?

To Greatly Oversimplify: The Turkic languages share a very similar grammar structure (much like French and Spanish, except with closer forms) and common vocabulary. I’ve heard Turkic languages described as [formerly being] a continuum of dialects stretching from Turkey to Western China; before Soviet and Chinese political control and subsequent labeling of the local populations and language standardization, there were no ‘set’ bodies and boundaries of Uyghur, of Uzbek, of Kazakh, and of all the Turkic languages in between.   However, over time the vocabularies of different Turkic languages have shifted to include  lexicon borrowing from French, Russian, Persian, Arabic and Chinese or emphasize one meaning of a word over another.  Accents and pronunciation can be quite different, with the adoption of different writing systems making these variations even more pronounced.



My Background: I studied Uyghur (taught in Chinese, using the modified Arabic script) while living in Urumqi 2012-2013.  In the summer of 2013 I used Uyghur to successfully navigate my way across Kazakhstan while traveling alone (and with no real knowledge of Russian) for ten days.  Since then I’ve studied Russian in both Bishkek and Chicago (to upper-elementary speaking and intermediate reading), studied intermediate-ish Uzbek (in lieu of Uyghur) with an amazing Turkic linguist-anthropologist at Chicago, took a Kazakh reading class with the same teacher, studied Turkish on my own to low intermediate level with a pretty decent knowledge of grammar, have just started to pick up some Kyrgyz, and recently went back to review my Uyghur textbooks.  We live right by a university – and in a community – that functions in four languages: English, Russian, Turkish and Kyrgyz.  I’ve always been fascinated by the languages we choose to use, and have been constantly observing language choices in China and Central Asia.  In short – I’m not an expert, but I do have a wide range of experience and insights when it comes to Turkic language mutual intelligibility and use, at least within Turkey and certain parts of Central Asia. .

Why I’m Writing This:  How close the Turkic languages are to one another is a subject of some confusion and debate; certain states or communities (like the Uyghurs) benefit from believing them closer.  Other bodies (like the Chinese government) would like to believe them more different.  Even among Turkic speakers themselves, this is an area of confusion.  Yesterday I stumbled across a forum where speakers spouted a huge range of ideas, all over the spectrum.  So I thought I’d do a quick overview, from my perspective and knowledge, to clear the confusion up a bit, at least for interested English speakers.

So, on to the deeper exploration:


Grammar: Grammar is really  similar.  I remember studying French and Spanish at the same time in high school and noticing how their grammatical structures were almost identical.  This is also true for the Turkic languages, though here many of the actual forms (verb forms and suffixes and such) are the same as well.  If you have studied one Turkic language, there are only a few adjustments you need to make when studying another.  Kyrgyz staff at the Turkish university here take a two month intensive Turkish course; they don’t speak perfect Turkish by the end, but they can communicate.  Kyrgyz students take one year of intensive Turkish – and after that are ready to take university courses – and write exams – in Turkish.  For example, the present continuous stem in Turkish is “iyor” (i.e. gidiyorum – I am going) and “iwat” in Uyghur (i.e. turiwatimen – I am living). You can find an interesting introduction to the structure of Turkish (again, very similar to other Turkic languages) on an EU Lifelong Learning project here.

Vocabulary: My Ankara-born Uzbek/Uyghur/Kazakh professor at Chicago told us that two Turkic speakers highly fluent in their respective language can understand each other without much incident.  As you can see in the table (or in the far more extensive table here), a lot of core vocabulary is the same across the board, with some variation in pronunciation.


That said, there are two factors that can cause some misunderstanding or miscommunication.  First, certain words took on different associated meanings as the languages diverged.  “Bar[mak]”, for example, means to go or to have in Uyghur, Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Kazak.  In Turkish, however, var (which cannot me conjugated) simply means “it is” or “it exists”.  Likewise, “hazir” is ready or  prepared in Tukish, but right now in Uyghur; “siyah” is black  in Turkish but ink in Uyghur, “kırlık” is countryside in Turkish and bedsheet in Turkish; “yatak” is bed in Turkish, but dormitory in Uyghur; “koşuk” is ballad in Turkish, but spoon in Uyghur; “hizmet” is service in Turkish, but more broadly work or occupation in Uyghur; “ülke” is country in Turkish, but province in Uyghur; “kent” is city in Turkish, but village community in Uyghur, etc…

Second, different modern-day Turkic languages borrowed loan words from different surrounding sources.  Most Turkic languages have borrowed words from Persian and Arabic at some point.  All soviet-state Turkic languages were given extensive infusion from the Russian language, particularly in the sciences and technology (I heard one estimation that 30% of all words were replaced with Russian words, to give Turkic languages a common Russian core, though I’m not sure that’s correct across the board).  Uzbek and Azeri have more Persian influence due to their close ties with Tajiks and Iran, respectively.  While Uyghurs in the Soviet Union borrowed terms for modern things from Russian, Uyghurs in China borrowed the first wave of vocabulary (like car and factory) from Russia, and the second (for things and concepts invented post-1950) from Chinese and English. Turkish initially borrowed ‘modern’ terms from French, but underwent a language reform starting in the 1920’s and during which many foreign loan words (especially from Arabic and Persian) were purged from the language.  Later terms were invented using roots of older Turkic words (like “uçak” – airplane – coming  from “uçmak” – to fly – and “havalimanı” – airport – coming directly from air – hava – and port – liman) and English (like “seyyar” for cellular telephone).

So while core vocabulary can look quite similar, some words have taken on different meanings over the years, and words for modern items and ideas have been borrowed from different sources – enough to throw you off.  Turkish speakers here get by just fine using Turkish at the bazaar when talking to Kyrgyz or Uzbeks; less so at a medical clinic or trying to complete government paperwork.

Writing Systems and Pronunciation: Trying to read one Turkic language when you know/are learning another is quite akin to reading old English; sometimes it feels like reading founding US government documents with their weird S’s and wildly variation spelling; sometimes it feels like reading Tristam Shandy with it’s alien phrases and copious droppings of French and Latin.

Until the last century, Turkic languages were almost all written in the Arabic script.  Now, however, Turkic languages are written in Latin (Turkish, Azerbaijan, Turkmen, sometimes Uzbek), modified Arabic (Uyghur in China), and slightly different Cyrillic systems created for the different Turkic languages during soviet times and still used in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and sometimes Uzbekistan.  Not all scripts are created equal, or allow for the same pronunciations. The Cyrillic script also emphasizes certain sounds through letters that don’t exist in the Latin or Arabic scripts: Ж  (dj/zh; does exist in Arabic), Қ (hard k; exists in Arabic); Ў (for Uzbek only?); Ш (sh; exists in Arabic); Ч (ch; exists in Arabic); нг (ng; exists in Arabic); Ё (yo; not a separate letter in Arabic); Я (ya; not a separate letter in Arabic) and Ц (ts; not a separate letter in Arabic).  Differences in pronunciation between Turkic languages was actually promoted in soviet times by the creation of slightly different alphabets.  In Kyrgyz, for example, the double ‘y’ is allowed (аттуу) as is the double ‘a’ (Жаан), while in Kazakh you still see the ‘hard k’ (Қазақ).

According to some, these differences in script, coupled with emphasizing different regional pronunciations as the standard, was meant to make it more difficult for speakers of different Turkic languages to read in other languages – and thus promulgate Russian as the common tongue and medium for public information.  It does also seem to be the case that standardizing a language through writing does, over time and through education, shift local accents or existing dialects towards the written standard – thus creating firmer boundaries between languages where there was once a sliding scale from one community to the next.

Script discrepancies are still present today.  Even after independence, Uzbekistan also adopted a Latin script slightly different than that used in Turkey, with ‘q’ where Turkish often uses a ‘k’ and words written with an apostrophe (from the Russian ъ) like va’da and so’z where (in some cases) Turkish uses the soft g (ğ) to indicate a pause.  As far as I know, Uyghur is the only Turkic script to have a “w” letter or sound (it usually corresponds with a ‘v’ in Turkish).

As for pronunciation: Yes, pronunciation is different.  Uyghur is spoken very quickly, a fluid run of vowels and back throat consonants; Uzbek pronunciation is elongated, with many of Uyghur’s a’s morphing into o’s. Kyrgyz takes Uyghur’s y’s and makes them zh’s, has a lot of ringing vowel-consonant pairs, and to my ears sounds quite sing-songey.  Turkish has shortened, simplified or removed some of the harsher consonants from some of the words I learned in Uyghur – yirmi for yigirmi (20), kirk for kirik (40), elli for ellik (50), gece for keche (night), hafta for hepte (week), yok for yak (no/there is not), kardeş for kerindash (sibling, but also ‘pencil’ in Uyghur).  Different, but if you know what you are listening for, or spend some time adjusting your ears, you can understand – much as I could strain my ears and train myself to understand a cockney accent or the T ticket seller in Boston. I couldn’t find any videos comparing the Turkic languages, but you can definitely hear the difference between Kazakh (first language) and Turkish (starts at 00:56) in this polyglot’s video here:

Think of a Scottish highlander, high-class Londoner, and a Texan ranger trying to speak to each other in the decades before English started to standardize following widespread diffusion of radio broadcasts and TV.  Might it be difficult for them to understand each other if they all used their native way of speaking? Yes.  But could they communicate well enough to complete basic tasks or make a sale? Yes, especially if they attuned their ears and picked up a few new words.  Would they be able to have a completely coherent in-depth conversation on a technical matter? Eh…. (a really good example of that in the second post here) Turkic languages across Central Asia are kind of like that – similar enough that, if you adjust your ears or accustom yourself to the different writing systems, you can comprehend and make yourself understood in basic situations.  Some languages are closer (like Uyghur-Uzbek and Azerbaijan-Turkish), and some are further away, but they’re all still somewhere on the same spectrum.

More references and other opinions on the matter:  (for something quite linguistic) (a comparison of dialects in Turkey and Azerbaijan) (Azeri and Turkish) (forum discussion)

And, just because this was all rather linguistical, a terrible Kazakh rap video:


2 thoughts on “How Mutually Intelligible Are the Turkic Languages?

  1. I’m half Uighur half Kyrgyz and I speak Turkish, my Kyrgyz is decent to get by with. I just remembered my one week trip to Urumqi, and I understood the locals clearly just because of my Turkish but they couldn’t understand me because of my Russian accent. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Uighur, wish my dad taught me some…thanks for the interesting post with facts:))

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I was in Urumqi I also noticed a lot of Uyghurs watching Turkish TV shows and films – there are definitely a growing number who understand Turkish due to cultural/media immersion, but I think the Central Asian accents (combined with Russian loanwords) are harder for them to understand.


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