Turkish Immersion in Kyrgyzstan: Extent of Mutual Intelligibility

For four days I’ve watched three people attempt to navigate their way around an unknown country using only their native tongue.

Early Thursday morning (like 3:30 am early…) we picked up E’s brother-in-law and two friends from his high school years at the airport to begin their long weekend vacation in the capital of Central Asia’s highland paradise. E’s brother-in-law speaks Turkish and a bit of French, and had never before visited any of the Central Asian states.  His two friends had recently traveled to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and one of them spoke a smattering of Russian and English. But basically they spoke Turkish.  It was not unlike Americans in Mexico: they ordered in Turkish, asked directions in Turkish, bartered in Turkish, and small-talked in Turkish.  It was a really good opportunity for me to practice my spoken Turkish – and to test out what I wrote about several weeks back in How Mutually Intelligent are the Turkic Languages?

So how mutually intelligible are Turkish and Kyrgyz? How easy was it for three Turkish speakers with no experience of Kyrgyzstan and the Kyrgyz language to get by in Bishkek?

The Short Answer: Possible for basic things, as long as you expect some misunderstanding and a few delays.
The Long Answer: In their core vocabulary and structures – the simple language you use when making everyday transactions as a traveler – Kyrgyz and Turkish are similar enough for speakers of one language to get by among speakers of another language.  If you scroll down to “vocabulary comparison”, the Wikipedia article on Turkic languages also has a nice comparison chart covering basic words (though some of the Uyghur entries are wrong, so…). Once you leave that core vocabulary, understanding starts to break down.

According to our comrades, it’s actually far easier for older generation Turkish speakers from the village and older generation Kyrgyz speakers to understand one another. Why? Because the language they learned was less structured by language reforms and thus closer to the old common Turkic tongue.  As I wrote about in the post mentioned above, both Turkish and Turkic languages of Central Asia underwent major language reforms in the twentieth century, during which certain aspects of each language and their respective dialects were retained, and certain aspects or dialectical variations were shed, with different aspects being retained or shed for each language.  Again, in the Soviet states, each Turkic language was re-defined to create distinct boundaries between languages where there had once been a continuum of dialects.  Uzbek is perhaps the most extreme example, as the language crafted/standardized during Soviet times was actually a derivative of one of three major dialects with a higher occurrence of Persian and Arabic loanwords and was not previously the region’s most common tongue.

What this means is that, a generation or two back, Kyrgyz and village Turkish were actually much closer to each other than they are today. A few of E’s older Kyrgyz co-workers who have visited Turkey have confirmed the same thing – the language spoken by older people in Turkish villages in much closer to the Kyrgyz spoken by older generations in their family than the Turkish spoken at the university or by younger generations in general.  I myself have also had a really hard time understanding older Turks from Anatolia the few times I’ve encountered visiting relatives in Ankara. As E’s brother-in-law and his friends all grew up in the Central-Eastern Anatolian city of Erzincan, it was far easier for them to understand the Kyrgyz spoken at them than it would be for a twenty-something year old from Ankara or Istanbul.

Their experience also matches my attempt to travel cross-Kazakhstan with nearly no Russian and an elementary knowledge of Uyghur two summers past.  Communication is possible, albeit a bit slow, and there are definitely a few false cognates that will throw you into hilarious territory.  If you want to have a more in-depth conversation, however, Turkish-Kyrgyz (or any two Turkic languages from different branches of the Turkic language family) probably won’t suffice.

A Few Other Factors Influencing Communication:

  • Intent: When people want to sell something to you, they have a high level of motivation to understand what you are trying to say. This is also true when people from different groups want to see their inter-community bonds as either closer or further apart: asking Kyrgyz how well they can understand Uzbek, for example, will result in a wild variety of answers depending on their speaker’s own experiences and political stance. The same also holds when observing accents in English – we more attentively listen to, and thus better understand, those we want to communicate with. When I was 16 I spent the summer in Cambridge, MA.  There was one gnarly and wicked tempered old local ticket seller at the Harvard Square T (subway) station who had this impenetrable Boston accent.  But if I wanted to purchase a ticket, I had to understand him. And so, after a few terrifying tries, I did.
  • Environment: There are plenty of Turkish businessmen already in Bishkek, and many Kyrgyz people have studied at least a little Turkish, or become accustomed to better listening to Turkish.  This would not be true in the towns outside of Bishkek where the Turkish presence is minimal.
  • Situation: Most of the time they spoke Turkish was when ordering in a restaurant.  Food names, numbers, hot, cold – pretty easy.  Same with stores – this, that, colors, numbers, bigger, smaller. Not exactly complicated vocabulary.

Another thing I noticed this weekend: they [mostly] succeeded in getting around Bishkek relying on Turkish because there are so few ethnic Russians. Except for certain corners of the city, there really aren’t a lot of Russians left in Bishkek.  I’m not sure which official numbers are correct (12.5%? 11%? 6.4%?), but I’m sure that, once absentee residents actually working and residing in Russia are factored in, the on-the-ground population is quite lower.  See this article about Russians leaving Kyrgyzstan.

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