If You Listen, YouMaybe Can Understand (Or, Are Turkic Languages Mutually Intelligible?)

As I’ve mentioned before, since we returned to Bishkek I’ve been taking intensive Turkish classes with a bunch of Kyrgyz kids (along with one girl from Kazakhstan).  Now there’s something quite different about my taking Turkish (or my taking French or Chinese or Russian) and their taking Turkish: they expect Turkish to be similar to their native tongue.

And sometimes it is.  The languages are, after all, of the same root.  They have the same roots for core vocabulary, the same general grammar structure.  Using Turkish for Kyrgyz (or visa versa) in the bazaar is fine.  But it’s when we get into the details that problems emerge. The first case is with false cognates – often words that have developed out of one root but have taken very different meanings in the two languages (think embarrassed in English and embarazada – pregnant – in Spanish).  Other words have developed to have multiple meanings in one language but only one narrow meaning in the other (bar in Kyrgyz/Uyghur/Uzbek/Kazak meaning both “to have” and “to go”; var – which cannot be conjugated – in Turkish simply signifying ownership or existence).  Some letters switch out – Turkish ‘g’s for Kyrgyz ‘k’s, ‘d’s for ‘t’s. And of course a lot of Kyrgyz vocabulary just doesn’t exist in Turkish.

This is compounded by the different uses of similar-looking grammatical constructions.  Like the past imperfect in French vs. in Spanish, some grammar constructions are formed with identical rules, but can be used for completely different purposes.  Sometimes it’s just small things – a different verb will force a different case ending (i.e. dative vs. genitive) on the preceding noun.

The proximity of the two languages can be a great boon to the Kyrgyz students – they already have a complete conceptual framework for Turkish.  It can also be a great bane – when their Kyrgyz language background leads to misleading assumptions, when students make the same Kyrgyz-referential mistakes again and again and again, when sentences fall into Kyrgyz in class – because they expect to be understood.  While [almost] all language student will make mistakes based on mistaken assumptions and native/second language references, it seems to be much more common among language students learning a language similar to their mother tongue – and presented as similar to their mother tongue.  None of my Chinese students spoke Chinese expecting it to be understood as English, and surely no one [save a few Americans] will speak English expecting it to be understood as French.

But our teacher does understand them, because she has lived here and taught Turkish to Kyrgyz students for the last dozen years – the same way that I could understand the almost impenetrable not-quite-English sentences written by my Chinese students: because we’ve learned how to listen.  My former Uzbek teacher (an Ankara native) once said that two completely literate speakers of different Turkic languages can understand each other – as long as they have an extensive knowledge of [obscure] vocabulary in their own language and have trained their patient ears to listen for the most likely possibility.  If you listen, you can understand.  But as our [exceedingly exasperated] Turkish teacher points out day after day – most native speakers won’t understand you unless you actually speak their language correctly.

So – mutually intelligible?  It depends on who you’re talking to.


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