Internal classification of Turkic languages

Feb 22, 2011 by

To wrap up our recent discussion of Turkic languages, let’s consider another quote from Bernard Lewis’ book The Middle East. A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. He writes:

“…Azerbaijan and the five republics of Central Asia were predominantly Muslim, speaking languages closely related to either Turkish or Persian, and tied by a thousand historical, religious, and cultural щитвы to реушк soгthern neighbors in the Middle East. One of them, Tajikistan, was Persian by speech and culture. The other four — Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan — spoke languages related to Turkish. With the exception of Kazak, the differences between these various languages were no greater than between the vernaculars spoken in the Arab lands from Iraq to Morocco.”

It is the last sentence of this quote that I must take exception with.

First of all, the use of the term “Kazak” for the people or the language of Kazakhstan is problematic. While several spellings of the group’s name and their language have been recorded (for example, in the Ethnologue page on the language), the spelling with the “h” — Kazakh — is preferable as it doesn’t create a confusion with a whole another group: the Cossacks (in Russian, kazaki).

The more important problem with Lewis’ quote has to do with the internal classification among Turkic languages. It should be noted that this issue is not uncontroversial: as various Turkic groups migrated rather rapidly over the steppes and mixed extensively with each other, the it is difficult to distinguish which similarities across various Turkic varieties are due to common descent and which ones are due to contact.

However, the most widely accepted classification of Turkic languages (see also the Ethnologue page for Turkic languages) distinguishes four major branches of the family, typically referred to by cardinal directions:

  • Southwestern (or Southern, or Oghuz) Turkic
  • Northwestern (or Western, or Kipchak) Turkic
  • Southeastern (or Eastern, or Uyghur) Turkic
  • Northeastern (or Northern, or Siberian) Turkic

Which of the four languages — Kazakh, Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Turkmen — belongs to which branch of the Turkic family? According to the quote above, Kazakh is the “odd man out” that belongs to a different branch from the others. However, this is not so.

Kazakh is most closely related to Kyrgyz; both languages belong to the Kipchak (Northwestern or Western) branch of Turkic. Other languages in this branch include Kumyk and Karachay-Balkar in northern Caucasus, Crimean Tatar and Karaim originally from the Crimean Peninsula, Tatar and Bashkir in the Central Volga region of Russia, as well as two more closely related Aralo-Caspian varieties of Karakalpak and Kipchak Uzbek (or Fergana Kipchak language), both of which are spoken in Uzbekistan.

Map of Kipchak languages

The standard Uzbek language belongs to the Southeastern (or Eastern, or Uyghur) branch of Turkic, although it has been heavily influenced by Kipchak Turkic varieties and by Iranian languages.

Finally, Turkmen is the real “odd man out” among the four languages in question, as it is the only one that belongs to the Southwestern (or Southern, or Oghuz) branch of Turkic. Its closest relative is Khorasani Turkic; other languages in the Oghuz branch include: Turkish, Azerbaijani, Gagauz (in Moldova), as well as the dialects of Iran such as Qashqai, Sonqori, Aynallu, etc.

Map of Oghuz languages

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