What are the languages of Central Asia? Well there definitely isn’t just one simple answer to this and each of the five former-Soviet Stans comes with a slightly different answer to the question.
The very shortest answer would be Russian, and if you’re looking to learn a few phrases to help you on a trip through the region, Russian would still be the most practical, as the common shared language. But, if you’re looking to get brownie points with locals, you’d be better off with a little bit of one of the local languages.
Before the Russians/Soviets made an impact on the region, much of Central Asia was made up of small nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes, who of course spoke a variety of local languages. Most of which belonged to the family of Turkic languages. The exception being Tajik which is actually a version of Persian and not at all similar to the other Central Asian languages.
Those languages are now concisely described as Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Turkmen. They are very closely related to each other and also to other Turkic languages such as Turkish, Azeri, Tatar and Uyghur.
What script are the Central Asian languages written in?
You’re probably aware that Russian is written in Cyrillic, but what about these other languages? They first became written languages when Islam was introduced to the region, so naturally were written in Arabic script. In 1928-1929, Soviet authorities imposed a Latin-based alphabet and then modified Cyrillic scripts in 1939-1940. Between then and the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the whole of Central Asia used the Cyrillic alphabet exclusively.
The First President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov Turkmenbashy, was the first to replace the Cyrillic alphabet when they became independent. It returned to a Latin-based script in 1992, basically as soon as possible. At that point, using the Cyrillic alphabet became a political tool for Turkmenbashy’s opposition in defiance of him, his politics, and the alphabet that he created. Turkmen is now written only in their Latin alphabet, though if you keep your eyes out you might occasionally stumble across some Cyrillic-written Turkmen from the 1990s in books or other publications around Turkmenistan.
Uzbekistan followed closely behind and they also adopted a modified Latin script in 1992. However, unlike in Turkmenistan, there are still a lot of people that are just more comfortable with Cyrillic and still choose to use that. Although Uzbek is officially written in Latin, and for the most part it is, there are plenty of signs, menus, publications and much more that are still written in the Cyrillic alphabet.
Although Kyrgyzstan hasn’t officially returned to a Latin script, there are instances where the Turkish version of the Latin alphabet is used, though mostly in academic situations and you’re unlikely to come across it. However, they do transliterate the Cyrillic into Latin letters differently from how all the others do it. For example, the Russian “Ж” is generally represented by “zh”, as opposed to in Kyrgyzstan where it’s usually “j”.
Kazakhstan is probably the most controversial, at the moment at least. At first, Kazakh was in the same boat as Kyrgyz, just continuing on with the Cyrillic alphabet.However, in 2006, President Nursultan Nazarbayev began mentioning an imminent switch to a Latin-based alphabet. Discussions simmered behind the scenes and then between 2015 and 2017 it became a prevalent issue. Different dates of implementation were thrown around and various theories on exactly which letters would be adopted. Eventually on October 26th 2017, Presidential Decree 569 was issued, settling on their unique version of the Latin alphabet, and ordering full transition to the new script by 2025. The alphabet chosen caused a fair amount of controversy around Kazakhstan though as the use of apostrophes made it quite challenging to use. Since then many official documents and signs have been replaced with the new alphabet. The country is now in a state of ongoing confusion about which alphabet to use. It’s quite a hot political issue for people to discuss over a carafe of vodka and a platter of pickles.
Tajiks still write Persian completely in their version of the Cyrillic alphabet, and there’s still no real indication that that’s going to change any time soon. If they were to eventually switch, and there have been vague discussions about it so it may happen at some point, it would be to a Persian script, as opposed to the Latin alphabets that the Turkic languages use.
Are the local languages of Central Asia more or less spoken than Russian?
This depends largely on where you are, and of course, who you ask. They’ve all done it at different paces and with varying emphases, but something all these countries have in common is a complicated attempt at promoting their national identities, separate from their recent Soviet pasts and Russian influence. This manifests in promoting national heroes, religion, music, traditions, dishes, dance, etc. – all the normal sort of things. And, of course, a huge part of a national identity is language.
It’s complicated though because the people of Central Asia are trying to return to something that didn’t necessarily exist before. Or not in its current state anyway, since the borders of the modern countries that we’re discussing never previously existed. As such there’s a lot of cross-over of who claims what and national heroes have had to be somewhat exaggerated or even invented, appearing pretty much out of thin air in the last 30 years.
So speaking, the local languages are becoming more fashionable and there are plenty of places now where anyone under a particular age is more fluent in that than in Russian. But, this whole topic is very complicated and of course controversial. Language has become a political tool and there is now a sad situation where those who are native Russian speakers (pretty much everyone over the age of 30 at least) have limited opportunities in their careers and life in general. At the same time though, people are reviving their native languages, there just might be a better way to do it.