Monday, September 28, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Azerbaijan

Last week we focused on the linguistic diversity of Sweden, one of the northernmost countries in Europe. Today we're moving across the continent to the Caucasus region in order to explore the languages of Azerbaijan, one of the very few transcontinental countries that are located in both Europe and Asia.

The Official Languages

An Azerbaijani carpet, recognized by UNESCO
as a Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The sole official language of Azerbaijan is Azerbaijani, which is also known by the name Azeri. It is a member of the Turkic language family that is closely related to Turkish. In fact, it shares a high enough degree of mutual intelligibility with Turkish for some linguists to consider it to be a variety of Turkish instead of a distinct language. In any case, Azerbaijani is spoken by over 90% of the country's population.

There are two other languages that are widely used throughout Azerbaijan, though they do not have official status: Russian and English. There are nearly 500,000 native speakers of Russian in Azerbaijan, as well as many others who use it or English as a second language in education, business, and other areas of society.

Minority Languages

Azerbaijan is also home to several interesting minority languages, though many of them are vulnerable due to declining use in their already small communities. They include Talysh, Lezgi, Avar, Tat, Judeo-Tat, and Tsakhur. The most spoken of these languages is Talysh, a member of the Indo-Iranian language family that boasts approximately 800,000 native speakers in Azerbaijan.

The second most spoken minority language is Lezgi, also known as Lezgian. It is a member of the Northeast Caucasian language family, and is spoken by over 350,000 Azerbaijanis. Other Northeast Caucasian languages used in the country include Avar, which is spoken by about 40,000 people in northwestern Azerbaijan, and Tsakhur, which is used by about 13,000 Azerbaijanis.

There are also the related Tat and Judeo-Tat languages, which both belong to the Indo-Iranian language family. Tat is spoken by around 18,000 members of the Tat ethnic group, while Judeo-Tat, also known as Juhuri, is spoken by about 24,000 Azerbaijanis. Judeo-Tat is the language of the ethnic group known as the Mountain Jews or Caucasus Jews.

Finally, there are about 150,000 native speakers of the Armenian language in Azerbaijan. Most of them live in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous area in southeastern Azerbaijan. However, while the area is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, it has its own government and is considered a de facto country since it declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.