Monday, January 18, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Kyrgyzstan

In the past two weeks, we've looked at the linguistic diversity of Nicaragua and Sierra Leone, two fascinating countries located on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. This week we're shifting our focus to Kyrgyzstan, a landlocked, mountainous country in the heart of Central Asia.

The Official Languages

A couple of camels on the beach by Issyk-Kul,
one of the largest lakes in the world.
Kyrgyzstan has two official languages: Kyrgyz and Russian. The country's most spoken language is Kyrgyz, which is the native language of over 3.8 million Kyrgyz. It is a member of the Turkic language family, and is generally written using the Cyrillic alphabet. However, Kyrgyz speakers in China generally write the language using an older Arabic-based alphabet.

The second most spoken language in Kyrgyzstan is Russian, which was first introduced to the region when it became part of the Russian Empire in the late 1800s. There are only about 480,000 native Russian speakers in Kyrgyzstan, but the language is widely used in business and government, which explains why there are over 2.5 million people in the country who speak Russian as a second language.

Other Languages

While Kyrgyzstan's mountainous terrain has helped it to preserve its native culture over the centuries, it has also undoubtedly kept the country from becoming very linguistically diverse, which is why we only have three other languages to look at today: Uzbek, Tajik, and Dungan.

In terms of native speakers, the second most spoken language in Kyrgyzstan is Uzbek, the Turkic language that is the official language of neighboring Uzbekistan. There are over 700,000 native speakers of Uzbek in Kyrgyzstan, which far surpasses the number of native Russian speakers.

The next most important language in Kyrgyzstan is Tajik, a variety of the Persian language and a member of the Indo-Iranian language family. There are over 40,000 native speakers of Tajik in Kyrgyzstan, though most of the language's speakers live in neighboring Tajikistan.

The final language we have for today is Dungan, a member of the Sino-Tibetan language family that includes Mandarin Chinese. It is natively spoken by over 55,000 members of the Dungan ethnic group in Kyrgyzstan. Dungan is especially interesting because it is the only variety of Chinese that is not generally written using Chinese characters. While it was originally written with an Arabic-based alphabet, it has been written using a Cyrillic-based alphabet since the 1940s due to the influence of the Soviet government.