Monday, February 15, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Turkmenistan

This week's country profile is going to be a bit shorter than usual since Turkmenistan, which we're focusing on today, isn't home to nearly as many languages as Singapore, which we covered last week. In fact, Ethnologue only lists five languages for Turkmenistan, one of which is extinct.

The Official Language

A theme park in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.
The sole official language of Turkmenistan is Turkmen. Given its name, you might be able to guess that it's a member of the Turkic language family. Turkmen is most closely related to other members of the language family's Oghuz branch, which include Turkish and Azerbaijani

Over 3.4 million people in Turkmenistan speak Turkmen as their native language, while about 2 million more native speakers reside in Iran, as well as around 1.5 million people in Afghanistan. In Turkmenistan, the language is officially written using a Latin-based alphabet, but in Iran and Afghanistan, it is often written using an Arabic-based alphabet instead.

While it doesn't receive any official recognition from Turkmenistan's government, Russian should also be mentioned due to its status as a lingua franca in Turkmenistan. Over 10% of people in Turkmenistan speak Russian, which was the official language through 1991, when Turkmenistan declared its independence from the Soviet Union.

Other Languages

The other three living languages listed by Ethnologue are Uzbek, Balochi, and Northern Kurdish. Uzbek, the official language of neighboring Uzbekistan, is the native language of over 300,000 people in Turkmenistan.

Unlike Uzbek, which is a Turkic language like Turkmen, Balochi and Northern Kurdish are Indo-Iranian languages. Balochi is the native language of about 28,000 people in Turkmenistan, but is primarily spoken in Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. Northern Kurdish, on the other hand, is most used in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. It is spoken by around 20,000 people in Turkmenistan.

Finally, there's Chagatai, an extinct Turkic language that was once the most important literary language in Turkmenistan and was widely used throughout Central Asia.