Speaking Slavic and Turkic across Eurasia

« previous post | next post »

[This is a guest post by Peter B. Golden.  It is a follow-up to this post and the discussion about trans-Eurasian communication in Turkic languages in the comments that followed it:  "The sounds of Eurasia " (8/1/16).]

I have long been fascinated by the question. The same issue arises with Slavic. There, I had the advantage of speaking Russian since childhood. Actually, the language I spoke with my grandparents and elders was a rural patois that consisted of Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian. In Belarusian this mixed [Russian-Belarusian] language is called трасянка / trasianka, lit. a mix of hay and straw. In Ukrainian the Russian-Ukrainian mix is called суржик / surzhyk, lit. a mix of wheat and rye). I have heard Muscovites and St. Petersburg folk use the word "surzhik" in reference to these mixed E. Slavic regional dialects overall.

These mixed languages are common in the small towns and cities. Some have become areal, moving beyond a strictly Belarusian or Ukrainian area. Acquiring the other Slavic languages, even when there were interesting divergences (e.g. in Polish for a Russian-speaker) was easy. In all of them phonology jumped around (but I was accustomed to that given my family's East Slavic patois- it shifts within E. Slavic according to region- vocabulary could shift, change – there were "false friends," but overall the grammar was familiar. When I was a student of Ihor Ševčenko, he presumed that those of us who were native-speakers of a Slavic language (both those born abroad and those born in the US) could simply pick up a book in another Slavic language and read it. In fact, in one of my first seminars with him, he assigned me a book in Bulgarian (which I had never really looked at previously) to read and report on at the next meeting. Bulgarian grammar is largely non-Slavic, having been heavily influenced by Romanian / Vlach – it even has post-positioned articles – articles are completely lacking in all the other Slavic languages (except Macedonian, which is closely related to Bulgarian). The occasional post-positioned preposition does surface in Russian, but these are largely frozen forms, somewhat archaic (e.g. Бога ради / Boga radi "for God's sake // Bog "God" radi "for the sake of" – used to underscore a plea / request for something). Grammatically, then, Bulgarian is strange, but I could figure it out and the vocabulary, built on literary Church Slavonic (just like literary Russian) was not a serious problem. I read the book and gave my report.

When I studied in Turkey, the attitude was the same: if you know one Turkic language, you can manage any of them. One of my professors, Saadet Çağatay (the daughter of a famous Tatar poet) for my first assignment gave me a folklore text in Qarachay (a Qıpchaq / northwestern Turkic language of the N. Caucasus, with considerable vocabulary differences and some grammatical features that are strange at first encounter (but understandable once one knows the history of Qarachay phonology). Her assumption (and I am not a native speaker) was that one could figure it out  – and one largely can. My job was to translate it into Turkish. Chuvash (the sole descendant of West Old Turkic / Oğuric/Bulğaric, which split off from "Common Turkic" ca. 1st cent. BCE-1st cent. CE) and has been heavily impacted by Volga Finnic and other non-Turkic influences, is an exception – but even there, once one gets accustomed to certain "peculiarities," there is a familiar feel to it. Yakut, which broke away later, i.e. much more recently, and has been isolated from other Turkic languages under Tungusic, Mongol and other influences, also presents problems with vocabulary, etc. but again has a certain familiarity to it.

In certain situations, a kind of Pan-Turkic can be used. For example, I had a long conversation (about three hours) with a Chinese scholar who was a specialist in Uighur. I spoke mainly in Turkish and he spoke in Uighur. Our chat covered a wide range of subjects, occasionally making use of Ancient Turkic words or words from other Turkic languages that we presumed the other would understand when something obviously did not come across – or the Chinese term. I have found that with Qazaqs and Kyrgyz it is more difficult. Native speakers of Tatar have no problem (I can read Tatar, but it doesn't help much when hearing Qazaq, which belongs to the same Qıchaq subgrouping of Turkic, but a different branch. The same is true with Qırghız, which is very close to Qazaq). Native Turkic-speakers may have a different experience.

Under Atatürk and the decades after him, Pan-Turkism was officially discouraged (very much so). Many of my professors, who were from Turkic peoples outside of Turkey, never uttered the word "Pan-Turkic," but their attitude and approach to teaching things Turkic was Pan-Turkic, with the idea that all Turks constitute one people and one language. The differences are merely dialect. Turkish does not differentiate between "Turkish" and "Turkic." They may, on occasion, say Türk Dilleri (Turk[ish/ic] languages or more often Türk Lehçeleri (Turkish / Turkic dialects/languages – lehçe from Persian is a good fudging word). When they want to refer to dialects within Turkey Turkish they say Türk ağızları. A very useful comparative work on all the Turkic languages is Türk Lehçeleri Grameri, ed. by Ahmet B. Ercilasun (Ankara, 2007). One can understand the word lehçe here as either "dialect" or "language" – it is safe and can be interpreted according to one's preferences.


  1. Steve Politzer-Ahles said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 9:22 pm

    I've a similar experience to Peter's Turkish-Uyghur one. After just a couple months of introductory Uyghur class, our class got together with the class studying Uzbek, which was largely mutually intelligible, to shoot the breeze for a while in our respective languages. There was almost no barrier. We sounded kind of funny to each other (I remember noticing their vowel harmony patterns, which are a lot more regular than Uyghur) but could understand one another. Of course, our range of topics was somewhat limited because of our overall low proficiency, and maybe if we got into higher-level topics we would have experienced more trouble.

  2. pat barrett said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 11:07 pm

    Years ago I used to talk Russian with a woman from back East in Pa who said you had to do business in 8 languages to deliver milk there. She called the mixture of all the Slavic languages Slavish.
    The author of The Possessed, the Turkish-American Elif Batuman, describes her skepticism at being told she could go to Uzbekistan and understand the speech. To her surprise, she could.
    Does anyone have anything to say about the book Purism and Language by Paul N. Wexler on Ukrainian/Belorussian.
    I've been reading on "the language question" re Hindi-Urdu and Greek katharevousa/demotiki. Basically, it boils down to linguistic adjustments and the question is how do people make those adjustments toward either mutual comprehension or exclusion.

  3. Christian Weisgerber said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 10:01 am

    Interesting historical tidbit regarding the mutual intelligibility of the Slavic languages: At the Pan-Slavic Congress of 1848 "German was the primary language used during discussions".

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 10:29 am

    Just re the reading-Bulgarian ancedote above: some modest degree of reading comprehension in a related language is not necessarily much of a predictor of aural comprehension. I can often puzzle my way through written Dutch, on the basis that it's mostly German with weird (but systematically/predictably so) orthography, and for the minority of times when German doesn't permit an educated guess, English sometimes does. But I have quite close to zero ability to comprehend spoken Dutch. It doesn't help that my ability to follow spoken German is very rusty (and most likely to be efficacious if the speaker goes very … slowly … and overenunciates words in a class-room demonstration sort of fashion), but I'm not confident that stronger aural comprehension of German would carry over to Dutch the way written comprehension does. Indeed, just as some familiarity with OCS or some formal/archaic registers of Russian with OCS influence may make Bulgarian easier to read, substantial familiarity with older varieties of English (Shakespeare/KJV or farther back) often makes other Germanic languages easier to puzzle out in written form.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 10:51 am

    From Veysel Batmaz:

    Poly… Polis… Bolu… Balik(esir)… Bol… Bolshoy… Boog… Borg… Burg… Burgaz… Burjuva… Burc…

    These are Greek, Slavic and Turkish words… All mean city or plenty.

    Istanbul…. Constantinopol

  6. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 11:00 am

    I agree with J.W. Brewer about the difference between reading and aural comprehension, specifically with regard to Slavic languages. My native language is Polish, and since learning Cyrillic I have been able to read, more or less, every other Slavic language. But the phonological differences among them, especially the variation in syllabic stress, are so great that I have found oral communication with speakers of, say, Czech, Slovak, Serbocroat, Bulgarian and Macedonian very difficult and I've had to resort to a common non-Slavic language whenever one was available, or possibly Russian (which I have studied.)
    As I wrote in a comment to Victor's previous post on the subject, I believe the situation to be different with Turkic.

  7. January First-of-May said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 9:52 pm

    Just re the reading-Bulgarian ancedote above: some modest degree of reading comprehension in a related language is not necessarily much of a predictor of aural comprehension.

    This was my mother's impression of Czech: she could read it easily, but the spoken version had a lot of unexpected pronunciations, which made figuring out even the actual cognates far from easy.

    There's actually an easy explanation why (that works just as well for many other languages) – orthographies tend to be a bit fossilized, so they preserve a slightly earlier version of the language, where many words might look more similar to the other language's equivalents even as sound changes (on either side) obscure the relation of spoken forms.
    Of course, this turns out to work the other way for Turkic, where the languages, for the most part, didn't have the time to diverge that much, while the orthographies mostly come from the 20th century and are of very assorted origins (and, IIRC, in a few cases were specifically messed with to make the languages look more distinct than they actually are).

  8. David Marjanović said,

    August 7, 2016 @ 5:11 pm

    I've witnessed conversations where Polish, Czech and Slovak turned out to be mutually intelligible to a pretty high degree – and I mean the standards, not the Silesian dialect which is to some degree intermediate between Polish and Czech. Czechs have told me they pretty much understand Polish right away; Poles have said they need to get used to Czech for 2 or 3 days before they understand it. Polish makes more phonemic distinctions than Czech.

    A similar attempt between a Croat and a Pole worked less well, with the Croat understanding more of Polish (for the same reason) than the other way around.

    I'm not confident that stronger aural comprehension of German would carry over to Dutch the way written comprehension does.

    Native speaker of German here: it does, but not as far – depending on the topic I still only understand up to half of spoken Dutch, while written Dutch is almost transparent. That's with knowing the more unexpected spelling-to-sound correspondences of Dutch, some of which would have been really hard to guess.

    (Half is also what I understand of a Swiss "German" conversation… and my dialect is southern itself…)

    Poly… Polis… Bolu… Balik(esir)… Bol… Bolshoy… Boog… Borg… Burg… Burgaz… Burjuva… Burc…

    These are Greek, Slavic and Turkish words… All mean city or plenty.

    And most of these are similar only by coincidence. İstanbul, however, is directly from the stressed syllables of ή Κονστάντινου πόλις, "the city of Constantine", probably pronounced [ˈikɔnˈstandinuˈpɔlis] or thereabouts at the time in question.

    and, IIRC, in a few cases were specifically messed with to make the languages look more distinct than they actually are

    Yes. The Soviets routinely created similar Cyrillic orthographies for geographically close languages, and different ones for closely related languages, to eventually facilitate the merger of all languages while bypassing ideologies like Panturkism that could have endangered Soviet rule. Once Soviet rule had ended anyway, the new dictators outside of Russia created widely divergent Latin orthographies for their own political purposes: Azerbaijan extended Atatürk's alphabet, Uzbekistan went with full ASCII compliance in trade for lots and lots of apostrophes (a bit like the z in Polish digraphs), Turkmenistan went for a unique look, Kazakhstan said "naaah" and kept the Cyrillic orthography unchanged.

  9. Rodger C said,

    August 8, 2016 @ 6:54 am

    @David: Surely the genitive of Konstántinos should be Konstantínou? Three-mora rule. I was taught that Istanbul was from Anatolian Greek is tan pouli, "in the city."

RSS feed for comments on this post