Pentalingual street signs in Kashgar

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Screen shot from this video (at 0:34) about an express delivery service in Kashgar, Xinjiang, China:

Kashgar, at the far western end of the huge Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (one sixth of the whole of the PRC) was celebrated as being the center of traditional Uyghur (Turkic) culture in Eastern Central Asia (ECA).  It had numerous old buildings, including beautiful wooden residences, that were the pride of the architectural heritage of ECA.  About ten years ago, the CCP government embarked on a full-scale plan to turn Kashgar into the "Shenzhen of the west", and tore down (chāi 拆 ["demolished"]) nearly all of the Old City.  In its place, we now have another Chinese city in the middle of Asia.

The pentalingual street signs pictured in the above screenshot tell who are the most frequent visitors to and denizens of the city.  The relative sizes of the different scripts also give a good idea of the government's opinion about which of the five languages represented are more or less important.

A similar Sinicization of the city has taken place with the transformation of its name from "Kashgar" to "Kashi":

The modern Chinese name is 喀什 (Kāshí), a shortened form of the longer and less-frequently used 喀什噶尔 (Kāshígá'ěr; Uyghur: قەشقەر‎). Ptolemy (AD 90-168), in his Geography, Chapter 15.3A, refers to Kashgar as “Kasi”. Its western and probably indigenous name is the Kāš ("rock"), to which the East Iranian -γar ("mountain") and Middle Persian gar/ġar, from Old Persian/Pahlavi girīwa ("hill; ridge (of a mountain)") was attached. Alternative historical Romanizations for "Kashgar" include Cascar and Cashgar.

[The Wikipedia note on the name, from which the above paragraph is taken, has two additional paragraphs which, as indicated by the editors, are less reliable.]

Incidentally, I was almost ready to make this post with the title "Quadrilingual street signs in Kashgar" when I realized that, not only are there Uyghur, Chinese, English, and Russian on the signs, there is also Japanese hidden away at the bottom right of each one.

I have been to Kashgar many times, beginning in the early 80s, but am in no hurry to go back again.

Selected readings


  1. John Swindle said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 6:10 am

    Is there a story behind "darvaza" in the street names? Just from playing around with Google Translate it looks like it means "gate" in a bunch of Turkic languages from Azerbaijan through Central Asia but not in modern Turkish. (I can't read Uyghur.)

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 7:02 am

    From Jim Millward:

    A couple other thoughts on the street signs: The Russian and Japanese transliterate the Uyghur, so you can still see the original meanings of the words (old gate road, robbery (?) gate road, etc.) The English is half pinyinized, sort of. In each name what would be dai-er-wa-zha is turned into "dare." Is that kind of change common in converting Chinese transcriptions of Uyghur into Romanized versions? (Of course, it would be much better just to romanize the Uyghur). Where does that "dare" come from?

    Any thoughts on the practice of transcribing the sound, rather than translating the meaning, of placenames? I'm trying to think of Qing practice. I don't have any sense of hyper-local names like streets; certainly for the cities generally the Qing transcribed the phonetics into Chinese and Manchu (though there was a term "six cities or eight cities" in Chinese for Altishahr, and Yurongqash and Qaraqash Rivers had translated names–the jade fascination no doubt playing a role.) In the Republican period there was an effort to replace local Mongol and Uyghur names with Han dynasty names or with the Chinese names that Chinese settlers had ascribed to places, such as 迪华 for Urumchi ("Come to China").

    .PRC more or less reverted to local pronunciation at first (the subject of my "Coming onto the Map" article) –but now is re-colonializing the names with a vengeance, as Timothy Grose (or was it Rian Thum) tweeted recently: replacing original street names in Khotan with names (as I call them) of bad Chinese restaurants (Forever Fortune, Beautiful Garden) or Communist cliches (Red Star, Victory). Clearly practices are different in different places, and at least in tourist Kashgar for these two streets they haven't outright supplanted the name–but half-pinyinizing it rather than translating it completely loses the original meaning.

    If I were running the tourist site, I would absolutely keep "old gate road," or "robbery gate road" (if that's what qaraq means–I don't have a proper dictionary here so am likely wrong). So this suggests that the decisions are made without reference to what the Uyghur means, perhaps by people who don't know?

  3. Andrew Taylor said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 8:10 am

    In the interests of etymological purity, shouldn't it be either "pentaglottal" or "quinquelingual"?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 8:40 am


    pentaglottal 125,000 ghits

    quinquelingual 4,860 ghits

    pentalingual 23,700 ghits

  5. Marcel Erdal said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 8:40 am

    Concerning Urumchi, I understand that the city was named 迪化 by the Qing (in use till 1954); 迪华 is spurious.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 9:17 am

    That's an important distinction, Marcel, because huà 化 means "transform; change; cultivate, educate", whereas huá 华 (= 華) means "floriate; flourishing" and can stand for "China".

  7. Victor Mair said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 9:23 am

    From Peter Golden:

    The preservation of Uyghur on street signs is all very nice. Unfortunately, it is being accompanied by the cultural – and now physical – genocide (forced marriages with Han, forced abortions, sterilization etc.) of the Uyghur people. Where is the outrage?

  8. David Marjanović said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 10:11 am

    Where is the outrage?

    We all know the answer to that one: follow the money.

  9. cameron said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 10:33 am

    @John Swindle: the word darvāze is borrowed from Persian into all of those Turkic languages. It simply means gate. The first syllable is cognate with English "door". It's pretty common for street names to reflect the presence of city walls (and hence gates) even if the walls and gates themselves have long been torn down.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 10:35 am

    The Chinese name for Ürümchi, Díhuà 迪化, is short for qǐdí jiàohuà 启迪教化 ("enlighten and transform"), so the Qianlong Emperor was hoping by giving the city this name that it would have a civilizing effect on the people of the region.

  11. John Swindle said,

    July 12, 2020 @ 12:34 pm

    cameron, thanks!

  12. Terpomo said,

    July 13, 2020 @ 8:00 am

    The word "Pentaglot" inevitably makes me think of the Pentaglot Dictionary (御製五體清文鑑); I have to admit, I find that sort of book interesting even if it's not of that much practical value today. (Well, maybe for a pentaglot dictionary categorical ordering does make sense since the alternative is five separate alphabetical indices.)

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