A visit to Kyrgyzstan

In my most recent News for Penises posting, I reported on an unfortunate horse penis joke made by a Scot working in the gold mining industry of Kyrgyzstan (a country with an ancient and still vital horse culture), and that recalled for me a high school fascination with the central Asian republics of the USSR: at one point, we were required to memorize the list of the 15 Soviet republics (presumably, this was part of a Know Your Enemy move), and I was especially taken with those in central Asia and the Caucasus as impressively remote and exotic places, with (in addition) truly breath-taking mountain scenery. The central Asian republics also came with the romance of the Silk Road to China. And then Kyrgyzstan stood out  because of its challenging name.

None of this was relevant to the tale of the horse penis guy, but still I was moved to dig up information about Kyrgyzstan and its immediate neighbors and about the path from Kyrgyzstan back to familiar places in Europe and on to various parts of China. Eventually I’ll have things to say about Turkic languages, so it won’t be all travelogue.

From Wikipedia:

Kyrgyzstan …, formerly known as Kirghizia, is a country located in Central Asia. Landlocked and mountainous, Kyrgyzstan is bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the south west and China [specifically, Xinjiang] to the east. Its capital and largest city is Bishkek [population 870,663 in 2012, a bit larger than San Francisco, but then S.F. is in the Bay Area conurbation, with a population of about 7.5 million, substantially more than all of Kyrgyzstan].

Kyrgyzstan’s history spans over 2,000 years, encompassing a variety of cultures and empires. Although geographically isolated by its highly mountainous terrain – which has helped preserve its ancient culture – Kyrgyzstan has historically been at the crossroads of several great civilizations, namely as part of the Silk Road and other commercial and cultural routes. Though long inhabited by a succession of independent tribes and clans, Kyrgyzstan has periodically come under foreign domination and attained sovereignty as a nation-state only after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Since independence, Kyrgyzstan has officially been a unitary parliamentary republic, although it continues to endure ethnic conflicts, revolts, economic troubles, transitional governments, and political party conflicts. [All of these considerations, plus drug smuggling and gang violence, have led the U.S. State Department to warn Americans about traveling in the country outside of Bishkek, and especially in the south.]

… Ethnic Kyrgyz make up the majority of the country’s 5.7 million people, followed by significant minorities of Uzbeks and Russians. The official language, Kyrgyz, is closely related to the other Turkic languages, although Russian remains widely spoken, a legacy of a century-long policy of Russification. The majority of the population (64 percent) are nondenominational Muslims. In addition to its Turkic origins, Kyrgyz culture bears elements of Persian, Mongolian, and Russian influence.

Two scenes of the high plains, with horses, and (in the second) a yurt:



Mountains everywhere. But, thanks to the altitude and the general aridity, few trees except in river valleys. An urban view: the Central Mosque in Bishkek:


Kyrgyzstan in relation to its neighbors:


Wikipedia on Central Asia:

Central Asia is the core region of the Asian continent and stretches from the Caspian Sea in the west to China in the east and from Afghanistan in the south to Russia in the north. It is also sometimes referred to as Middle Asia, and, colloquially, “the ‘stans” (as the six countries generally considered to be within the region all have names ending with the Persian suffix “-stan”, meaning “land of”) and is within the scope of the wider Eurasian continent.

In modern contexts, all definitions of Central Asia include these five republics of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan (pop. 17 million), Kyrgyzstan (5.7 million), Tajikistan (8.0 million), Turkmenistan (5.2 million), and Uzbekistan (30 million), for a total population of about 66 million as of 2013–2014. Afghanistan (pop. 31.1 million) is also sometimes included.

(The Soviets spent 9 years, from December 1979 to February 1989, trying to add Afghanistan to the USSR, but they were repulsed and eventually withdrew.)

Linguistic note: long-standing close contact between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks has caused their two already closely related Turkic languages to converge further, increasing the mutual intelligibility between the languages. This fact allows me to seque into some discussion of an NYT Magazine piece from August 16th by Lydia Kiesling on Uzbek:

Four years ago, the federal government paid me a large sum — a year of graduate-school tuition, plus a stipend — to study Uzbek at the University of Chicago. Uzbek is among the least commonly taught of the so-called Less Commonly Taught Languages, or L.C.T.L.s. So uncommonly is it taught, in fact, that without federal largess it would hardly be taught at all. Because I happened to speak decent Turkish, a cousin of Uzbek, and because I spent a week in Uzbekistan when I was 22, and because life is nothing if not a sequence of odd choices vaguely considered, for two years I sat in a room with two other students and produced some extremely literal translations.

Uzbek is a member of the sprawling Turkic-language family, which comprises­ around three dozen members in six major branches. As in any human family, there are varying degrees of affinity: If Uzbek and Turkish are cousins, Uzbek and Uyghur, which is spoken in western China, are fraternal twins. But Turkic grammars and numbers are surprisingly uniform, and it is theoretically possible for someone to buy milk in Sevastopol (Crimean Tatar) or Ashgabat (Turkmen) or Bishkek (Kyrgyz) using more or less the same words.

Turkic grammar is among the most logical of any language family, a fact that has occasioned racially charged appreciations throughout history: ‘‘It seems strange that a language elaborated by the rude and nomad tribes of Central Asia,’’ wrote the British explorer Robert Barkley Shaw in his 1875 ‘‘Sketch of the Turki Language,’’ ‘‘should present … an example of symmetry such as few of the more cultivated forms of speech can boast.’’

Uzbek makes life easy by forsaking both articles and gender. It is agglutinative; pieces are tacked onto one another, each component retaining its individual meaning. Nouns come first, and verbs come last. ‘‘Nice to meet you’’ is a multisyllabic benediction: Siz bilan tanishganimdan xursandman (‘‘You + with + meeting-my-from + happy-I-am’’). And like all Turkic languages, Uzbek has the marvelous, hedging grammatical feature of evidentiality — a signpost meaning ‘‘I didn’t see it myself but understand it to be the case.’’

As a linguist, I was immediately suspicious of claims about the pervasive wonderful syntactic regularity of some language. Uzbek and languages closely related to it forgo some complexities of familiar European languages, but there are bound to be other complexities that are problematic. (Uzbek is pretty much guaranteed to have a system of vowel harmony, a feature that is generally troublesome for language learners — it does — but, yes, that’s not syntax.)

Doing without articles eliminates a feature of English and many other European languages that gives learners of these languages headaches, but that doesn’t mean that speakers of anarthrous languages have an easy time of things: they still need ways to convey givenness in the discourse and uniqueness of reference in the context (two things that definite articles do), and in my experience these points of syntax can be vexing indeed for the learner of such a language (I remember stumbling on these matters in learning Russian). Typically, “word order” (well, constituent order) is used to convey discourse-givenness and topicality, and in fact a scholarly sketch of the Uzbek language (by Hendrik Boeschoten in Lars Johanson and Éva Á. Csató, The Turkic Languages, published by Routledge in 1998) says this is how things work in Uzbek.

Boeschoten’s sketch also talks about several tricky points in Uzbek syntax. Like which postpositions govern the nominative case, which the dative, and which the ablative (rather than the expected accusative). (In Boeschoten’s analysis, the language has 8 cases.) Or consider the fact that though the basic structure of the nominal phrase is

determiner + quantifier (phrase) + adjective (phrase) + noun


Under certain conditions, both quantifier and determiner may move to the right of the adjective. The conditions under which this happens are not easy to describe (p. 371)

And so on.

(Side note: Although some Wikipedia sketches of individual languages are, allowing for their brevity, qute good, the one for Uzbek is appalling. To start with, it has essentially nothing on syntax.)

A final note, about mutual intelligibility. Intelligibility between language varieties is often (reported to be) asymmetric, and in any case it can depend on people’s attitudes towards these varieties. Sometimes, people will disregard what are in fact considerable differences between varieties in order to cope with one another, while in other cases, people will fix on fairly small differences (like those between the language varieties now called Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian) to claim that they can’t understand one another.

The Caucasus. On the other side of the Caspian Sea from Central Asia, we have this region, also mountainous. From Wikipedia:

The Caucasus … or Caucasia … is a region at the border of Europe and Asia, situated between the Black and the Caspian seas.

It is home to the Caucasus Mountains, which contain Europe’s highest mountain, Mount Elbrus, 5,642 metres (18,510 ft). Politically, the Caucasus region is separated between northern and southern parts. The southern parts consist of independent sovereign states, and the northern parts are under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation.

The region is known for its linguistic diversity: aside from Indo-European and Turkic languages, the Kartvelian, Northwest Caucasian, and Northeast Caucasian families are indigenous to the area.

… The northern portion of the Caucasus is known as the Ciscaucasus and the southern portion as the Transcaucasus.

The Ciscaucasus contains the larger majority of the Greater Caucasus Mountain range, also known as the Major Caucasus mountains. It includes Southwestern Russia and northern parts of Georgia and Azerbaijan.

The Transcaucasus is bordered on the north by Russia, on the west by the Black Sea and Turkey, on the east by the Caspian Sea, and on the south by Iran. It includes the Caucasus Mountains and surrounding lowlands. All of Armenia, Azerbaijan (excluding the northern parts) and Georgia (excluding the northern parts) are in South Caucasus.

The main Greater Caucasus range is generally perceived to be the dividing line between Asia and Europe. The highest peak in the Caucasus is Mount Elbrus (5,642 m) in the western Ciscaucasus in Russia, and is generally considered as the highest point in Europe.

The Caucasus is one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse regions on Earth. The nation states that comprise the Caucasus today are the post-Soviet states Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The Russian divisions include Krasnodar Krai, Stavropol Krai, and the autonomous republics of Adygea, Karachay–Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. Three territories in the region claim independence but are recognized as such by only a handful or by no independent states: Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.


East from Central Asia. Immediately to the east of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan is the Xinjian region of China. From Wikipedia:

Xinjiang …, officially the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, is an autonomous region of China in the northwest of the country. It is the largest Chinese administrative division, the 8th largest country subdivision in the world, spanning over 1.6 million km2. It contains the disputed territory of Aksai Chin administered by China. Xinjiang borders the countries of Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.


Kashi / Kashgar (not far from Kyrgyzstan) is the westernmost city in China, and a notable stop on the Silk Road.

Note that Uyghur / Uighur is yet another Turkic language. China is doing its best to suppress the language in favor of Mandarin.

Going east from northeast Kazakhstan, we get to Mongolia, sometimes referred to as Outer Mongolia. From Wikipedia:

Mongolia … is a landlocked country in east-central Asia. It is bordered by Russia to the north and China to the south, east and west [Inner Mongolia to the east and south]. While they do not share a border, Mongolia is separated from Kazakhstan by only 36.76 kilometres (22.84 mi). Ulaanbaatar, the capital and largest city, is home to about 45% of the population.


And now, finally, we leave the Turkic languages and arrive in the land of the Mongolic languages.

One last step: from Mongolia to Inner Mongolia. From Wikipedia:

Inner Mongolia …, officially Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region or Nei Mongol Autonomous Region, is an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China, located in the north of the country, containing most of China’s border with Mongolia (the rest of the China-Mongolia border is taken up by the Xinjiang autonomous region and Gansu province) and a small section of the border with Russia. Its capital is Hohhot, and other major cities include Baotou, Chifeng, and Ordos.

… The official languages are Chinese and Mongolian [the language of the Mongol minority], the latter of which is written in the traditional Mongolian script, as opposed to the Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet, which is used in the state of Mongolia.


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