Turkic Languages

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Introduction to Turkic Languages – Murad Suleymanov (EPHE–PSL, Inalco, PROCLAC)

The Turkic languages are a family of about 35 languages spoken by about 170 million people living in a vast territory stretching from the Balkans to the Arctic Ocean. The most used languages of the family are the official languages of several countries, such as Turkey with Turkish, Azerbaijan with Azeri, Kazakhstan with Kazakh, Uzbekistan with Uzbek, Turkmenistan with Turkmen, Kyrgyzstan with Kyrgyz and Cyprus with Turkish in addition to Greek. Most Turkic languages, however, do not have official status.

The Turkic languages are divided into five branches: the “common” Turkic languages (which are divided, in turn, into the Oghuz, Kipchak-Karluk, Northern Altai and Arghu sub-branches), the Sayanic languages, the Khakassic languages, the Yakutic languages and the Oghur languages.

The Oghuz languages are represented in this course by Salar (glottocode: sala1264), Turkmen (glottocode: turk1304) and Urum (glottocode not assigned). Salar, genetically an Oghuz language, has been spoken for several centuries in China, in close contact with Tibetan, which has resulted in a transformation of the inherited Turkic grammatical system. Turkmen, a language with official status, nevertheless remains little known to researchers and the general public because of the limited accessibility to the field. Finally, Urum is of interest both ethnographically (it is a peripheral dialect of Anatolian Turkish spoken by a Greek Orthodox community) and linguistically (spoken in isolation from Turkish since the emigration of the speakers to Georgia some 200 years ago).

The Kipchak languages included in the course are Bashkir (glottocode: bash1264), Karachay-Balkar (glottocode: kara1465) and Karaim (glottocode: kara1464), each with fewer than one million native speakers. This is the most diverse branch of the Turkic languages. Bashkir, spoken in the Volga region, is little known in the West, but is notable for having developed a specific consonant system despite its commonalities with Tatar, and for preserving a large portion of inherited lexicon related to traditional industries. Karachay-Balkar, spoken for nearly a millennium in close contact with native Caucasian languages, presents both archaic and innovative linguistic phenomena. Karaim, a language spoken by followers of a branch of Judaism historically found in Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania, is of particular interest.

The teaching also includes a study of “peripheral” minority Turkic languages, which have either mixed heavily with non-Turkic languages and/or have been isolated from the rest of the family, making them particularly interesting. These languages include Tuvan (glottocode: tuvi1240, a Sayanic language), Khalaj (glottocode: turk1303, an Arghu language), Yakut (glottocode: yaku1245, a Yakutic language), and Chuvash (glottocode: chuv1255, an Oghur language). Tuvan is the most important modern Turkic language because of its association with Buddhist culture, to which most of its speakers belong. The peculiarity of Khalaj, spoken in Iran, is its preservation of several archaic features, especially at the phonological level, which helps researchers better understand the evolution of the entire language family. Yakut, the northernmost Turkic language, exhibits archaisms found in Khalaj, as well as innovations resulting from contact with the native languages of Northeast Asia. Chuvash, whose ancestor broke away from Common Turkic at the beginning of our era, underwent a very specific development, characterized by several waves of phonological changes and a morphological restructuring under the influence of its linguistic neighbours.

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