LANGUAGES IN TURKMENISTAN
Turkmen is the official language. In 2003 officially 72 percent of citizens spoke Turkmen, 12 percent spoke Russian, 9 percent spoke Uzbek, and 7 percent spoke other languages. Russian is spoken mainly in urban areas, and Uzbek is spoken mainly in northern Turkmenistan. Since the late 1990s, the government has discouraged the use of Russian. In 2000 President Niyazov decreed that all governmental office holders and officials in higher education must speak Turkmen, and a campaign has sought to abolish non-Turkmen instruction in institutions of higher learning. No Russian-language newspapers or radio broadcasts were permitted as of 2005. [Source: CIA World Factbook, Library of Congress, February 2007]
Turkmen was made the official language in 1990 and this was affirmed in the 1992 constitution. Like the Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Uzbek languages, Turkmen is a Turkic language. For centuries Turkmen was written in Arabic. The Soviets gave it a standard literary form and introduced the Roman alphabet and then replaced it with Cyrillic script. After independence in 1991, a Turkish-style Roman alphabet was introduced.
English is hardly spoken by anybody. A rudimentary grasp of some Russian or Turkmen helps a lot if you are traveling in Turkmenistan. Russian is widely spoken in the cities and remains the lingua franca in Central Asia. Turkmen is spoken mostly in rural areas. Many Turkmen can speak both Turkmen and Russian. Both are taught in schools. There has traditionally been a large variety of both Russian-language and Turkmen-language publications and radio and television broadcasts in Turkmenistan, but since Turkmenistan became independent there has been an effort to downplay Russian. Russian is still widely used in official communications despite campaigning to limit its influence; English was given status behind Turkmen as second official language, 1993.
After the break up of the Soviet Union Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan agreed to adopt the Latin alphabet in order to make trade easier and improve relations among themselves and the outside world.
Many Turkmen give only their first name when talking to reporters of foreigners. They are worried about what might happen if the secret police finds out what they say.
One Turkmen saying goes: “There is a limit to wisdom, but there is no limit to foolishness.”
The Turkmen language belongs to the Oghuz or Southwest Barnch of the Turkic Language Group. It is closer to ancient forms of Turkish than other Turkic languages such as Turkish, Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Kazakh. The Turkmen language is also more closely related to Azerbaijani and Turkish than to Uzbek or Kazakh or the ptehr languages of Central Asia.
Turkmen belongs to the family of Turkic languages spoken in Eastern Europe (Tatar, Bashkir, Chuvash), the Caucasus (Azeri, Kumik), Siberia (Yakut, Tuva, Khakas), China (Uygur, Kazak), Central Asia (Kazak, Kyrgyz, Uzbek), and the Near East (Turkish, Azeri). Its closest relatives are the languages of the Turks in northeastern Iran and the Khorazm Province of south central Uzbekistan (Khorasani), Azerbaijan (Azeri), and Turkey (Turkish), all of which belong to the Oghuz group of this language family. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]
There are distinct Turkmen tribal dialects. A Turkmen literary language dates back to the mid-18th century and is rooted in the common Turkic (or Chagatay) literature of Central Asia and was influenced by Tekhin tribal dialect. Spoken Turkmen has been particularly influenced by Western Oguz dialects. It was also influenced by Kipchak and old Uzbek (Chagatai) languages.[Source: advantour.com <=>]
Turkmen and Russian Language Speakers
In 1989 some 2,537,000 speakers of Turkmen lived in Turkmenistan, with 121,578 in Uzbekistan (the vast majority in the Khorazm region on Turkmenistan's north central border), 39,739 in the Russian Federation (including 12,000 in the Stavropol' region along Russia's southwestern border), 20,487 in Tajikistan, and 3,846 in Kazakstan. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]
A high degree of language loyalty was reflected in the fact that some 99.4 percent of Turkmen in the republic claimed Turkmen as their native language in the 1989 census. At the same time, 28 percent claimed Russian as their second language--a figure that remained constant between the 1979 and 1989 censuses. More than half of the second category were part of the urban population. Only 3 percent of Russians in the republic spoke Turkmen. *
The total number of Turkmen speakers in Europe and Asia has been estimated at between 4 and 4.8 million. These figures include the 2,517,000 Turkmen in the republic, 185,000 Turkmen in other Central Asian states and Russia, an estimated 700,000 Turkmen in Afghanistan, and 850,000 Turkmen in Iran who speak a closely related but distinct language called Khorasanli. *
Steps to erase the Russian linguistic overlay in Turkmenistan have included a resolution adopted in May 1992 to change geographic names and administrative terms from Russian to Turkmen. As a result, the names of many streets, institutions, collective farms, and buildings have been renamed for Turkmen heroes and cultural phenomena, and the terminology for all governmental positions and jurisdictions has been changed from Russian to Turkmen.
Turkmen Written Language
Turkmen was given a standard literary form and a standard alphabet by the Soviets, based on the Yomut and Teke dialects. Traditionally it had been written in Arabic. In the late 1920s it was written with wth a Latin alaphabet. After 1939 it was written with a modified Cyrillic alphabet. Outside Turkmenistan, Turkmen continued to use the Arabic alphabet. There has been a call by some in Turkmenistan to return to Arabis script.
Beginning in the eighteenth century, Turkmen poets and chroniclers used the classical Chaghatai language, which was written in Arabic script and reflected only occasional Turkmen linguistic features. Famous poets who wrote in this language include Mammetveli Kemine (1770-1840), Mollanepes (1810-62), and the most honored literary figure, Magtymguly (1733?-90?), whose legacy helped mold Turkmen national consciousness. In the years 1913-17, periodicals were published in Chaghatai. Two reforms of this script undertaken in 1922 and 1925 were designed to reflect features of the spoken Turkmen language. From 1928 to 1940, early Soviet Turkmen literature was written in a Latin alphabet that accurately reflected most of its features. Since 1940, standard Turkmen has been written in the Cyrillic script. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]
In the mid-1990s, language policy in independent Turkmenistan has been marked by a determination to establish Turkmen as the official language and to remove the heritage of the Russian-dominated past. The 1992 constitution proclaims Turkmen the "official language of inter-ethnic communication." In 1993 English was moved ahead of Russian as the "second state language," although in practical terms Russian remains a key language in government and other spheres. That same year, President Niyazov issued a decree on the replacement of the Cyrillic-based alphabet with a Latin-based script that would become the "state script" by 1996. Some publications and signs already appear in this Latin script, but its full implementation will not occur until after the year 2000. The new alphabet has several unique letters that distinguish it from those of Turkey's Latin alphabet and the newly adopted Latin scripts of other republics whose dominant language is Turkic. *
Turkmen Insults and Swear Words
Turkmen language Swearing and English Translation: Bajiñ sikeÿin — Fuck your sister; Ar almak — To take revenge; Ayyp — Worthy of blame; Azashmak — To get lost; Azar bermek — To give trouble, pain; Awmezlik — Slowness, tardiness. [Source: myinsults.com myinsults.com]
Besdir — That's enough!; Bozulan — Out of tune, out of whack; Dashary yurt dili — Foreign language; Dowzah — Hell; Gaharly — Mean-spirited; Gorkak — Coward; Gorkaklyk — Cowardice; Namart — Cowardly; Sergezdan — Bum, vagrant; Yeser gozler — Shifty eyed; Serhosh — Drunkard.
Turkmen Officials Learning English In U.S. Program
In 2011, Radio Free Europe reported: “A group of 46 Turkmen officials have begun English-language classes in a program sponsored by the U.S. State Department, Radio Free Europe's Turkmen Service reports. Bradley McGuire, information officer at the U.S. Embassy in Turkmenistan, told Radio Free Europe on April 8 that the seven-month-long program is one of many the State Department has organized to help law enforcement personnel around the world learn English. [Source: Radio Free Europe, April 10, 2011 \~/]
“He said a knowledge of English helps law enforcers "to communicate more fluently and efficiently with one another" and improves their access to relevant resources in countries where English is the primary language. The participants in the program, most of whom have no previous knowledge of English, are from Turkmenistan's Customs Service, Border Service, Interior Ministry, Migration Service, Counternarcotics Agency, and Foreign Affairs Ministry. \~/
“The course initially focuses on basic language skills. At a later stage, participants acquire technical vocabulary according to their professional specialization. More than 70 Turkmen law enforcement personnel have graduated from such English-language programs since their launch in Turkmenistan in 2007. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov said recently at a meeting in Ashgabat with leaders from the country's education, health care, tourism, and sports spheres that citizens should be able to speak three languages.” \~/
HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS
Neutrality Day, which is celebrated on December 12, is one of three major national holidays in Turkmenistan along with Independence Day and National Flag Day. Kurban bayrum is perhaps the most important Islamic holiday to the Turkmen. In the Soviet era the feast was held or at least recognized despite strong state disapproval. Some holidays are remnants of Turkmenistan's days as an outpost of the Soviet Union, which promoted New Years' celebrations over religious holidays.
Turkmenistan celebrates two major Islamic holidays - Eid al-Adha and Ramadan Bayram (end of Ramadan). Since both these dates are calculated according to the lunar Islamic calendar, the dates of their celebration calculated in advance and each year approved by the Cabinet of Ministers of Turkmenistan. These days are also public holidays. [Source: advantour.com <=>]
Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenbashi), former President of Turkmenistan, had renamed the months of the year—January after himself, and April for his mother. The days of the week and the names of the years were also new, Turkmenbashi’s innovation.The year 2003 was named after his father, 2004 after his mother, and 2005 was “The Year of ‘Ruhnama.’ ”
In 2012, Associated Press reported that the “Week of Health and Happiness” was marked with a march up a five-mile concrete staircase and plays such as “The Era of Power Is Illuminated by Happiness.” the Associated Press reports. Alcohol was removed from the shelves.
See Festivals and Narvuz
Public Holidays and Minor Holidays in Turkmenistan
Public Holidays: Turkmenistan’s official national holidays are New Year’s Day (January 1), Memorial Day (January 12), Turkmen Flag Day and the birthday of former President Saparmurad Niyazov (February 19), Women’s Day (March 8), Navruz (March 21), Victory Day (May 9), Constitution Day (May 18), Independence Day (October 27), and Turkmenistan Neutrality Day (December 12). [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007 **]
Turkmenistan has also a number of national and professional holidays, which are working days. They include: January 27th — Day of Fatherland Defenders - military servicemen of the Defense Ministry and the Armed Forces of Turkmenistan; February 18th — Day of Diplomatic Staff of Turkmenistan; April 7th — World Health Day; Last Sunday in April — Turkmen Racing Horse Festival; May 29th — Day of Internal Affairs Officers; Last Sunday of May — Turkmen Carpet Day; June 1st — International Children's Day
June 5th — World Environment Day; First Sunday in June — Day of Textile Industry; June 12th — Science Day; June 27 th — Day of Turkmen Workers of Culture and Art; Third Sunday in July — Gala Bayramy (Festival of Grain); July 21st — Day of Health and Medical Industry; August 11th — Day of Frontiersmen.
Second Sunday in August — Turkmen Melon Day; September 1st — Day of Knowledge and Students; September 12th — Rukhnama Day; Second Saturday in September — Day of Energy Industry; October 1st — International Day of Senior Citizens; October 9th — Day of Naval Forces of Turkmenistan; Last Sunday of November — Hasyl Bayramy (Harvest Festival); First Sunday of December — Good Neighborliness Day; December 14th — Day of the Workers of Oil, Gas, Power and Geological Industry; December 21st — Day of Remembrance of the First President of Turkmenistan S.A. Niyazov (Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great).
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2016