Languages: Uzbek (official) 74.3 percent, Russian 14.2 percent, Tajik 4.4 percent, other 7.1 percent. The Uzbeks are the least Russified of those Turkic peoples formerly ruled by the Soviet Union, and virtually all still claim Uzbek as their first language.[Source: CIA World Factbook]

Among the languages of Central Asia, Uzbek, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Turkmen are all Turkic languages while Tajik is a Persian one. Russian is widely spoken in the cities and remains the lingua franca in Central Asia. Uzbek is the predominate language in rural areas. Many Uzbeks can speak both Uzbek and Russian. Both are taught in schools. Some emphasize Uzbek, others Russian. There has traditionally been a large variety of both Russian-language and Uzbek-language publications and radio and television broadcasts. But Russian dominates commerce and science.

Speakers of Karakalpak, a Turkic language related to Kazakh and Tatar, are included under “Uzbek” in statistics; the number of Karakalpak speakers is not known because many ethnic Karakalpaks use Uzbek dialects. Speakers of Russian, which is officially designated as the “language of interethnic communication,” live mainly in the large cities. Tajik is the most common language in Bukhara and Samarkand. There are no language requirements for citizenship. [Source: Library of Congress February 2007 **]

English is not nearly as widely spoken in Uzbekistan as it is in Western Europe, and even Russia. More and more people, though, especially young people, are learning it. In the cities and tourist industry you will find some people that speak English.

Uzbek Language

Uzbek is a Turkic language of the Qarluq family in the Altaic group of languages. It is similar to other Turkic languages of Central Asia, particularly Uyghur and Kazakh. Most of the words are Turkic in origin but there also a great many Arabic, Persian, Russian—and in China, Chinese—loan words. In China, Uzbeks have particularly close relations with Uyghurs and Kazakhs. The Uzbek, Uyghur and Tatar languages all belong to same Turkic language branch and are very close to each other.

At one time there were only two people in the entire United States who could speak Uzbek. Uzbeks speak either of two dialects of Uzbek. Uzbek shares many words and grammar structures with Turkish. It developed from Chagatai, a language used in the eastern Turkish world.

Although numerous local dialects and variations of the language are in use, the Tashkent dialect is the basis of the official written language. The dialects spoken in the northern and western parts of Uzbekistan have strong Turkmen elements because historically many Turkmen lived in close proximity to the Uzbeks in those regions. The dialects in the Fergana Valley near Kyrgyzstan show some Kyrgyz influence. Especially in the written dialect, Uzbek also has a strong Persian vocabulary element that stems from the historical influence of Iranian culture throughout the region. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Uzbek has a relatively short history as a language distinct from other Turkic dialects. Until the establishment of the Soviet republic's boundaries in the 1920s, Uzbek was not considered a language belonging to a distinct nationality. It was simply a Turkic dialect spoken by a certain segment of the Turkic population of Central Asia, a segment that also included the ruling tribal dynasties of the various states. The regional dialects spoken in Uzbekistan today reflect the fact that the Turkic population of Southern Central Asia has always been a mixture of various Turkic tribal groups. When the present-day borders among the republics were established in 1929, all native peoples living in Uzbekistan (including Tajiks) were registered as Uzbeks regardless of their previous ethnic identity. *

Uzbek Written Language

Uzbek was written for centuries in Arabic. In the early 1920s the Soviets gave it a standard literary form and introduced a modified Arabic alphabet and replaced that with a Latin one in the late 1920s. Beginning in 1940, Uzbek was written with Cyrillic letters.

Several Central Asian languages were written in Arabic or some other script. They were required to be written with the Latin alphabet in the 1920s as part of the anti-Islamic and anti-nationalist campaign and were required to be written in Cyrillic in the 1930s as part of the Russification campaign.

The Roman alphabet has made a comeback on signs and printed matter since the break up of the Soviet Union and was made the official alphabet by the government in the late 1990s.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. Even so use of the Cyrillic alphabet endures.

Uzbek and Chaghatai

Until 1924 the written Turkic language of the region had been Chaghatai, a language that had a long and brilliant history as a vehicle of literature and culture after its development in the Timurid state of Herat in the late fifteenth century. Chaghatai also was the common written language of the entire region of Central Asia from the Persian border to Eastern Turkestan, which was located in today's China. The language was written in the Arabic script and had strong Persian elements in its grammar and vocabulary. Experts identify the Herat writer Ali Shir Nava'i as having played the foremost role in making Chaghatai a dominant literary language. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In modern Uzbekistan, Chaghatai is called Old Uzbek; its origin in Herat, which was an enemy state of the Uzbeks, is ignored or unknown. Use of the language was continued by the Uzbek khanates that conquered the Timurid states. Some early Uzbek rulers, such as Mukhammad Shaybani Khan, used Chaghatai to produce excellent poetry and prose. The seventeenth-century Khivan ruler Abulgazi Bahadur Khan wrote important historical works in Chaghatai. However, all of those writers also produced considerable literature in Persian. Chaghatai continued in use well into the twentieth century as the literary language of Central Asia. Early twentieth-century writers such as Fitrat wrote in Chaghatai. *

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Chaghatai was influenced by the efforts of reformers of the Jadidist movement, who wanted to Turkify and unite all of the written languages used in the Turkic world into one written language (see The Russian Conquest, this ch.). These efforts were begun by the Crimean Tatar Ismail Gaspirali (Gasprinskiy in Russian), who advocated this cause in his newspaper Terjuman (Translator). Gaspirali called on all the Turkic peoples (including the Ottoman Turks, the Crimean and Kazan Tatars, and the Central Asians) to rid their languages of Arabic, Persian, and other foreign elements and to standardize their orthography and lexicon. Because of this effort, by the early 1920s the Turkic languages of Central Asia had lost some of the Persian influence. *

Language in Uzbekistan in the Soviet Era

As with ethnic patterns and boundaries of post-Soviet Uzbekistan, the dominant native language, Uzbek, is in many ways a creation of the Soviet state. Indeed, until the beginning of the Soviet period, the languages spoken among the native population presented a colorful and diverse mosaic. Under Soviet rule, officially at least, this mosaic was replaced by Uzbek, which almost overnight became the official language of the Turkic population of the republic. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

But Russian, which at the same time was declared the "international language" of Uzbekistan, was favored above even Uzbek in official usage. Many Russian words made their way into Uzbek because Russian was the language of higher education, government, and economic activity throughout the Soviet era. In the 1980s, Uzbeks began a strong effort to eliminate the recent Russian borrowings from the language. The Latin alphabet was introduced to begin a gradual process of replacing the Cyrillic alphabet. But in the mid-1990s Russian still was widely used in official and economic circles. *

Unfortunately for the reformers and their efforts to reform the language, following the national delimitation the Soviet government began a deliberate policy of separating the Turkic languages from each other. Each nationality was given a separate literary language. Often new languages had to be invented where no such languages had existed before. This was the case for Uzbek, which was declared to be a continuation of Chaghatai and a descendant of all of the ancient Turkic languages spoken in the region. In the initial stage of reform, in 1928-30, the Arabic alphabet was abandoned in favor of the Latin alphabet. Then in 1940, Cyrillic was made the official alphabet with the rationale that sharing the Arabic alphabet with Turkey might lead to common literature and hence a resumption of the Turkish threat to Russian control in the region. *

Because of this artificial reform process, the ancient literature of the region became inaccessible to all but specialists. Instead, the use of Russian and Russian borrowings into Uzbek was strongly encouraged, and the study of Russian became compulsory in all schools. The emphasis on the study of Russian varied at various times in the Soviet period. At the height of Stalinism (1930s and 1940s), and in the Brezhnev period (1964-82), the study of Russian was strongly encouraged. Increasingly, Russian became the language of higher education and advancement in society, especially after Stalin orchestrated the Great Purge of 1937-38, which uprooted much indigenous culture in the non-Slavic Soviet republics. The language of the military was Russian as well. Those Uzbeks who did not study in higher education establishments and had no desire to work for the state did not make a great effort to study Russian. As a result, such people found their social mobility stifled, and males who served in the armed forces suffered discrimination and persecution because they could not communicate with their superiors. This communication problem was one of the reasons for disproportionate numbers of Uzbeks and other Central Asians in the noncombat construction battalions of the Soviet army. *

Language Issues in the 1990s

In the 1990s, Uzbek was designated the preferred language, required for citizenship, but Russian remained widely used official and commercial use. In 1994, Uzbek was the first language of 74 percent of the population, Russian of 14 percent, and Tajik of 4 percent. The topic of official languages was very controversial.

Since claiming independence the Central Asia nations have revived the use of languages of their dominant ethnic groups. After independence, Uzbek was made the official language. Fluency in it was made a requirement for getting a government job. In some cases, Russian and international words have been replaced with their Turkic, Arabic and Persian equivalents. Classes in Arabic writing were introduced in schools.

The official linguistic policy of the Karimov government has been that Uzbek is the language of the state, and Russian is the second language. Residents of Uzbekistan are required to study Uzbek to be eligible for citizenship. Following similar decisions in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, in September 1993 Uzbekistan announced plans to switch its alphabet from Cyrillic, which by that time had been in use for more than fifty years, to a script based on a modified Latin alphabet similar to that used in Turkey. According to plans, the transition will be complete by the year 2000. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The primary reason for the short deadline is the urgent need to communicate with the outside world using a more universally understood alphabet. The move also has the political significance of signaling Uzbekistan's desire to break away from its past reliance on Russia and to limit the influence of Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, which use the Arabic alphabet. A major project is under way to eradicate Russian words from the language and replace these words with "pure" Turkic words that have been borrowed from what is believed to be the ancient Turkic language of Inner Asia. At the same time, Uzbekistan's linguistic policies also are moving toward the West. In the early 1990s, the study of English has become increasingly common, and many policy makers express the hope that English will replace Russian as the language of international communication in Uzbekistan.*

Uzbek Swear Words

Uzbek swear words — English translation: Djalyab — Bitch; Kutagimny ye — Suck my cock; Kutingga skey — Fuck your ass; Ogzingya Sikyama — I'll fuck you in your mouth; Bobonga skiy — I fucked your grandfather; Qotoq — Dick; Ambosh — Vagina instead of head; Am — Pussy; Manjalaqi — Bitch; Kispurush — Asshole. [Source:]

Pedik — Gay; Khunasa — Gay; Ablah — Sucker; Boqimni yepsan — Eat my shit!; Kop mozgi sikma! — Don't lie to me bitch!; Kot — Asshole; Oghzinga qotoghim — Suck my dick; Totoq — Whore; Pashmak — Slut; Oghizga olish — Blowjob; Kapak urish — Handjob; Sikish — To fuck; Opela — Your mom; Adela — Your dad; Aminga kutagim — My dick into your cunt; Onayni sski — Fuck your mom; Adeni sski — Fuck your dad; Kutok kalla (kutok bosh) — Dick head; Kutok — Dick; Oppang qo'tog'i — Your mother's dick; Onaine Omin Ga Skaiy — Fuck Your Mother.

Uzbek Proverbs

If you have peace in your land,
You will have health in your hand.

He, who eats, works,
He, who starves, shirks.

A man is known by his work and hire,
Iron is known by the refining fire.

Never the work for today,
Leave for tomorrow or another day.

For the man of real art,
With seventy skills must take part.

Leave a mother with her child,
And the tulips with the flowers wild.

If you respect someone, you will learn,
That you will have respect in turn.

Good breeding and good grace
Are not sold in the market place.

Shame and guilt and disgrace
Are much harder than death to face.

There is no greater wealth from whence
Come knowledge and intelligence.

Wisdom, so says every sage,
Does not depend on greater age.

A foolish man, as the donkey brays,
Only himself will he praise.

When a father's work is done,
The result is a well-trained son.

More Uzbek Proverbs

When at first you use your mind,
Your words will be better inclined.

Who speaks a little knows a lot,
And when he speaks, it's with great thought.

Spoken words with sweet intention,
Are sweeter than the sweetest confection.

Upon our friends,
Our strength depends.

Cloth, seven times measured with care,
Cut but once without err.

A real man must keep his word,
As every lion's roar is heard.

In one place, a forest scene,
The trees become so very green.

To good men, always stay very near,
From the bad stay far, and fear.

As the sword is held upon your head,
Speak the truth, there is naught to dread.

When you hide your disgrace,
The affliction will show on your face.

If you want respect, as such,
Don't ask from others very much.


Most Uzbeks have family names drawn from old clan affiliations.

Image Sources:

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.

Last updated April 2016

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