Gulnara Jamasheva, PhD

The Kyrgyz Language: Official or endangered?

Gulnara Jamasheva, PhD

National Academy of Sciences of Kyrgyz Republic, Ch.Aitmatov Institute of Linguistics and Literature, Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic


Abstract: Such a paradoxical question turns out to be quite natural when analyzing the current state of the Kyrgyz language. The state (official) status was given to the Kyrgyz language under public pressure just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, the condition and development level of the national language does not allow it to fully perform its functions prescribed in the Law on the State Language. Until now, the main social functions are firmly attached to the Russian language which used to be the language of international communication in the Soviet Union. This causes problems in the development of language policy, and ultimately, in the strengthening of the national identity of the people. Inabillity to stagger the status quo which has been grounding for over 70 years, is disappointing both language strategists and people. Therefore, it is not surprising that unreliable rumors that the Kyrgyz language is enlisted as an endangered language into the catalogues of UNESCO have found widespread belief among the Kyrgyz population. The article analyses the current state and the status of the Kyrgyz language.

Keywords: state language; endangered language; language policy; bilingualism; language shift; ethnic identity;

Over the past century the Kyrgyz language has experienced shocks that have had dramatic changes in its fate. The reason for this was the entry of Kyrgyzstan into the multinational Russian Empire and the Great Socialist Revolution that took place soon. Already as a part of the Soviet Union, the Kirghiz SSR for 70 years experienced from the beginning to the end an unprecedented political and social experiment of building a communist system. What did this grand experiment cost Kyrgyz people as a nation? What are the consequences of a communist national policy, including language policy, are they beneficial or fatal? Why today it seemed quite real to the Kyrgyz that their language, which is the official language of an independent state, and which is endowed with all relevant functions, is in danger of extinction? What is the reason for such unconditional disbelief in the possibilities of the native tongue?[109]

The answers to these questions require not only analysis of the current language situation in the Kyrgyz Republic, but also an excursion into the recent history of the Kyrgyz language to understand the trends of the directed Soviet policy of language development and its impact on the modern linguistic processes in the country.

For many centuries the Kyrgyz led a rather isolated nomadic life of the patriarchal-tribal system. The first ancient Chinese sources, which mention the Great Kyrgyz Khaganate belong to 201 B.C. Kyrgyz continued to lead a nomadic lifestyle until the X1Xth century, when the country was a part of the Kokand khanate. In fact, the voluntary entry of Kyrgyzstan into the Russian Empire was dictated by the desire to get rid of the heavy oppression of the Kokand khanate. Kyrgyzstan was officially annexed to Russia in 1855. The development of the new land of the Russian Empire was accompanied by introduction of elements of European civilization into the patriarchal life of the nomadic Kyrgyz.

As for the Kyrgyz language, along with the advent of another civilization its system has undergone fundamental changes. First of all, its lexical system began to expand significantly due to borrowings from the Russian language. At the initial stage it were borrowings that denote tools, methods of farming, household items, as well as administrative and political terms necessary for the management of the region. At that time, the borrowings have adapted to the phonetic system of the Kyrgyz language and took a new look, for example: zoot > Russian "завод - plant", samor > Russian “самовар – samovar”, патинүс > Russian "поднос - tray", сот > Russian "суд-court", түрмө > Russian "тюрьма - prison," etc. The appearance of these innovations was gradual, and the process of borrowing of new words and the language interference in general were developing in the evolutionary way. While developing the new land, the Russian authorities were not interested in language expansion, did not set a goal for introduction of the Russian language among the Kyrgyz population, i.e. language policy and language reforms were not implemented.

Real radical and large-scale changes began later with the advent of Soviet power and the beginning of the construction of socialism. The peoples who had endured hard colonial oppression were inspired by the new slogan of “freedom and equality of all nations” and of building a new state “of free labour”. The oppressed people who sought a better life perceived the reforms and the new culture with enthusiasm. The construction of the new society was very intensive. The reforms were so profound that in essence the process represented for Kyrgyz a change of one kind of civilization to another in a very short historical period. Kyrgyzstan found itself at the crossroads of three civilizations – the native nomadic, European type and the newly emerging “communist”. The further development of Kyrgyzstan as a socialist republic within the USSR determined the final transition of the Kyrgyz people to the path of modern civilization and led to the formation of a secular agro-industrial state with a population of solid literacy in a historically short period of time. At the cost of those achievements, however, were the loss of the national culture that had evolved over the centuries, and a shift in language practice.

Reforms in the field of the language began with large-scale training of the population in writing and reading. It should be noted that Kyrgyz nomads had no permanent residence and were mostly illiterate. It so happened that the enormous program of sedentarization of the Kyrgyz tribes, which was immediately launched by the Soviet government, was held simultaneously with the campaign of public education. For the creation of settlements for transition of nomads to a settled way of life, huge funds were allocated and construction materials were provided by the government[110].

For public education program the “Red Yurts” were created everywhere in which volunteers were training the Kyrgyz people to read and write. The groups consisted of people of different ages – from young children to the elderly. Initially, the educational program ("Likbez” - elimination of illiteracy) began to teach Arabic writing, because at that time it was sporadically used by a small number of literate Kyrgyz. And since 1924, a new writing based on the Latin alphabet was introduced. And it had the ideological background.

One of the first decrees of the young Soviet government was the creation of scripts on the basis of the Latin script for the non-written peoples of the USSR. Why did the communists choose the Latin script for the Soviet nations, and not the traditional Cyrillic script, as one would expect? Such a decision should be seen as a manifestation of revolutionary maximalism in ideological issues. Since the proletarian revolution was, first of all, directed against the tsarist regime, which turned Russia into a “prison of nations”, the ideologists of the revolution denied everything that was connected with the overthrown colonialist regime. Communists believed that the Russian language and the Cyrillic script are not worthy to be a conductor of the cultural proletarian revolution, because historically they are associated with the policy of russification and oppression of the peoples of the tsarist Russia. At the First all-Union Turkic Congress, which was held in 1926 in the city of Baku[111], even a proposal to transfer the Russian language to the Latin script was considered. The leader of the revolution and the main ideologist of the country V. I. Lenin was the first who opposed the imposition of the Russian language to foreign-speaking peoples and noted that the revolution "forever put an end to the policy which is aimed at killing the very sprouts of any statehood among the peoples of Russia, cripple their culture, restrict the language, keep them in ignorance"[112]. In line with this policy, in 1924, a new Kyrgyz letter was created on the Latin basis, and large-scale public education was conducted on it. However, 17 years later, in 1941, due to the changes in the Soviet ideology and cultural policy of the country, the Kyrgyz letter was translated into Cyrillic script.

It is fair to say that for the Kyrgyz language the Soviet period was the most intensive, and at the same time the most controversial in its development. It was during the so-called developed socialism in the USSR that the most dramatic bends in national policy took place, which affected the fate of national languages. In the Soviet Union where the ideology was very strong, the trend of directed development of culture and languages was laid from the very beginning. The introduction of Cyrillic writing for the so-called "unwritten" peoples was the initiation of russification and national-Russian bilingualism throughout the Soviet Union.

The Kyrgyz language of that time was not prepared to perform the functions necessary for a new life, did not have a language infrastructure of the European type, but due to life circumstances it had to develop the necessary systems in an accelerated manner. Accordingly the leading language of the USSR –Russian - began to function in the main spheres of public life, and the Kyrgyz language developed only the rudiments of some necessary functions.

Further development of the Soviet internal policy strictly adhered to a course of unification of national cultures. This, according to experts, "caused great practical harm to the development of national cultural processes"[113].

With the rapid development of Kyrgyz society, significant changes took place in the Kyrgyz language too. There was a significant growth of its corpus, especially the lexical system due to numerous neologisms and borrowings from the Russian language, like: партия “party”, гезит “newspaper”, план “plan”, телефон “telephone”, театр “theater” etc. Till now the Russian language remains as the main source of the Kyrgyz neologisms.

During the Soviet period the main trend of the language policy was promotion of the language of international communication and development of the national-Russian bilingualism. There were even judgments that "there is no need to develop all 150 national languages in all domains. Some of functions should be performed only by Russian"[114]. In the Kyrgyz SSR, the development of bilingualism during the Soviet period gave unprecedented results. If in the pre-Soviet period there were only a few Kyrgyz who knew Russian, then according to the all-Union census of 1989 there were 141 thousand Kyrgyz living in the capital Frunze, 84% of them spoke Russian [115]. By the beginning of the perestroika, almost the entire population of the Republic had become bilingual.

Development of the Kyrgyz language in all social domains was much slower than political and economic development of the country and gradually remained on the margins of social and political life. Till now its main areas include family and household life, secondary school education in rural areas and traditional national culture. The Kyrgyz language is not widely used in such significant spheres as public administration, official records management, higher education, industry, modern art, etc. These domains are firmly entrenched in the Russian language since the Soviet times. The devaluation of the importance of the native language is eloquently evidenced by the fact that initially the Kyrgyz language was included in the curriculum of educational institutions as a compulsory subject, later it became a subject with the mark "at will", and then completely disappeared from the list of subjects, with the exception of Kyrgyz-language schools. This is the case as Anthony C. Woodbury, says that «Far more often, however, languages become extinct when a community finds itself under pressure to integrate with a larger or more powerful group. Sometimes the people learn the outsiders' language in addition to their own»”[116].

The apogee of the Soviet language policy in Kyrgyzstan was a decree of the Supreme Council of the Kyrgyz SSR of 1953 "On spelling of Russian and foreign words ​​borrowed through Russian into the Kyrgyz language according to Russian spelling rules". This illiterately drafted law created a big mess in the language and reversed its development process. Its implementation brought many problems and difficulties in the practice of the Kyrgyz language.

The embodiment of this law demanded the following:

a) introduction of some specific Russian sounds into the sound system of the Kyrgyz language: [в], [ж], [ф], [ц], [щ], [х];

b) Insertion of extrinsic for the Kyrgyz language combinations of more than one consonant at the very beginning of the word. Such loans are pronounced with addition of a relevant synharmonic vowel in the beginning of the word, e.g. станция – ыстанса, старт – ыстарт, школа – үшкөл, смена – исмен etc. The new law forbade it.

c) differentiated use of suffixes indicating gender in surnames and patronymic names: -ov, -ov, -ev, -eva; -ovich, -ovna, -evich, -evna.

d) Borrowing words entirely with Russian suffixes: министерство, instead of министрлик, агентство instead of агенттик etc.

e) Introduction of new derivative elements from the Russian language: -ист (специалист), -изм (коммунизм), -чик (летчик -pilot), -ер (комбайнер), -ник (ударник- record setter in work) etc.

f) Russian consonant combinations extrinsic for the Kyrgyz language: центр, вдрызг (blind drunk), штраф(fine, penalty), структура

g) The Decree prescribed the Russian spelling for old borrowings that had already assimilated to the Kyrgyz pronunciation.

Actually that forcibly introduced decree demanded to change the norms of the Kyrgyz language and led to systematic violation of its synharmonic, orthoepic and spelling norms. Until now Russian-like pronunciation of the borrowed words in the Kyrgyz speech causes discomfort for Kyrgyz who speak Russian and difficulties for those who don’t speak it. Almost everyone, whose first language is Kyrgyz, pronounces пункут for пункт, абзас for абзац, шотка for щётка, гырам for грамм, текист for текст, etc.

The office work that had just started to develop was fully switched to Russian. The most demanded sphere of public life - office and business paperwork had become a real test for many Kyrgyz who have a poor command of Russian. To write a simple statement to a state body, not to mention more complex issues, took a lot of effort and stress.

Understandably, this state of affairs could not meet the needs of the Kyrgyz-speaking population, for which it was natural to lead a social life and gain knowledge in their native tongue. Sentiments for the right to use the national language more widely began to increase and before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, under public pressure, the Kyrgyz language was given a state status. However, it became obvious that the condition and the level of development of the national language system does not allow it to fully perform its functions in accordance with the Law on the State Language. That’s why until now many social functions remain to be prerogative of the Russian language. This causes not only problems in the development of language policy, but also, ultimately, the strengthening of the national identity of the people.

After the collapse of the USSR in 1990 the Kyrgyz Republic stated the fullness of the Kyrgyz language public functions under the Law on the State Language. At the same time the status of Russian in KR is secured through the 2000 Law “About the official language of the Kyrgyz Republic” which is meant to render interethnic communication. It also provides an access to the Russian and CIS education, culture, information, and high technologies. Therefore, in all of the minority schools that teach in Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Russian, Tajik, Turkish, Dungan and other languages, the Kyrgyz and Russian languages are taught as compulsory subjects.

Currently, the linguistic situation in Kyrgyzstan is as following.

· According to the last census of 2009 the population was 5,362,793 people. More than 70% of them are Kyrgyz;

· Out of 3,804,788 Kyrgyz 3,799,385 (99.85%) consider the Kyrgyz their native language;

· 3,978 Kyrgyz (0.1%) named Russian as their native language;

· 1,720,693 or 45.2% are fluent in Russian. However, it should be noted that almost all Kyrgyz speak Russian to one degree or another.

· The number of non-Kyrgyz citizens who speak Kyrgyz is 271,187 people, or 7.1%.

· A certain proportion of Kyrgyz, not only children, but also representatives of the older and middle generation, do not speak their native language or know it passively, that means they understand what is said, but cannot speak.

This shift from Kyrgyz language to Russian began in the 50s-60s with the introduction of the kindergarten education system based on the Russian language and touched mainly urban children. Further, this process has expanded and continues till now. Although efforts are undertaken to introduce the Kyrgyz language into the pre-school education system, these measures are still limited to Kyrgyz language classes, learning songs, etc. The didactic infrastructure itself is based on the Russian language and retains the main features of the Soviet system. The statistical data on the use of Kyrgyz and Russian languages among children is not available, but it can be assumed that the Russian language education is still preferred. According to the experts: "«The fate of a language can be changed in a single generation if it is no longer being learned by children»[117].

The modern system of school and higher education which is incapable of providing education in the native language, causes discontent and criticism of the population. Switching of all education levels to the state language has become a sore point. Despite ongoing reforms in this domain the Kyrgyz language has not yet been able to integrate into the vocational training process. Apparently, the long-term exclusion of the Kyrgyz language from this sphere of higher education during the Soviet period has its consequences. There is no corresponding infrastructure for this function: textbooks, reference books of different levels, dictionaries, teaching methods, etc.for the university level are not yet developed. Thus, for getting higher education Kyrgyz need to know Russian.

After thirty years of adoption the Law on the State Language, there has been some increase in the use of the Kyrgyz language in public life. First of all, the subject of the Kyrgyz language has been introduced into all curricula as a compulsory subject. For those who are running for president of the country a test on the state language is introduced. In 2013, the "Kyrgyztest” state institution was formed to test state, civil and municipal employees for knowledge of the state language. There are also many events, celebrations, festivals dedicated to the state language. All these give some positive results. For instance, different meetings, rallies, parliament, etc. now are conducted in the Kyrgyz language; scientific dissertations (mostly in the humanitarian fields) can also be defended in the state language; the number of TV shows and talk shows has increased. Thus, TV and radio companies are ordered to conduct 50% of the broadcasts in Kyrgyz, etc. However, there is no reason to speak about completeness of the functions of the state language. The Kyrgyz language does not yet work fully in the spheres of public administration, official business, higher education, industry, modern culture and art, etc. The world-class information is still not available in the Kyrgyz language, for example, classical foreign literature or modern films are available only in Russian, as well as latest achievements on sciences or technologies. All this in total gives the people the feeling that the Kyrgyz language, despite its status, still has not acquired all the functions, could not replace the Russian language in international communication, therefore, it is not able to meet all needed requirements. The lack of long-awaited results of the language reform is disappointing to both language policy strategists and the people. Therefore, it is not surprising that unreliable rumors about the inclusion of the Kyrgyz language in the UNESCO list of endangered languages ​​found widespread among the population and raised concerns about the fate of their native tongue. In fact, the list of languages ​​in danger of extinction entered the so-called Manchu Kyrgyz (or Fuyu Kyrgyz) language in China, where there are only a few people who know it.

Information about the Kyrgyz language from such a competent source as UNESCO was misinterpreted. The reaction to it reflected the perception among the population of the condition and vitality of the Kyrgyz language. No one was surprised that the state language of the country and native tongue of 70% of the population has such deplorable prospects. After all, the vulnerable position of the Kyrgyz language is due to competition with a much more powerful Russian language in a fully bilingual society. Besides the rapid language shift in the recent past has not been forgotten yet by the people. In addition, in the 30 years since the adoption of the Law on the State Language, there have been no significant extension of official functions of the Kyrgyz language.

At present the state status of the Kyrgyz language is rather a symbol of the independence and national identity of the people, than a real function. The 30-year period of independence is too short for development all functions of the language necessary for ensuring the modern life of the society.

But if an independent nation is aware of and keeps own language and national identity as the highest value, and the government carries out sensible and proper language policy, the language will not be subjected to the danger of extinction and will not fall into the list of such languages.

[109] Язык на грани исчезновения// Газета «Фабула» №24 от 30.03.12. стр. 2; Кыргыз тили ЮНЕСКОнун жоголуп бараткан тилдер боюнча жаңы интерактивдик атласында “шексиз жоголуу коркунучундагы тил” деп табылды. Бишкек, 10-декабрь, 2011-ж.. (Кабар)

[110] Кыргызы. Серия “Народы и культуры”, Москва, 2016. С.484

[111] I Всесоюзный тюркологический съезд 1926 г..Стенограмма, с.222

[112] КПСС в резолюциях. М., 1970. Т.2, с.366

[113] Л.Н.Беленчук. Поиск путей национально-культурного строительства в СССР в 20-30 годы.//Сб.: Национальные отношения и национальные процессы в СССР: вопросы истории. Москва: АН СССР, 1990 г. сс.82-103, с.96

[114] Ю.Д.Дешериев. развитие общественных функций литературных языков. М.:Наука, 1978 – 430с., сс.11-12

[115] Артыкбаев К. Мамлекеттик тил маселелери. Окуу куралы. Бишкек, 1999. с.16

[116] Anthony C. Woodbury. What Is an Endangered Language?

[117] Ibid.