Category Archives: Bashkir

How I Determined Intelligibility For Turkic Lects

Steve: This is amazing. Well done. But how can you possibly know the degree of mutual intelligibility between two languages you don’t speak or know if something is a language or dialect when you don’t speak it? That seems strange. How is it worked out?

Linguists don’t speak all these languages we study. We just study languages, we don’t necessarily speak them. This is confused with the archaic use of the word linguist to mean polyglot. Honestly, many linguists do in fact speak more than one language, and quite a few of them have a pretty good knowledge of at least some of the languages that they study. But my mentor speaks only Turkish and English though he studies all Turkic languages. I don’t believe he has ever learned to speak any Turkic lect other than Turkish.

In reference to my paper here.

We are not looking for raw numbers. We just want to know if they can understand each other or not.

A lot of it is from talking to native speakers and also there was a lot of reading papers by other linguists. I also talked to other linguists a lot. Linguists typically simply state if two lects are intelligible or not. Also there is a basic idea among linguists of what the boundary is between a language and a dialect, and I used this knowledge a lot.

Can they understand each other? Yes or no. That’s pretty much about it. Also at some degree of structural difference, we can see the difference between a language and a dialect. It’s a judgement call, but linguists are pretty good at this.

There is a subsection of very loud linguists, mostly on the Internet, who like to screech a lot about this question cannot be answered by answered because of this or that red herring or some odd conundrums that work their way in. The thing is if you ask around enough, you will be able to get around all of the conundrums and you should be able to eventually reconcile all of the divergent responses to get some sort of a holistic or “big picture.” You finally “figure it out.” The answer to the question comes to you in a sort of a “seeing the answer as part of a larger picture” sort of thing.

The worst red herring is this notion that speakers from Group A will lie and say they do not understand speakers of Group B simply because they hate them so much. If this was such a concern, you would have think I would have run into it at some point. A much worse problem were ethnic nationalists who lie and say that they can understand neighboring tongues when they can’t.

The toxin called Pan-Turkism or Turkish ultranationalism comes into play here. It is almost normal for Turks to believe that there is only one Turkic languages, and it is called Turkish. All of the rest of the languages simply do not exist and are dialects of Turkish. I had to deal with regular attacks by extremely aggressive Ataturkists who insisted that any Turk could easily understand any other Turkic language. Actually my adviser told me that my piece would not be popular with the Pan-Turkics at all. I don’t really care as I consider them to be pond scum.

Granted, some of it was quite controversial and I got variable reports on intelligibility for some lects like Siberian Tatar vs. Tatar, the Altai languages, Kazakh vs. Kirghiz, Crimean Tatar vs. Turkish.

Where native speakers differ on such questions, often vociferously, you simply ask enough of them, talk to some experts and try to get a feel for that what best answer to the question is.

Some cases like Gagauz vs. Turkish probably need raw intelligibility testing. That’s the only one that is up in the air right now, but it is up in the air because the lects are so close. Intelligibility between Gagauz and Turkish is somewhere between  70-100%. In other words, they have marginal intelligibility at worst. My Gagauz expert who knows this language better than anyone though feels that Turkish intelligibility of Gagauz is less than 90%, which is where I drew the line at language and dialect.

It is also starting to look like Nogay is a simply a dialect of Kazakh instead of a separate language, but that might be a hard sell.

Some of these are seen as separate languages simply because they are spoken by different ethnies who do not want to be seen as part of the same group. Also they have different literary norms. Karapalkak is just a Kazakh dialect, but the speakers want to say they speak a separate language. Same with Bashkir, which is simply a dialect of Tatar. The case of Kazakh and Kirghiz is more controversial, but even here, we seem to be dealing with one language, yet the two dialects are spoken by different ethnies that have actually differentiated into two separate states, each with their own literary norm. Kazakhs wish to say they speak a language c called Kazakh and Kirghiz wish to say they speak a language called Kirghiz although they are probably really just one language.

We see a similar thing with Czech and Slovak. My recent research has proven that Czech and Slovak are actually a single language. But the dialects are spoken by different ethnic groups who claim different cultures and histories and they have actually divided into two different states, and each has its own literary norm.

It is here, where dialects become languages not via science by via politics, culture, history and sociology, that Weinrich’s famous dictum that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy” comes into play.

Scientifically, these are all simply dialects of a single tongue but we call them languages for sociological, cultural and political reasons.


Filed under Altaic, Balto-Slavic, Balto-Slavic-Germanic, Bashkir, Comparitive, Crimean Tatar, Czech, Dialectology, Gagauz, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Kazakh, Kipchak, Kyrgyz, Language Classification, Linguistics, Nationalism, Political Science, Slavic, Slovak, Sociolinguistics, Tatar, Turkic, Turkish, Ultranationalism

A Few Words on Language Endangerment

Carlos Lam: Congrats! However, isn’t language death a rather standard occurrence among societies?

It is, but we linguists don’t really like it. It is quite a debate going on, but the bottom line seems to be that ethnic groups and speaker groups have the right to ownership of their languages. We worry that a lot of speaker groups are being pressured into blowing up their languages prematurely. We like to study these languages and we are not real happy about seeing them vanish into the horizon. On the other hand, is cultural death a natural thing too? Both cultural death and language death are occurring at rates far beyond the normal background rates. English and some of the other major languages are like weapons of mass destruction in taking out languages. You really want a world with one language and one culture? I don’t.

The best position seems to be that speakers have the right to decide the fate of their languages. If speakers wish to continue speaking their languages, then governments and linguists should help them to preserve and continue to develop their languages. Quite a few groups do not seem to care that their languages are going are extinct or they are even driving or drove their languages extinct, and they have the full right to do so. In these cases, we will simply do salvage linguistics. There are many salvage linguistics projects going on in the world today.

You won’t get very far with linguists arguing that language death is a good thing. Most people don’t think so.

Occurring at the same time as language death is a lot of language revitalization. Even fully dead languages are being resurrected from the grave. Also in addition to language death, we are creating new languages all the time. In this piece, I created a total of net 13 new languages. And new languages are occurring on their own.

To give you an example. A group of Crimean Tatars moved from Crimea to Turkey about 200 years ago in the course of the Crimean War. They have been speaking Crimean Tatar in Turkey ever since, for 200 years now. But in that time, Crimean Tatar in Turkey and Crimean Tatar in Ukraine has diverged so much that Turkish Crimean Tatar is now, in my opinion, a fully separate tongue from the Ukrainian language. This is because in Turkey, a lot of Turkish has gone into Turkish Crimean Tatar which is not well understand in the Ukraine. And in the Ukraine, a lot of Russian has gone in which is not well understood in Turkey. Hence, Crimean Tatar speakers in Turkey and Ukraine can no longer understand each other well.

To give you another example, there are many Kazakh speakers in China. However, Kazakh speakers in China can no longer understand Standard Kazakh broadcasts from Kazakhstan because so many Russian loans have gone into Standard Kazakh that it is no longer intelligible with Chinese Kazakh speakers. I learned this too late for my paper, otherwise I would have split Chinese Kazakh off as a separate language.

There are many cases like this.

Further, many languages are being discovered. Sonqori, Western Khalaj, Todzhin, Duha, Dukha and Siberian Tatar are just a few of the new languages that I created. Khorosani Turkic was split into three different languages. Dayi was subsumed into one of the Khorosani Turkic languages. Altai was split from one into five separate languages, but the truth is that it is six languages, not five. Salar was split into Western Salara and Eastern Salar. Ili Turki was eliminated becuase it does not even exist. It is simply a form of Uighur. Kabardian and Balkar, Tatar and Bashkir, Kazakh and Kirghiz were some languages that were eliminated and subsumed into single tongues such as Tatar-Bashkir, Kazakh-Kirghiz, and Kabardian-Balkar. And on and on.

Languages and of course dialects are dying all the time, but new languages are being created by humans and by linguists as we continue our splitting projects. Many lects referred to as dialects are more properly seen as separate languages. Chinese is at least 450 separate languages, only 14 of which are recognized. German may be up to 130 separate languages, only 20 of which are recognized.

There are quite a few more languages to be created out there, but there is a lot of resistance to splitters like me from more conservative linguists and especially from linguistic nationalists. For while Chinese may well be over 1,000 languages, the Chinese government is anti-scientifically insistent that there is but one Chinese language and maybe 2,000 “dialects,” most of which are probably separate languages. The German government is quite resistant to the idea that there is more than one form of German, though I believe Bavarian and Swiss German have official status in Austria and Switzerland.

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Mutual Intelligibility Among the Turkic Languages

Turkic is a large family of about 40 languages stretching from Turkey all the way to China. Most of the languages are pretty close, and it’s often been said that they are all mutually intelligible, and that you can go from Turkey all the way to the Yakut region of Siberia and be understood the whole way.

This is certainly not the case, although there is something to it. That is because the languages, while generally not above 90% mutually intelligible which is the requirement to be dialects, do have varying degrees of intelligibility. That is, there is some intelligibility between most of the Turkic languages but generally below 90%.

The truth is that mutual intelligibility in Turkic is much less than proclaimed.

Azeri is spoken in Azerbaijan. Turkish and Azeri are often said to be completely mutually intelligible, but this is not true, though the situation is interesting. The two are not mutually intelligible. The far eastern dialects of Turkish are closer to Azeri than to Turkish. Turkish has an average of 69% intelligibility with Azeri calculated via three separate studies. After a few weeks of close contact, they can often communicate pretty well. Written intelligibility is much higher and Turks may have up to 95% intelligiblity of written Azeri.

Intelligibility is increasing now now due to increased contact. Nowadays due to exposure to Turkish TV, most Azeri speakers can speak Turkish well, and due to exposure to Azeri TV, Turks understand a lot more Azeri than they used to.

Kazakh and Kirghiz are also close, enough to be one language, with intelligibility over 90%. In addition, they have been growing closer recently. Kazakh is spoken in Kazakhstan, and Kirghiz is spoken in Kyrgyzstan.

Tatar and Bashkir are even closer than Kazakh and Kirghiz and they are best seen as a single language, with intelligibility of over 90%.

Uzbek and Uyghur are fairly close, but they are still probably only 65-70% intelligible. Uzbek is spoken in Uzbekistan, and Uighur is spoken Xinjiang Province, China.

Uzbek and Kazakh are not mutually intelligible, but there is an intelligible dialect between them.

Tofa and Tuvan are not mutually intelligible, but there are intelligible dialects linking them. Both are spoken in Russia in the same region as Altai below.

The truth is that Altai and Uzbek are not even intelligible within themselves.

Altai is spoken in the Altai region of Russia where China, Russia and Mongolia all come together. Altai is split into North Altai and South Altai, separate languages.

Uzbek is split into North Uzbek and South Uzbek, separate languages.

Azeri is split into North Azeri and South Azeri, although the two are mutually intelligible, there are large differences in phonology, morphology, syntax and loan words. Nevertheless, they are very mutually intelligible, with intelligibility at 98%. The split was probably done for political reasons, as North Azeri is the official language of Azerbaijan and South Azeri is a language spoken in Northwest Iran.

The Oghuz languages are said to be fully mutually intelligible, but that’s not really the case. The question of the intelligibility of Turkmen with Azeri and Turkish is controversial, as some sources say that they are mostly mutually intelligible. Intelligibility testing is warranted.

Turkish has uncertain intelligibility with Crimean Tatar. Crimean Tatar speakers say that Turks cannot understand their language (Dokuzlar 2010). However, Turkish speakers say that Turks and Crimean Tatar speakers can converse without too many problems. However, while mutual intelligibility is high, it is probably under 70%. Intelligibility testing is warranted. One problem is that Southern Crimean Tatar is a simply a dialect of Turkish, while Central and Northern Crimean Tatar are part of a separate language from Turkish.

Turkish has high, but not full, intelligiblity of Karaim. Turkish intelligibility of Karaim may be 65-70%. Intelligibility testing is warranted.

The intelligibility of Turkish with South Azeri may be quite high, on the order of 90% (however, some South Azeri speakers say that while they can understand North Azeri just fine, they have a hard time understanding Turkish, which calls the 90% figure into question), higher than between Turkish and North Azeri, which itself is ~70%. Intelligiblity between Turkish and South Azeri is the highest between Turkish and any other language.

The intelligibility of Turkish and Khorasani Turkic is probably around 40%.

Practically speaking, Turkish has low intelligibility with Kazakh (Kipchak Branch), Uyghur and Uzbek (Uyghuric branch) and Khakas (Siberian branch). Turkish-Kazakh intelligibility is surely less than 40%. There is also low intelligibility between Turkish and Bashkir, Nogay, Kyrghyz and Tatar (Kipchak Branch). Turkish has very low written intelligibility of Tatar (~5%) and Kazakh (0%).

Turkic has effectively 0% intelligibility with Yakut or Sakha.

The intelligibility of Turkish with the Central Asian Turkic languages like Uzbek, Kazakh, Kyrghyz and Turkmen is much exaggerated.

Speakers of these languages who went to study in Turkey said they had problems with the Turkish language. It’s true that Turkish TV is not much watched in the Central Asian Turkic nations, but the main reason for that is that Central Asian Turkic speakers can’t understand it. They can’t even understand the simplified Turkish used in these broadcasts. After the fall of the USSR, people from these new nations visited Turkey, but they had to bring interpreters with them to communicate.

In truth, the whole notion of the mutual intelligibility of all Turkish is a pan-Turkic conceit. Pan-Turkism is a noxious form of ultranationalism headquartered in Turkey. It says that all speakers of Turkic languages are part of a Greater Turkey and often uses ominous irredentist language implying that Turkey is going to conquer all the Turkic lands and take them back.

The Pan-Turkics have a snide attitude towards other Turkic speakers, insisting that they all speak dialects of Turkish and not separate languages. This snideness is resented by speakers of other Turkic tongues.

A number of Turkic languages are nothing more than dialects and not full languages.

Ukrainian Urum is a dialect of Crimean Tatar, and Georgian Urum is a dialect of Turkish. Ukrainian Urum is spoken in SE Ukraine, and Crimean Tatar is spoken on the Crimean Peninsula.

Salchuq is an Azeri dialect. It is spoken in Iran.

However, Qashqai, also spoken in Iran, often thought to be an Azeri dialect, is in fact a separate but closely related language with 75-80% intelligibility of South Azeri.

Gagauz has high intelligibility with Turkish. However, Bulgarians say that when Turks visit the Balkan Gaguaz communities in Bulgaria, the two groups have a hard time understanding each other. SIL says that not only Gagauz but also Balkan Gagauz Turkish are separate languages, but one wonders what criteria they are using to split them. The Gagauz are Christians living in Moldavia who strangely enough speak a Turkish language with many Christian Slavic loanwords. The Balkan Gagauz Turks live in Bulgaria, far west Turkey, Greece and Macedonia, but most of them live in Bulgaria.

Kumyk is said to be said to be intelligible with Azeri, which would make it a dialect of Azeri. However, this assertion is yet unproven, so for now, Kumyk should remain a separate language. Kalmyk is spoken in Dagestan.

Karakalpak is so close to Kazakh, with 98% intelligibility, that it is a dialect of Kazakh. Karakalpak is spoken in Western Uzbekistan.

Chulym and Shor are often thought to be dialects of a single language. Not only is this not true, but Shor itself is two separate languages – Mrass Shor and Kondoma Shor – and Chulym is also two separate languages – Lower Chulym and Chulym. Chulym and Shor are spoken north of the Altai Mountains in the Ob River Basin near the city of Novokuznetsk.

Further research regarding the intelligibility of these languages is indicated.


Uygar Dokuzlar, Crimean Tatar speaker. April 2010. Personal communication.

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Filed under Azerbaijani, Balkan Gagauz Turkish, Bashkir, Chulym, Crimean Tatar, Dialectology, Gagauz, Karakalpak, Kazakh, Khakas, Khorasani Turkic, Kipchak, Krymchak, Kumyk, Kyrgyz, Language Families, Linguistics, Nogay, North Altai, North Azerbaijani, North Uzbek, Oghuz, Qashqai, Salchuq, Shor, Siberian, South Altai, South Azerbaijani, South Uzbek, Tatar, Tofa, Turkic, Turkish, Turkmen, Tuvan, Urum, Uyghuric, Uyhghur, Uzbek