Monday, August 30, 2004

What's so tricky about Turkic vocabulary?

What is so tricky about Turkic vocabulary?
A lot of it is Persian and/or Arabic.

Speakers of Persian dialects have been in competition with Turkic speakers for dominance in the region for quite some time. Neither has achieved truly lasting dominance the way that, say, the Romance languages dominate the South of Europe. A quick look around the region turns up Persian in Iran, Dari (almost identical) and Pashto (same family) in Afghanistan and Tajik (almost identical to Persian) in Tajikastan, just to name a few. On the Turkic side, one finds Turkish, Uzbek, Uighur, Kazakh and Khirgiz, among others, these associated with Turkey, Uzbekistan, Western China, Kazakhstan and Khirgizstan. Being in close proximity, the different languages have exchanged a lot of vocabulary over the years.

What about Arabic?
Both the Turkic and the Persian-speaking peoples tend to be Muslims. Because of the extent to which Islamic societies are supposed to follow the teachings of the Koran and the Hadith, a lot of Arabic terms have shown up for use discussing religion, society and law (which, strictly speaking, are aspects of the same thing). Even basic phrases like hello and please and thank you may have their roots in Arabic depending on the language.

So, to speak Turkic languages, I have to know Persian and Arabic?
No, but you’ll learn a fair measure of both if you undertake study of a Turkic language.

Like learning the French word “restaurant” to talk about a place to eat?
Very much like that.

So, what’s the hard part?
Take the phrase for giving thanks in Turkish, Uzbek and Uighur. In Turkish, it’s teşekkürler. This is almost certainly connected to the Arabic shokran (root sh-k-r, see the shehk-kur in the middle) with the plural ending –ler. It means, simply, thanks – the plural for a word meaning the giving of thanks. In Uzbek and Uighur, they say rahmat, or something similar. This is from the Arabic root r-h-m, which connotes mercy. Rahmat means act of compassion. In both cases, you’ve got an Arabic word playing a role, but which Arabic role and what word is a thornier issue.

So different languages might use different foreign words or different variants of their own?
Which means that if you know a word in one language, you’ll probably know words in the others, but they won’t always mean the same thing in the same context. On the other hand, the words that are equivalent in meaning in context might be different in and of themselves.

Sounds hard.
But it does provide an interesting and useful entrée into Islamic society on the Central Asian plain.