Written in three alphabets and spoken throughout Central Asia by 35 million people, Uzbek is the second most widely used Turkic language after Turkish. It is also the only official language in Uzbekistan, the most populous country in Central Asia that has recently shown timid openness after decades of self-imposed isolation. Writers and language lovers alike are cautiously optimistic that the Tashkent thaw bodes well for the Uzbek – who is now spreading his wings online.
Words beyond borders
Uzbeks are a nomadic Turkish nation, which explains why the use of the language is so widespread in the different nation-states of modern Central and Inner Asia. Although Uzbek is a Turkic language, it has many borrowings from Mongolian, Persian, Arabic, and Russian, and it distinguishes itself between Turkic languages because it has no vowel harmony. Its closest relative is the Uighur, with whom the Uzbek is partially understandable.
In Uzbekistan itself, Uzbek is the mother tongue of approximately 27 million speakers out of a total population of 32 million. While there is a standardized form of Uzbek, local dialects are predominantly used, which sometimes complicates communication, as these regional forms are also influenced by neighboring languages, and retain specific phonetic and vocabulary properties. During Soviet rule (1917-1991), Russian had an official status equivalent to that of Uzbek, but the two languages were far from equal. Russian was seen as the language of social progress, which led Uzbek elites, and ethnic minorities, not to consider Uzbek. Since independence, this trend has been reversed: the majority of the country's non-Tukian ethnic minorities (Tajik, Russian, Ukrainian, Korean, and German) speak Uzbek more fluently, particularly the younger generations.
Read Global Voices in Uzbek here
In neighboring Afghanistan there are almost four million Uzbek speakers. The language is official in the north, where the majority of Uzbek people live. A considerable number of ethnic Uzbek people also live in states whose territories once formed the historical homeland of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia: one million in Tajikistan, more than 900,000 in Kyrgyzstan, almost 600,000 in Kazakhstan and around 300 000 in Turkmenistan. Uzbeks are also one of the 56 officially recognized ethnic minority groups in China.
Political and economic factors have also brought large numbers of ethnic Uzbek migrants, refugees and asylum seekers to Russia (where nearly two million Uzbeks live), Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. In addition, there are now Uzbeks in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the European Union as well.
Changing times, changing scriptures
Whether it is spelled “o'zbek tili”, “ўзбек тили”, or “اوزبیک ўзбек”, it means “Uzbek language”. In the many political upheavals in Central Asia, new rulers appeared with new ideas who imposed their own scripts on the local population.
The traditional and most used script for Uzbek is Arabic, which came into use in the 8th century, given the adoption of Islam and the integration of Uzbek culture in the Arab-Persian world. Today, ordinary Uzbek speakers continue to use this alphabet, as do public officials and the media in Afghanistan and China. It persisted in what is now Uzbekistan while Russian imperial rule lasted.
But when the Soviets established control over Uzbekistan, they tried to mark a clear break with old religious and cultural customs, to make way for a new secular Uzbek identity, fit for communist modernity. In 1928 a Latin alphabet was introduced for the Uzbek that was used until 1940. It was later replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet, which represented another twist in the Soviet utopian vision: namely, that all citizens would speak Russian first and foremost.
Independence brought more alphabetical changes. In 1991, another Latin alphabet for the Uzbek was introduced to mark a break with the Soviet past. This reform is ongoing as several versions of the newer Latin alphabet are being tested, introduced, and challenged. The last reform dates from May 2019.
Today, the ancient Cyrillic alphabet is still widely used in Uzbekistan and can be seen on street signs, advertisements, and in bookstores, television screens, and online content. However, the Government has a policy of keeping all official documents and online communication in the Latin alphabet. However, Cyrillic continues to dominate among ethnic Uzbek communities in neighboring Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Uzbek goes digital
Although Wikipedia has just over 130,000 articles in Uzbek (allowing users to choose between Latin and Cyrillic script), a modest political thaw since former President Islam Karimov's death in 2016 has sparked an explosion of content on social media. Platforms such as Facebook, Telegram and Instagram have become the main sources of information (and disinformation), entertainment and social interaction, which modify the language and expression:
In Uzbekistan, when parting with a good friend, it is customary to say “gaplashamiz” or “telefonlashamiz”. In translation, this means “let's talk again” or “we will call each other.” Increasingly, however, Uzbeks are saying “telegramlashamiz” to one another: Let's talk on Telegram.
In Uzbekistan, when saying goodbye to a good friend, it is customary to say “gaplashamiz” or “telefonlashamiz”. In translation, this means “let's talk again” or “we'll call each other.” Increasingly, however, Uzbeks are saying “telegramlashamiz” to each other: Let's talk on Telegram.
Bloggers and vloggers have also emerged, some now have hundreds of thousands of followers. A particularly vibrant place for Uzbek on social media is the intersection of poetry and song. These lyrics often serve as social commentary on various social issues, sometimes with the allegorical language of poetry as a way to circumvent the continuing political censorship, despite the thaw.
Literature is also a new avenue for the expansion of the Uzbek, offering new opportunities for two-way cultural exchange. Long ignored by the foreign public, the global English public is finally translating, publishing, and discovering Uzbek literature. The relaxation of censorship and liberalization of the publishing industry also means that more non-Uzbek literature is being translated, published and distributed online and offline, defying standard Uzbek norms.