Asian and African studies blog

05 October 2020

Defining Dialects: Accounting for Turkic Languages in the British Library Collections

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the provenance and curation of the 150-odd works in our Chagatai collections. In that blog, I promised that I would return with a related piece about the languages of our holdings. In this piece, I'll be looking at where the name "Chagatai" comes from, why we use it to describe our holdings, and why it isn't an ideal way to refer to what we have on hand. 

Double-page spread of text in Old Turkic script in black and red ink
Two pages from the 8th-century CE divination book Irq Bitigwritten in Old Turkic script. (Irq Bitig. Dunhuang. 8th century CE. Or 8212/171)
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The earliest written records in a Turkic language come to us in the form of the Orkhon inscriptions, which were produced some time in the 8th century CE. Turkic lects were obviously spoken long before this, but the inscriptions are among the first written records that we have by which to measure their spread and evolution over the following thirteen centuries. The inscriptions were written in the Old Turkic script, which I wrote about in this blog. It is replicated in Or 8212/76(1) and Or 8212/76(3), military inventories, as well as in Or 8212/161, the famous 9th-century CE Irq Bitig divination manual. These documents are part of the British Library’s Stein Collections and provide an exceptionally rare look at the early history and worldview of the Turkic languages and people. While there is remarkable uniformity between the language of the Orkhon inscriptions and the manuscripts in the Library’s collections, orthographic idiosyncrasies point to the great influence that individual writers exerted in defining early written Turkic expression. Such peculiarities would grow to reflect dialect divergences over the coming centuries.

During this time, the Turkic peoples underwent some pretty fundamental changes. In the 8th century CE, Islam began to take root among Central Asian communities, radically altering worldviews as well as linguistic patterns. It led to the introduction of new words, concepts and paradigms into Turkic lects and literatures. The 11th century CE saw two different milestones of importance for Turkic historical linguistics. In the 1070s, the Qarakhanid polymath Kaşgarlı Mahmud compiled his Divan-ı Luğati’t-Türk (YP.2007.a.173), a compendious dictionary of the Turkic dialects, and an invaluable window on linguistic diversity within the language family. In the same century, the Seljuqs, a clan from the Oğuz confederation, swept through Persia into West Asia. They brought with them the dialects that would eventually come to dominate Turkic communities throughout the Ottoman Empire and Azerbaijan.

A page of handwritten text in Arabic script in black ink surrounded by an intricate geometrical and floral border in blue, red, white and gold, with gold margins
The first page of the Nusratnama, greatly faded, with showing the intricacy of the illumination. (Nusratnama. Central Asia. 970 AH/1563 CE. Or 3222, f 1v)
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In the 13th century CE, a different invasion – that of the Golden Horde – brought another seismic shift. Genghis Khan and his Mongolian armies whipped across Eurasia, subjugating Turkic states caught in their path. While there is some Mongolian input into the development of many Turkic languages, its influence over Central Asian and western Turkic languages over subsequent centuries was not nearly as great as that of Persian. Language does not exist outside of a historical vacuum, however, and Genghis Khan’s invasions did effectively tip the scales of fortune in favour of certain dialect groups. The Chagatai Khanate, established under the sovereignty of Genghis Khan’s second son Chagatai Khan, is such an example. Originally Mongolian in language, the state was gradually Turkicized. As it reached the zenith of its political and military power under Timur, the Turkic dialects of the region gradually began to coalesce as a language of state power. Add MS 7851, Al-Rabghuzi’s Qisas al-anbiya, reflects this stage of transition and the emergence of Chagatai as a language of literature and statecraft. The Khanate’s military prowess waned over the next three centuries, but its cultural legacy only continued to grow. From the 14th century CE right up to the advent of Soviet power in Central Asia, Chagatai was a medium of literary creation and historical recording from Delhi to Siberia, and from Iran through to Bengal.

The problem, however, is that what was written in 15th-century CE Samarqand wasn’t necessarily the same dialect as that found in a 19th-century CE manuscript from Qazan or Qashgar. As a language, Chagatai never had a state-sponsored, institutionally-regulated standard in the way that Turkish, French, Filipino or Korean do. Moreover, there is no body of active, native speakers on whom to rely for intelligibility tests, as one would use for lects without global standards, such as English, Southern Quechua or Yoruba. As a result, the tag “Chagatai” is used by the Library – and many orientalists, but not linguists – to describe a body of works that exhibit a breathtaking amount of linguistic variation. The great poet Mir Alisher Navoiy, a giant in the canon of Chagatai literature, helped to set a benchmark for composition in the language. So too did Babur, the founder of the Mughal Dynasty. But without an active insistence on these examples being prescriptive, as well as admirable, there was little to discourage writers from including social or geographical variants as they sought fit. I’m not a linguist, and I am by no means competent in determining which alternative label might be better to affix to some of the works in our Chagatai collections. Nonetheless, with what follows, I hope to elucidate why we have grouped so many disparate works together, and why improved access to them might help me and future curators in understanding just how to describe them.

A page of text in Arabic script written in black and red inkDouble page of text in Arabic script with various words underlined in red
(Left) Words in the Kyrgyz dialect of Bukhara along with Arabic and Persian translations indicated in red. (Muhammad Karim al-Bulghari. Sabab-i Taqviat. Kazan. 19th century CE. Or 11042, f 57r)
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(Right) Explanations of various Turkic dialects in Persian with examples from the dialects themselves. (Sindh, Pakistan. 1253 AH [1837 CE]. Or 404, ff 17v-18r)
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The authors of some texts make this task relatively easy by stating overtly which lects they are using or discussing. Numerous manuscripts contain vocabularies of different dialects, as well as explanations of the divergences in pronunciation, morphology, syntax and semantics between the different Turkic communities. Or 11042, for example, gives us a glossary of the words used by Kyrgyz-speakers around Bukhara. Compiled by Muhammad Karim al-Bulghari of Qazan in the 19th century CE, it was intended to provide Tatar students in Bukhara with a key to the peculiarities of local speech patterns, translating these words into Persian and Arabic. Or 404 , by contrast, goes even deeper into the question of linguistic diversity, as Dr. Paolo Sartori has highlighted for me. A Persian and Turkic codex, the author of the first text, Ashur Beg, aimed to distinguish seven different dialect groups: Turani, Uzbeki, Irani, Qizilbashi, Rumi, Qashgari, and Nogay. While it is easy to guess how some of these map onto contemporary linguistic groups (Rumi is probably Ottoman; Qashgari is probably related to Uyghur; and Nogay might be Nogay and other Caucasian Qipchaq varieties), others are more difficult. Is “Irani” the Turkmen varieties of north-east Iran and Central Asia? And where does Turani fit in? Evidently, we still have quite long strides to make in order to understand how to reconcile the worldviews of the authors of these texts with those of the speakers of the languages discussed, both past and present.

Similarly, Or 1912, a Chagatai-Persian codex that contains numerous linguistic tracts, presents us with a few more issues of nomenclature. Copied in India in the mid-19th century CE, the work demonstrates Mughal scholars’ interest in various Turkic dialects. The first three texts present grammars and vocabularies of Chagatai, Azerbaijani, Nogay and Qashgari, none of which pose too many problems when it comes to identifying, roughly, contemporary linguistic communities. The fourth text, however, creates a bit of confusion. The author, who might have been Aghur bin Bayram Ali Bi, states that Turkic peoples are divided between two camps: the Aimaqs, who say things like qayda, qanday,qali and tash, and the Turkmen, who say hayda, handay, ghali and dash. These divisions do appear to mark some phonological differences that we know of today. Consider, for example, Kazakh (Qipchaq) qajet and Turkish (Oğuz) hacet (meaning “need”); or Kazakh taw and Turkish dağ (meaning “mountain”). But beyond this, the lines start to get fuzzy. Today, Aimaq primarily designates Dari-speaking communities in Afghanistan; some members do claim descent from Turkic-speakers of Central Asia. Are these the same people described in the text? Did Aghur bin Bayram Ali Bi retain a record of their ancestors’ speech patterns, or is he describing a completely different group of people? Only further research of this and related manuscripts might help us to get closer to the truth.

Chagatai, of course, isn’t just a language of manuscripts. For much of the 19th century CE, lithography was also used for the reproduction of texts. Lithography, unlike early movable type, helped replicate more faithfully the nastaliq style of calligraphy common in many Central Asian manuscripts. Movable type was also used, however, particularly within the context of Europeanisation programs imposed by various colonial empires. In the early 19th century CE, presses existed at Qazan (a history of it by R. I. Yakupov is available here ) as well as St. Petersburg, and were soon established in Tashkent, Orenburg, and Bukhara. The earliest example held in the British Library is the Makhzan al-asrar, published in Qazan in 1858 (ITA.1986.a.1077). It isn’t particularly beautiful, but it does embody some of the important history of Chagatai publishing. The monograph was published by Joseph Gottwaldt (there’s only a German-language biographical page for him), a professor of Arabic and Persian at Kazan University from 1849 until 1897. Gottwaldt became the University’s Oriental Librarian in 1850 and headed up its publishing house from 1857, showing, once again, the deep links between orientalist scholarship and the publishing of Chagatai literature.

Lithographed title page with text in Arabic script and many small illustrations of different outdoor settingsLithographed page of text in Arabic script in black ink
The title page (left) and a page of poetry (right) showing the heights of lithographed calligraphy and imager from a Central Asian publisher. (Mashrab, Divan-i Mashrab (Tashkent: Tipografiia Bratsei Portsevykh", 1900).) (ORB.30/8204)
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Not all printed editions of Chagatai literature were created within the Imperial academy. A copy of the Divan-i Mashrab (ORB.30/8204), the collected poetry of Boborahim Mullah Wali, a 16th-17th century CE Sufi intellectual also known as Mashrab, was likely produced for the enjoyment of a Central Asian readership. This beautiful edition was lithographed in Tashkent in 1900 and demonstrates the aesthetic heights attainable for late 19th-century CE Central Asian artisans. It also provides us with a clear contrast to contemporary works produced by Turkic speakers, putting into relief the growing chasm between literary and vernacular modes of expression.

Printed text in Arabic script with small illustrated header showing fields and a treePrinted text in Arabic script with small illustrated header
Articles from the magazine Shura about sex work (left) and original works of creative writing with more vernacular linguistic features (right). (Shura (Orenburg: Vakit Nashriyati, 1908-1917).) (
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Vernacularization was already a trend by the final years of the Tsarist Empire. Turkic intellectuals across the Romanov lands were publishing in dialects influenced more by how people spoke than by traditional literary convention. In some cases, the result was written language that aligned somewhat closely with languages used today. The early 20th -century CE periodical Shura (, published in Orenburg by the Bashkir and Tatar Jadid Rizaeddin Fakhreddinov (Ризаитдин Фәхретдин), provides an example that shows Chagatai and Tatar features. Among them are the use of -ymyz instead of-ybyz for the first person plural (a feature of Chagatai), and the appearance of tügel for the negative copula (common in Tatar). It seems that Fakhreddinov operated on a sliding scale, with a more literary style preferred for social commentary, and, ironically, a more vernacular one for literary pieces.

Title page with a calligraphic title in Arabic scriptText in Arabic script in black ink
The title page (left) and introduction (right) to a book about the travels of Abdurreshit Ibragimov and their importance for Turkic national development. (Davr-i Alim (Kazan: Tipografiia gazety Bayan'ul-khak", 1909).) (14499.p.5)
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Contrast this to the book Davr-i Alim (14499.p.5), an account of Abdurreshit Ibragimov’s (Габдрәшит Ибраһимов) travels around the world and their impact on national development. It contains elements that are common in Oğuz dialects (olmak, ile) as well as features that can be found in Qarluq or Qipchaq ones (-gan past and -a tur constructions). It’s not Chagatai, but it’s also not proto-Uzbek or Turkmen or Tatar. What’s going on here?

Cover page of a magazine lithographed in Arabic script with a floral border and illustrations of flora and fauna
The cover page of the periodical Oyna (Mirror), published in Turki (called Uzbek in Russian), Persian and Russian by the Jadidist intellectual Mahmud Hoja Behbudi. (Oyna (Samarqand: Makhmud Khwaja Behbudi, 1913-1915).) (ITA.1986.a.1625)
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Perhaps what we’re seeing is something new – an emergent lingua franca for Muslim Turkic communities across Eurasia. Occasionally, it is referred to by the simple moniker of Turki, a name that was, incidentally, used to refer to Chagatai as well. We see on the cover of an issue of Oyna (ITA.1986.a.1625) from 1914. Other types of common Turkic systems had certainly been proposed – the most famous of which was pushed by İsmail Gaspiralı – but none seemed to gain unconditional support among intellectuals and the average Turkic-speaker alike. A scholar of Eastern Turkic texts, literary culture and multilingualism, Ahmet Hojam Pekiniy, alerted me to the widespread presence of an inter-dialect Turki in Eastern Turkestani documents too. There is still so much more for us to understand about this phenomenon, and how it relates to Chagatai linguistically, historically, socially and politically.

In the end, it wasn’t the printing press or mass communication that forced standardization, but rather the process of Sovietization. Soviet authorities, informed by Stalin’s Nationalities’ Policy, set about demarcating the languages of distinct Soviet peoples. Chagatai lost out to a host of semi-vernacular, heavily-managed languages – Uzbek, Tatar, Bashkir, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen, among others – which became the new literary norms. Chagatai, or maybe Turki, didn’t die out completely, but lived on for a while longer in exile. I’ve written about Yangi Yapon Mokhbire elsewhere, but it’s worth mentioning once more as an example of the continued use of the language as a common denominator amongst exiles from various Turkic communities, at least until the late 1930s. Nonetheless, Chagatai’s quiet disappearance from the world stage has denied us the opportunity to understand truly what it was and was not, and to see its place within the rich tapestry of Turkic cultural production. And for the community of cataloguers and curators, it means a continued struggle to categorize these works in a way that makes them discoverable and useable by readers from around the globe. In time, we hope, a greater public interest in them and the language itself will help revive some of Chagatai's importance in understanding the history of Eurasia.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator, Turkish and Turkic Collections
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Further Reading

Eckmann, János, Chagatay Manual ([London?]: Taylor and Francis, [2017]). (DRT ELD.DS.166473)

Khalid, Adeeb, The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

Schluessel, Eric, An Introduction to Chagatai: A Graded Textbook for Reading Central Asian Sources (Michigan: University of Michigan Press Services, 2018). (YP.2019.b.567)

The Turkic Languages, edited by Lars Johanson and Éva Á. Csató (London: Routledge, 1998). (YC.1999.b.2111)