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Number of Speakers: over 7,595,500
Key Dialects: Ili (Yili)
Geographical Center: Xinjiang–Uighur Autonomous Region of the Chinese People’s Republic
The term “Uighur” usually refers to Modern Uighur, as opposed to Old Uighur, the language of the medieval Uighur texts, which is not directly related to Modern Uighur. There are in total over 7,595,500 Uighur speakers. 7,214,431 in China, 3,000 in Afganistan, 300,000 in Kazakhstan, 1,000 in Mongolia, 500 in Turkey. There are smaller Uighur communities in a number of other countries, e.g. Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Germany, etc.
Uighur belongs to the Eastern branch of the Turkic group of the Altaic language family. Closely related languages include Ainu (different from Ainu spoken in Japan and Russia), Ili Turki, Uzbek and West Yugur (also called Yellow Uighur or Sarygh-Uighur, but different from Uighur). Also related to Chagatay (Chaghatai), a medieval Turkic language that is now extinct. According to other classifications, Uighur belongs to Chagatay, Karluk-, Karluk-Khorezmian, Southwestern or Tagliq- group (for more information see Campbell 2000, Clark 1994, Comrie 1994, Dwyer 2001, Ethnologue, Kaidarov 1969, Ofrosimova-Serova 1998, Sadvakasov 1989, Tekin 1994).
Three groups of (sub-)dialects are assumed for Uighur: Central, including Aksu (Aqsu), Ili, Kashgar (Qashgar), Komul, Korlin, Kuchar (Kucha), Qarashahr (Karashar), Turfan, Urumchi (Urumqi), Yarkend; Southern, including Hotan; Eastern, including Lopnor (also spelled Lobnor; see Dwyer 2001, Ethnologue, Ofrosimova-Serova 1998). Other classifications also exist, discussed in Kaidarov (1969) and Sadvakasov (1989).
Uighur has used several writing systems. The earliest Uighur texts (5th – 8th centuries) are written in three scripts: the Old Turkic runes (also called Orxon-Yenisei runes), Manichean script and Uighur script. All three types ultimately go back to Aramaic script, but they developed in different ways.
The ancient Aramaic script, which itself had developed from Phoenician script, served as the basis for several younger writing systems. One of them was the ancient Sogdian script, on the basis of which the Old Turkic runes were created. Manichean script, that reached Uighurs through Syria, was based on Classical Syriac script, a descendant of Edessan script, which had developed out of Aramaic script. The Manichean script used by Uighurs is sometimes called Uighur-Manichean. Uighur script is said to have developed from Neo-Sogdian cursive, which was based on earlier Sogdian script. Texts written in Uighur script date back to the 8th century. According to some accounts, Uighur script is older, dating back to the 5th century, or even further back in time. However, there is no secure evidence for this claim, and it is not directly supported by Turkologists (see Malov 1951).
Uighur script consisted of 20 letters (5 vowel and 15 consonant graphemes), that represented around 30 phonemes of Old Uighur. Uighur script was vertical, i.e. the words were written from top to bottom. Letters could have three different forms depending on their position in the word. The use of Uighur script diminished after the 11th century, after Arabic script became dominant. However, Uighur script was used in some regions until the 18th century.
From 1960 until 1984 Uighurs in the Xinjiang–Uighur Autonomous Region of the Chinese People’s Republic used a modified Latin script along with a modified version of Arabic script, but in 1984 the Latin script was abandoned. The current writing system in XUAR is modified Arabic script. In the former Soviet Union, a modified version of the Cyrillic alphabet was adopted in 1946, and is still used in the Central Asian republics. Uighur speakers in Turkey use Latin script.
Besides the writing systems described above, several other scripts have been used by Uighurs during the middle ages, e.g. Nestorian, Estrangelo and one variety of Brahmi script (for more information about Uighur writing systems, ancient Turkic and Uighur texts, see Dwyer 2001, Hahn 1991, Kormušin 1998, Malov 1951, Tenišev 1998, Zakirov 1998).
Modern Uighur has 7 vowels (some scholars indicate 9 vowels). The vowels can be short and long. Uighur has vowel harmony, which is not as regular as in other Turkic languages due to secondary Uighur phonetic processes. The vowel  occurs only in loanwords. There are 24 consonants and 3 affricates in Uighur. The consonants have a voicing distinction. The structure of syllables in native (Turkic) words is (C)V(C)(C), cf. dost ‘friend’, but in loanwords it can be as complex as (C)(C)(C)V(C)(C)(C), cf. sklad ‘storehouse’ (< Ru. sklad), “Ernst” (personal name, cf. German ‘Ernst’). The stress falls in general on the last syllable of the word (there are quite a few exceptions to this rule).
Uighur is an agglutinative language, and a number of suffixes are used for inflexion and derivation. The Uighur noun has the categories of case (nominative, genitive, accusative, ablative, dative/directive, locative), number (singular and plural), person and possession. Nouns can be inflected in persons only when they are a part of a verb phrase, cf. oquGuchi ‘student’ > oquGuchi-men ‘I am a student’. The category of possession expresses dependence, e.g. aka ‘elder brother’ > aka-m ‘my elder brother’, aka-N ‘your elder brother’, etc. The adjective is not always distinct from the noun, and the same word-form can be used both as an adjective and as a noun, e.g. qaraNGu ‘dark’ (adjective); ‘darkness’ (noun), chin ‘true’ (adjective); ‘truth’ (noun). Nouns and adjectives share many affixes.
Adjectives have four degrees of comparison: positive, comparative, weakened and superlative. The meaning of the weakened degree of comparison is “somewhat X”, cf. chechi uzun qiz ‘a girl with long braids’ – chechi uzun-iraq qiz ‘a girl with somewhat long braids’. The weakened degree can also be expressed analytically. The superlative degree has several semantic sub-classes that are expressed in different ways, e.g. uzun-uzun ‘quite long’, uzundin-uzun ‘very long’. It is worthwhile to mention the so-called intensive form of superlatives, which is formed with reduplication of part of the first syllable and the connecting consonant ‘p’, cf. qap-qara ‘completely black’ (< qara ‘black’).
The verb has the categories of tense, person, aspect, voice and mood. Uighur has a number of compound past tenses. Future can be expressed in two ways: either using the present form of the verb, or with modal-future affixes. The category of aspect is expressed analytically. Uighur is an SOV language.
The Uighur vocabulary has quite a few borrowings from Chinese, Mongolian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Russian, and several other languages.
ROLE IN SOCIETY
Numerous literary works, juridical documents (letters, financial contracts) and religious texts have been written in Uighur since its earliest attestation in the early Middle Ages. Uighur also influenced neighboring nations: the Mongolian ruler Genghiz-Khan appointed a Uighur to be the guardian of the royal seal, and educators in the Mongolian court were also selected from among Uighurs. It is also commonly believed that Mongolian script was created on the basis of Uighur script. Today Uighur is one of the official languages in Xinjiang–Uighur AR, along with Chinese, and often serves as the language of international communication. There are a number of Uighur newspapers, journals, radio and television programs. Education in Uighur is available from secondary to university level (however, in institutions of higher education competence in Chinese is required).
The ethnonym “Uighur” appears on epitaphs from the 8th century, although the language itself is attested in earlier times. In the early times, Uighurs lived by the Selenga river (modern Mongolia), where they had established a state. This state existed from 744 until 840 when Kirgiz defeated it.
After the fall of this first Uighur state some Uighurs moved to Ordos in Northern China. These Uighurs are believed to have been the ancestors of the modern Yellow Uighurs, or Sarygh-Uighurs (also called Yellow-, or Sarygh-Yughur). The language of Yellow Uighurs is said to be the true descendant of Old Uighur. A much larger group of Uighurs moved to Turfan (modern North-Eastern China), and established another state, which survived until the 15th century. The dominant languages of this kingdom were the Turfan and Qashgar dialects of Uighur.
In the 15th century, following the establishment of the Central Asian kingdom Chagatai Ulus, the term “Uighur” slowly disappeared. The official language of Chagatai Ulus became Chagatai, an artificial literary language based partly on Uighur and partly on Uzbek. The term “Uighur” re-appeared in 1921 when it was officially re-eastablished as the ethnonym of the Uighur people in an International Uighur Forum that was held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Standard Modern Uighur differs from the Uighur that dominated in the Uighur kingdom before the establishment of Chagatai Ulus. After the 18th century large numbers of Uighurs from different parts of Eastern Turkestan settled in areas along the Ili River. The dialect that arose from the mixture of the new dialects with the local dialect served as the base for modern standard Uighur. However, it was Ili that had the most influence on the formation of standard Uighur.
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