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Number of Speakers: Approximately 8 million

Key Dialects: Northeastern Kazakh, Southern Kazakh, Western Kazakh

Geographical Center: Kazakhstan

Kazakh is the official language and principle native language of the Republic of Kazakhstan. It is also spoken in southern Siberia, northwestern China (Xinjiang-Uighur) and northwestern Mongolia. It is one of the most widely spoken Turkic languages in central Asia.

An estimated 8 million people speak Kazakh: 6.5 million in Kazakhstan (of which 98 percent speak it as a first language); 1.2 million in China; and 100,000 in Mongolia. Smaller groups of speakers can also be found in Iran and Afghanistan, as well as in expatriate communities in Turkey and Germany, and, to a lesser extent, throughout Europe (Grimes 1992).

Forty percent of Kazakhstan's total population (17.1 million) are ethnic Kazakhs, 38 percent are Russian, and most of the rest are Slavs or Germans (CIA 1993).

It should be noted that there is some terminological confusion in the literature about Kazakh and Kyrgyz. Kazakh at times has been called Kirghiz, Kirghiz-Kaisak, or Kazakh-Kirghiz (and similar designations) especially prior to 1917. Kazakh and Kyrgyz are now the current standard references for the languages and peoples of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan respectively.

Kazakh is a member of the Central Turkic (or Aralo Caspian) group of languages, which also includes Kyrgyz and other less well known languages, such as Karakalpak. Central Turkic is a sub-group of Common Turkic which also includes Turkish, Azerbaijani, Uighur, and Uzbek. The Turkic languages, and the Mongolian Tungus (Manchu Tungusic) languages of Siberia and northeastern China, are major divisions of the Altaic family or phylum (Ruhlen 1987). Some experts also consider Japanese and Korean part of this phylum, although evidence of this is debated.

The key dialects generally recognized within Kazakh are Northeastern Kazakh, Southern Kazakh, and Western Kazakh. Dialect differences are minor (Grimes 1992).

Kazakh and the other Turkic languages are closely related to one another, and there is a high degree of mutual intelligibility among them. For example, Kazakh and Karakalpak are particularly close, with some scholars claiming that Karakalpak is actually a dialect of Kazakh.

Kazakh, the language of a historically Muslim people, was written with the Arabic script until 1929; with the Roman alphabet from 1929 to 1940; and with the Cyrillic alphabet following Soviet occupation in 1940. This alphabet was modified slightly in 1954 and the Cyrillic now used employs the thirty-three letters of standard Russian Cyrillic, plus several additional symbols for sounds specific to Kazakh.

Like all of the Turkic languages, Kazakh is agglutinative, that is, grammatical functions are indicated by adding various suffixes to fixed stems. Separate suffixes on nouns indicate both gender and number, but there is no grammatical gender. There are six cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, locative, and ablative; number is marked by a plural suffix. Verbs agree with their subjects in case and number, and, as in nouns, separate identifiable suffixes perform these functions. There are also suffixes for tense, aspect, and mood.

Subject-Object -Verb word order in Kazakh is a typical Turkic characteristic, but other orders are possible under certain discourse situations. As a SOV language where objects precede the verb, Kazakh has postpositions rather than prepositions, and relative clauses that precede the verb.

Kazakh has eight vowels, and twenty-five to twenty-six consonants. It also has Turkic vowel harmony in which the vowels of suffixes must harmonize with the vowels of noun and verb stems; thus, for example, if the stem has a round vowel then the vowel of the suffix must be round, and so on. Words are usually stressed on the final syllable.

Lexical influences include Arabic, Persian, and modern Russian.

In September 1989, the Kazakh Supreme Soviet established Kazakh as the official language of the Republic with Russian remaining as the language of interethnic communication. This was opposed by many non Kazakhs, chief among them a local branch of the Russian nationalist organization Yedinstvo. Nevertheless, the new constitution of January 1993 invoked the earlier legislation and also stipulated that the President of the Republic be a fluent speaker of Kazakh (Europa Publications 1993). However, the majority of business and government affairs are still conducted in Russian.

Most students in the primary and secondary education are still taught in Russian, although 33 percent do learn in the Kazakh language (Europa Publications 1993) and there are attempts to extend Kazakh language education. More Kazakh language schools are being established, and ethnic Kazakhs are sending their children to these schools in increasing numbers. Higher education is dominated by Kazakh (54 percent in 1984/85) since ethnic Russians choose to study outside the Republic.

Traditional Kazakh poetry singing contests are held more frequently, and Russian street signs and place names are being replaced by Kazakh equivalents. It should be noted that the number of ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Russians within the country are about equal (7 and 6 million, respectively), and the existing language situation, while peaceful, is not without some tension.

In 1989, there were 160 officially registered Kazakh language newspaper titles and thirty-one periodicals. Other languages represented in the media are Russian, Uyghur, German, and Korean.

Kazakh is originally descended from proto Turkic. The earliest written texts for the Turkic languages are the Old Turkic runic inscriptions of the Orkhon and Yenisey valleys (north central Mongolia) dating from 700 to 800. A dictionary of Turkic languages, compiled around 1000, demonstrated that various dialects were in use among the different Turkic tribes; however, it is not known when Kazakh began to be considered a separate language. Kazakh as it exists today began to take shape in the seventeenth century during the Modern Turkic Period, the last period of development in the Turkic languages. (Some experts place this date earlier, in the fifteenth or sixteenth century.) Kazakh possesses a rich and ancient tradition of oral poetry, but did not exist in any standard written form until the middle of the nineteenth century. At this time Russians (who had been invading the territory intermittently since the early seventeenth century) essentially ruled the Kazakhs and began suppressing their nomadic culture and their language. According to some experts, Kazakh has been influenced more by Russian than have other Turkic languages of the former USSR.

Asher, R.E. ed. 1994. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

CIA. 1993. World Factbook (CI WOFACT; ID number CI WOFACT 018).

Comrie, B. 1992. "Turkic Languages." In W. Bright, ed. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Vol. 4:187-190. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Europa Publications. 1993. "Kazakhstan." The Europa World Year Book 1993. Volume 2:1637-1645. London: Europa Publications Limited.

Grimes, B. F. ed. 1992. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Kornfilt, Jaklin. 1987. "Turkish and the Turkic Languages." In B.Comrie, ed. The World's Major Languages, pp. 619-644. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Krueger, John R. 1980. Introduction to Kazakh: Grammatical Outline, Kazakh Reader, Kazakh-English Phrasebook, and Kazakh-English Glossary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies.

Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada, Washington, DC.

Robson, Barbara. 1984. USSR: Country Status Report. (ERIC document: ED247773). Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Ruhlen, Merritt. 1987. A Guide to the World's Languages. Vol. 1: Classification. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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