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Number of Speakers: Approximately 2 million

Key Dialects: Northern Kyrgyz, Southern Kyrgyz

Geographical Center: Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz is spoken by a little under 2 million people in the Republic of Kyrgyzstan where it is the national language. In adjacent countries there are 150,000 speakers in China, mainly in Sinkiang-Uighur Autonomous Region, and considerably smaller but significant communities of speakers in western Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Even smaller numbers can be found in Afghanistan, Turkey, and Pakistan.

There is some terminological confusion about the terms Kyrgyz and Kazakh. Kazakh and Kyrgyz are now the current standard references for the languages and peoples of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan respectively, but this has not always been the case. Kazakh has been referred to as Kirghiz, Kirghiz-Kaisak, or Kazakh-Kirghiz (and similar designations); while Kara-Kirghiz was the term used for present reference, Kyrgyz.

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

The dialects of Kyrgyz can be divided into Northern and Southern. Standard Kyrgyz is based on the northern varieties, which have a large number of word borrowings from Mongolian languages. The Northern dialect was influenced by Kazakh, while the Southern dialect was influenced by Uzbek. Within the Southern dialect, a distinction is sometimes made between the South Eastern and the South Western dialects. The Southern dialects are also strongly influenced by such Iranian languages as Persian and Tajik.

Kyrgyz is written in a modified Cyrillic script that has been in use since 1940. Prior to the introduction of the Cyrillic alphabet, the orthography and alphabet had gone through two major changes. Until 1923 an Arabic script was used. Following standardization of the language, a modified Arabic script was adopted in 1924. In 1928, the Arabic script was replaced by the Unified Turkic Latin Alphabet (UTLA). The latter was replaced by the modified Cyrillic alphabet. There has been a report (in 1993) that the Latin orthography will be reintroduced.

Like all of the Turkic languages, Kyrgyz 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.

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

Kyrgyz has nine sets of short and long vowels, and nineteen consonants plus five others which are functionally marginal. 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.

Kyrgyz was not standardized until the Soviet period when it was used along with Russian for official and governmental purposes. Presently, instruction in Kyrgyz exists through the secondary school level. Instruction is in Russian and Kyrgyz at the Kyrgyz State University in Frunze. In 1926, the literacy rate of the Kyrgyz was less than 5 percent; by 1970 it had reached nearly 100 percent. The percentage of the population claiming Kyrgyz as their first language dropped from 67 percent to 44 percent over the same period. In large part, this change can be attributed to the large influx of non-Kyrgyz after Russia gained control in the nineteenth century.

No Kyrgyz language press existed before the Russian Revolution. By 1983, however, sixty-one newspapers and sixteen journals were published exclusively in Kyrgyz. In 1983, 513 books were published in Kyrgyz in the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic. There are also Kyrgyz language radio and television broadcasts.

The first reference to the Kyrgyz language is recorded in an eighth century AD Turkic Orkhon inscription. During the eighth/nineth centuries the ancestral Kyrgyz were living in the Upper Yenisey region in far northern central Mongolia. The many Turkic inscriptions in that area, which date from the fifth to seventh centuries, are attributed to them.

The ascendance of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century caused the Kyrgyz people to migrate south toward the Tien Shan range, in the area of present day Kyrgyzstan. Their territory was subjected to successive waves of Turkic and Mongol invasions, causing some Kyrgyz speakers to migrate to Turkestan. By the mid-eighteenth century, Kyrgyzia was nominally under Chinese control, although in reality it was largely independent. After a brief period of Turkic vassalage, Kyrgyzia was incorporated into the Russian Empire, causing some Kyrgyz speakers to migrate to Afghanistan and the Pamirs. The transition to Soviet rule was marked by violence and fighting, leading to a major migration of Kyrgyz speakers to China. In 1919, Kyrgyzia was incorporated into the Turkman Soviet Socialist Republic, and in 1936 it became a full fledged republic in the USSR. Kyrgyzstan became an independent republic in 1990 after the break up of the USSR.

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