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Number of Speakers: 6,000,000 to 7,000,000

Key Dialects: See below

Geographical Center: Tatarstan Republic, Russian Federation.

Tatar is spoken by approximately 5,7 million people in Tatarstan (Russian Federation). Smaller communities of Tatar speakers are spread throughout the neighboring regions of the Russian Federation, e.g. Bašqortostan, Mordovia, Udmurtia, etc. Tatar is also spoken in southwestern Siberia (Krasnojarsk, Omsk, Tiumen’, Tomsk regions, etc.), central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan), eastern Europe (mostly the post-Soviet republics, Southern Russia). In the course of time, the term “Tatar” has been used in various meanings, e.g. Turkic people in general, inhabitants of Tatarstan in general, etc. Currently, and also in this article, the term “Tatar” is used to refer to the Tatar language and its speakers.

The classification of the Turkic language is still a matter of debate, and a number of classifications, based on different criteria, has been proposed. For an overview of these classifications see Gadžijeva (1998). Most scholars agree that Tatar belongs to the Kipčak (Kipchak, Kypchak, Qybčaq) branch of the Turkic languages, also called Northwestern Turkic, tawlï-, or tau-branch of Turkic. The closest relative of Tatar is Baškir (Bashkir). Also closely related are Crimean Tatar, Karaim (Karaite), Kazakh, Karačai-Balkar, Karakalpak, Kumyk, Nogay, and the Khwarezm-Kipčak dialects of Uzbek. Ethnologue provides a slightly different classification, according to which Tatar is considered a Uralian Western Turkic language, belonging to the Altaic macrofamily, the existence of which is disputed (see Some scholars also claim that Tatar, which is believed to be a result of amalgamation of Old Bulgar and Old Kipčak dialects, should be considered a Bulgar-Kipčak language.

Tatar has a large number of dialects, which can be classified into three major groups: Central, Western/Mišarian and Eastern/Siberian. The Central dialects are spoken in Tatarstan, Baškiria, Udmurtia and numerous regions (Ru. oblasti) of central Russia, such as Kirov, Riazan’, Perm’, Kuibyšev, etc. The Western/Mišarian dialects are divided into č-dialects and c-dialects. The dialects belonging to both sub-groups are spoken in the southern regions of Russia, but č-dialects are more widespread in Mordovia, Tatarstan, and the regions of Penza, Saratov, Tambov, Orenburg, whereas c-dialects prevail in Čuvašia (Chuvashia), Baškiria, and the regions of Gorkij and Uljanovsk. The Eastern/Siberian dialects are spoken in the southern Siberian regions of Kemerovo, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Tiumen’ and Tomsk. Modern standard Tatar has features of Central and Western/Mišarian dialects. Its lexicon and phonology show Central features, but the morphology is closer to the Western/Mišarian dialects.

The history of Tatar writing systems is a very complicated. Old Tatar used a system of writing based on the Arabic script, but it did not suit Tatar well, because Tatar had a number of sounds that were not represented in Arabic script, e.g. the front vowels [y], [œ] and [æ], the affricate, etc. Several attempts were made to modify Arabic script in order to make it suit Tatar better, but nevertheless the spelling rules remained too complex. In the middle 19th century a new writing system, based on Cyrillic, was introduced. It did not become widely accepted, and was mostly used by the religious minority of Christian Tatars. In 1927 it was decided to create a writing system based on modified Latin script. Additional symbols were created for the sounds which had no corresponding letters in Latin scriptThe later version of Latin script was used until 1939, when a new script, based on modified Cyrillic alphabet, was adopted. This alphabet contained all the symbols of the standard Russian Cyrillic alphabet and several additional symbols. In the beginning of the 21st century the government of Tatarstan decided to switch back to Latin script. Once again, a number of different systems of transliteration of Tatar words emerged (e.g. based on Turkish, eastern European, English spelling rules, etc.), but the standard official version has borrowed from everywhere.

Tatar has 27 consonants (some scholars assume fewer, but they do not include allophones), 3 affricates, and 12 monophthongs (with allophones). Some scholars also distinguish diphthongs for Tatar, but the common opinion is that they are clusters of the type “vowel + glide”, or “glide + vowel”. It is generally assumed that Tatar vowels do not have the distinction of length, but the vowels /a, ə, ıi, ü, u/ are relatively longer than /o, ө, ı, e/. Typically for a Turkic language, Tatar has vowel harmony. The stress usually falls on the last syllable, except in the most recent loanwords, in which it preserves its original place. Tatar is an agglutinative language, and has a large number of suffixes which are used for inflection and derivation. The noun has the categories of case, number, definiteness, person and possession. The category of possession expresses belonging and is closely connected to the category of person. Nouns can be easily derived from other nouns, verbs, and various other parts of speech with the help of derivational suffixes. Compound nouns are very common in Tatar, and there exist several types; compounds, the members of which undergo modification; compounds, the second members of which resemble the first members, and have no meaning of their own ‘all sorts of boys’, etc. The verbs have the categories of voice, aspect, mood, tense, person, number, evidentiality and perfectiveness. There is a number of compound tenses in Tatar. The past tense has three sub-types: definite, progressive and frequentative. The categories of evidentiality and perfectiveness are not morphological, but rather syntactic, and their existence in Tatar is somewhat disputed. The word order in Tatar is SOV. Tatar has a large number of loanwords, most of which come from Russian, cf. stakan ‘glass’, vraç ‘doctor, physician’, etc. There is also a number of Arabic, Persian, and several Mongolian loanwords in Tatar.

Tatar is one of the two official languages of Tatarstan, along with Russian. Primary and secondary education in Tatarstan is available in both Tatar and Russian, but schools with Russian as the medium of education are more numerous, especially in urban areas. Higher education is conducted mostly in Russian. The language of mass media is predominantly Russian, although several newspapers and journals are available in Tatar. There are 4 radio stations that broadcast in Tatar. In urban areas Russian is considered more prestigious, and also speakers of Tatar often prefer to communicate in Russian. A high percentage of young urban Tatars is more competent in Russian than Tatar. In rural areas Tatar is much more widely spoken. The status of Tatar in Tatarstan is being strengthened through promotion of the language, introduction of a Latin-based alphabet, purifying the Tatar lexicon and grammar of Russicisms.

The question about the history of Tatar people and their language is still a matter of debate. The homeland of Turkic people is usually thought to have been the area to the south and southeast of Baikal lake (Selenga river basin) and northern Mongolia (Orkhon river basin), but many Turkic tribes left that area at an early period. According to historical sources, as early as the 9th century Turkic tribes (e.g., Bulgars) already lived in southern Russia, to the north and northeast of Caspian sea, occupying the center of Volga and Kama basins. Bulgars were followed by other Turkic tribes, such as Kipčaks, Pečenegs, Khazars, etc., which quickly filled the southern regions of Russia (central and southern Volga regions, Caspian and Aral areas, northern Caucasus). According to one theory, the Tatar nation developed out of the mixed Bulgar and Kipčak population in Volga-Kama region. The scholars which accept this theory, consider Tatar the result of amalgamation of Old Bulgar and Old Kipčak dialects. The word “Tatar” is sometimes considered to be of Mongolian, not Turkic, origin. The oldest written monuments in Tatar date back to the 13th century. The most prominent of them is a lengthy poem “Qissa-i Yūsuf”, created by Qul ‘Alī (Kol Ğali) in the beginning of the 13th century. The language of this poem includes both Bulgar and Kipčak elements, and is generally defined as “Tatar” (more precisely, Old Tatar). The poem “Qissa-i Yūsuf” has marked the beginning of Tatar literature, and had a great influence on the formation of standard Tatar. Tatar literature and culture flourished during the Golden Horde (early 13th c. to middle 15th c.) and the following Kazan’ Khanate eras (middle 15th c. to middle 16th c.) until 1552 when Ivan the Terrible conquered the Tatars, and Kazan’ Khanate became a part of Russia. During the era of Russian rule, Tatar culture underwent a decline, and was influenced by Russian culture. National Tatar renaissance started in late 20th century, and is continuing to the present.

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