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Number of Speakers: Approximately 7.5 million

Key Dialects: Yomut, Teke, Salir, Sarik, Goklen, Arsari, Chowdur

Geographical Center: Turkmenistan

Turkmen is the official language of the Republic of Turkmenistan. Of the approximately 7.5 million speakers, the majority, a little over 3.4 million, lives in Turkmenistan. Speakers also live in Iran (2,000,000), Afghanistan (1,500,000), and to a lesser extent in Turkey, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, the USA, and Germany. So-called "Turkmen" in Syria and Jordan are Azerbaijani speakers; also "Turkmen" in Tibet may speak a different but related Turkic langauge.

Turkmen is a member of the Southern Turkic (or Oghuz, also Southwestern) group of languages which also includes Azerbaijani, Crimean Tartar, Turkish, and other less well-known languages. Southern Turkic is a subgroup of Common Turkic which also includes Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uighur, Uzbek, and others. All of the Turkic languages are closely related and mutual intelligibility is high.

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.

Turkmen is a general cover term which refers to a continuum of numerous dialects which differ in equally numerous ways both phonologically and morphologically. They can be broken into two general groups: the major or central dialects and others on the periphery. The following are generally regarded as major: Yomut, Teke, Salir, Sarik, Goklen, Arsari, and Chowdur. No consensus exists, however, on exactly how many major dialects should be recognized within Turkmen. For instance, while some scholars consider Salir and Sarik as major dialects (Hanser 1977), others consider them as variants of Teke (Dulling 1960).

Some scholars claim that the standard language is based on just one dialect, Yomut (see Grimes 1992 and Dulling 1960). Most linguists, however, acknowledge that Yomut and Teke are the two dialects whose contribution to the formation of the standard language since 1920 surpasses that of any other dialects (Hanser 1977).

Standard Turkmen has been written in a modified Cyrillic script since 1940. Prior to the introduction of the Cyrillic script two other scripts had been used. The first was the Arabic script. Very little was written in this script, however. The Unified Turkish Latin Alphabet (UTLA), which was based on the Roman alphabet, was introduced in 1929. It was very close to the Roman alphabet used in Turkey. In 1940, the Cyrillic script for Turkmen replaced the UTLA. Currently both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets are used.

Like all of the Turkic languages, Turkmen 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 five nominal cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, 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 Turkmen is a typical Turkic characteristic, but other orders are possible under certain discourse situations. As a SOV language where objects precede the verb, Turkmen has postpositions rather than prepositions, and relative clauses that precede the verb.

Turkmen has nine sets of short and long vowels, and twenty-three consonants plus two that function marginally. It has vowel harmony which is somewhat restricted compared to the system operating in other Turkic languages (whereby 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.)

Lexical influences include Arabic, Persian, and modern Russian loan words.

Turkmen was made the state language of the Republic of Turkmenistan in May of 1990. Turkmen (sometimes along with Russian) is used for administrative, judicial, and other official proceedings. Turkmen is the medium of instruction in the majority of the schools in Turkmenistan, but a few schools in the urban areas have some instruction in Russian. In 1988 more than three quarters of pupils in day schools studied at Turkmen medium schools. Until the early 1990's most institutions of higher learning were Russian language institutions, but recently there have been attempts to develop courses taught in Turkmen. In addition, special courses designed to teach Turkmen to adults are taught in the workplace.

The written language developed in the eighteenth century and was the medium for the remarkable poetic works of the eighteenth century. By 1926, about 91 percent of Turkmen speakers were literate in their own language. Linguistically, the Turkmen are among the least russified. In 1979, almost 99 percent of them claimed Turkmen as their native language compared to the 0.9 percent who claimed Russian.

Radio and television broadcasts are in Turkmen with some programs in Russian. There is also a range of publishing in Turkmen. English is slowly gaining some importance in the curriculum. It is considered the third state language after Turkmen and Russian.

Turkic-speaking groups had entered the southwestern region of Central Asia by the fifth and sixth centuries, gradually changing it from an Iranian-speaking to a Turkic-speaking area. The decisive influx came when Oghuz tribes (originally from Mongolia) migrated into the area between the Urals and the Aral sea in the tenth century. During this same period the term Turkmen was first used to refer to these people. By the fourteenth and fifteenth century the Oghuz tribes in Turkmenistan had coalesced to the point that they could be regarded as a single people. Although they shared common traditions and the same language, they had strong divisions among them. Subnational and clan consciousness still predominates in Turkmenistan where Turkmen still divide themselves by origin. The Turkmenistan Republic was founded on October 27, 1924.

Akiner, S. 1986. Islamic Peoples of the Soviet Union. London: KPI.

Bennigsen, A., and S. E. Wimbush. 1985. Muslims of the Soviet Empire: A Guide. London: C. Hurst.

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

Dulling, G. K. 1960. An Introduction to the Turkmen Language: A Brief Summary of the Grammar of the Turkmen Language with Selected Extracts in Prose and Verse. Oxford, UK: Central Asian Research Centre, in association with St. Anthony's College (Oxford) Soviet Affairs Study Group.

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

Hanser, O. 1977. Turkmen Manual: Descriptive Grammar of Contemporary Literary Turkmen. Vienna, Austria: Verlag des Verbandes der Wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft Oesterraichs.

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

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

Voegelin, C. F. and F. M. Voegelin. 1977. Classification and Index of the World's Languages. New York: Elsevier North Holland.

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