From Sogdian to Persian to Sart to Tajik & Uzbek: The Reformulation of Linguistic and Political Identity in Central Asia
(Many thanks to Asya Pereltsvaig for her assistance with this post)
The Turkic-Persian historical synthesis found in Iranian Azerbaijan (discussed in the previous post) extends well beyond Iran’s borders. Through much of Central Asia, the dominant cultural framework is perhaps best described as a hybrid formation. In a fascinating book, Robert Canfield and his colleagues go so far as to designate a vast zone in central, southern, and southwestern Asia as “Turko-Persia.” As the Wikipedia describes the concept: “The composite Turko-Persian tradition … was Persianate in that it was centered on a lettered tradition of Iranian origin; it was Turkic insofar as it was for many generations patronized by rulers of Turkic background.” In the modern era, however, national governments have made great efforts to divide “Persians” from “Turks” across the region, creating the modern Tajik and Uzbek nationalities in the process.
Turkic and Persian traditions have long been deeply intertwined in a region once known as Sogdiana, centered on the Zeravshan Valley of what is now eastern Uzbekistan. Sogdiana has played an important role in world history for millennia. Fertile and well-watered alluvial fans along the foot of the Pamir Mountains provided the agricultural foundation for an urban civilization stretching back almost 3,000 years. The Sogdians were renowned merchants, plying the routes of the so-called Silk Road that linked China to western Asia. In the process, they transmitted a number of religious practices and cultural ideals across much of Eurasia, including those associated with Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity, Mahayana Buddhism, and Manichaeism. After the Muslim conquest in the late 600s, the Sogdians gradually deserted their pluralistic religious heritage in favor of Islam. They also abandoned their own language, which belonged to the Eastern branch of the Middle Iranian grouping, in favor of a language from the Western branch that eventually became what is known today as Persian/Farsi (although a dialect of “neo-Sogdian” is still spoken by the Yaghnobi people, some 12,500 strong, of Tajikistan). Despite the loss of their distinctive ethnic identity, the Sogdians’ descendents continued to be an important mercantile people, noted for the wealth and beauty of their cities, particularly Samarkand and Bukhara. With the decline of the Abbasid Caliphate in the early 800s, a powerful and explicitly Persian state, the Samanid Empire (or Samani Dynasty), arose in the eastern Persian lands, with its capital in Bukhara. The Samanids made a concerted and largely successful effort to convert the Turkic-speaking nomads living to their north to Islam.
With the downfall of the Samanid Empire in 999 CE, Sogdiana came under the political domination of these same Turkic-speaking peoples. Over time, significant numbers of Turkic speakers settled in the region, intermarrying broadly within the local population. As a result, their language spread. But as it did, it was molded by the pre-existing Persian substratum, gaining a large number of Persian words and expressions; several of the resulting dialects even lost the distinctive “vowel harmony” that characterizes Turkic and, more broadly, Altaic languages. But the spread of Turkic speech did not result in the disappearance of Persian (or Tajik, in Turkic parlance). Instead, linguistic duality came to characterize much of the region. At the beginning of the 20th century, Persian/Tajik served as the main language of Bukhara and Samarkand, as the region’s lingua franca, and as the chief vehicle for administration and literature. In many of the smaller towns and farming communities, however, “Persianified” (or “Iranized”) Turkic dialects prevailed.
In a social environment in which bilingualism was common, the distinction between those who spoke Persian and those who spoke a Turkic language was generally of little significance. What mattered more was mode of life. The main distinction here was that between settled people, whether city-dwellers or farmers, and pastoral nomads. Those with a sedentary lifestyle were generally called “Sarts,” both by outsiders and themselves, regardless of their mother tongue. In contrast were the Turkic peoples who largely retained a pastoral way of life, most notably the Kazakhs, Kirghiz, and Turkmen. Included in this group were the original Uzbeks, a group of historically nomadic people, ultimately of Mongol origin, who had forged a powerful state the 1500s, the Shaybanid—or Uzbek—Khanate. The relatively non-Persianified Uzbek language of this group (known as Kipchak Uzbek) was, and is, much more closely related to Kazakh and Kyrgyz than it is to the Turkic dialects of the settled Sarts (which are most closely related to Uyghur in northwestern China).
In the 1920s, ethnic affiliations were transformed by official decree across was then became Soviet Central Asia. Following Lenin’s nationality policy, certain groups were elevated to national status, affording them a measure of cultural autonomy within their own Soviet republics. After lengthy deliberation, Soviet cultural engineers decided that “Sart” was a derogative term that had no linguistic content and thus did not denote a real ethnic group . As a result, they split the Sarts into two nationalities, each of which received its own republic. Those who primarily spoke Persian were deemed Tajiks, while those who spoke Persian-influenced Turkic dialects were placed in the Uzbek category, despite the fact they bore little relationship to the people who already carried that name. The new standardized Uzbek language that resulted does not even fall in the same linguistic sub-family as the original (Kipchak) Uzbek language, as the former is placed in the Southeastern (or Eastern, or Uyghur) group, the latter in Northwestern, or Kipchak, branch. (And if that were not enough complexity, a third dialect of “Uzbek”, Oghuz Uzbek, falls into yet a different division, the Southwestern branch of the Turkic language family.) The linguistic terminology used today does not clarify the issue, as the old “Kipchak Uzbek” tongue is now classified merely as a minor dialect of “Uzbek.” Even the linguistically rigorous Ethnologue uses this classification scheme. Yet it makes little sense from a strictly logical point of view: how can two dialects of the same language simultaneously belong to different branches of their larger linguistic family? Political expedience, it seems, can trump linguistic realities.
The artificially constructed distinction between Uzbek and Tajik continues to generate political problems in the former Soviet Central Asia, as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post.