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From Sogdian to Persian to Sart to Tajik & Uzbek: The Reformulation of Linguistic and Political Identity in Central Asia

Submitted by on November 28, 2011 – 9:11 pm 5 Comments |  
(Many thanks to Asya Pereltsvaig for her assistance with this post)

Wikipedia map of Ancient SogdianaThe 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.
Wikipedia Map of Bactria, with Sogdiana addedTurkic 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.
Map of Samanid Empire 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.
Thomas Lessman's Map of 1500, Showing Uzbek KhanateIn 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).
Wikipedia Maps of Three Turkic Language Sunfamilies 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.

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  • Thanks for the link to my blog, Martin! As you probably know, Johanna Nichols of the UC Berkeley claims that this area of Sogdiana is also the cradle of the Indo-European language family (Nichols 1997, 1999) — but that was long before the events you describe here (4th or 5th millenium BCE), and this hypothesis remains highly controversial… But it’s an interesting if under-discussed place!  

    • Thanks, Asya, I was not aware of that hypothesis.  Sounds interesting!

  • To make matters worse, there is a nationality and language in Xinjiang province, China, that is officially called “Tajik”, but the people are not closely related to the Tajiks of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, nor do they speak the Tajik language.  Their language, also called Sarikoli, is more closely related to Pashto than to Persian/Dari/Tajik; like Pashto, it belongs to the Southeast branch of the Iranian languages.

  • Doctortiter

    Neither the Uzbek or Tajik identities are false. Both derive from pre-Russian/pre-Soviet influences. The Tajiks are simply East Persians, i.e. Persians who fled Iran after it was conquered by Muslim Arabs in the 600s AD. Uzbeks, on the other hand, were the nation that once ruled northern Central Asia (i.e. modern-day Kazakhstan), before taking advantage of the failed states south to their lands and beginning to migrate there. Uzbekistan today is the spiritual successor to the Emirate of Bukhara. 

    As for Turko-Persian interaction in Central Asia, I can’t say it’s been anything positive, more than it was simply something that both Turkic and Iranian speaking peoples had to “put up with”. They were forced to tolerate each other in some circumstances, not out of love or inherent cooperation, but purely because it was in neither interests of both linguistic groups to start trouble with one-another… Not when they had economic problems of their own. 

    Central Asia was at one point in time the homeland of Iranian speaking peoples, and speakers of other Indo-European language groups, including Indo-Aryan. 

    Turkic and Mongolic penetration only occurred after the advent of Islam and the disastrous attempt by Arab rulers to raid into Mongolian lands, Islamize Turkic-speaking slaves and enroll them into their armies. Once Arab dominion disintegrated, highly skilled Turkic warriors and generals took it to their opportunity to establish their own powerful military-states in Central Asia. And hence commenced an orgy of bloodshed, violence and gradual annihilation of Iranian-speaking people from Central Asia. 

    Turkic rulers plundered the riches of Persian cities almost for sport, knowing the booty that exists in those cities and the benefits to which it gave them for bribery, wealth and therefore further fuel to drive their conquests. 

    While some Turkic-ruled states patronized Persian heritage, and were hence known as Persianate/Persian-speaking Empires (e.g. Seljuk Empire and Khawarezmid and Timurid Empires), it is also without a doubt that many other Turkic-ruled states did more harm to Iranian languages and peoples than they did good, particularly the Turkic entities that formed part of the Mongol umbrella in Genghis Khan and post-Genghis years. 

    Turkification was therefore not a sign of coexistence but a sign of one nation’s overwhelming domination and another nation’s submission to the sword.

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  • Ice-T

    Your picture of pre-Islamic Sogdiana could use a lot of nuance–there’s a major Turkic presence in the region (and a ton of Turkic-Sogdian mixing, genetically, linguistically, etc.) from the middle of the sixth century. This region was extremely prosperous and successful for a long time, and this involved a great deal of collaboration between Turks and the “Iranian” Sogdians (as well as a ton of mixing between the two peoples–genetically, linguistically, etc.). One major historical figure whose background is telling is the Turco-Sogdian general An Lushan, who more or less conquered China in the mid-8th century. Read Sogdian Traders by Etienne de La Vassière, especially the portion on “the Turco-Sogdian Milieux.”