While studying Uzbek in Tajikistan, I recently learned a new favorite proverb: “Ko’ngiz bolasini ham oppog’im deydi.” The beetle also says ‘my little snow white’ to its child. The implication being that all people and animals as well, care deeply for their offspring (and whisper sweet nothings to them). Indeed studying a minority language in Dushanbe has provided me with some new perspectives on the differences between “nationalities” in Central Asia, as well as allowing me to see the common threads of shared knowledge and experience that bind distinct ethnolinguistic groups.
For starters, my first surprise was on the linguistic similarities between Uzbek and Tajik. Although technically from entirely unrelated language families (Indo-European versus Turkic/Altaic), the amount of shared vocabulary between the two is astounding. One local Uzbek woman put the number of shared vocabulary at 40%, though the official statistic would likely vary depending on which dialect of Tajik or Uzbek were being compared. Not only do the languages have lexical commonalities, but the grammars themselves have influenced one another. Uzbek has largely lost its vowel harmony due to contact with Persian, while dialects of Tajik have several Turkic influences, such as the placement of prepositions after nouns rather than before (which resembles the Uzbek case system).
While such details are fascinating to linguistics, as someone who studies linguistic anthropology, we try to look at the larger picture of how languages are embedded in their social contexts. What are the lived experiences of Uzbeks as a minority in Tajkistan? Having come from living in southern Kyrgyzstan where the subject of Uzbek language and ethnic identity has been hotly contested since violence broke out there in the summer of 2010, for me it was a sharp contrast to see just how well Tajks and Uzbeks seem to get along in Tajikistan. Ethnic stereotypes, rampant throughout the former Soviet Union, continue to persist. Yet they are often in direct contrast to stereotypes I found in Osh. One person in Dushanbe mentioned for instance that Tajiks are hard-working, but Uzbeks are clever, whereas people in Osh have mentioned that Uzbeks are the hard-workers. Yet in sharp contrast to Osh, most people agree that the differences between Uzbeks and Tajiks are rather superficial (despite their distinct linguistic origins), while the cultural rift between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks is reportedly greater (despite their similar Turkic origins).
Regardless of the differences, intermixing of peoples and languages is omnipresent. Tajiks and Uzbeks can claim the same foods and fabric designs. Although facial feature stereotypes do exist (with Tajiks being famous for their thick eyebrows and Uzbeks for their mixture of Turco-Mongolian features), one would be hard pressed to tell definitively who is who. Indeed most Tajiks and Uzbeks, like Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Osh, have grandparents of a different ethnic group. That is not to say that Tajikistan, unlike Kyrgyzstan, has embraced a multicultural model that celebrates all citizens equally, regardless of their ethnic origins. Indeed the Soviet reification of nationalities in the 1920’s combined with clear favoritism toward the “titular nation” (i.e. Tajiks in Tajikistan, Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan) has endured at full force since the Soviet Union’s collapse more than twenty years ago. Uzbeks in Tajikistan, though less dramatically as in Kyrgyzstan, still assert that their opportunities for advancement are limited by their ethnicity. However, after civil war devastated this country in the 1990s, people here are grateful for peace and reluctant to rock any boats. Fortunately despite some lingering anxieties, the essential core of shared yearnings for opportunity, for better lives for the next generation, remain of utmost importance to all.
Another crucial interethnic commonality: plov is the perfect food.
By: Emily Canning
Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program
Term: Summer 2012