Fun With Languages

by Nathan Hamm on 11/30/2004 · 4 comments

Those following the protests in Ukraine have undoubtedly heard that the protests are centered on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square.

One of the Uzbek words that I remember quite well is maidon (square, as in “Mustaqillik Maidoni bekati” — Independence Square station — this phrase is kind of an inside joke). It makes total sense to me that Ukrainian would be influenced by Turkic languages, but I can find very little on the topic.

However, here’s a compact article on the Karaim, a very small Turkic group in Ukraine and Lithuania (more here). The interesting thing about them is that they are kind of, but kind of not, Jewish.

Here’s a list of Turkish and Ukrainian words that is maybe a little deceptive. Some of the words definitely are Turkic words adopted into Ukrainian while others that look or are similar for different reasons.

Urum is a Turkic language similar to Crimean Tatar in Ukraine that is spoken by “Greeks.” There are 45,000 in Donetsk and many have or are planning to leave for Greece. An example of their writing can be seen here and a bit on their history here.

All of these sources of information mention the Urum being of Greek origin, but they also mention that “Urum” was a common Ottoman designation for Greeks and Christians. Now, at risk of perhaps upsetting any Greek readers I may have, I am curious as to whether or not the Urum are in fact Greeks.

Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong?, which I just finished, (see below) mentions a swap of populations between Greece and Turkey in the early 20th Century. The convention sent Greek Orthodox Christians to Greece and Muslims to Turkey without regard to their ethnic identity or language. Lewis mentions a group of “Greek” Christians who spoke Turkish (but used the Greek alphabet if I recall) that were part of the transfer. Similarly, Greek-speaking Muslim “Turks” (who, again, I think used the Turco-Arabic alphabet) were transfered.

So, I can’t help but wonder if the Urum are “Greek” or Greek. Either would make sense (after all, there are these fellows in Afghanistan), but I can’t help but get myself mired in speculation.

Anyway, this started out more about Turkic influence on Ukrainian, so if anyone has any good sources on this, let me know.

UPDATE: Actually, it’s Lewis’s The Crisis of Islam, which I am reading now. And, yes, the Turkish-speaking Christians used the Greek alphabet while the Greek-speaking Muslims used the Turco-Arabic one. Unfortunately, Lewis isn’t clear about whether or not the Christians, for example, were ethnic Greeks who happened to speak Turkish. He is trying to make the point that identity came in two forms, what state you were a subject of and what faith you professed.

If anyone knows more about whether or not a group like the Urum are in fact what we would consider ethnic Greeks, let me know.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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upyernoz December 4, 2004 at 10:11 am

why did it take me all week to find this one?

i also am facinated with language but don’t know enough to comment on this particular issue. but i do have one question re: the maidan/maidon issue:

how do you know that the uzbek word is not of slavic derivation? you seem to assume that because its in ukrainian and uzbek, it must have turkic origins. but i’m sure uzbek is influenced by slavic languages just as much as ukrainian is with turkic ones. considering how turkic groups interacted a lot with proto-russians in what is now SW russia and the ukraine, it’s not surprising if eastern slavic languages have a lot of turkic roots. but the subsequent history–russian domination of turkic areas–i would guess would cause a lot of slavic words to creep into turkic languages under russian domination.

again, this is just supposition. i don’t know any slavic or turkic languages (except for the handful or turkish and uzbek i picked up traveling in turkey and uzbekistan), so i can’t really say.

i do know, however, that “mustaqillik” is arabic.

Nathan Hamm December 4, 2004 at 12:10 pm

I can’t find my Altaic root words link right now…

Darn. Anyway, the Russian word for a city square is ploschad’, and that Turkish-Ukrainian comparison list shows that Ukrainian has an alternative to maidan, ploshcha. Also, Turkish uses the word meydan, and there’s been little Russian influence on that language.

Turkic languages do have tons of loaners though. If I remember correctly, days of the week are Persian, many concepts are Arabic (like mustaqillik), and many technical words, terms for modern contraptions, and names for non-native produce are Russian (or from wherever the Russians got their words). Uzbeks, at least, sometimes substitute Russian when they have their own terms if the Russian one is shorter or simpler. There is some unbelievable word for television that the government tried to introduce that really didn’t take. It basically would have translated to “the window through which the world is seen” if I recall.

upyernoz December 4, 2004 at 5:22 pm

during my brief visit to uzbekistan as a (sorta) arabic speaker, but not a russian or uzbek speaker, the arabic words really jumped out at me. the major arabic influence on uzbek seemed to be words related to travel (the directions of the compass in uzbek, for example, at exactly the same as arabic). on the other hand, maybe i only noticed them because i was traveling

Nathan Hamm December 4, 2004 at 7:37 pm

Yep, concepts. There was a linguistics grad in our peace corps group who told me about one way you can tell Uzbek is a fairly simple language is that it has very few words for colors, and of those that it does have, only a few are unconnected to something in the natural world. The word for gray means “ash-colored” and the word for brown means “liver-colored” for example.

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