Mutual Intelligibility Among the Turkic Languages

Turkic is a large family of about 40 languages stretching from Turkey all the way to China. Most of the languages are pretty close, and it’s often been said that they are all mutually intelligible, and that you can go from Turkey all the way to the Yakut region of Siberia and be understood the whole way.

This is certainly not the case, although there is something to it. That is because the languages, while generally not above 90% mutually intelligible which is the requirement to be dialects, do have varying degrees of intelligibility. That is, there is some intelligibility between most of the Turkic languages but generally below 90%.

The truth is that mutual intelligibility in Turkic is much less than proclaimed.

Azeri is spoken in Azerbaijan. Turkish and Azeri are often said to be completely mutually intelligible, but this is not true, though the situation is interesting. The two are not mutually intelligible. The far eastern dialects of Turkish are closer to Azeri than to Turkish. Turkish has an average of 69% intelligibility with Azeri calculated via three separate studies. After a few weeks of close contact, they can often communicate pretty well. Written intelligibility is much higher and Turks may have up to 95% intelligiblity of written Azeri.

Intelligibility is increasing now now due to increased contact. Nowadays due to exposure to Turkish TV, most Azeri speakers can speak Turkish well, and due to exposure to Azeri TV, Turks understand a lot more Azeri than they used to.

Kazakh and Kirghiz are also close, enough to be one language, with intelligibility over 90%. In addition, they have been growing closer recently. Kazakh is spoken in Kazakhstan, and Kirghiz is spoken in Kyrgyzstan.

Tatar and Bashkir are even closer than Kazakh and Kirghiz and they are best seen as a single language, with intelligibility of over 90%.

Uzbek and Uyghur are fairly close, but they are still probably only 65-70% intelligible. Uzbek is spoken in Uzbekistan, and Uighur is spoken Xinjiang Province, China.

Uzbek and Kazakh are not mutually intelligible, but there is an intelligible dialect between them.

Tofa and Tuvan are not mutually intelligible, but there are intelligible dialects linking them. Both are spoken in Russia in the same region as Altai below.

The truth is that Altai and Uzbek are not even intelligible within themselves.

Altai is spoken in the Altai region of Russia where China, Russia and Mongolia all come together. Altai is split into North Altai and South Altai, separate languages.

Uzbek is split into North Uzbek and South Uzbek, separate languages.

Azeri is split into North Azeri and South Azeri, although the two are mutually intelligible, there are large differences in phonology, morphology, syntax and loan words. Nevertheless, they are very mutually intelligible, with intelligibility at 98%. The split was probably done for political reasons, as North Azeri is the official language of Azerbaijan and South Azeri is a language spoken in Northwest Iran.

The Oghuz languages are said to be fully mutually intelligible, but that’s not really the case. The question of the intelligibility of Turkmen with Azeri and Turkish is controversial, as some sources say that they are mostly mutually intelligible. Intelligibility testing is warranted.

Turkish has uncertain intelligibility with Crimean Tatar. Crimean Tatar speakers say that Turks cannot understand their language (Dokuzlar 2010). However, Turkish speakers say that Turks and Crimean Tatar speakers can converse without too many problems. However, while mutual intelligibility is high, it is probably under 70%. Intelligibility testing is warranted. One problem is that Southern Crimean Tatar is a simply a dialect of Turkish, while Central and Northern Crimean Tatar are part of a separate language from Turkish.

Turkish has high, but not full, intelligiblity of Karaim. Turkish intelligibility of Karaim may be 65-70%. Intelligibility testing is warranted.

The intelligibility of Turkish with South Azeri may be quite high, on the order of 90% (however, some South Azeri speakers say that while they can understand North Azeri just fine, they have a hard time understanding Turkish, which calls the 90% figure into question), higher than between Turkish and North Azeri, which itself is ~70%. Intelligiblity between Turkish and South Azeri is the highest between Turkish and any other language.

The intelligibility of Turkish and Khorasani Turkic is probably around 40%.

Practically speaking, Turkish has low intelligibility with Kazakh (Kipchak Branch), Uyghur and Uzbek (Uyghuric branch) and Khakas (Siberian branch). Turkish-Kazakh intelligibility is surely less than 40%. There is also low intelligibility between Turkish and Bashkir, Nogay, Kyrghyz and Tatar (Kipchak Branch). Turkish has very low written intelligibility of Tatar (~5%) and Kazakh (0%).

Turkic has effectively 0% intelligibility with Yakut or Sakha.

The intelligibility of Turkish with the Central Asian Turkic languages like Uzbek, Kazakh, Kyrghyz and Turkmen is much exaggerated.

Speakers of these languages who went to study in Turkey said they had problems with the Turkish language. It’s true that Turkish TV is not much watched in the Central Asian Turkic nations, but the main reason for that is that Central Asian Turkic speakers can’t understand it. They can’t even understand the simplified Turkish used in these broadcasts. After the fall of the USSR, people from these new nations visited Turkey, but they had to bring interpreters with them to communicate.

In truth, the whole notion of the mutual intelligibility of all Turkish is a pan-Turkic conceit. Pan-Turkism is a noxious form of ultranationalism headquartered in Turkey. It says that all speakers of Turkic languages are part of a Greater Turkey and often uses ominous irredentist language implying that Turkey is going to conquer all the Turkic lands and take them back.

The Pan-Turkics have a snide attitude towards other Turkic speakers, insisting that they all speak dialects of Turkish and not separate languages. This snideness is resented by speakers of other Turkic tongues.

A number of Turkic languages are nothing more than dialects and not full languages.

Ukrainian Urum is a dialect of Crimean Tatar, and Georgian Urum is a dialect of Turkish. Ukrainian Urum is spoken in SE Ukraine, and Crimean Tatar is spoken on the Crimean Peninsula.

Salchuq is an Azeri dialect. It is spoken in Iran.

However, Qashqai, also spoken in Iran, often thought to be an Azeri dialect, is in fact a separate but closely related language with 75-80% intelligibility of South Azeri.

Gagauz has high intelligibility with Turkish. However, Bulgarians say that when Turks visit the Balkan Gaguaz communities in Bulgaria, the two groups have a hard time understanding each other. SIL says that not only Gagauz but also Balkan Gagauz Turkish are separate languages, but one wonders what criteria they are using to split them. The Gagauz are Christians living in Moldavia who strangely enough speak a Turkish language with many Christian Slavic loanwords. The Balkan Gagauz Turks live in Bulgaria, far west Turkey, Greece and Macedonia, but most of them live in Bulgaria.

Kumyk is said to be said to be intelligible with Azeri, which would make it a dialect of Azeri. However, this assertion is yet unproven, so for now, Kumyk should remain a separate language. Kalmyk is spoken in Dagestan.

Karakalpak is so close to Kazakh, with 98% intelligibility, that it is a dialect of Kazakh. Karakalpak is spoken in Western Uzbekistan.

Chulym and Shor are often thought to be dialects of a single language. Not only is this not true, but Shor itself is two separate languages – Mrass Shor and Kondoma Shor – and Chulym is also two separate languages – Lower Chulym and Chulym. Chulym and Shor are spoken north of the Altai Mountains in the Ob River Basin near the city of Novokuznetsk.

Further research regarding the intelligibility of these languages is indicated.


Uygar Dokuzlar, Crimean Tatar speaker. April 2010. Personal communication.

If you think this website is valuable to you, please consider a contribution to support the continuation of the site.

Please follow and like us:
Tweet 20

129 thoughts on “Mutual Intelligibility Among the Turkic Languages”

  1. We have high intelligibility with Azer, surely higher than %90. Actually it is the same with almost all Oghuz languages, including Crimean Tatar which is highly influenced by Oghuz.

    1. I suppose I do not agree with that. I have talked to Turks who say they can only understand 50% of Azeri TV and Azeris who tell me that they can only understand 50% of Turkish TV. Furthermore, Crimean Tatars cannot even understand each other. There is now a separate language called Turkish Crimean Tatar which consists of Crimean Tatars who moved to Turkey a while back. Their Crimean Tatar is now full of Turkish and the Crimean Tatar they left behind is now full of Russian. The Turkish Crimean Tatars and the Crimean Crimean Tatars say they cannot really understand each other. Furthermore, many children of Turkish Crimean Tatar who never learned to speak the language but learned Turkish instead say that they cannot understand their parents when they speak Crimean Tatar.

      There is a dialect of Crimean Tatar called Southern Crimean Tatar which is merely a Turkish dialect and has full intelligibility with Turkish. However, Northern Crimean Tatar and the artificially created koine called Central Crimean Tatar cannot be readily understood by Crimean Tatars. Crimean Tatars regularly report that Turks have a hard time understanding them.

      Three separate intelligibility studies have been done with Azeri and Turkish. The results of these studies showed that Turks have 69% intelligiblity of Azeri, but of course this varies with the individual. Azeris say that Turks can often understand 80% of the Turkified Azeri used on Azeri TV, but that dialect is far from what is spoken on the street. Azeris say that the same Turks who say they can understand Azeri TV pretty well can only understand 30-40% of the typical Azeri spoken in the streets of Baku.

      Turks absolutely do not have full intelligiblity of all of Oghuz, and Crimean Tatar is not even Oghuz. Turks certainly cannot fully understand Qashqai, Afshar, and the three Khorosani Turkic languages. Turkish intelligiblity of Turkmen is low, estimated at 40%.

      Although I agree that Turks can understand some Oghuz languages such as Turkmen, Gaguaz and Georgian Urum which are really just dialects of Turkish. Nevertheless, intelligibility studies on these might be interesting because Balkan Gaguaz in Bulgaria say that Turks cannot understand them.

      Actually I would love to see intelligibility studies on all of Oghuz, not just Turkish and Azeri.

  2. My mother comes from a Yörük family in the Taurus Mountains and said she even understood Yakut, but the article says that there is zero intelligibility. She says she understands most of the Turkic languages fairly well, even Kazakh because her village and family spoke “Old Turkish.” To her, they are just speaking with different dialects and accents, not languages. The only language she had a hard time with was Chuvash. What’s up with that? Does my mom somehow know another Turkish language without knowing it?

  3. I want to say that we(most of Asian and Middleeasterner poeple) have a different perspective than European/American people. We tent to emphasize the similarities among us while Europeans still try to find differences among each other. The exaggeration about the mutual intelligibility among Turkic people is coming from that distinction. I observe similar tendencies among Arabs from totally different geographies. There is no strong Pan-Turkic idea among Turkish people of Turkey. We, as Anatolian Turks, love the people of Turkistan but we do not want to conquer it. I do not understand why you are so hostile and biased about this particular subject. Many people in Turkey accuses Enver Pasha for being too ‘stargazer’ because of his fruitless activities in Central Asia >
    Plus, Nationalist Parties receive not more than 25% of Turkish voters and those parties does not have any radical agenda towards Central Asian Turkic people.

    I think, South and North Italians, for example, feel less like a one same nation than Azerbaijan Turks and Anatolian Turks. I do not even talk about the current mess in Spain or UK. They are not ‘Azeri’ they are Turks 🙂 Persians called them Turks when they come by. The main reason that we are not the same nation is political issue. Cossacks were a Slavic nation speak a language different from Russian but they quickly became Russian when Russians penetrated into Caucasus. So if Ottoman Turks managed to keep Northern Azerbaijan after WWI, we would easily integrate like a one nation.

    Finally, I couldn’t see anything about the mutual intelligibility of Tatar/Bashkir languages and Kazak/Kırgız languages. I think they must have been quite close.

    1. Hello, the paper has recieved a massive update and will be published in the future in an academics linguistics book to be published out of Turkey.

      I spoke to Turkologists in Turkey about both the Tatar/Bashkir and the Kazakh-Kirghiz questions. My conclusion is that there are two languages in this group, one called something like Tatar-Bashkir and the other called something like Kazakh-Kirghiz. These pairs are like Czech and Slovak, which honestly are a single language called Czechoslovak.

  4. These Turkeys should all go back to Siberia, and reconvert from Islam to Shamanism… They’ll be a much affable distant people we see on national geographic… instead of having to deal with their uppityness.

  5. Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923. Modern “Istanbul Turkish” was born in late 19th century. This is the Turkish language of Turkey. It uses revised versions of old Gokturk words and newly invented Turkish words. It has Arabic and Persian loanwords (decreasing) and French (Was Increasing in Ottoman era, stopped increasing in Turkey era). and English (Increasing) loanwords. Ottoman Turkish was another language which was the mixture of Arabic, Persian and Anatolian Turkish. That language is pretty much dead now. But it did not die instantly in 1923. Modern Turkish was born its ashes. Since 1876, “Istanbul Turkish” was born and evolved and became “less Ottoman Turkish influenced”. Simply, Arabic and Persian loanwords were removed majorly.

    I am a law student. Turkish jurisprudence (resolutions of courts) between 1923-1950 is overwhelmingly not understandable. I understand like %20 of what is written there. What I point is, Turkish had and still has a heavy evolution. I am pretty sure that both written and verbal intelligibility of 1923 Turkish and 2017 Turkish are lower than %50. Grammar structure is same, grammar structure was always same for more than 3000 years. What differs is vocabulary. Vocabulary is my point. 1923 Turkish was heavily influenced by Arabic and Persian (just like Azeri and Uzbekh).

    When I hear Azeri, it always reminds me of a Turkish with more (now uncommon but still existing) Arabic and Persian loanwords. I can also understand Arabic and Persian parts of an Uzbekh speech. What I want to say is, intelligibility of Azeri and Uzbekh were much higher in 1923.

    Take a person from Istanbul,1923. That person’s intelligibility of Azeri will be like %95-%99. As Turkish gets rid of more Arabic and Persian words, it becomes more distinct from Azeri.

    1. Hi Berke, I have in my notes here that the Omanli Turkish (apparentlhy Ottoman Turkish) still spoken in a certain part of Turkey is ~99% intelligible with Azeri. I could not believe it because it did not make sense to me as I know that Turkish is not fully intelligible with Azeri (intelligibility is 69%).

      But now it all makes so much sense. Thanks so much for this.

  6. I highly recommend that you read about the history of the Turkic People along with studying their language. Doing so shall help you to understand the reason why Turkish people feel that Turkey and “Turkish” is a part of a big Turkic geography stretching from East Asia to Europe. Migrating thousands of kilometers throughout centuries and still speak Turkish and have old Turkic traditions so far away from the mother land explain it well.

  7. I think this is the best answer I have ever seen. I agree mostly with the given numbers on that website but I have added my estimated numbers to it. So I guess the numbers given below are the best.

    As it was explained here:
    Which languages are mutually intelligible?

    Between Turkic Languages, there is mutual intelligibilty in varying degrees.
    Turkish-Azeri:……… 80-90 %
    Turkish-Turkmen:… 50-60 %
    Turkish-Uighur:……..30-40 %
    Turkish-Uzbek:………30-40 %
    Turkish-Kazakh:…….20-30 %
    Turkish-Kyrgyz:……..20-30 %
    Kazakh-Kyrgyz:……..70-80 %
    Kazakh-Uzbek:………60-70 %
    Kazakh-Uighur:………50-60 %
    Kazakh-Turkmen:……40-50 %
    Uzbek-Uighur:………..70-80 %

    Even if there is a low degree of mutual intellibility between some Turkic Languages, they still can have a basic conversation in everday-life situations, such as buying, selling, asking way, speaking about weather, asking for help, emergency situations, hospital, pharmacy, ordering a meal at a restaurant, buying ticket and so other basic daily life situations. But they should speak slowly and they should use short sentences.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)