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