The language of Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan, located in Central Asia, is a land of several native languages, each of which help to tell the story of the country, its culture and its history, its economic performance, and, potentially, its future.

The official state language is Uzbek, a Turkic language derived from Chagatai. To trace the roots of Modern Uzbek is to explore the cultural legacy of the Timurids, the dynasty of Tamerlane, and their impact on the region. A Persianate Turco-Mongol warlord, Tamerlane, who was bent on the reconstruction of the empire of Genghis Khan spent his life conquering an empire spanning from Delhi to Aleppo. As his wealth grew, so did the beauty of his home region, today’s Uzbekistan, which saw an influx of artistic and artisanal talent from throughout the empire. He made the town of his birth, Shakhrisabz, his second city, and another Uzbek city, Samarkand, his capital. He and his successors beautified them both, particularly Samarkand, which came to be referred to as both ”the garden of the soul” and “the face of the earth.”

It was in this period of Timurid rule that the Ak-Sarai Palace and Reghistan Mosque were built, sites of architectural wonder that combined influences from throughout the empire to contribute to the creation of a particularly Uzbek architectural style. The dynasty helped define Uzbekistan culturally, and is responsible for a clear material and lingual legacy. The Uzbek language has reflected both their Persian influence, present in the longtime use of the Nastaʿlīq script, and Turkic roots, deriving from the Turkic language of Chagatai native to the Timurid dynasty. Likewise, the Timurid creations in Samarkand and Shakhrisabz have been recognised by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, preserved and acknowledged as masterpieces of cultural creativity.

The second language of the country is Russian, which is spoken by roughly a third of the population. Its prevalence is a reflection of the influence the Russian state has exerted on the country over the past three centuries, in the forms of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation. Incorporated into the Russian Empire as part of Russian Turkestan, in 1924 the Soviet Union created the political entity now known as Uzbekistan in the form of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. This period saw an increase in the use of Russian, in part due to a wave of Russian immigrants and the use of Russian as an official language of government. Despite Uzbek independence in 1991, and the promotion of Uzbek as the sole official language, the language has remained popular amongst business-people, intellectuals, and the ethnically Russian population. Uzbekistan continues to have close economic and cultural ties with Russia, being a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States with 25,000 Uzbek students currently studying in Russia.  

English is the third language and has been growing in popularity recently, part of a turn towards the West by new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Uzbekistan is in the midst of liberalising reforms, moving away from a public-sector economy towards a more market-based private-sector economy. The program is working, with the World Bank estimating 6% GDP growth by 2021, and part of the mission, along with membership in the WTO, is embracing the English language. Widely used internationally as a language of business, English is seen as a way to integrate into this new market. This push towards English also connects the country with its extensive diaspora, based heavily in the United States. A significant portion of this population is based in Philadelphia, with over 56,000 Uzbeks having emigrated to the country since 1996. A portion of these have made the Northeast neighborhood of Bustleton home, creating a vibrant Uzbek community in the United States. Bustleton is home to several Uzbek restaurants, serving large plates of plov, the national dish of Uzbekistan, along with many other Uzbek delicacies. 

Uzbekistan sits at a lingual crossroads. It feels influences from the South in the form of Iran, North in the form of Russia, West in the form of America, and East in the form of Mongolia. This diversity provides it unique opportunities, allowing Uzbekistan to reap the economic benefits of turning to the West while being able to maintain their rich cultural ties with the East. Uzbekistan sits at the middle of a modern silk road, and is once again reaping the benefits. 


Article written by Scott Blum-Woodland on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association