The Turkic Languages: a Guidebook to Eurasia? - Center for Middle ...

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Winter 2015

University of Chicago

Center for Middle Eastern Studies

A United States Department of Education National Resource Center for the Study of North Africa, Western Asia, Central Asia, and the Islamic World

The Turkic Languages: a Guidebook to Eurasia? Kağan Arık More than 50 geoglyphs were recently discovered in northern Kazakhstan, consisting of geometric shapes, which were created by stacking stones, or by sculpting the ground, and ranging from 90 to 400 meters in size. Archeologists from Kostanay University, Kazakhstan, and Vilnius University, Lithuania, are examining the symbols using groundpenetrating radar, aerial photography, and carbon dating. Remnants of ancient structures and fireplaces suggest that they were the locations of ritual activities. By whom these were built, and for what purpose, remain mysteries for now. After the discovery of the Tarim Basin “mummies”, and the Siberian Warrior Queen tomb, this recent discovery is yet another installment in the ever-expanding field of Ancient Eurasian archeology. In the past two decades, human geneticists and linguists have been pointing to Central Eurasia as one of the major nodes of anatomically modern humans’ development and global dispersion. Indeed, geneticists opine that some of the major chromosomal haplogroups of Europe, Asia, and even the Americas, initially appeared in Central Eurasia, specifically in an area now comprised within the borders of modern Kazakhstan. Linguists have similarly declared that language families as diverse as Indo-European, Dravidian, Uralic, Altaic, and Sino-Tibetan may have originated in Central Eurasia. Much was published recently regarding the phylogenetic connection between the Yeniseian languages of Siberia and the NaDené language family of North America.

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This vast area, which may be called Inner Asia, or Central Eurasia, has played an important role in the human heritage for tens of millennia. Though in terms of archeological, linguistic, or anthropological research, only the tip of the iceberg was visible until recently, the geopolitical developments of the past two decades do appear to have opened the door for further investigation. While understanding the role of Central Eurasia in the human venture may progressively become more widespread, those who have been involved in the study of Turkic languages and cultures have had more reason to come to terms with the importance of this area, perhaps well before it was in the limelight. Indeed, when one sets off to explore the ancestry of the Turkic languages, the travel narrative usually begins not so far from where the aforementioned geoglyphs were discovered. Again not so far from where this discovery was made, in the plains of what is now North East Mongolia, by the Orkhon River where a young Temüjin went fishing five centuries later, sits the 8th century funerary inscription for Prince Köl Tigin of the Kök Türk Ashina imperial clan, commissioned by his elder brother Bilge Kaghan, and composed in the Old Turkic language. It begins with a rather pithy summation of the origins of humankind: “Üze kök tängri, asra yaġïz yir ḳılınduḳda, ekin ara kiṣi oġlï ḳılınmıṣ”, “When the blue sky above and the dark earth below were created, between the two of them was created the child of the human being” (or, the “son of man”, as one might hear

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more commonly in the gendered English language). Far more detailed and colorful narratives also exist, but they are to be found mostly in the vast body of oral epic poetry that also originates in that same region, rather than in these sober, laconic inscriptions. Regardless of who they were and whence they came, a certain portion of these “children of human beings” ended up speaking what we now call Turkic languages. Various Turkologists (such as Karl


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