While traveling through Central Asia over the past few weeks, our ears have rung and hummed with the sounds of true ethnic and linguistic diversity. From Italy onwards, language has been both a barrier and a blessing for us when traversing the Silk Roads. As our expedition has unfolded, having a grasp of local languages has consistently opened new opportunities for us to become involved with the encountered communities and, thus, enabled us to stay, eat and converse with local families throughout our expedition. These intimate conversations, away from the dusty road outside, have taught us more about their way of life than we would have expected to learn. The simplicity of oral communication is only truly appreciated when the power to converse is lost and instead one must depend on non-verbal cues and wild gesticulation – sometimes forcing one into interactions that could never transcend the superficial level.
The five big ethnic groups in Central Asia are the Uzbek, Kazakh, Tajik, Turkmen, and Kyrgyz. Linguistically all of these groups, with the exception of the Tajiks whose language is more similar to modern-day Persian, speak languages that are from Turkic language family and resemble Turkish. Since the seventeenth century, Russia ruled over much of Central Asia. This continued until the end of the Soviet Union. The long presence of Russian influence has led its language to become and continue to be the lingua franca of Central Asia and is consequently the main common language of trade, diplomacy and literature across the region.
While Russian has for much of recent history been the lingua franca of Central Asia, this has not always been the case. Since the sixth century BC large parts of modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, including quintessential Silk Roads cities like Samarkand and Bukhara, served as capitals of Sogdiana, an ancient Iranian civilization, which had its own language, Sogdian: an Eastern Iranian origins that spread east to China through a number of different ways, most importantly though, the frequent immigration of the Sogdian people and their use of the language for trade. Archaeologists have even uncovered Sogdian inscriptions in Northern Pakistan, likely suggestive of their presence on routes towards India. Today, however, the Sogdian language, which was once widely spoken all the way from Samarkand to Xi’an, has sadly disappeared, and its closest descendant, Yaghnobi, has only around 12,500 speakers, most of whom can be found in Tajikistan.
The Russian has proved to be one of our most useful tools. Beyond the transmission of knowledge, customs, beliefs, and traditions, our grasp of Russian has enabled us to connect with people across Central Asia from ethnicities, communities and backgrounds very different from our own. The very foundations of the Silk Roads are a commonality of languages, and without it, we would have missed out on many unforgettable experiences.
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