How Do You Say “Kyrgyzstan”?

Hint: It’s a hard “g.’

Chaos continuesin the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, which has been rocked this week by violent protests, rioting, and a tug-of-war over power. In 2005, Daniel Engber created a pronunciation guide for Kyrgyz names. The article is reprinted below.

Kyrgyzstani opposition leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev says that parliament has named him acting president and prime minister of Kyrgyzstan, following the apparent ouster of President Askar Akayev. As far as Explainer is concerned, that’s easier done than said. How do you pronounce all these Kyrgyz names?

The name of the country is pronounced kur-guh-STAHN, like this; the name of the opposition leader is pronounced koor-mahn-BEK bah-KEE-ev, like this; and the name of the outgoing president is pronounced ahs-KAR ah-KAI-ev, like this.

Kyrgyz is one of the Turkic languages, which are spoken by about 100 million people in parts of China, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. The first Turkic-speaking state with a written language—the Kokturk Empire—was established in A.D. 552. Turkic runes describing the empire were found in the Orkhon River valley in Mongolia.

Kyrgyzstan has two official languages: Kyrgyz and Russian. Kyrgyzstan uses a modified Cyrillic alphabet, as do many other countries where people speak Turkic dialects. But the Kyrgyz-speaking population in China uses Arabic script. Turkic languages used Arabic script up until the 20th century—when scholars at the First Congress on Turkology, held in Baku in 1926, decided to switch to a Latin alphabet. As the Soviet Union gained influence through the end of the 1930s, multiple variants of Cyrillic took the place of the unified Latin script.

How does Kyrgyz compare to other Turkic languages? Like them, Kyrgyz uses multiple suffixes, such that a single, long word can convey all of the information found in a full English sentence. Kyrgyz is especially close to Kazakh, but it shares some similarities with the Siberian dialects as well. In particular, Kyrgyz uses what’s called “labial harmony.” That means any word with rounded vowels—or those that require rounding of the lips, like the “ow” sound in “tow”—must have only rounded vowels.

Explainer thanks Uli Schamiloglu of the University of Wisconsin, Ulanbek Jakypbekov, and Elmira Mamatkerimovna Kochumkulova.

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