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The Tinder Linguist: Turkmen

Turkmen is a Turkic language that is the sole official language of Turkmenistan in Central Asia. It is spoken by 72% of the population. Following the sharp decline in the number of Slavic residents in the years after independence, Russian is spoken by just 12% of the population, but in cities it still has widespread currency as the language of communication between different ethnic groups. Other Turkic languages such as Uzbek, Kazakh, Azerbaijani, and Tatar are also spoken by minorities, as are languages such as Ukrainian, Armenian, and Kurdish (Kurmanji).

Before the 20th century, the literary language of Turkmenistan as well as other parts of Turkic-speaking Central Asia was Chagatai, named after the Chagatai Khanate, a successor state of the Mongol Empire in the region. The literature produced from the late 15th to the 16th centuries in this realm marked the classical form of Chagatai, which is closest to Uzbek and Uyghur out of the modern languages. Chagatai was written in the Perso-Arabic alphabet, a version of the Arabic alphabet with the addition of letters for writing sounds found in Persian but not Arabic.

In the beginning of the 20th century, when Turkmen and the other local dialects of Turkic across Central Asia began to be written, it was also in the Arabic script. But literacy was still very rare among the mostly nomadic population of what was to become the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic.

Around 1928, the newly-formed Soviet Union introduced the Latin alphabet for writing Turkmen as well as for most other non-Slavic languages. But changes in the Soviet policy meant that the alphabet was changed to Cyrillic from around 1938 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 (the story was similar for the other languages that had adopted the Latin alphabet in the 1920s such as Uzbek and Kazakh). Cyrillic is the alphabet used for writing Russian, although the version for Turkmen had some additional letters to represent sounds not found in Russian.

When Turkmenistan gained independence in 1991, President Saparmurat Niyazov immediately planned a switch back to the Latin alphabet. The first version introduced in 1993 was unusual in using letters like £, $, and ¥, but these were replaced by more conventional letters like ž, ş, and ý in 1999. This means that nowadays, you will see female names in Turkmen written like Aýna, Gülşat, Keýik, Mähri, and Maýsa.

Still, Turkmen names tend not to use the Turkmen spellings with its diacritics and unfamiliar conventions in English-language international media. For example, the capital city is usually called Ashgabat, not Aşgabat; before 1991, it was usually called Ashkhabad, a transliteration of its Russian name Ашхабад. The current president is usually called Gurbanguly/Gurbangulu Berdymukhamedov/Berdimuhamedov rather than using the Turkmen spelling Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. Turkmenistani passports may feature both a Turkmen spelling and a different international English spelling for the same name.

Uzbekistan also officially reintroduced the Latin alphabet for Uzbek, but in practice Cyrillic continues to be widespread more than two decades later. It is not uncommon to see newspapers with mastheads in the Latin alphabet and with the articles in Cyrillic. Kazakhstan also recently decided to switch back to the Latin alphabet for Kazakh, but this is still very much in the very early stages. So Turkmenistan is the one country in Central Asia where the Latin alphabet would be expected to have taken root by now.

However, due to the extreme isolation of the country after independence and the suppression of media (on a topical note, Turkmenistan is one of the very few countries in the world along with North Korea not to report any cases of COVID-19 despite its proximity to the massive outbreak in Iran), there is not much material available on how Turkmen is written nowadays by the general public.

Will Tinder elucidate the language situation in Turkmenistan? Not much, it turns out. Checking out the profiles in Ashgabat, its capital and largest city, the most striking thing is the near complete absence of bios. I encountered exactly three profiles that had bios during my investigation in Ashgabat, very brief ones in Russian, English, and emoji respectively:

“I love sincerity and purity” (Ashgabat, Russian)
(Ashgabat, English)
Turkmen, Turkish, Russian flags (Ashgabat)

To be fair, there were not that many profiles to begin with—just over a dozen or so. Expanding my search to the rest of the country didn’t help much, because there were no profiles to be found at all in most urban centres I tried, including Türkmenabat and Daşoguz, the second and third largest cities of Turkmenistan respectively (note however that I am limited to looking at female profiles that are looking to match with someone my age). But in Mary (the ancient oasis city of Merv), I found exactly one profile, which happened to have a bio in English (again, a very brief one):

(Mary, English)

So what to do when there are almost zero bios to look at in the entire country? We can look at linguistic clues elsewhere in the profile, namely the names and locations.

The names I saw were written either in the Latin alphabet or in Cyrillic. The former included distinctly non-Slavic looking ones like Dunya, Elnara, Mahriban, Mahym, Nazli, Selbi, and Tavus, but also Olga and Sabina which could be Russian names, and Sara which could be either Turkic or Slavic. It is striking that none of these use Turkmen diacritics. Of these, only Elnara, Mahym and Selbi are correctly spelled Turkmen names; Dunya, Mahriban, Nazli, and Tavus would properly be spelled Dünýä, Mähriban, Näzli, and Tawus respectively in Turkmen, which incidentally does not use the letter v.

Names written in Cyrillic included Slavic names (including pet names) such as Алена Alena, Евка Yevka, Каролина Karolina, Лёля Lyolya, and Света Sveta. But there was also Айна Aina, a Turkic name spelled Aýna in Turkmen; Камила Kamila, which is superficially similar to the Russian name Камилла Kamilla but is actually a Turkic name deriving ultimately from Arabic and spelled Kamila in Turkmen; and Мяхри Myakhri, a Turkic name spelled Mähri in Turkmen. The last example in particular would have been spelled Мәхри in Turkmen written in Cyrillic, so it is unambiguously the Russian spelling of the name.

For most profiles, the location was given either as Ashgabat or the Russian name Ашхабад Ashkhabad:

One unusual case used the French spelling Achgabat:

This should probably be seen as an anomaly; the spelling of the name on the profile also included the French-style ou.

The name Ashgabat comes from Persian, where آباد ābād “city” is a common element in place names. Persian was historically an important literary language throughout Central Asia. The Persian name of Ashgabat is عشق‌آباد‎, pronounced Eshgh-ābād in Modern Irani Persian and the first element equated to the word for “love”, from Arabic عشق ʿishq (the sounds gh and q have merged in Modern Irani Persian, and short i has changed to e). So the name would mean “City of Love”. In Tajik, a standardized variety of Persian as spoken in Tajikistan and written in Cyrillic, the name is written either as Ишқобод Ishqobod corresponding to ишқ ishq “love” or as Ашқобод Asqobod. It has been suggested that the first element actually derives from اشک‎ Ashk, the Persian name of the ancient Parthian King Arsaces; “City of Love” would be a folk etymology in this case. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a busy place for Tinder.

The Russian name Ашхабад Ashkhabad seems to reflect an original form like *Ashq-ābād with an alternation of q and kh that you often see in conventional Russian forms of Turkic names, like Казах Kazakh for the ethnonym which is spelled Qazaq in Kazakh itself.

Turkmen on the other hand usually turned q to g (Kazakhstan is called Gazagystan in Turkmen), and devoiced final d to t, so the name was turned into Aşgabat, with ş standing for the sound usually written sh in English. Russian also devoices final d to t in pronunciation, but has kept the d in spelling since this is a general pronunciation rule.

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