The main languages spoken in Uzbekistan are Uzbek (74.3%), Russian (14.2%) and Tajik (officially 4.4% but potentially far higher), with other langauges spoken including Kyrgyz, English and German. Karakalpak has official status in the Karakalpakstan Autonomous Republic.
While Russian arguably remains the most useful language for the traveller, Uzbek is now the state language and, more importantly, will break the ice on any occasion, opening up the bounteous world of Uzbek hospitality. Part of the Eastern Turkic group of languages, Uzbek diverged from other Central Asian tongues in the early 14th century. Known as Chagatai, or old Uzbek, it was enriched by poet Alisher Navoi (1441-1501) to rival the literary pretensions of Arabic and Persian, source of numerous loan-words. By the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, Chagatai was quite divorced from the colloquial language. In 1923, a new Uzbek language was adopted, using a modified Arabic alphabet. To speed literacy campaigns and isolate the Uzbeks' Islamic past, Arabic was replaced by Latin in 1927. In 1940, Cyrillic superseded Latin as Sovietization was stepped up.
The process is now in reverse. In 1989, Uzbek was reinstated as the official language of the republic, in 1993, parliament agreed to a transition to a Latin script, similar to Turkey's (and in 1995 modified this alphabet back towards the English variant), while madrassah nationwide reintroduce Arabic through the Koran. Although Uzbeks remained among the least linguistically Russified peoples of the former Soviet Union-bazaars were Uzbek-only zones-further education and a place in the hierarchy demanded Russian language ability.
Since the majority of citizens in Uzbekistan are ethnic Uzbeks and most speak Uzbek as their first language, although many also speak Russian. There are also significant numbers of ethnic Tajiks and Kazakhs in Uzbekistan, primarily speaking their native tongue as a first language. In Samarkand and Bukhara, for instance, one is just as likely to hear Tajik being spoken as Uzbek.
A smattering of Uzbek will benefit the traveller when among the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turkmen, and also among the Uighur in northwest China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region, for all these people speak mutually intelligible Turkic languages, at least to some degree. Only Tajikistan stands out, for its Persian-based population use a language akin to Farsi.
Russian is widely spoken especially in the cities. In Tashkent the majority of the population speak Russian and one is just as likely to hear it being spoken on the street as Uzbek. In the semi-autonomous region of Karalkalpakstan in western Uzbekistan, the ethnic Karalkalpaks speak their own language, which is related to Kazakh. Many Karalkalpaks also speak Russian. In the cities, more and more people speak English, especially those in the hotel and catering trades.
Knowing just phrases of Uzbek and Russian, and being able to read the Cyrillic script will make your life immeasurably easier when travelling in Uzbekistan, especially given that words are often transliterated into Latin with a confusing variety of spellings: variations such as Tashkent and Toshkent are fairly obvious, things get trickier if you're swapping X and Kh or K and Q, or if more than one word or name are combined. Thus, you might see Amin Khan in one place, and Aminxan in another; Muynak is often written Moynoq. You'll have to get used to making some educated guesses.
Though people will always do their best to make themselves understood, English is not widely spoken in Uzbekistan, and you will both help yourself and make a positive impression if you can say a few words. Don't be shy, and don't worry about your pronunciation or grammar. Just go for it.
HELPFUL UZBEK WORDS AND PHRASES
Hello As-salomu alaykum
How are you? Qalay siz?
UZBEK Worldwide Uzbek has more than 35 million speakers, and it has been the official language of Uzbekistan since independence. Nationalists in the late 1980s campaigned strongly for Uzbek to replace Russian as the language of state in the hope it would reverse the process of Russification and in its place promote Uzbek i ulture. In 1995 the government went one step further and introduced the Law of the Republic of Uzbekistan on State Language, which demands Uzbek be used in all public spheres and official jobs. Some have seen this as a move that discriminates against non-Uzbek speakers in the country.
Uzbek belongs to the Karluk family of Turkic languages, from which it gets its lexicon and grammar, and it also contains many loan words from Persian, Arabic and Russian, all of which have influenced its development. It is considered to be I he direct descendant of Chagatai Turkish, the language of the Timurid court, and il is from this era of linguistic development that the influence of Persian is seen most clearly.
Over its history, Uzbek has been written in all manner of scripts. As late as 1928, all literate Uzbeks wrote using the Perso-Arabic script, but there was then a brief period of 12 years during which the Turkic languages were typically written using the Latin alphabet. In 1940 it was all change again as Stalin decided Cyrillic was the way forward. This Russian script continued to be the primary alphabet used until 1992, when the Latin script was reintroduced. Today you will see Uzbek written in both Latin and Cyrillic scripts, often on the same billboard or page.
Grammatically Uzbek shares many features with other Turkic languages. Words are ordered subject-object-verb, there is no grammatical gender and no definite or indefinite article. Relative clauses are replaced by various participles, gerunds and verbal nouns and the language is agglutinative (combines word elements to express compound ideas). Most word roots are monosyllabic, and suffixes are added in a fixed order.
RUSSIAN Russian remains the language of inter-ethnic communication, science, business and advertising. It is the lingua franca of central Asia. It is the most widely spoken of the Slavic languages and has an estimated 155 million native speakers worldwide. A further 110 million people speak Russian as a second or additional language. It is one of the six official languages of the UN.
The standard form of Russian is Modern Russian Literary Language (Современный русский литературный язык). It arose in the beginning of the 18th century, developed from the Moscow (Middle or Central Russian) dialect, and the first book of standard grammar was produced in 1755, followed by a dictionary in 1783. Although initially it was the language of the educated and of the aristocracy, it effectively supplanted all regional dialects by the mid 20th century thanks to the standardised, compulsory education system and mass media.
TAJIK Tajik is an Indo-European language closely linked to Persian and Dari, and hence these three languages have a shared literary heritage. Unlike most central Asian languages, it is not related to Turkish. From the 9th century, Tajik was written in a modified version of the Perso-Arabic script (it had previously been written in Sogdian), and the Arab invasions of this time account for its Arabic loan words. It was only with Stalin's division of central Asia in the 1920s that Tajik began to be seen as a linguistic entity distinct from Persian.
For the first decade of being promoted as a distinct language (starting in 1929 when it was designated the official language of the Tajik SSR) it was written in a modified Latin script, but in 1939 the alphabet was again replaced, this time by Cyrillic. Over the course of the 20th century Tajik has acquired a significant amount of Russian vocabulary, in particular technical terms for which there is no immediately obvious Persian root.
KARAKALPAK This is a Tukic language from the Kypchak family to which Kazakh and Tatar also belong. There are just over 400,000 native speakers in Uzbekistan, and an estimated 2,000 speakers in Afghanistan. It is an agglutinative language with vowel harmony but no grammatical gender. The word order, as with Uzbek, is subject-object-verb. Although it can be written in either Latin or Cyrillic script, the latter is most common.