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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
The Silk Road

Samarkand Square

Silk Road Story

Language

Crisscrossing Asia and Europe, Silk Road trade routes connected peoples speaking many languages and dialects. What languages were spoken and where has changed throughout the centuries as people and boundaries have shifted, but since medieval times (from about 1200 C.E.) Turkic languages have had the widest geographical expanse of speakers in the region. From Istanbul to Hami (in northwest China), and from northern Afghanistan to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, speakers of Turkic languages represent a vast continuum of dialects and local forms. While a Turk from Anatolia would not immediately be able to engage a Uyghur from Kashgar (in northwestern China) in a sophisticated conversation, they could easily conduct a commercial transaction. For instance, in all Turkic languages, the words for numbers are close or identical. Persian (Farsi) is the language used in contemporary Iran and remains an important trade language in Central and West Asia today. In South Asia, Urdu and Hindi (they are mutually intelligible when spoken, although they use different scripts) fill that role, as does Arabic in the Middle East. Russian has been the lingua franca for much of the population of the central Silk Road region since the 19th century, when the Russian tsars' troops began their conquests and colonization of Central Asia and the Caucasus, creating the basis for the Soviet Union's multiethnic empire. While most people in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan converse easily in Russian, these newly established independent states are returning to their native languages.

These days, as Silk Road commerce and cultural exchange have become increasingly globalized and so much business is conducted on the Internet, entrepreneurs, students, artists, professionals, and government workers turn to English. English is, for example, the language of instruction for the new University of Central Asia. The use of new languages perpetuates the vibrant creativity and communication that have always been part of the Silk Road.

Click to enlarge and view captions

Click image to enlarge and view captions