The Tajik language is unique among Central Asian languages because of its Indo-Iranian rather than Turkic origin. The rich literary tradition of the Tajik language, its relationship to ancient Persian, and the changes it underwent during Tajikistan’s Soviet era are only a few of the points that make Tajik stand out as a distinctive and exciting language.
Classification of the Tajik Language
Tajik is a member of the western branch of the Iranian family of the Indo-Iranian family of languages. The Tajik people of central Asia who claim Tajik as their native language are descended from the ancient Indo-Iranian peoples who inhabited Central Asia well before the time of recorded history. This fact distinguishes the Tajiks from other Central Asian peoples, almost all of whom are of Turkic descent.
Relationship of Tajik to the Persian (Farsi) Language
Tajik is very similar to the modern Persian or Farsi language. In fact, most linguists consider Tajik, sometimes referred to as Tajiki Persian, to be an ancient form of the Persian language. Standard Farsi speakers have no difficulty understanding the Tajik language, which is also very similar to Dari, the form of Farsi spoken in Afghanistan.
The primary differences between Persian and Tajik arise from the fact that Tajik is in many respects a more archaic language and has retained more aspects of the ancient Iranian from which these languages developed.
Early History of the Tajik People
The Indo-Iranian people from whom the Tajiks descended lived primarily in the ancient regions of Sogdiana (present-day southeastern Central Asia) and Bactria (modern-day northern Afghanistan and southern Tajikistan). Around the 300s BC, Sogdiana came under the rule of Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia; however, Macedonian control did not last after Alexander’s death.
In the 100s BC, Sogdiana was incorporated into the empire of the Kushanas. The region subsequently became an important station on Central Asia’s Silk Road, the renowned network of caravan trade routes that connected China, India, the Middle East and Rome. From the 4th to 6th centuries AD, Sogdiana repeatedly faced invasion by tribes of Huns and Turks. It remained in a state of flux until Arab invaders effectively took control of the region in the 8th century.
Influence of the Arabic World on the Tajik Language
The Indo-Iranian peoples from whom the Tajiks are descended spoke a form of ancient Iranian. This is the language from which modern Tajik eventually developed. When the area of present-day Tajikistan came under Arabic control in the 8th century, this Iranian language came under a heavy Arabic influence and evolved significantly.
The Arabic conquerors introduced the Tajiks to both their language and their religion. Both influences are still seen today. Today, the majority of Tajikistan’s population, approximately 80 percent, practices Islam. What’s more, the Tajik language was originally written using a modified Arabic script.
Development of the Tajik Language During the Soviet Era
Although the Tajik language originally used a modified Arabic script, drastic changes to the written Tajik language were implemented during the Soviet Era. In 1929, Tajikistan was established as the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic and incorporated into the USSR.
In the 1930s, the Soviet government established a mandatory Latin-language alphabet, forcing Tajiks to drop the Arabic script and learn the new Latin script. The Tajik language script was changed yet again in the 1940s when the Soviet government introduced a modified Cyrillic script (the same script used in Russian).
By enforcing these changes on the Tajik language, the Soviet government hoped not only to increase literacy but also to encourage Soviet loyalty by alienating Tajiks from their native language and literary tradition.
Tajikistan declared independence from the USSR in 1991. According to the Tajikistan’s 1994 constitution, Tajik is the country’s official state language while Russian is designated as the official language of communication between different ethnic groups.
Since independence, the status of the Tajik language – once limited by Soviet Era restraints and the predominance of Russian in Tajikistan – has escalated rapidly. Today, the Tajik language is prominent in Tajikistan’s administrative, educational and cultural spheres.
One major change enacted after independence was a return to the modified Arabic script first used to write the Tajik language, which had been replaced by a Latin and then a Cyrillic script under Soviet rule. Although post-independence Tajikistan’s language laws called for a systematic return to the Arabic script, steps toward making this proposed change have yet to be implemented.
Modern Tajik Language
Two primary dialects are identified within the Tajik language: northern and southern. Today the Tajik language is spoken by an estimated 7 million people worldwide, most of them spread throughout the country of Tajikistan. Tajik also can be found scattered throughout other areas of Central Asia and is especially prominent in the Pamirs mountain range. It is important to note that the Tajik language found in the Pamirs is very distinct and is classified as part of the eastern, rather than a western, Iranian group.
Tajik Language Literature
The Tajik language boasts a rich literary tradition dating as far back as the 10th century AD, and a strong literary tradition based on this old Tajik folklore continues to exist today. One ancient tradition still practiced today is the performance of epos, oral poems that are part history and part legend. Epos are performed by minstrels and are still popular today as a means of preserving ancient Tajik oral literature.
Thanks to a burst of literary activity during the 20th century, a number of Tajik writers rose to global recognition during this time. Abdalrauf Fitrat’s 1909 work “Munazara” (“The Dispute”) and 1923 work “Qiyamat” (“Last Judgment”) have been reprinted in a number of languages, including Russian and Uzbek. The poet Abu al-Qasim Lahuti gained fame with his 1935 poem “Taj va bavrao” (“Crown and Banner”), which was written as a response to changes felt in Tajikistan during the Soviet Era.
In more recent years, the work of female Tajik language writers has begun to appear in major Tajik newspapers and magazines. Notable among them is the poet Gulrukhsor Safieva, who has gained great popularity both in Tajikistan and beyond its borders.
Tajik Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Tadzhik, Tajiki Persian, Galcha
Language Family: Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, Iranian, Western, Southwestern, Persian
Official Language of: Tajikistan
Spoken by Approximately 4,300,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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