The Uzbek language is classified as part of the southeastern or Chagatai branch of the Turkic subfamily of the Altaic family of languages.
The name “Uzbek” is most likely derived from the name of Muslim ruler Oz Beg Khan, leader of the Golden Horde, a powerful group of Turkic tribes, from 1212 to 1341. The history of the Uzbek peoples is highlighted by a period of Soviet oppression followed by a rebirth of Uzbek nationalism and ethnic pride.
The Uzbek People: Early History
The term “Uzbek” can be used to refer both to the Uzbek language or people of native Uzbek origin. Human life existed in what is now Uzbekistan as early as the Old Stone Age (Paleolithic period), more than 55,000 years ago. The Turkic-Mongol tribe known as the Uzbeks is believed to have come to the area of modern-day Uzbekistan after migrating from Siberia.
In 1428, Abu al-Khayr, a descendent of Genghis Khan, became leader of the Uzbek confederation of tribes in Siberia. Abu al-Khayr held a powerful rule for 40 years, and it was under his leadership that the Uzbeks migrated southward to what is now Uzbekistan.
Despite a shattering of Uzbek unity during the Dzungar invasion of the 1460s, the Uzbek tribes managed to regroup. Throughout the late 15th century the Uzbeks conquered significant areas of land in modern-day Uzbekistan, expanding their power in the area.
The Shaybanid Dynasty: Development of Uzbek Culture
The Uzbek tribes found further unity under the rule of tribal leader Muhammad Shaybani Khan, a grandson of Abu al-Khayr. Reigning from 1500 to 1510, Muhammad Shaybani established the Shaybanid Dynasty that maintained its power in the region for almost a century.
The Shaybanid Dynasty marked a period of cultural development for the Uzbek people. For example, the ruler Muhammad Shaybani was a skilled poet who emphasized the importance of the arts. During this time, the Uzbeks borrowed from the Chagatai literary language – it was not until the 18th century that a distinct Uzbek literary language would develop. Other developments included the erection of monuments, mosques and educational institutions.
Decline in Power after the Shaybanid Dynasty
After the Shaybanid Dynasty was replaced by the Ashtarkhanid Dynasty in 1599, Uzbek power declined significantly until the mid-1700s. The Ashtarkhanid Dynasty suffered a major defeat with the capture of the capital of Bukhara by Iranian ruler Nadir Shah in 1740, and was fully extinguished by 1785.
Russian Control in Uzbekistan
The first significant invasion of Uzbek territory by the Russians occurred with the successful invasion of Bukhara in 1868. Five years later, Russian forces took control of Khiva, another major Uzbek center, and established protectorates in both cities. By 1875, Russia had officially completed its conquest of Uzbek territory, incorporating the area into the Russian province of Turkistan.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 led to a period of instability in Turkistan which eventually ended in the establishment of communist leaders in the two major cities of Bukhara and Khiva by 1921. From 1924 to 1925, the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) essentially redrew the map of Central Asia overnight, resulting in the official designation of an ethnically Uzbek territory – Uzbekistan – that was subsequently incorporated into the USSR.
As part of the USSR, Uzbekistan suffered enormously during the communist purges of the 1930s. Most of Uzbekistan’s scholars and leaders were executed or forced to flee the country. The Uzbek identity faced an additional threat with the introduction of foreign Russian, Polish and Jewish migrants to the republic, further smothering any sort of unique Uzbek identity.
Uzbekistan’s situation improved slightly after the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. Uzbeks were permitted to enter Soviet politics and rose to high levels in Soviet government. Still, the communist leaders of Uzbekistan held firm control of the country. It was not until 1991 that Uzbekistan declared independence.
The surge of Uzbek nationalism that had developed in the later years of Soviet Uzbekistan continued to grow after independence. The newly independent country adopted a new constitution, flag and national anthem.
This surge of Uzbek pride and emphasis on native Uzbek identity had some negative consequences, however. The country’s population fell significantly, as many Jews, Germans, Greeks, Turks, and Slavs living in Uzbekistan left the country due to fears of Uzbek ethnocentrism. Today the country’s population is very homogenous, with approximately 80 percent of residents being native Uzbeks.
Written Uzbek Language
Due to the historical influence of Islam on the people who inhabited present-day Uzbekistan, the Uzbek language was initially written using an Arabic-based alphabet which read from right to left and used a script in which most of the letters were connected. This practiced continued until the 1920s, when Uzbekistan came under Soviet influence.
The Soviet powers introduced a Latin-based alphabet to Uzbekistan and all other Turkic areas that came under Soviet rule during the 1920s. In the mid-1900s, however, another orthographical shift occurred when the Soviet Union developed a modified Cyrillic script similar to that used for the written Russian language, and made the script compulsory for all Turkic Soviet countries, including Uzbekistan.
This modified Cyrillic script was mandatory throughout Uzbekistan until the republic gained independence in 1991. In 1993, the Uzbek government officially declared Uzbekistan’s return to a Latin-based script.
Modern Uzbek Language and Dialects
The Uzbek language is currently found primarily in Uzbekistan, where it is the official national language. Smaller communities of Uzbek speakers also can be found in areas of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, and northwestern China. An estimated 16 million people speak Uzbek around the world today.
Two primary dialects can be identified within the Uzbek language: southern and northern. The northern dialects, which are found primarily in southern Kazakhstan, have experienced much less of an Iranian language influence than the southern dialects, which are sometimes referred to as Iranized or Semi-Iranized dialects.
Uzbek Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Özbek
Language Family: Altaic, Turkic, Eastern
Official Language of: Uzbekistan
Spoken by Approximately 23,500,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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