Language & Culture in Azerbaijan

28 July 2010 at 06:24 14 comments

By Yelena Shuster, KF 11, Azerbaijan

I’d like to tell you about language in Azerbaijan especially since there have been some questions among Kiva lenders and translation volunteers as to why Komak is posting profiles in Russian using Latin letters instead of Cyrillic.

You see, since the start of the 20th century the Azeri alphabet has metamorphosed 3 times…

  • Prior to 1929 Azeri was written in Perso-Arabic script.
  • 1929–1938 A Latin alphabet was used (although it was different from the one used now).
  • 1938 to 1991 The Cyrillic alphabet was imposed by the Soviet Union.
  • 1991 With independence, the current Latin alphabet was introduced.

I’ve met several folks in their 40s and 50s who grew up reading only Cyrillic and now have difficulty reading newspapers and books. How isolated they must feel with their access to newspapers, magazines and books so unfairly limited by the alphabet!

In the early years of the Soviet era, Azeri was widely spoken among elite and government circles. But as Stalin solidified his position in the late 1920s and early 1930s, sweeping away Azerbaijan’s native intelligentsia through exile and execution, the Russian language came to dominate politics, meetings, offices and education.

Many parents sent their children to schools with Russian language instruction believing that the good jobs required Russian. According to a young Azeri friend of mine this linguistic shift created a population that could speak neither Azeri nor Russian effectively. For children of Azeri speaking parents, a lack of language reinforcement from their social circle meant that their knowledge of Russian did not develop beyond a certain point, and that their knowledge of Azeri remained equally stagnated because their communication with their (Azeri speaking) parents was limited by the language differences.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, attempts to stimulate the use of Azeri increased. The “government Azeri language program,” established in 1990, provided Azeri lessons to non-Azeri speakers for use in the workplace. In 1994 it was estimated that some 82% of Azerbaijan’s citizens spoke Azeri as their first language, while 38% of Azerbaijanis spoke Russian fluently as well. Twenty years later, knowledge of Azeri continues to grow in importance and an inability to speak the language is becoming a greater barrier for employment opportunities.

In 1993, Azar Mammad, wrote: “It’s the miserable and bitter truth that you cannot fnd many intelligentsia in Azerbaijan who can speak their own native language. Others simply cannot express themselves without Russian. And let me remind you that it is not their fault, either.”

To better understand the complexities behind the language issues, read these interesting editorials from 1993 between two Azeri citizens, one who speaks his native language fluently and one who doesn’t.

Here at Komak, only 3 out of 13 staff members are fluent in Russian, while 2 others speak it a little bit. Within the middle-aged population of Baku, most are fluent in Russian, that is unless they migrated to Baku from another region, in which case they might not speak Russian very well. Among older men who served in the army before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian is spoken, albeit with a few errors. Among the youth of Baku, it varies. I’d estimate that 1 out of every 3 youth speak Russian in the capital city. Outside of Baku, the numbers are lower. Unless you’re in Krasnaya Sloboda, the 800 year old Jewish community in northeastern Azerbaijan, where the locals speak their native Judeo-Persian, Azeri and Russian.

Some interesting facts about the Azeri language:

  • It is the official language of Azerbaijan and an official regional language of Iran.
  • There are two main varieties of the language: North Azerbaijani (spoken in Azerbaijan) and South Azerbaijani (spoken in Iran).
  • In Iran, Azeri is called “Türki.” It’s spoken by 19-34% of the population, including districts of Tehran province and parts of Kurdistan.
  • All together, there are at least 30 million people worldwide who speak Azeri, with significant linguistic communities in Azerbaijan, Iran, Dagestan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia.
Beautiful Xinaliq, Azerbaijan. In this mountain village 2,800 meters above sea level, the native language is not Azeri but a member of the Lezgian family of the Dagestani branch of Northeast Caucasian languages.

Yelena Shuster is a Kiva Fellow serving with Komak Credit Union in Azerbaijan. Support Komak borrowers and join our team Friends of Komak!

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Entry filed under: Azerbaijan, blogsherpa, Eastern Europe & Central Asia (EECA), KF11 (Kiva Fellows 11th Class), Komak Credit Union. Tags: , , , .

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  • 1. ara  |  28 September 2010 at 12:50

    so i think all of you have russian nationality ,and i am a turk.i dont know for whyat but i like the russian poeple but it does not means that i dont like my mother lanquage means turki. at the world we dont have azeri lanquage.this word for the first time use by estalin in russia for political purpose, so please dont use this word.the lanquage in all of the zerbaijan is turki.i am a azerbaijanian of iran and i know a few russain lanquge.of cours arabic farsi but any of them isnt like turkish lanquage.” TURKI IS ART’
    i invited you to be my quest in guney azerbaijan(south azerbaijan=azerbaijan that not independent from iran)
    see you.thank you
    contact :009809373508448

  • 2. araz  |  28 September 2010 at 12:45

    so i think ll of you are russian ,and i am a turk.i dont know for why but i like the russian poeple but it does not means that i dont like my mother lanquage means turki. at the world we dont have azeri lanquage.this word fr firs time se y estalin in russia in political purpose, so please dont use this ord.the lanquage in all of the zerbaijan is turki.i am a azerbaijanian of iran and i know a few russain lanquge.of cours arabic farsi but any of them isnt like turkish lanquage.
    i invited you to be my quest in guney azerbaijan(south azerbaijan=azerbaijan that not independent from iran)
    contact :009809373508448

  • 3. Judy  |  14 August 2010 at 07:42

    Just another example of the problematic heritage the Soviet Union left its Central Asian republics. Do you find English being taught?

    • 4. Sam  |  14 August 2010 at 07:54

      I can respond for Ukraine, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, but not Azerbaijan, that yes English is being taught. In Tajikistan its almost better known than Uzbek by some in the younger generations now. Language in those countries is far more complex than anything else you could imagine. I will be writing a quasi-follow up article to this one about my experiences in these four countries later on in my service, so keep an eye out. 🙂 Thanks for reading Judy.

  • 5. John  |  6 August 2010 at 02:33

    “And yet, I feel a peculiar sense of inarticulateness in English.”

    I assure you that sense is not the least bit justified. Thank you for your wonderful posts and photos, Yelena. I appreciate you opening the window and allowing me to see a bit inside Azerbaijan, a country that before your posts I knew nothing about. I am greedy for more!

  • 6. Sam  |  29 July 2010 at 15:31

    I am fascinated by this theme as the Tatars of Crimea and the Volga, as well as all the Central Asian countries did the same thing at the same time frame, except with the last bit. Uzbekistan is contemplating adopting Latinizing its language, but many are not sure if thats a smart move.
    I actually also plan to write about this from Tajikistan, another Persian based language group, which has languages in some of the valleys where people speak a language that was used by the people who fought Alexander the Great.
    needless to say, loved your post.

    • 7. Lena Shuster  |  30 July 2010 at 00:15

      Hey Sam,

      Good luck with your upcoming fellowship in Tajikistan.

  • 8. annhingst  |  29 July 2010 at 09:47

    Yelena, interesting topic, and gorgeous photo!

  • 9. Antoine S. TERJANIAN  |  28 July 2010 at 13:01

    Excellent posting Ms. Shuster. Your own language skills in Russian are also excellent according to the video you posted last month.
    A similar language and litteracy problem was experienced in Turkey in the 1930’s when the Turks decided to break with thei Ottoman tradition and adopted a new, Latin-based alphabet. Can you imagine, children and grand children could not decipher the writings on their father’s / grandfather’s tomb! This is one of the reasons why many contemporary Turks do not know about the Genocide perpetrated by the Young Turk Government of the Ottoman Empire against their native Armenian (and other Christian minority) population in 1915.
    Yelena, I would be fascinated to learn about Sloboda and the people who live there. Also about Xinaliq and all the other minority languages in your part of the world. I am particularly interested to know whether they need Kiva loans and if Kiva loans are indeed reaching them.
    Molodiets for volunteering as a KF.
    Best wishes of success

    • 10. Lena Shuster  |  29 July 2010 at 00:40

      Hi Antoine,

      As far as I know, there is no microfinance activity in Xinaliq right now because of its remote location. Before they build the road to Xinaliq (from Quba, the nearest city) several years ago, the drive there was very difficult. Even now, because of Xinaliq’s altitude it is basically closed off during the winter so any microfinance activity (repayments) would have be seasonal. But Komak is considering expanding their services into Xinaliq and plan to visit the region in late August…

      For a really interesting slideshow of Xinaliq check out:

      About Krasnaya Sloboda, I would reason that they do not need microfinance as much as other towns in Azerbaijan because of the large number of diaspora from Sloboda settled around the world (especially in New York and Israel). A number of decades ago there were 18,000 Jews in Sloboda, today there are only about 1000-1,500 permanent residents! But the people who left continue to feel a close connection to the village, and send money back for infrastructure projects and continue to visit, so that it’s actually more developed than the Quba, the adjacent city.

      By the way, my Russian is not so good. I understand on a native’s level because it’s the language I learned from birth. But it’s difficult for me to express myself in Russian. Since coming to America at the age of 7, my Russian has deteriorated (even my 3 year old nephew has a larger vocabulary it seems sometimes!) I think in English, read in English, express myself in English. And yet, I feel a peculiar sense of inarticulateness in English. I wonder if this is because of the way I forewent one language and picked up another. It’s definitely not the case for all young immigrants though because I know many who have no trouble expressing themselves.

      Thanks for writing.


  • 11. Genadi  |  28 July 2010 at 12:21

    Dear Yelena!
    Glad to read the interesting article.
    Do i see you on the picture?

    • 12. Lena Shuster  |  29 July 2010 at 00:42

      Yes, that’s me and my friend Isabel from Belgium in the photo.

  • 13. david connelly  |  28 July 2010 at 08:16

    fascinating entry, yelena!

  • 14. Jeff  |  28 July 2010 at 06:58

    Interesting topic, Yelena. Thanks. The country obviously has a tough time of it.

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