The language of Azerbaijan: Turkish or Azerbaijani?

This article was originally published by the BBC Azerbaijani Service.

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The language issue in Azerbaijan has long been more of a political question than a scientific one. 

In June of 1918, the government of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic enacted a law declaring Turkish the state language. In a period during which romantic ethnic nationalism amongst the political elite was very popular, this was a natural development, and reflected historical realities as well. 

But this was by no means a development of the 20th century. 

For example, Fuzuli (15th and 16th century Azerbaijani poet), described the language of today’s Azerbaijan as ‘Turkish.’ Mirza Shefi Vazeh (19th century poet, ‘Sage from Ganja’), titled his instructive linguistic manual, ‘Kitabi - Turki.’ Bakikhanov, a writer, educator and linguist from the 19th century, also described the language of the majority of Baku as ‘Turkish.’ 

Akhudnov and other educators called the language spoken by the majority in Azerbaijan, ‘the Turkish language.’ 

But the Soviets that succeeded the Republic didn’t have such a unified understanding of the language’s nature. 

From Turkish to Azerbaijani 

After the fall of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic, many officials under the leadership of Lenin were in favor of abandoning the title of ‘Turkish’ for the language of Azerbaijan. 

However, for the sake of providing opportunities for self - determination, importance was given to the issues of the other languages spoken in the Empire. And despite the fact that it was already clear that Russian would, at some point, become the supra-national language of the Union, this contradictory approach was manifested by the Soviet government in official documents. 

However, there were no disputes in the first period of the Soviet Union regarding the name of the language, and the Republican traditions of calling the language Turkish were continued. 

Some examples:  

In February of 1921, on the order of the Azerbaijani Revolutionary Committee, the language spoken by the people of Azerbaijan was ensconced as the second official working - language of the Republic. In this document, the language is referred to as ‘Turkish.’

In 1922, the Azerbaijani Soviet Republic was merged with Georgia and Armenia to create the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Federation. The constitutions of 1922 and 1925 of the new federation both refer to the language spoken in Azerbaijan as ‘Turkish.’

In 1922, an agreement on the formation of the USSR was reached. In article 14, Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Georgian, Armenian and ‘Turkish’ are mentioned as the six working languages of the USSR. 

And in June of 1924, the Soviet Azerbaijani Central Executive Committee made ‘Turkish’ the official language of the republic. 

In 1937, the situation changed fundamentally. 

Though there was no explicit mention of a state language, Turkish was substituted by Azerbaijani in state documents where applicable in describing the language and the flag.

Later in 1956, ‘Azerbaijani’ is given the status of the official state language. This was then reflected in the 1978 constitution. 

The concept of ‘the Azerbaijani language’ was a suggestion of the Soviet government, and was propagated for sheer political purposes.

The intention was to create an ethnic ‘Azerbaijani’ nation, and separate the people from the influence of the Turks. 

After the USSR fell apart, when the attributes of the first Azerbaijani republic were being restored, one could notice a rise in Turkish nationalism, and a law enacted in 1992 described the government language as ‘Turkish.’ 

But on the initiative of Heydar Aliyev, the constitution of 1995 mentioned ‘Azerbaijani’ as the state language, in place of Turkish. 

The language itself

During the enlightenment, though our intellectuals did not display disagreement on the subject of the language’s name, the nature of the literary language posed serious questions and raised many disputes. 

For example, Mirja Jalil said that in Mullah Nasreddin's first speech that the native language was Turkish. In My Mother's Book, Samad Vahid's character didn't speak and write his own Azerbaijani language. Instead, he used the language of the Ottoman Empire. Jalil adopted a negative attitude towards Azerbaijani writers.  

At that time, enlighteners such as Jalil Mammadguluzadeh tried to write in the vernacular of his hometown. He and people like him felt called upon to form the basis of the spoken language. 

Some writers such as Huseyn Javid preferred to use the literary language of the Ottoman Empire and a similar situation arose in the press.  

After the Soviet Union was established, the first popular idea was to form an Azerbaijani Turkic language. Jafar Jabbarli improved and standardized it. 

However, throughout the years of 1920-1930 the grammar, writing, vocabulary et cetera of the Ottoman Empire still had a strong influence. 

Since 1937, during the time of the language reforms in Turkey, the name of the language and its specifics underwent significant changes.

And so, two different, but standardized languages and spoken languages - Turkish and Azerbaijani - were formed.

With the influence of urbanization, science, education and television, this polarization was further deepened and ensconced.

If we joke for a second, everyday expressions - such as “my leg hurts”in Azerbaijani, mean, “my behind hurts” in Turkish - formed a fertile environment to create funny situations. 

I remember the first time I watched Turkish film and television programs it was very difficult for me to understand. And they certainly can’t understand our literary language easily either. 

Incidentally, due to the nature of the reforms, our standard language is closer to its traditional roots than is written and spoken Turkish. 

Post - Soviet Period

The constitution adopted in 1995 restored Azerbaijan's concept of ethnic nationalism via the ‘rebirth’ of the Azerbaijani language and protected it from the cultural and political influences of the Soviet Union and Turkey.

But, the name is but a formal issue. The name might be different, but the language is the same. Serbian and Croatian, for example, may have different alphabets, but experts say that these languages are more or less the same. 

Or, take the Tajik language (written in Cyrillic), which is really the same as Farsi (spoken in Iran) and Dari (spoken in Afghanistan. 

Unlike the “Azerbaijani language”, Tajik and Dari as terms have deep historical roots, both of which were used interchangeably for Farsi in the middle ages. 

But today in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, their standard languages are almost the same as the Persian literary language of Iran.

So, even though our language is officially different from ‘Istanbul’ Turkish, the Azerbaijanis in Iran still call it Turkish.

But Iranian Azerbaijanis are affected more powerfully by the Turkish language in their speech, while in writing they are more influenced by the Azerbaijani literary language.

In the last 25 years, we have also been introduced to Turkish television, science and artistic literature, attaining higher education in Turkey, and attendingTurkish schools in Azerbaijan. The role and influence is undeniable.

In addition, Azerbaijani is not producing quality literary products anymore, so it weakens our competitiveness and has sent the language into a recession.

In Soviet times, the closed borders strengthened the position of literary Azerbaijani. And before that, our educational literature set trends in the region.

Currently, the impact on the linguistic deficit within education, science, media and literature leaves us open to the affects of other languages and we don't have an antidote for this virus.

In addition, the majority of people in Azerbaijan don't read, just watch. Those who don't read, watch Turkish dramas like Valley of the Wolves, reality shows like Voice of Turkey or Esra Erol and so on. 

The younger generation understands this language (Turkish) better than we do now. 

But whether or not this trend is sustainable remains to be seen.  

Because, again, the political factor plays an important role in this matter - language is dynamic.