How Old Is Azeri?

This morning I had the chance to read someone with a scholarly interest in the Azeri language talk about their own personal reflections of Azeri and its connection (via its shared particles with various other languages) and the implications of that. The author of this article, one Teyub Arik Guliyev, who is an academic at Baku Slavic University (BSU), and an Associate professor of the chair of Turkology, as well as a Philosophy doctor in philology, is of the belief that the ancient connection of Azeri with a variety of other languages of Eurasia gives Azeri a longevity of thousands of years, thus increasing its status in a world where it is seen as a good thing for one’s own language to have a lengthy and noble tradition.

One might wonder why this was necessary. My own native language is English, which is a fairly popular language for people around the world to know on account of the cultural power held by first the United Kingdom as well as the United States and various other anglophone nations (like Canada, Australia, and so on), thanks to various forms of imperialism that have spread English over the world’s stage over the past few hundred years. For a long time, though, English was a somewhat peripheral member of the Germanic subfamily of the Indo-European language family that had established some level of hegemony within the British isles against other competing languages of the Celtic subfamily of languages like Scottish, Irish Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton, to name a few, and had itself had a fairly long period of languishing under the domination of Norman French speakers for a period of about 3 centuries or so. The oldest English we have goes back somewhere around 1300 years or a bit more, during the period of the settlement and consolidation of the rule of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes over much of the British Isles.

The history of modern Azeri as a language is somewhat similar in broad outlines. Azeri is an Oghuz Turkish language that spread as a result of the prestige of the Turks over that of the native Persian/Iranian languages after the settlement and conquest of much of the region of Azerbaijan and northern Iran by the Turks starting in the 11th century AD (around the same time that English was itself being subjugated by Norman French speakers). After some centuries of divergence from what became Turkish under the heavy influence of Farsi, the language itself diverged from Oghuz Turkish and became its own language, now a language of a nation as well as a minority language in other neighboring nations, one of the three biggest languages of its particular group, along with Turkish and Turkmen. Admittedly, Azeri is not a language that people tend to learn easily as a second language, but as a national language of its own it has had a worthwhile history and is the basis of a worthwhile culture that is worth appreciating.

It should be fairly clear from the foregoing that neither English nor Azeri are particularly old languages. By the time that anyone was writing anything in English, for example, Hebrew had been a written language for somewhere around 2,000 years or so, and languages like Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Old Hittite, and other members of the Indo-European family had been written for more than 1000 years themselves. That said, since English does descend from various other languages, English can be said to have had a long prehistory to the extent that it forms a record of changes that have occurred within the West Germanic languages (including its peers like Dutch and Frisian), as well as the Germanic languages as a whole (including High and Low German of various dialects, Luxembourgish, and the various languages of Scandinavia and their colonies), to say nothing of the larger Indo-European language of which all of them are a part. Similarly, Azeri, if it is not a particularly ancient language on its own, itself is a witness of a much longer history going back many thousands of years. Aspects of the past survive, in modified form, going back a very long time in both languages, and so the student of past languages, by recovering the origins and change of both languages (and many others), can help recover the ways that people spoke, and by implication thought, in the far remote past, thus making them far less alien than they would otherwise be.

To the extent that an awareness of the remote ties that Azeri has with other languages, languages that are perhaps more prestigious and better appreciated in the world, it is a worthwhile thing to celebrate the connections that can be made. For me, and apparently for many other people as well, one of the chief joys of trying to reconstruct the languages of the past and how it is that other languages are kin to others, and joint heirs of an older linguistic tradition, is to recognize the brotherhood of humanity even in the face of frequent incomprehensibility. And if Azeri and English are both relatively young languages as far as the world is concerned, both can certainly celebrate their much wider connections with other languages, and the way that both languages have been enriched by their connections with other languages as well as through older languages spoken of a long, long time ago. This is worth celebrating even if the desire to reverse the verdict of Babel is one that has what is likely to be a somewhat ominous ending.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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