How to learn Uyghur

The Uyghur language used to be known by Europeans as “East Turkic” and is spoken by about 10m people in Xinjiang and around half a million outside. To learn the language, the following steps would be helpful:

1) learn to read the arabic script. except for a few decades in the late 20th century, the uyghurs have written mostly in arabic letters since they were islamicised a millenium ago. the recent blip was a shift to the roman alphabet organized by the chinese government. cynics suggest the return to arabic came about because they didn’t want uyghurs getting a headstart learning english and collaberating with roman-script-using enemies. (now that islamic terrorism has replaced the capitalist west as a direct threat to the region’s stability, this might seem a mistake). The more generous say this was simply the abondonment of an unpopular and overly zealous communist policy, and return to the traditional way of writing. Older people still have a fluid command of the roman script, but arabic has ubiquotously replaced it.

2) Speak Turkish, Kyrgyz, Tartar, Uzebkh or some other Turkic language. They’re all related and Uyghur so it would help hugely. Some of the grammar takes a bit to get your head around – for example the subject has to agree with the verb (I, You, He, all add endings if they are combined with the verb to have, eg it would be I-X have, You-Y have, He-Z has). The are also seem to be at least three different throaty h noises. In Kashgar I met quite a lot of central asians who spoke no chinese but communicated reasonably well with the locals via their own languages.

3) Go to Southern Xinjiang. In the area I was I met many, many, many people without Chinese. Even the simplest questions such as “how much?” or “where?” couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be understood.  English is actually more useful since some words (Maschina for car, kilo, bazaar) are similar. But even for the short amount of time we were there, teach-yourself-Uyghur books came in very handy indeed.

4) Look vaguely central asian. My friend who is half asian apparently looks chinese when she wears glasses and uyghur when she does not. when she did not, she was constantly talked at in uyghur. I also found that if I dressed less like a bratty brit abroad (ie less of the hawaiian shorts and more of the longsleeved shirts) the uyghur-spoken-at me levels went up astronomically.  

5) Read the menus. They often have a Uyghur/Chinese translation, so you can practice your food vocab. Actually Uyghur food has mixed up quite a lot with chinese, complete with loanwords, eg meefan for rice (mifan in chinese), laghman for pulled noodles (lamian in chinese). Of course this requires the arabic script. Take care when ordering random stuff off the menu in uyghur – they might think you’re serious and really do want a lump of deepgrilled fat on a stick.

The longer I stayed in Xinjiang for, the more I was struck by a curious desire to come back some day and study Uyghur probably. One real draw is that as an indoeuropean you can mingle much more with the crowd than in chinese areas where you’ll always be the laowai. Also I met folk who had used it to great effect in other central asia countries, or vice versa. Actually I met a few really impressive characters in Xinjiang, including a french girl who spoke fluent Tajik (which interestingly is not turkic but close to persian) and had travelled widely in Afganistan, and an American who spoke extremely good Uyghur. There were also a pleasantly surprising number of Han Chinese who spoke or were learning Uyghur. This was markedly different from Western Sichuan/Southern Qinghai when I didn’t meet any locally based Chinese leraning Tibetan.

However unless I end up living in Xinjiang, Uyghur probably won’t rank that high on my language to-learn wish-list. Which is still topped, as it has been since I was 14, by Russian. One day…


5 Responses to “How to learn Uyghur”

  1. alaa Says:

    l love uyghure and my lover is from thir l want to mireg with hir

  2. alaa Says:

    l am from syria l love uyghure pipole


    hi please tell me about learn through audio mp3 recorded lesson
    . i cant go any ware.. through intent …

    please i am waiting it important for me…


    hi i am from Pakistan and i want to learn Uyghur language i cant go any wear i want to learn through internet and mb3 recorded lesson

    please tell me about this …


  5. lc Says:

    “islamic terrorism” – sorry but I couldn’t stop laughing when I read this.

    I enjoyed reading your blog, but, this “islamic terrorism” and such context comes from the biggest dictatorship of today: the liberal democracy and its super-structure, which denies its existence – so you’re going to be beyond PC (political correctness) if you try to name it. I’d skip that word “terrorism”, because it only messes up the things.

    But, minus this one, the blog is okay.

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