Turkic: Probing the Frontiers of a Lingua Franca

November 17, 2021

Sitzungssaal of the Austrian Academy of Sciences
Dr. Ignaz Seipel-Platz 2, 1010 Wien


There is a long tradition of scholarship examining the processes whereby Persian and Arabic emerged as languages of learned communication among Muslims in Central Eurasia. By contrast, much less attention has been accorded to concomitant processes of vernacularization. The adoption of Turkic languages (Eastern Turkic/Chaghatay, Ottoman, Tatar, and Qazaq) as a medium of communication from the early modern period onwards broadened considerably the ways in which Muslim scholars could connect to local communities, diversify patterns of knowledge production, and increase the circulation of their works beyond the infrastructure of learned circles. Starting from at least the early 18th century we observe the interesting phenomenon whereby Islamic creedal literature, hagiographies, jurisprudence, occult sciences, and apocalyptic literature began to be crafted in Turkic languages, thereby gaining traction among constituencies of readers in the regions. From Kazan to Tobolsk, and from Orenburg to Derbent, consumption of Islamic literature in Turkic languages shaped a landscape of knowledge that was becoming increasingly fine-tuned to the tastes and needs of devotional communities and scholars who imagined themselves embedded in regional networks of piety and learning.

Processes of Turkic vernacularization that one observes across Central Eurasia were also facilitated by the Russian empire’s adopting Turkic as the bureaucratic lingua franca when communicating with its Muslim subjects and with Islamic governments such as Safavid Iran, Mughal India, and the Uzbek khanates. The Russian imperial administration’s preference for Turkic over Persian and Arabic had the unintended consequence of elevating the status of Turkic as the official “Islamic” language of the empire. This change in status was further reinforced with the increase of a Turkic-language print culture in Inner Russia, which saw the major publishing houses in the hands of the rising Tatar trading, manufacturing and reading bourgeoisie that benefited from the Russian empire’s expanding links into the Kazakh Steppe and into Central Asia.

Taking stock of studies devoted to diplomatic and chancery practices across the Central Eurasian heartland, this international workshop sets for itself the task of testing Edward Keenan’s idea that “Turkic was the language of diplomacy for the whole of the Mongol and Turkic sphere, from Cairo to Peking and from Vilno to Delhi. This was the Latin of this world. Like Latin, it survived as an archaic but functional form long after the imperial power which spread it had vanished.” In pursuing this goal, the workshops seeks to provide a cartography of Turkic learned exchanges in Central Eurasia and the cultural areas connected to it.