by Nurlan Kabdylkhak, PhD Candidate, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

By the early twentieth century, Kazan Tatar communities managed to build a Kazan Muslim world in the middle of the Russian empire, as Danielle Ross would have it. This world featured spheres of exclusive Tatar economic and cultural influence and reproduced social hierarchies typical of the tsarist state. The language of modernity adopted and promoted by Tatar literati draw a picture, in which Tatars occupied a leading role among other ostensibly less advanced Muslim communities of Russia and beyond. However, the unique status of Tatar culture and language, though often acknowledged by other Muslims themselves, was also a subject of debate. One such debate found its way into the pages of an influential Muslim periodical outlet which went under the name of Shura (“The Council”).

Based in the city of Orenburg in the northern borderlands of the Kazakh steppe, Shura regularly featured articles authored by the contributors from the steppe region. A number of such articles published in 1911 (one of them additionally appeared on the pages of Orenburg-based daily Vaqit) envisioned a very dark future for Qazaqs who were doomed to extinction like other communities in the past due to lawlessness, injustice, corruption, and more significantly, due to their ignorance (nadanliq). Another article, slightly less ominous in tone, urged Qazaq children to learn Tatar as a medium to modern knowledge due to the absence of any Qazaq-language materials. Qazaqs’ salvation depended on their acculturation to Tatar culture, one would say!

Two responses by Qazaq contributors appeared in Shura later in the year. One of them was authored by Gumar Qarash (‘Umar al-Qarash), a religious scholar from the Western Kazakh steppe. Qarash condemned the Tatar contributors for predicting such a dark future for the Qazaqs instead of encouraging the steppe people to pursue “progress and civilization.” He dismissed their claims as meaningless and harmful. Another Qazaq contributor joined forces in the debate. The famous poet Mir-Jaqip Dulatov (Mir-Yaqub Dulatov) severely criticized the piece’s overall framing by bringing into relief the existence of Qazaq-language editorial enterprises such as the Troitsk-based journal Ai-Qap (“Alas”) (1911-1915), a newspaper published by Qazaq students of the Galiya madrasa in Ufa. Dulatov concluded that Qazaq children should indeed continue using Tatar-language books and school materials, but only until Qazaq publications become available to them. Embracing a then widely-shared modernist vision, Dulatov advocated for the importance of publishing in Qazaq arguing that only books and newspapers printed in the mother tongue (oz tillerinde) can bring benefits to the nation.

Another Tatar article that appeared in Shura in late 1912 gave a more positive picture of Qazaq “cultural development” and their language. Entitled “To the Attention of Qazaq Writers” (Qazaqcha Soz Yazuchilar Diqqatina), the piece praised nascent Qazaq “national literature” calling it “charming” and explained the main linguistic features of literary Qazaq spellings. It also predicted the emergence of a common Turkic language that was to replace all other existing Turkic dialects. The author provided no characteristics of this common language, but still encouraged Qazaq-writing authors to purge their works of “funny” and corrupted (buziq) spellings. The Tatar contributor was particularly unhappy with varying Qazaq plural endings and urged Qazaq literati to stick to the common Turkic “lar.”

A more comprehensive response to the latest piece and previous charges against literary Qazaq appeared on the pages of Shura in February 1913. In a four-page tirade not coincidentally entitled again “To the Attention of Qazaq Writers” (though this time written according to vernacular Qazaq spelling: Qazaqcha Soz Jazuchilar Diqqatina), the prominent Qazaq educator and linguist Ahmet Baytursinov, not only defended the use of vernacular Qazaq in publishing, but also attempted to establish Qazaq as the purest of all Turkic languages. The article’s linguistic features merit a special attention. For his piece, Baytursinov adopted spoken Qazaq, that is a language vernacularized to the extent not seen by a Turkic periodical before. Even Tatar-language contributors to Shura and other newspapers opted for adjusting their written language to what was perceived as literary standards with its adherence to the plural ending “lar” (despite the presence of other endings in spoken Tatar), heavy usage of Arabic and Persian terms, and occasional borrowings from Ottoman Turkish (such as the use of “ben” for “I” instead of more common “min/men”). Not Baytursinov, though. He explained his language choice simply by his unfamiliarity with Tatar, a doubtful statement for a person who regularly read Tatar-language periodical literature. Given that all previous Qazaq authors participating in the discussion wrote their pieces in literary Tatar, Baytursinov’s adherence to the vernacular language makes his piece (most probably) the only Qazaq-language article written specifically for and published by a tsarist-era Tatar periodical.

In the piece, Baytursinov endorses literary Qazaq by deploying scholarly arguments and relying on commonsense. He goes the extra mile in explaining the linguistic features of his mother tongue, features that speakers of other Turkic dialects might perceive as non-standard ones. He pushes against those calling literary Qazaq as having a crooked spelling (qisiq emla) and poses a question that can help sort all things out: “Do we have to adjust our language to the script and spelling, or do we have to adjust our script and spelling to the language?” Baytursinov’s answer is crystal clear: to adhere to modified Qazaq spelling is a practical choice. Moreover, the Qazaq educator uses his piece as an opportunity to endorse Qazaq’s status as the most Turkic of all Turkic languages. Unlike other communities, he argues, Qazaqs lived a secluded life and never abandoned the way of their ancestors. To be sure, he acknowledges the presence of loanwords, but emphasizes that Qazaqs managed to masterfully adjust these borrowings to their language. In the case of other Turkic communities, it was the foreign spelling and imperfections of the Arabic script that distorted their languages, he says. Baytursinov concludes that if “we are to be honest, Qazaq is the purest of Turkic languages!” thereby pushing the many supporters of a common Turkic language cause to opt for Qazaq as a middle Turkic dialect. Baytursinov signs the article as the editor-in-chief of a newspaper boastfully named “Qazaq,” a newly established Qazaq-language periodical based, just like Shura, in the city of Orenburg. Over the next five years (1913-1918), this newspaper’s devotion to modified Qazaq spelling would solidify vernacular Qazaq as a literary language. What became of it in the following decades under Soviet rule is an entirely different story.