Society and Culture
The ethnic identity of the Kyrgyz has been strongly linked to
their language and to ethnic traditions, both of which have been
guarded with particular zeal once independence provided an opportunity
to make national policy on these matters. Less formally, the Kyrgyz
people have maintained with unusual single-mindedness many elements
of social structure and a sense of their common past. The name
Kyrgyz derives from the Turkic kyrk plus yz
, a combination meaning "forty clans."
In the period after A.D. 840, the Kyrgyz joined other Turkic
groups in an overall Turkification pattern extending across the
Tian Shan into the Tarim River basin, east of present-day Kyrgyzstan's
border with China. In this process, which lasted for more than
two centuries, the Kyrgyz tribes became mixed with other tribes,
thoroughly absorbing Turkic cultural and linguistic characteristics.
The forebears of the present-day Kyrgyz are believed to have
been either southern Samoyed or Yeniseyan tribes. Those tribes
came into contact with Turkic culture after they conquered the
Uygurs and settled the Orkhon area, site of the oldest recorded
Turkic language, in the ninth century (see Early History, this
ch.). If descended from the Samoyed tribes of Siberia, the Kyrgyz
would have spoken a language in the Uralic linguistic subfamily
when they arrived in Orkhon; if descended from Yeniseyan tribes,
they would have descended from a people of the same name who began
to move into the area of present-day Kyrgyzstan from the Yenisey
River region of central Siberia in the tenth century, after the
Kyrgyz conquest of the Uygurs to the east in the preceding century.
Ethnographers dispute the Yeniseyan origin, however, because of
the very close cultural and linguistic connections between the
Kyrgyz and the Kazaks (see Early Tribal Movement; Ethnic Groups,
In the period of tsarist administration (1876-1917), the Kazaks
and the Kyrgyz both were called Kyrgyz, with what are now the
Kyrgyz subdenominated when necessary as Kara-Kyrgyz (black Kyrgyz).
Although the Kyrgyz language has more Mongolian and Altaic elements
than does Kazak, the modern forms of the two languages are very
similar. As they exist today, both are part of the Nogai group
of the Kipchak division of the Turkic languages, which belong
to the Uralic-Altaic language family. The modern Kyrgyz language
did not have a written form until 1923, at which time an Arabic-based
alphabet was used. That was changed to a Latin-based alphabet
in 1928 and to a Cyrillic-based one in 1940. In the years immediately
following independence, another change of alphabet was discussed,
but the issue does not seem to generate the same passions in Kyrgyzstan
that it does in other former Soviet republics (see National Identity,
ch. 1; Culture and the Arts, ch. 3; The Spoken Language, ch. 4;
The Written Language, ch. 4; Language and Literature, ch. 5).
One important difference between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan is
that the Kyrgyz people's mastery of their own language is almost
universal, whereas the linguistic phase of national identity is
not as clear in the much larger area and population of Kazakstan
(see Language, ch. 1). As in Kazakstan, mastery of the "titular"
language among the resident Europeans of Kyrgyzstan is very rare.
In the early 1990s, the Akayev government pursued an aggressive
policy of introducing Kyrgyz as the official language, forcing
the remaining European population to use Kyrgyz in most public
situations. Public pressure to enforce this change was sufficiently
strong that a Russian member of President Akayev's staff created
a public scandal in 1992 by threatening to resign to dramatize
the pressure for "Kyrgyzification" of the non-native population.
A 1992 law called for the conduct of all public business to be
converted fully to Kyrgyz by 1997. But in March 1996, Kyrgyzstan's
parliament adopted a resolution making Russian an official state
language alongside Kyrgyz and marking a reversal of earlier sentiment.
Substantial pressure from Russia was a strong factor in this change,
which was part of a general rapprochement with Russia urged by
Data as of March 1996