How to Learn Uyghur

Uyghur or Uighur (ئۇيغۇرچە‎, Uyghurche, Уйғурчә, 维吾尔语) is the mother tongue of roughly 8 to 11 million Uyghur Turks in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of Western China (also referred to as East Turkestan) as well as in pockets of neighbouring Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and Russia.

Uyghur is a Turkic language, sharing close ties with languages like Turkish, Kazakh, Tatar, and especially Uzbek. Due to history and geography, Uyghur has, over the centuries, been infused with Persian, Arabic, Mongolian, and particularly Mandarin Chinese.

The Uyghurs are a Muslim people and have a long, rich Islamic and Turkic cultural tradition, rich in music, poetry, medieval literature, textiles, decorative arts, culinary arts, and metallurgy. Learning even the basics of Uyghur will open you up to a world, culture, and way of life with kebabs, pilaf, fresh bread, porcelain moons, turquoise mosques, pomegranates, and desert cities painted in pastel hues...


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    Read up on Uyghur history and culture. While learning any language, one must learn about the people behind the language. Conduct internet searches, check out your local library, book shops, and see what you can dig up. If you have trouble finding books specifically on the Uyghur, try books of a broader scope, such as China, the Silk Road, Central Asia, Turkic peoples, Turkic languages, etc.
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    Obtain phrasebooks or Teach Yourself courses on Modern Turkish as well as Mandarin Chinese. Turkish is a linguistic cousin of Uyghur, it shares much of its base vocabulary as well as grammar with Uyghur, and Turkish is also the most widely published-on Turkic language in the English-speaking world, Uyghur is not. Mandarin Chinese is China's inter-ethnic language as well the second most-spoken and written language in Xinjiang. Knowing bits and pieces of both languages will better ease you into Uyghur as well as smooth out communication problems should they arise.
    • The Lonely Planet travel collection has two excellent phrasebooks titled Central Asia and China that both have sections devoted to Uyghur in them. They also provide wonderful cultural notes as well as guides on how to wisely travel through the Silk Road.
    • The closest Turkic language to Uygur is in fact Uzbek; however, like most other Turkic languages, resources on Uzbek, in English, are few and far between.
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    Research Uyghur language resources. Uyghur works are not widely available nor is it studied as a language in the English-speaking world, and resources are thus scarce. If you can read in Turkish, Chinese, or Russian, the number of resources available to you will increase signficantly. If serious language study is your goal, two books and a dictionary you may want to start with include:
    • Spoken Uyghur by Reinhard Hahn, University of Washington Press
    • Modern Uyghur Grammar (Morphology) by Hämot Tömür and Anne Lee, Yıldız Teknik Üniversitesi
    • An Uyghur-English Dictionary by Henry G. Schwarz
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    Learn the Uyghur alphabet. Literacy is key to learning and easing your way through any language. Within Xinjiang, Uyghur is written using an Arabic-based alphabet modified to meet Uyghur's needs. Fortunately, unlike Arabic, Persian, or most notably Ottoman Turkish, the Uyghur-Arabic alphabet indicates vowels and vowel harmony in all instances, spanning books to street signage.
    • Outside Xinjiang, Uyghur is written in either a modified form of the cyrillic alphabet, modelling Kyrgyz, Kazakh, and Tatar, or a variant of the latin alphabet, modelling Turkish, Uzbek, and Azeri.
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    Immerse yourself in Uyghur. Finding Uyghur language courses and Uyghur tutors outside of select Near Eastern and Turkic Studies departments at certain universities may prove difficult, if not impossible. If you live in a city with a strong Chinese or strong Islamic/Muslim community, you may find a handful of Uyghur living among them to learn from and practice with. YouTube and the internet, as a whole, have a variety of Uyghur-language media for you to listen to and watch; just do it and do it often. Another wise move would be to travel to Xinjiang itself and live among the Uyghur.


  • Be extremely mindful of the Uyghur people's complicated relationship with the Han Chinese. The Uyghur, like the Tibetans, are not ethnically, linguistically, or religiously related to the Chinese, and those differences have sparked tremendous tension regarding the issue of cultural and state autonomy in the Xinjiang region as well as fears of Pan-Turkicism. For more information on that, check out the philanthropy work of activist and businesswoman of Rebiya Kadeer (رابىيە قادىر‎, 热比娅·卡德尔).
  • Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region = شىنجاڭ ئۇيغۇر ئاپتونوم رايونى‎ (Shinjang Uyghur Aptonom Rayoni); 新疆维吾尔自治区 ( Xīnjiāng Wéiwú'ěr Zìzhìqū)
  • An Uyghur by the name of Kaşgarlı Mahmud who, in Baghdad, Iraq between 1072 AD - 1074 AD, wrote and published the world's first encyclopedia in Arabic on the Turkic languages and Turkic peoples of Central Asia titled: Divanü Lügati't-Türk (ديوان لغات الترك, Türk Diyalektleri Sözlüğü). Translations of the near millennium-old manuscript are available in Turkish and Persian.

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Categories: China | World Languages