Tatar | Submitted by Agnes Kefeli
The Tatar language belongs to the Altaic or northwestern Qypchak branch of the Turkic language family. Kazan or Volga Tatars number about seven million people. The language closest to Tatar among all Turkic languages is Bashkir. The origin of the Tatars is subject to debate: are Kazan Tatars descendants of the pre-Mongol Turkic Bulgar people or descendants of the Tatars of the Mongol Golden Horde?
Since the sixteenth century, after Ivan the Terrible conquered Kazan, Tatars have formed a diaspora throughout the territory of the former Soviet Union and the world. One third of Tatars resides in Tatarstan, a republic located on the left bank of the Volga River, in the European part of Russia, 800 kilometers east of Moscow, whose capital is Kazan. The other two-thirds of Tatars live outside Tatarstan in compact groups in Bashkortostan, Udmurtiia, Mordoviia, Mari El, Chuvashiia, Komi, Siberia, Central Asia, Caucasus, and important Russian cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. There are also important Tatar communities outside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union, in Finland, Turkey, United States, Canada, China, Japan, Germany, and Australia. Some of these communities were formed before the Russian revolution (Tatars were known for their fantastic trading skills); others, after the civil war. With no census of Tatars abroad, it is difficult to determine their numbers, but there may be as many as 100,000 to 200,000. Tatar-speaking Chuvash, Maris, and Udmurts live in mixed villages of the Middle Volga and in the city of Kazan. Most Tatars are Sunni Muslims, but about four percent are Eastern Orthodox Christians and view themselves as a separate group. They are called Kriashen and refer to their language as Kriashen.
There are three major dialects in the Tatar language: Central, Western, and Eastern. The Central dialect is mainly found in the Tatar republic. The Astrakhan, Kasimov, and most Kriashen dialects derive from this group. The Western dialect is also called the Mishar dialect. The Mishars are believed to be descendants of Qypchaks from the Golden Horde who settled down west of the Volga River. They can be found in Tatarstan, Chuvashiia, and Mordoviia. Finally, the Baraba, Tomsk, and Omsk Tatars of Siberia use the Eastern dialect. The Central dialect serves as the standard literary language and pronunciation in Tatarstan.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Tatar merchants often served as Kulturträger, spreading literacy and Islamic culture to other Turkic peoples, such as the Kazakhs of Central Asia, the Bashkirs of the Urals, and the Chuvash of the middle Volga. Their literary language was also used as the language of diplomacy between Russian officials and all Turkic peoples of the empire.
Interested in expanding further into Muslim lands, Peter the Great and Catherine II encouraged the study of Turkic languages. In 1769, the first boys’ gymnasium of Kazan opened a Tatar class whose teacher was Sagit Khalfin (1732-85), famous for composing the first published secular alphabet book of the Tatar language. Khalfin is also known for putting together the first Russian-Tatar dictionary of 25,000 words, still in manuscript form. In the nineteenth century, the pedagogue Kaium Nasyri (1825-1902) advocated the use of the vernacular Tatar of the middle Volga as the basis for the development of a literary language. He wrote the first Tatar grammars and dictionaries in the Tatar language. Following Nasyri's steps, reformist Tatars, called jadids, promoted the study of Tatar as a subject of learning in Qur'anic schools, which led to the publication of new dictionaries and grammars in their language. Before the revolution of 1917, the political and cultural issues of the Muslim world were debated in their newspapers, whose numbers surpassed that of periodicals in other Turkic languages.
After the revolution, in June 1920, Tatar was declared the official language of a new autonomous republic of the Soviet Union along with Russian. In the thirties, the use of Tatar language was discouraged. Tatars could not have access to university level education in their native language. Under Nikita Khrushchev, Tatar children in the cities could no longer have access to any form of schooling in Tatar. As a result, the use of the language declined in urban areas. In 1992, the parliament of Tatarstan adopted policies that succeeded in reversing this decline. A new law made both Tatar and Russian official languages of the sovereign republic of Tatarstan. From 1994 to 2017, non-Tatar students had to take Tatar as a second language in schools. This led to the training of many teachers of Tatar as a second language at the University of Kazan, and the creation of new textbooks that instructors in the United States can use as references for their own teaching. In 2017, the teaching of the Tatar language in Tatarstan faced a new setback. The Russian Education Ministry replaced the mandatory Tatar-language classes of six hours by elective classes of two hours per week. Tatars, however, have found new ways to maintain student interest and proficiency in their own language: free Tatar language lessons in mosques, extra-curricular activities in public schools, Tatar language festivals, digitization of Tatar literature, audiobooks, podcasts, and online dictionaries.
After perestroika, another issue quickly grabbed the Tatar deputies' attention: the orthographic reform. Tatars used the Arabic script until 1927, when a Latin alphabet was adopted. In 1939 a Cyrillic-based alphabet replaced the Latin alphabet on Stalin's order. In 1999, the parliament of Tatarstan ordered a return to a modified Latin alphabet, but three years later, the Russian State Duma forbade the use of non-Cyrillic alphabets for all languages of the Russian Federation. Currently, the Latin-based alphabet (along with the Cyrillic alphabet) is only used on the Internet.
The influence of Russian language has always been significant in Kazan Tatar, even before the Russian revolution. However, during the Soviet Union, Russian loan words in the scientific area increased and replaced Arabic and Persian loanwords. Currently, Tatar intellectuals try to reintroduce Arabic and Persian loanwords of the pre-revolutionary period.
In short, thanks to the re-introduction of schooling in the Tatar language and the efforts of Tatar linguists, historians, and teachers, Tatar is more alive than never.
If you have any questions and comments on this page, please contact Agnes.Kefeli@asu.edu.
Language Learning Resources
Textbooks in Russian:
F. S. Safiullina, Tatarskii iazyk: intensivnyi kurs (Kazan: "Khäter," 1998);
Salekhova, N. Kh.; Maksimova, A. K.; and Kharisova, Ch. M. Intensivnoe obuchenie tatarskomu iazyku (Prakticheskii kurs) (Kazan: Mägarif, 1993).
Textbook in German:
Margarete I. Ersen-Rasch, Tatarisch: Lehrbuch für Anfänger und Fortgeschrittene (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2009)
The texts are in conversational Tatar. Most helpful, they are accompanied with simple exercises and recordings.
Grammars & Dictionaries
Nicholas Poppe, Tatar Manual: Descriptive Grammar and Texts with A Tatar-English Glossary, Indiana University Publications Uralic and Altaic Series, vol. 25, Bloomington: Indiana University, 1963.
This book contains a very helpful bibliography in Russian and Tatar for the further study of Tatar.
Gustav Burbiel, Tatar Grammar: A Grammar of the Contemporary Tatar Literary Language (Stockholm-Moscow, 2018).
A. A. Timerkhanov, G. R. Safiullina, Tatar-English, English-Tatar Dictionary (Kazan, 2018)
Glosbe (Online Dictionary)
Other dictionaries can be found here.
Agnes Kefeli, 2018
Agnes Kefeli, 2018
Recordings from Tatar TV can be found here
It is now possible to learn Tatar in the United States. Since 1995, thanks to internal funding from Arizona State University and external funding from the Social Science Research Council, the Critical Languages Institute of Arizona State University offers a unique intensive program each summer in first-year, and occasionally, second-year Tatar. Arizona State University also gives students the opportunity to study second or third year in Kazan during one or two semesters. For more info, please click here.