The Turkmens inhabit an extensive area which stretches from the northwest of Kazakhstan and the adjacent parts of Russia over Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to northern and northwestern Afghanistan, as well as to northeastern Persia. Turkmens’ area of settlement becomes much larger when the “Turkmens” of the Near East (Turkey, Iraq, and Syria) and China are taken into account. Approximately 400,000 people in the Near East identify themselves as Turkmens, but in reality they are descendents of the Oghuz (see ḠOZZ) immigrants of the 11th-13th centuries. More than a half of these groups, who are not directly related with the Turkmens of Central Asia, are living in the northeastern and central Iraq. The others settle in northern Syria (in the outskirts of Aleppo and along the Syrian-Turkish border) and in Turkey. The “Turkmens” of China (Salars) are partly of Turkmen origin (Salır-Turkmens), but their present language and culture are very different from those of the Turkmens of the Middle East (for the language of the Salars see Hahn, 1988 and Tenishev, 1976). A part of them evidently originate from the Turkmen immigrants from the surroundings of Samarqand, who settled in the region of today’s Chinese provinces Xinjiang, Gansu, and Qinhai from the 14th century onwards (on the problem of the ethnogenesis of the Salars see Ataev, 1993, p. 287 and Dzhikiev, 1991, pp. 244-48).

The Turkmens of Persia live in the northeast of the country, in the province of Khorasan (mostly along the border-areas adjacent to Turkmenistan), as well as in the northeastern part of the province of Mazandaran. Estimates on the number of the speakers of Turkmen differ greatly. The numbers vary from around 400,000 to 1,000,000 (Clark, p. 11). In reality, the speakers of the Turkmen language in Persia should number a little more than 400,000. Higher numbers result from counting those who speak Khorasan-Turkish (Ḵorāsāni; see TURKIC LANGUAGES OF PERSIA) which had for a long time been regarded as Turkmen or at least as a branch of Turkmen. Larger numbers can also derive from the fact that the areas of settlement of the speakers of both languages overlap. In the course of the Turcological expeditions of the Department of Turcology and Altaic Studies oft the University of Göttingen to Persia in 1968, 1969, and 1973, the independence of the Khorasan-Turkish language was established (Doerfer and Hesche, 1993, pp. 14-23). Later, these results misled Gerhard Doerfer, who assumed that “the Turkmen language is not spoken in Khorasan at all, if only occasionally, while it is spoken in Astarābād” (tr. from Doerfer, 1978, p. 133). Such a conclusion is as wrong as the numbers given by Larry Clark (1998, p. 11). Besides this, in Persia, the Turkmen language is second only to the Azerbaijani language, which has the largest number of speakers among all Turkic languages of Persia.

The Turkmen language of Persia is divided into a number of dialects, which, although they have their specific characteristics, do not differ much from each other. Geographical location and the “tribal affiliation” of the speakers form the background of the dialectal variety. The dialects of Turkmen are spoken in their respective areas, where the members of the corresponding “tribes” live. For example, the Sarık dialect is spoken in Turkmenistan, as well as in Persia and Afghanistan. According to Clark (pp. 17-18), the main dialects of the Turkmen language are: 1. Teke; 1.1. Ahal (sub-dialect of Teke); 1.2. Marı (sub-dialect of Teke); 2. Yomut; 2.1. western Yomut; 2.2. northern Yomut; 3. Ärsarı; 4. Salır; 5. Sarık; 6. Chowdur; 7. Alili; 8. Gökleng; 9. Nohur; and 10. Änew. Except for some “minor dialects,” dialects 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 9 above are spoken in Persia.

The Turkmen language of Persia—in contrast to the Turkmen language of Turkmenistan—is less studied. It was not even taken into account in numerous works on the Turkmen language, like the articles of Louis Bazin (1959) and Johannes Benzing (1939). Karl Heinrich Menges mentioned the Turkmens of Persia, but provided no detailed information about them (Menges, p. 278). The first more or less extensive description was given in 1966 by Yusuf Azmun (Azmun). Later—as the result of the Turcological expeditions undertaken by Gerhard Doerfer and his collaborators—the study of G. Doerfer and W. Hesche followed (Doerfer and Hesche, 1998). In more recent overviews, the Turkmen language of Persia has been taken into consideration, or at least some information about it has been provided (Clark). The Turkmen language of Persia is less investigated than that of Turkmenistan due to the fact that, for a long time, Persia had lacked Turkic studies, and there were just a few specialists interested in the turcophone minorities during the Pahlavi period. In addition to that, possibilities for fieldwork have been quite limited since the Islamic Revolution. On the other side, Soviet Turcologists have compiled very good and comprehensive dictionaries and grammars (Clark, 1988, pp. 22-26).

The Turkmen language belongs to the Oghuz group of Turkic languages and forms a separate northwestern branch within it. Turkmen shows the largest number of archaic features among the Oghuz languages, e.g., the preservation of long vowels (see Räsänen). The Turkmen language has the following stock of vowels: a/ā, e/ǟ, ı/ī, i/ī, o/ō; ö/ȫ; u/ū, and ü/ǖ. The Ḵorāsāni (Khorasan-Turkish) language was considered to belong to the Turkmen, while it does not show such a strongly developed opposition of long and short vowels and must be regarded as a language different from the Turkmen. Table 1 below shows the differences in the two languages, and in the dialects of the Turkmen language as well.

See TABLE 1 for the pronominal predicate forms in the Ḵorāsāni (Khorasan-Turkish) and in various dialects of Turkmen (I = vowel-change ı/i/u/ü, U = u/ü, A = a/ä, X = x/χ, K = q/k, and x/k; according to Doerfer, 1983, pp. 109-17).

1 according to Doerfer, 1977-78, pp. 167-75 and Berdyev, pp. 290-94; 2 dialects Teke, Yomut, Salır, etc., according to Berdyev, pp. 386-94 and Arazkuliev, pp. 146 f. and 156; 3 dialects Gökleng, Alili, etc.; 4 dialects Sarıq and Ärsarı.

The Turkmen language, which has always been in contact with Iranian languages, particularly Persian, shows a number of borrowings from them. This is especially true for the Turkmen literary idiom which, being created in the middle of the 18th century by Dawlat-Moḥammad Mollā (Dövlet-Mäm(m)et Molla) known as Āzādi (1700-60) and his son Maḵdumquli (Maqtımqulı, 1733-82), has included Persian elements since its earliest times. At the time of the beginnings of the Turkmen literature, this was due to the influence of the Persian language on the education, like it was in the theological institutions in Samarqand, Khiva, Bukhara, etc. which were visited by the founders of the Turkmen literature. In the case of Persian loan words, distinction must be made between the borrowings from Persian directly and the borrowings from Persian through Chaghatay. In the case of the borrowings from Persian directly, again, differentiation is necessary between the loan words from the spoken language and those borrowed from the literary Persian. Beside the great number of Persian loan words in Turkmen (deryā ‘river,’ hemme ‘all,’ mašgala ‘family,’ pagta ‘cotton,’ etc.), one can also find various morphemes, which have found their way into this language. For example, the suffixes +dār, +gar, +keš, etc., as well as the prefixes +, bet+ and nǟ+. Some of these morphemes still exist in the spoken language, while others are just non-productive forms in modern times, that is, they exist in literary texts exclusively, or occur in specific composite words, and/or are added to Persian loan words only. Some of these elements, combined with the Turkmen suffixes +lik/+lık and +čilik/+čılık, are also used to form abstract nouns, e.g., betbagtčılık ‘misfortune’ < betbagt ‘unhappy’ (< Pers. badbaḵt +čılık; see Clark, p. 541).

Certain features that are specific for varieties of the same dialects can be explained by the distribution of the Turkmen settlement areas within the territories of different states, like Persia and the successor-states of the former Soviet Union. Thus, the Russian language influenced the Turkmen dialects of Central Asia for some decades (or even centuries), while the Turkmen dialects of Persia were more exposed to the influence of Persian.

For a music sample, see Ilāri.


S. Arazkuliev, Türkmen dilinini gısgača dialektologik sözlügi, Ashgabat, 1977.

Kh. Ataev, “Turkmeny-salary (salyry) kitaya” (The Turkmen-salars [salyrs] of China), in Turkmeny zarubezhnogo vostoka (ocherki o turkmenakh Irana, Afganistana, Iraka, Sirii, Turtsii i Kitaya (Turkmens of foreign East: surveys on the Turkmen of Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and China) ed. Kh. Ataev, Ashgabat, 1993, pp. 268-90.

Y. Azmun, “Türkmen halk edebiyatı hakkında,” Reşid Rahmeti Arat için, Ankara, 1966, pp. 32-83.

L. Bazin, “Le Turkmène,” Philologiae Turcicae Fundamenta 1, Wiesbaden 1959, pp. 308-17.

J. Benzing, “Über die Verformen im Turkmenischen (Dissertation),” Mitteilungen des Seminars für Orientalische Studien, Westasiatische Studien 42/2, 1939, pp. 1-56.

R. Berdyev, Ocherk dialektov turkmenskogo yazyka (Survey of dialects of the Turkmen language), Ashgabat, 1970.

A. Caferoğlu and G. Doerfer, “Das Aserbaidschanische,” Philologiae Turcicae Fundamenta 1, Wiesbaden, 1959, pp. 280-307.

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Idem, “Die ‘vier Wörter’ mit b- > v, Null,” in Hungaro-Turcica. Studies in Honour of Julius Németh, ed. Gy. Káldy-Nagy, Budapest, 1976a, pp. 135-47.

Idem, “Woher stammt Ibn Muhannā?” AMI, N.S. 9, 1976b, pp. 243-51.

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Idem, “Das Chorasantürkische,” Türk Dili Araştırmaları Yıllığı Bellleten 1977, 1978, pp. 127-204.

Idem, “Ein türkischer Dialekt aus der Gegend von Hamadān,” Acta Orientalia (Academiae Scientarum Hungaricae) 36/1-3, 1983, pp. 99-124.

Idem, “Die Stellung des Osmanischen im Kreise des Oghusischen und seine Vorgeschichte,” in Handbuch der türkischen Sprachwissenschaft, vol. 1, ed. Gy. Hazai, Budapest, 1990, pp. 13-34.

Idem, “Göttinger turkologische Forschungen in Iran,” in Türkische Sprachen und Literaturen. Materialien der ersten deutschen Turkologen-Konferenz Bamberg, 3.-6. Juli 1987, ed. I. Baldauf, K. Kreiser, and S. Tezcan, Wiesbaden, 1991, pp. 103-11.

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A. Dzhikiev, Ocherki proiskhozhdeniya i formirovaniya turkmenskogo naroda v èpokhu srednevekov’ya (Surveys on the origins and formation of the Turkmen nation in the Medieval epoch), Ashgabat 1991.

R. Hahn, “Notes on the Origin and Development of the Salar Language,” Acta Orientalia (Academiae Scientarum Hungaricae) 42, 1988, pp. 235-75.

T. Kowalski, Sir Aurel Stein’s Sprachaufzeichnungen im Äinallu-Dialekt aus Südpersien. Zapiski Sir Aurela Steina w dialekcie Äinallu z południowej Persij, Kraków 1937.

K. H. Menges, “Research in the Turkic Dialects of Iran (Preliminary Report on a Trip to Persia),” Oriens 4, 1951, pp. 273-79.

M. Räsänen, “Türkische Miszellen I: Die Vokallängen der ersten Silbe im Turkmenischen,” Stud. Or. 25/1, 1960, pp. 3-19.

E. R. Tenishev, Stroĭ salarskogo yazyka (The structure of the Salar language), Moscow, 1976.

(Michael Knüppel)

Originally Published: January 1, 2000

Last Updated: April 15, 2010