Crushin’ Krussian (or, Code-Switching in Kyrgyzstan)

Before leaving for Peace Corps, one of the most commonly questions I heard was, “What language do they speak in Kyrgyzstan?” It’s not such an easy question to answer here… Kyrgyzstan is a thoroughly multiethnic country, not so unlike the United States, where people of many different cultures live and work together. It obviously has a large population of Kyrgyz people, along with other communities of Central Asians like Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kazakhs; there are Turks who were deported from Georgia in 1944; don’t forget about the Koreans who fled the Japanese invasion in the 1930s; Germans first came here during Catherine the Great’s rule over the Russian empire in the 1800s; and there are also big groups of Dungans and Uyghurs, Muslim communities who originally come from China. (Take a breath, I know that was a lot.)

So I guess the simple answer to the question “How do people here communicate” is: in tons of different languages, depending on where you are in the country and which circles you choose to roll in. But, given Kyrgyzstan’s Russian imperial and Soviet legacy on the one hand and the administrative preference for the titular ethnicity (Kyrgyzstan = land of the Kyrgyz), I have seen mostly a balance between Kyrgyz and Russian.

The balance between the two languages in public and private spaces has consistently amazed me. Signs at restaurants often communicate items on the menu in both languages, neighboring billboards represent both Kyrgyz and Russian; families begin a conversation in Kyrgyz, and a Russian commercial sparks a switch, and the chat ends in Russian. Granted, this is only based on my experience in Chui, just one of Kyrgyzstan’s 7 oblasts, and I was living very close to the capital, which is heavily Russified. Even so, just in the few days I’ve been in Jalalabad City, I’ve also seen and heard a lot of switching between the two.

…which brings me to Krussian. Krussian is the magical blend of Kyrgyz and Russian, the code-switching unique to this country. Code-switching is a linguistics term that describes alternating between multiple languages in a single conversation. Here, I’ve seen it at the sentence level – one sentence in Kyrgyz, then immediately switching to Russian. I’ve seen it within a sentence – throwing in Russian nouns or verbs to a Kyrgyz conversation. I’ve seen it within words – borrowing Kyrgyz grammatical endings and putting them on Russian words instead of the more difficult Russian endings.

As a speaker, it’s convenient to use Krussian – when taken together, my Krussian vocabulary is wider than my Kyrgyz vocabulary. It opened up doors to make myself clear to my host family during training, to add complexity during my Kyrgyz language exam (and I was not docked points, because it is a realistic use of the language). As a listener, it can be surreal – at a conference to meet our Peace Corps counterparts, I didn’t realize until the guy sitting next to me said, “What the heck just happened?” that the presenter switched between Kyrgyz, English, and Russian in one sentence. I understood it fine and barely noticed the switch, and it wasn’t until someone mentioned how weird the session sounded that I realized the extent of code-switching here. (Especially in the Peace Corps English program, which adds a third common language into the mix.)

Clearly this is a topic I’m excited about and fascinated by – look out for more musings on language in Kyrgyzstan and how it relates to culture, identity, government, history, colonialism, ethnicity, etc. etc. etc. In the meantime, a picture of how even Coca Cola panders to the prevalence of both languages here:

code switching coca cola

The bottles say: “For my friends/for my friends” and “For dinner/for dinner” in Kyrgyz and Russian, respectively.

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2 thoughts on “Crushin’ Krussian (or, Code-Switching in Kyrgyzstan)

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