Five-year-old Mehdi Rahimi watches his favorite cartoons on TRT Çocuk, a Turkish channel for children that his family gets on satellite TV in their home in Fatmayi, a village just outside of Baku.
“There aren’t many interesting things on Azerbaijani TV, plus there is no special cartoon network,” said his mother, Zhale Rahimi, by way of explanation. “While I’m busy with my work, I turn on the TV and leave him there.”
Mehdi’s viewing habits have had an effect on how he speaks: he uses Turkish more than Azerbaijani, his mother says, for example favoring the Turkish salatalık over the Azerbaijani xiyar (cucumber) or using the Turkish word uzay instead of the Azerbaijani kosmos (space).
Rahimi says she is not worried: for one, most of the children in their neighborhood and family are in the same situation, so they all communicate easily with each other. Secondly, her older son had also picked up Turkish from watching cartoons, but largely switched back to his native tongue after starting school, where instruction is in Azerbaijani. “Now he speaks in Azerbaijani almost without any mistakes,” Rahimi said.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, all of the successor states moved to strengthen their indigenous languages, which had been overshadowed to varying degrees by the dominance of Russian during the Soviet era.
But Azerbaijan, having forged strong economic and cultural ties with Turkey in the years since gaining independence, faces a unique challenge. Its language is so similar to that of its powerful neighbor and ally that it risks if not the loss of Azerbaijani altogether, at least an erosion of the language’s distinctive qualities.
Azerbaijani children are picking up the habit of Turkish early. “In second-grade, third-grade classes, some pupils, for example, don’t know the names of colors in Azerbaijani,” said Ruhiyya Movsumova, a teacher in Fatmayi. “I see them saying orange, pink, black, white in Turkish,” she said. That is, turuncu, pembe, siyah, and beyaz, rather than narıncı, çəhrayı, qara, and ağ.
The rise of Turkish is seen not only among cartoon-watching-age children. Bookstores offer volumes translated into Turkish rather than Azerbaijani. And often translations into Azerbaijani are done from Turkish rather than from the original. Meanwhile, many Turkish restaurants do not bother translating their menus into Azerbaijani.
“Turkish has already started to take over the national and natural dialects of Azerbaijan,” Agalar Mammadov, a leading public intellectual, wrote in a recent blog post for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “If the government of Azerbaijan doesn’t intervene strongly, we will lose our language.”
To a certain extent, the discussion about the Azerbaijani language vis-a-vis Turkish is picking up these days where it left off before the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 and imposed a communist system on the Caucasus. Early 20th century Azerbaijani intellectuals argued over the merits of one or the other: the pan-Turkist magazine Fuyuzat, founded in Baku in 1906, used and advocated for the Istanbul variant of Turkish, while the pioneering satirical journal Molla Nasreddin mocked advocates of Turkish while trying to support Azerbaijani and codifying it into a proper literary language.
In the Soviet era, Azerbaijan’s ties with Turkey were limited and the Azerbaijani language was more influenced by Russian: Azerbaijanis adopted the Cyrillic alphabet in 1939 and kept it until gaining independence in 1991.
Post-independence, the Azerbaijani government has cultivated close political and economic ties with Ankara, under the motto “One Nation, Two States.” But it has been more ambivalent about Turkish cultural influence, including the Turkish language.
In 2007, when Azerbaijan’s broadcasting regulator decided to forbid foreign-language films from being aired unless they were dubbed into Azerbaijani, it made an exception for Turkish on the grounds that it was so similar to Azerbaijani. But it eventually reversed that decision, and in 2012 required Turkish-language films to be dubbed, too. Yet, the government at the same time funds the Ataturk Center in Baku, which promotes Turkish culture and language.
Nizami Jafarov, the director of the center, as well as an MP and chair of the Department of Linguistics at Baku State University, said parents should not be worried about the influence of Turkish-language television on their children. “It is the same language, there is no dominance of Turkish onto Azerbaijani,” he told EurasiaNet. He suggested that Turkish and Azerbaijani were part of a single spectrum. “Can we say that the Baku dialect is keeping down the Qazax dialect?” Jafarov asked, referring to a district in western Azerbaijan.
The opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat frequently uses Turkish words, for example favoring the Turkish ilaç over the Azerbaijani dərman (medicine) and the Turkish ilginç over the Azerbaijani maraqli (interesting).
This is a political choice, the newspaper’s editor Rauf Arifoglu says. “There are over 200 million Turkic people spread over the world and they need a common Turkic language for communication,” he told EurasiaNet. “There is no [Turkic] state as great and powerful as Turkey, and its strong television networks broadcast all over the world to Turkic communities. This is a useful, effective base for integrating Turkic people.”
Ali Novruzov, a blogger and translator who has written a novel in Azerbaijani, contends that Turkish and Azerbaijani are distinct languages. “Turkish and Azerbaijani languages have gone through completely different paths of development at least for the last hundred years. Without sentimentality, we have to admit that there are two different languages – each with its own grammar and vocabulary,” Novruzov said.
Turkish need not be either actively rejected or encouraged, Novruzov said. “A puritanical attitude towards Azerbaijani is not acceptable,” he said. “Language shouldn’t be used as a political instrument; it’s a live creature, formed by speaking and writing. It’s inappropriate to spoil and clean a language artificially, especially an established language like Azerbaijani.”
Others note that Turkish is still far less prevalent in Azerbaijan than Russian. Movsumova, the teacher, said that she does not allow her own children to watch Turkish cartoons, not just for language reasons but because she believes Soviet cartoons are more educational and inculcate values like friendship and kindness to others.
Language differences can create amusing moments. Movsumova’s children, for instance, understand the Russian meaning of the word “bardak” – an expressive term for a huge mess. “When they heard that ‘bardak’ means ‘cup’ in Turkish, they laughed a lot,” she said.
Durna Safarova is a freelance journalist who covers Azerbaijan.