Tajikistan Battles Foreign Words, Like Pizza
How do you say pizza in Tajik? Awkwardly, there’s no native word. So authorities have invented one that they believe sounds “Tajik” enough: pitzo [pronounced peet-ZO]. And restaurants must use it.
Officials are spending a lot of time worrying about the Tajikification of words lately. While some Tajiks say it helps bolster national identity, others argue that officials are out of touch with the concerns of average people in the poorest country to emerge from the Soviet Union.
During a news conference on February 5, State Committee on Language and Terminology head Gavhar Sharofzoda said that in 2013 her office inspected 266 businesses for compliance with the law on state language, which designates Tajik as the official language and Russian the language of “international communication.” The law also states that all signage must be in Tajik and be translated from Tajik into any other languages. That makes words of foreign origin – like pizza – problematic. Sharofzoda said her office fined 64 businesses on average $120 each last year.
Among the hundreds of changes resulting from the inspections, popular Dushanbe fast-food joint “Chief Burger Pizza” was renamed “Burger va Pitzo” (Burger and Pizza). Another restaurant was told it could no longer have a sign in Latin letters (Tajik is written in a modified Cyrillic script); a clothing store named after Italian fashion house Brioni was translated into “Clothes.” Sharofzoda said the project was “to develop the Tajik language.”
Across the former Soviet Union, the region’s post-communist leaders have sought to reinforce their political standing in their respective states by forging distinctive national identities, in particular replacing Russian with local languages – not only in government but on signage and in textbooks. In countless cities, the once-ubiquitous Lenin Street has been named after local heroes.
But engineering languages is harder than changing street names.
Anis Sharipov, manager of the restaurant formerly known as Chief Burger Pizza, defends the old name, saying it was widely known and understood by everyone, regardless of nationality. The place is now known more for its new name, Burger va Pitzo, than its food, Sharipov complains, saying that many laugh at the new name because “pitzo” sounds similar to a Russian swear word.
“This café has been working for seven years and already has a certain loyal clientele. The name change hasn’t altered the number of customers, but still clients come and start talking and laughing about ‘pitzo,’ the unusual Tajik word for pizza,” Sharipov told EurasiaNet.org. “Even international words that sound similar in all languages were translated into Tajik. Of course, we don’t agree with it, because people have accepted, let’s say, the English word. But we didn’t want to have problems [with the authorities].”
So the restaurant’s “chief special” became, literally, “special burger on behalf of the chief” and lemon tea became “three-in-one tea” because it includes three ingredients: tea, sugar and lemon.
Pizza and burgers might not seem like very serious fare, but the debate comes only a few weeks after many Tajiks felt a senior official struck a nerve by calling so-called Russified family names unpatriotic.
Writing in a government newspaper on January 21, Prosecutor-General Sherkhon Salimzoda said Tajiks who continue to use Russian suffixes -ov and -ova on their family names indicate "the low level of national and patriotic identity of the younger generation.” President Imomali Rakhmon made himself an example in 2007, changing his name from Rakhmonov. Though many Tajiks dropped the suffixes in the 2000s, increasing numbers are re-adding them to ease travel to Russia, where up to half the male working-age population makes a living.
Political analyst Iskander Firuz says any name campaign needs time and cannot be forced. “The generation that lived under the Soviet Union for more than 70 years is reluctant to part with features of that period,” he told EurasiaNet.org, adding that change will take “decades.”
“Moreover, a steady stream of Tajik migrant workers [to Russia] hinders this process. We see how people with non-Russian surnames are treated badly [in Russia],” Firuz added.
The changes do have some support. Almost 300 members of a Facebook group calling itself “Persian Language” have signed a letter supporting the name changes, the forced menu translations, and the adoption of the word ‘pitzo.’
“Some ask, ‘who needs language reform, when we don’t have electricity?’ They don’t understand that rehabilitating the electric system is not the obligation of the State Committee on Language and Terminology. Some resent the change of pizza into pitzo. But, they don’t know the pure Tajik language,” the letter said. The Language Committee “is professional and worthy of support.”
Others are vexed. Tajik is a close cousin of the modern Persian spoken in Iran, but the introduction of Persian words can sound forced to a Tajik ear. Gulbahor Tagjieva, a 43-year-old housewife in Dushanbe, says Tajiks are accustomed to international words and that the new words just don’t sound right. “For example, words like ‘stomatolog’ [Russian for dentist] or ‘dentist’ are accepted everywhere; new words like ‘dandonpizishk’ [a Tajik neologism for ‘tooth doctor’] are unclear to the average person and sound strange.” (There is no word “pitzo” in Persian, but the word sounds similar to how some Iranians pronounce “pizza.”)
Prominent commentator Zafar Abdullaev supports gradually changing street names and signage into Tajik. But he says it’s happening too quickly at the expense of more pressing concerns. “In practice, this policy is full of excesses, violations of the rules of logic and rationality. It causes understandable indignation,” Abdullaev told EurasiaNet.org. “Other issues, like reform and fighting corruption should be prioritized. Culture and national identity automatically develop with a nation’s welfare and international success.”