An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Alternative Names: Uygur, Uigur, Uighur.

Classification: Altaic?, Turkic, Southeastern (Uyghur-Karluk) branch, West group. Uyghur is a member of the Turkic family. The external classification of Turkic is disputed. Many consider it one of the three divisions of the Altaic phylum but for others its relationship with Tungusic and Mongolic is not proven. Uyghur is closely related to Uzbek.

Overview. The Uyghurs stemmed from Mongolia to found in 744 a Central Asian empire. Defeated in the following century by the Kyrgyz, they dispersed in several directions. Some were assimilated, some settled in the Gansu corridor (the ancestors of the Yellow Uyghurs) while the majority withdrew to the Turfan oasis (in the northern Silk Road) where they established the kingdom of Kocho which encompassed most of the Tarim basin. Later, this region passed through many hands until it was incorporated into China as the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang where the Uyghurs still live. Their language is typically Turkic, with agglutinative morphology based on suffixes, verb-final syntax and vowel harmony.

Distribution. The vast majority of Uyghurs live in the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang of western China as well as in neighboring eastern Kazakhstan. Much smaller minorities reside in other Central Asian countries like Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. A few Uyghurs still live in Mongolia (their original homeland) while others have migrated to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and the West.

Speakers. Uyghur is spoken as a native language by about 10.5 million people in the following countries:




















Status. Uyghur is, along with Chinese, the official language of the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang in western China, though university education is only possible in Chinese. It is employed in the area as a lingua franca by minorities.

Varieties. Uyghur has considerable dialectal variation because the main cities of Xinjiang are, in fact, oasis separated by vast expanses of desert with (until recently) poor communications between them. The classification of the Uyghur dialects is disputed; they are generally divided in three groups:

    A central group, comprising 90 % of the Xinjiang Uyghurs, includes those dialects, spoken north and south of the Tienshan mountains, which are from west to east: Kashgar, Dolan, Aqsu, Kucha, Urumchi, Turfan and Hami (Qumul). A southern group includes the dialects of the area of Khotan. An eastern group includes Lopnur spoken in the eastern Tarim basin.

    One dialect, Ili or Taranchi, prevails in the Ili river basin in Kazakhstan and is also spoken in other Central Asian countries. Standard Uyghur is based on the dialect of Urumchi, the capital of the region of Xinjiang.


Vowels (9): Uyghur has nine vowels but [i] and [ɯ] are not differentiated in the script. However, in language books they are distinguished in transliteration as shown in the table. The symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet are shown between brackets.


Vowel harmony. It governs the distribution of vowels within a word opposing front versus back vowels. In the first syllable of a word all vowels can occur. If it is a front vowel all the subsequent vowels must be also of the front type. If it is a back vowel all the other vowels must be also of the back type. Thus, all the vowels of a word belong to the same class (back or front) and the vowels of suffixes vary according to the class of vowels in the primary stem. The harmony based on roundness, typical of most Turkic languages, is observed in certain dialects of Uyghur but in the standard language it is only limited to some suffixes. The mid-vowel [e] does not participate in vowel harmony.

Consonants (24-27):


  1. f, dʒ, ʒ, χ, and h occur only in loanwords.

When the velar voiceless stop is accompanied by back vowels it is realized as [q], when it is accompanied by front vowels it is realized as [k]. When the velar voiced stop is accompanied by back vowels it is realized as [G], when it is accompanied by front vowels it is realized as [g].

Stress: it falls usually on the last syllable.

Script and Orthography


In China, Modern Uyghur was written with a version of the Arabic script until 1957 when it was replaced by the Cyrillic script first, and later by a Latin one. In 1987, the Arabic script was revived and is still in use. In the former Soviet Union, the Arabic script was employed up to 1930 when it was substituted by the Latin alphabet until 1947 when Cyrillic was finally adopted.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan became independent, but continued to write Uyghur with the Cyrillic script.

The Uyghur Arabic-based alphabet has 32 letters. It is shown, here, side by side with its equivalents in the International Phonetic Alphabet (first column) and in the Latin alphabet (second column).

Suffixes variants. Due to sound harmony all vowels and some consonants of suffixes change according to the preceding sounds. This is indicated with capital letters as follows:

  1. A indicates a low vowel that is realized as e after a front vowel, or  as a [a] after a back vowel. Ë [e] doesn’t participate in vowel harmony.

  1. I indicates a high vowel that is realized as i [i] after a front unrounded vowel, as  ü [y] after a front rounded vowel, as ı [ɯ] after a back unrounded vowel, or as u after a back rounded vowel.

  1. D may be realized as d or t. G may be realized as g, k, ɣ [G] or q.

Morphology. Uyghur is an agglutinative language with suffixing morphology.

  1. Nominal. Suffixes are added to nominal stems to indicate number, possession and case (in that order).

  1. gender: there is no grammatical gender.

  1. number: singular and plural. The singular is unmarked and the plural is marked with the suffix lar/ler. Unmarked forms can have also a generic meaning. Nouns following a numeral are usually left in the singular.

  1. possession: there are six possessive markers, one for each person and number, which are attached to the noun. The suffixes for the 3rd person singular and plural are morphologically identical.

  1. case: nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, locative, ablative. The nominative is unmarked, the other cases are marked by suffixes. When the noun ends in a vowel this is replaced by the suffix vowel (between brackets).


  1. pronouns: personal, demonstrative, interrogative, reflexive, indefinite.

  2. Personal pronouns are declined in all six cases like nouns:


  1. Second person pronouns have three forms: ordinary (shown in the table), polite (nom. sg. siz,  nom. pl. siler) and definite (nom. sg. özle[r],  nom. pl. sizler).

  1. Demonstrative pronouns indicate several degrees of distance: bu (‘this’), šu (‘that’), awu (‘that’, close), u (‘that’, there).

  1. The interrogative pronouns are: kim (‘who?’), nime (‘what?’), qaysi (‘which?’).

  1. Verbal. The verb system is distinguished by the extensive use of different kinds of auxiliary verbs to express manner of action.

  1. person and number: 1s, 2s, 3s; 1p, 2p, 3p.

  1. tense: simple present, progressive present, simple past, indefinite past, indirective past, aorist.

  2. Only two tenses, the simple present and the simple past, are built by simple suffixation. The others are formed with the aid of the copula, enclitics and converbs.

  3. A simple or general present, that may also have a future sense, is formed with the suffix -i + a pronominal marker (-du/-dular for the 3rd person), e.g. kirimen (‘I enter, I shall enter’).

  4. A progressive present is formed by attaching -iwati to the stem followed by personal markers, e.g. kiriwatimen (‘I enter, I shall enter’).

  5. The simple past is formed by suffixing -d to the stem followed by the corresponding possessive markers except in the 1st plural where -uq is used instead of -mIz, e.g. kirdim (‘I entered’).

  6. By adding -b/-p and an enclitic derived from tur- (‘stand’), an indirective past may be expressed referring to a reported or apparent action, e.g. kiriptimen (‘I reportedly entered’).

  7. An indefinite past is expressed by the participial suffix -GAn, e.g. kirgenmen (‘I entered at some time’).

  8. The aorist indicates a probable future action by adding -(A)r to the stem and pronominal markers, e.g. kirermen (‘I might enter’).

  1. mood: indicative, imperative, voluntative, desiderative, conditional.

  2. A familiar, non-polite, imperative is equal to the stem of the verb (without any marker). A less abrupt imperative is formed by adding the suffix -gin directly to the stem, and a polite one by adding -ŋ followed, if required, by the plural suffix. The voluntative expresses a strong wish or request by the 1st person (singular or plural) and is formed by attaching -ay or -ayli to the stem. A desiderative is formed by attaching -gay and personal markers to the verbal stem. The conditional is formed by suffixing -sA + personal markers.


Uyghur has a basic Subject-Object-Verb word order like all Turkic languages which is, however, very flexible. The topic is placed at the beginning of the sentence. The indirect object precedes the direct object. Uyghur is head final, modifiers preceding their head. Attributes do not agree in number or case with their heads. In contrast to most Turkic languages, subject pronouns are mandatory. Postpositions, corresponding to English prepositions, but placed after the words they interact with, are used.


Uyghur has been in contact with other Turkic languages, like Uzbek and Kazakh, which had influenced its vocabulary. It has also incorporated many Arabic and Persian words, most of them through Chaghatay which was the literary language of many Central Asian peoples. More recently, Russian and Chinese have provided Uyghur with many scientific, technical and administrative terms.

Basic Vocabulary (transliterated into the Latin alphabet)

one: bir

two: ikki

three: üč

four: tört

five: bäš

six: altä

seven: yettä

eight: sekkiz

nine: toqquz

ten: on

hundred: yüz

father: dada, ata

mother: ana

brother: aka

sister: singil

son: oghul

daughter: qiz

head: bash

eye: köz

foot: put

heart: yüräk

tongue: til

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Uyghur'. R. F. Hahn. In The Turkic Languages, 379-396. L. Johanson & É. Á. Csató (eds). Routledge (1998).

  2. -Spoken Uyghur. R. F. Hahn. University of Washington Press (2006).

  3. -The Turfan Dialect of Uyghur. A. Yakup. Otto Harrassowitz (2005).

  4. -'The Uighurs in Mongolia and the Kyrgyz'. D. Sinor. In History of Civilizations of Central Asia (vol IV). M. S. Asimov & C. E. Bosworth (eds), 196-205. UNESCO (1998).

  5. -'The Uighur Kingdom of Kocho'. G. Shimin.  In History of Civilizations of Central Asia (vol IV). M. S. Asimov & C. E. Bosworth (eds), 206-212. UNESCO (1998).

  6. -Eurasian Crossroads. A History of Xinjiang. J. A. Millward. Columbia University Press (2007).

  1. Top   Home   Alphabetic Index   Classificatory Index   Largest Languages & Families   Glossary



Address comments and questions to: