A comment thread at pf [scroll down to Thursday 23 September 2004] has inspired me to deal with the vexed question of the various names for the capital of Kyrgyzstan. From 1926 to 1991 it was Frunze, which is not problematic (except for the Kyrgyz—see below), Frunze being the name of a local boy who became a Soviet general. But before that it was called Pishpek and now it is Bishkek; what is the relationship between these amusingly assonant names? Let’s go to E.M. Pospelov, Geograficheskie nazvaniya mira (my translation):

Founded in 1878 as a settlement [selenie] on the site of the former Kokand fortress Pishpek, which in 1926 was renamed Frunze after the Soviet party and military leader M.V. Frunze (1885-1925). But since there is no sound f in the Kyrgyz language and successive consonants at the start of a word are not allowed, the inhabitants pronounced the name Purunze. After Kyrgyzia achieved independence, the question of renaming the capital arose. It turned out that the etymology of the indigenous name Pishpek was unknown; the nearest Kyrgyz word was bishkek ‘whisk with which kumiss is stirred.’ To what extent this piece of household equipment [eta khozyaistvennaya prinadlezhnost’] might be linked with the name of the fortress is unclear, but in 1991 Bishkek was adopted as the new name of the capital.

I love dry wit in reference works.

I can’t resist quoting the anecdote (from jj, a friend of pf’s) that gave rise to the comments:

I left New York for Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, on Wednesday night. At the counter, the check-in agent asked me, “Where is Bishkek?”
“In Kyrgyzstan.”
“Where’s that?”
“In Central Asia, near Kazkhstan, Uzbekistan and China.”
“I’ve never heard of that.”
She passed me to another agent. He checked me in, then announced, “Your bags are checked through to Frankfurt.”
“To Frankfurt? I’m not going to Frankfurt.”
“Yes, Frankfurt,” he said, looking at the FRU on the luggage tags.
“You must mean Frunze,” I said, “the old name for Bishkek. I’m going to Bishkek.”
He looked more carefully and realized his mistake. “I don’t think I’ve ever checked anyone in to Bishkek before,” he said. “I’ll have to go home and look that one up on a map.”

Addendum. In case anybody’s wondering why Kyrgyz were unable to pronounce the name of a local boy, Frunze (a variant of Frunza) isn’t a Kyrgyz name but a Romanian one—in Romanian, it means ‘leaf’ (cf French frondaison).

Update. See this post for further Central Asian linguistic fun.


  1. May be Kyrgyz don’t know the meaning of Pishpek because it was an Uzbek word? This Kokand fort was built by Uzbek khans 1846, according to this article, and probably was named in Uzbek. I wonder if Alisher over @ Argus can comment on this.

  2. The German Wikipedia is much fuller than the English.
    It says the name goes back to a term meaning ‘place below the mountains’, which popular etymology (or eggcornism) converted into the word for a kumiss ‘churn’.

  3. A Kyrgyz eggcorn, eh? Alert the Language Loggers!

  4. Awhile back I tutored a Kyrgyz HS student. He was a sweet kid, very Russified and fond of Pushkin. He talked about the Kyrgyz national dress and national hat and wondered why the US doesn’t have such things. He also mentioned kumus, the Kyrgyz national drink. He spends summer holidays with his shepherd cousins in the mountains drinking kumus, and seems to love it.
    His mother regularly travels on business to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. An uncle regularly travels to Beijing. Going to Russia is routine and still doesn’t count as foreign travel. I think that he is being groomed to be the American footprint for the family. I definitely got the Silk Road feeling — the middle of nowhere and the center of the world, all at once.
    He didn’t like any American food, including hamburgers. Local Russian food was OK.

  5. Michael Farris says

    Slightly but not totally off-topic:
    Out of idle curiosity I’ve spent a fair amount of the last few days looking up resources on the now national ex-Soviet Turkic languages (Azerbaijani, Kazakh, Turkmen, Kyrgyz and Uzbek)
    I was curious about a) relative strength of each vis a vis Russian (are they real national languages or official in name only, like Gaelic) and current orthographic state.
    Couldn’t find much about the former (didn’t look that much since it’s not my main interest) and lots of contradictory stuff on the second (since I’ve long been interested in orthogrpahic questions)
    For the uninitiated, there are three main alphabetic traditions for Turkic languages, Arabic, Cyrillic and Latin. And IINM these five have gone through all three. The only modern Turkic language to choose the Arabic alphabet seems to be Uighur in China (after a period using an alphabet similar to Turkish) and some of the five I mentioned earlier are caught between the practicality of Cyrillic (they all have serviceable orthographies from the Soviet era and presumably all or most speakers are familiar with them) and ‘nationalist’ feeling that prefers Latin (there was a sort of latinized Pan-Turkic alphabet in the 20’s but it’s not that practical now as it has a character or two that don’t even seem to exist in Unicode).
    Anyway a quick rundown
    Azerbaijani – seems to have completely switched to Latin and temporary problems with the schwa-sign (used for a kind of [e]) seem to have been worked out (why they couldn’t use an a-umlaut is beyond me, but …) Generally similar to Turkish though the schwa (very, very frequent) makes it look different
    Kazkh – cyrillic, no real moves toward latin
    Kyrgyz – cyrillic, no real moves toward latin
    Turkmen – moves toward latin hampered by impractical initial orthography which seems to have been modified into something more practical. Reminds me a little of the Turkish alphabet crossed with Slavic (there are umlauts, cedillas and haceks, I’ve never seen all three in a single alphabet before)
    Uzbek – most interesting case, the Roman alphabet is ASCII friendly, using diagraphs (sh, ch, ng) and an apostrophe (as in O’zbek) instead of diacritics. I don’t know how widely it’s used (the Uzbek news service uses it though Cyrillic wouldn’t be a problem since they also use Russian but the BBC news site and some others still seem to use Cyrillic).

  6. I remember reading an explanation of the origin of Bishkek a number of years ago in a Russian newspaper. Something to the effect that some hero or other had thrown the eponymous utensil and decreed that a town should be founded where it landed (or was it that he picked up the relevant kitchenalia from where it lay on the road and took it as an omen to found a town? Memory fails me)
    This may be sheer folk-etymological post-factum bunkum, but I contribute it for what it’s worth.

  7. Reminds me of a post-apocalyptic story I once read in which people had an elaborate story to explain the name of the city of Washington — something involving a ton of washing.

  8. My Kyrgyz tutee said, a bit shamefacedly, that he was more fluent in Russian than in Kyrgyz. He came from an urban, international family which seems to have good feelings about Russia, possibly because they were in the party.
    The hostory of XX-c Mongol orthography is a total mess, with cyrillic, roman, uighur, and an indigenous script for one dialect all being used, often in fast succession back and forth.
    I asked this OT at the end of a different thread, but what is the history of Scandinavian orthography? They seem to have solved the Germanic/Romance vowel problem better than English.

  9. Michael Farris says

    You left off Chinese, IIRC Mongolian has been written in a sort of phonetic Chinese script (sounds dreadful, which is probably why it’s no longer used).
    From what I understand, the Mongol orthography problem is compounded in that none of them seem to fit all that well.
    I’d read that plans to reintroduce the inidgenous script in Mongolia weren’t working that well since the cyrillic orthography, though far from ideal, is a much better fit for the language there (though maybe not in China or Russia).

  10. Will somebody who knows the history of Scandinavian orthography please tell Zizka about it?

  11. Michael, I’m not entirely sure about all of them, but Uzbek is quite strong. As just kind of an educated guess based on what a few people told me in Uzbekistan, I would say about 70% and falling of the population has a good command of Russian.
    Tashkent and Navoi are primarily Russian-speaking because of their large Russian populations. Samarkand uses a lot of Russian because Tajiks would rather not utter a word of Uzbek in their city. Rural Uzbeks tend to speak a very simple Russian if any at all. One of my host brothers (who, by the way, could not read Uzbek in cyrillic) referred to himself using the feminine when he spoke Russian because he really only heard his mother speaking it and had only just started learning it at school. In fact, his English was better than his Russian.
    In the provinces near Afghanistan, I noticed far fewer Russian speakers when I swung through. This includes the city of Karshi, where I got laughed at by a taxi driver for speaking Russian.
    I was shortly in Kyrgyzstan, and Kyrgyz seemed to be doing quite well outside of Bishkek. Tajik (I know, not one of the Turkic ones, but…) is strong too.
    As for this whole Bishkek/Pishpek thing… My first inclination was to think “five somethings” is what it “Pishpek” means. Though he wouldn’t put a large wager on it, one of my former students wonders whether or not it is a mispronunciation of “Beshbek,” or “Five Beks.” “Bek” can mean a lot of things, but it’s always a chief or governor of some sort. That’s all kind of a stab, but the German Wikipedia explanation doesn’t do it for me.
    Now personally, I’d like to see someone figure out why it seems that no two Uzbeks pronounce “Buxoro” (which is much more fun to say than “Bukhara”) the same way.

  12. “Five beks” sounds like classic folk etymologizing (or eggcorning) to me, and if it were even remotely plausible I think Pospelov would have mentioned it.
    Can you give an idea of the different ways of pronouncing Buxoro/Bukhara? You’ve gotten me curious.

  13. As far as I know, Chinese-script Mongol was used entirely for the benefit of Chinese Mongolists. I have the Chinese-script “Secret History”, and it’s not half bad. They use a restricted number of Chinese characters (400?), plus several diacriticals to indicate sound Chinese didn’t have. It’s carefully rather than haphazardly done — though as DeFrancis says, Chinese may be the worst script of all for transliterations, mostly because it’s syllabic and allows for no consonant clusters at all.
    Similiar systems were used early on for the Manyoshu and for Buddhist scripture. A lot of Buddhist technical vocabulary looks nonsensical in Chinese.
    There also was a sophisticated phonetic transliteration system used by the Mongols to transcribe all the languages of their empire (roughly “Phags-pa”). It was produced by a Tibetan monk — Buddhists and Hindus gave religious/ symbolic/ mystical meaning to phonetics and really did a lot of great stuff. The Korean script is supposedly phonetically brilliant, except that apparently historical change has overtaken it just as it did Mongol.

  14. Like I said, “five beks” is just one heckuva guess. Those are the only Uzbek words that sounded at all fitting, but it’s also an explanation I can’t quite buy.
    Anyway, it’s really hard to explain the differences in the pronunciation of “Buxoro.” It’s kind of just a difference in how the vowels are emphasized and/or stressed. Essentially, if you can imagine a way of pronouncing it, someone says it that way. My personal favorite is to almost explosively stress the first syllable (Bu!), gloss over the second, and pronounce the last part as “ro.”

  15. Barbara Partee says

    A note to Michael Farris about the variant orthographies for the Turkic languages in the Soviet Union: my Russian husband, who grew up in Kazan’, where Tatar is alive and well (with a Cyrillic-based orthography), says, if I remember rightly, that Stalin forcibly imposed variant orthographies on closely related languages because of his fear of pan-Turkism. Some of those languages went through several forced orthography changes over the last hundred or so years, with great harm to their actual or potential literary traditions. He could tell you more. I have just stumbled into this list for the first time and am not an expert in this area.

  16. Michael Farris says

    Barbara, I know the broad outlines of Stalinist language policy (though I’m very ignorant of the details).
    I notice that the Stalinist divisions seem to be working still, despite some wishful thinking, there seems to be no movement to merge those literary standards that conceivably could be merged (for example Kazakh and Kyrgyz, or Uzbek and Uighur).
    Stalin wasn’t the only one to use the divide and conquer policy to language, it was used in South Africa as well.

  17. a post-apocalyptic story
    Just so; it reminds me of the corruptions of Kent placenames in Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.

  18. LH: I seem to remember reading that same story when I was very young. I recall thinking it was a dorky detail, and it ruined the story for me. We could probably pop over to an open thread at Making Light and have the title, author, and first publication date in a jiffy.
    Ziska: If the wide-brimmed Stetson is not the American “national hat,” this will come as a great surprise to editorial cartoonists in the rest of the world.

  19. Here is an assessment of the language situation in Uzbekistan.

  20. Thanks, Moll — an interesting paper, very useful for the current situation. I was amused to note that it barely alludes to the existence of the Tajik population (very substantial in Uzbekistan); in discussing the time before the Russian conquest it talks about the Arab-Persian-Turkic cultural tradition, but one could easily assume it was a bunch of Turks who’d borrowed Persian culture. In fact, of course, the entire population was Iranian before the Turks infiltrated, and large numbers of Iranians (now called “Tajiks”) remained.
    My favorite sentence from the article: “In Uzbekistan it is possible to abuse a telegraph pole.”

  21. It seemed fair within its brief – Russian/Uzbek language issues – but glossed over the political aspects surrounding Tajik.

  22. Weinreich, Uriel. 1953. “The Russification of Soviet Minority Languages.” Problems of Communism. Vol. 6. No. 2. Pp. 46-57.

  23. John Cowan says

    If my own city had been populated by folks with a desire for a meaningful name, it would probably wind up being called New Fork. Fortunately (or not, as you may think), anglophones are very used to names that are either meaningless (London) or misleading (Bury St. Edmunds).

  24. Joe Gobbini says

    Why is Bury St. Edmunds a misleading name?

  25. @Joe Gobbini: Presumably, John Cowan refers to the fact that the “Bury” part of the name is related to borough, and it wasn’t named after Edmund the Martyr being buried there—although his remains are actually interred there (probably).

  26. John Cowan says

    Just so.

  27. It turned out that the etymology of the indigenous name Pishpek was unknown; the nearest Kyrgyz word was bishkek ‘whisk with which kumiss is stirred.’

    Kyrgyz бишкек ‘paddle used to churn kumiss’ resembles regional and colloquial Anatolian Turkish bişek, meaning ‘churn-staff, dash of a churn’ and ‘wooden spatula or paddle used for turning thin flatbreads on a sac (griddle)’ (see this spatula in use after around the 1:15 mark here; another word for this utensil is çevirgeç, basically, ‘turner’).

    I would have thought that both descend from a Common Turkic *bišgäk, derived from the Old Turkic bıš- ‘to ripen, be cooked’ with the deverbal nominal suffix -gäk/-gak, which makes nouns of instrument, among other kinds of nouns. (The original *-g- usually disappears in this position in Turkish; for the formation, compare for example Old Uyghur sančgak ‘lance’ from the verb sanč- ‘stick, pierce’ with Turkish sancak ‘flag; brigade, sanjak (administrative division of the Ottoman empire)’ < earlier ‘banner flown from a lance, standard’.)

    This root bıš- turns up with initial p and the front vowel i in many branches of Turkic: Turkish pişmek, Azeri bişmək, Chagatai پیشمک pišmäk ‘be cooked, become soft, ripen’, etc. Interestingly, Abel Pavet de Courteille (1870) Dictionnaire turk-oriental, destiné principalement à faciliter la lecture des ouvrages de Bâber, d’Aboul-Gâzi et de Mir-Ali-Chir-Nevâï, offers the following entry with citations from Abu al-Ghazi Bahadur for a noun related to butter-making and seemingly built from the root piš- in Chagatai with the common action noun suffix -im (transliterations mine):

    پیشیم [pišim] action de cuire; d’être battu en beurre. — A. G. 166 بیرسوت پِشیمی قراب توردی [bir süt pišimi qarab turdi] il resta à nous observer le temps de battre le beurre. — Id. 168 بیر کوشت پِشم اوروش بولدى [bir göšt pišim uruš boldi] le combat dura le temps que la viande met à cuire, c’est-à-dire, peu de temps.

    However, it is still бышуу ‘be cooked, become ripe’ with a back vowel in standard Kyrgyz, which doesn’t match бишкек.

    Another noun of the shape of бишкек in Kyrgyz is искек ‘tweezers’ (also a kind of ornament?). It features in a proverb: Сабасына карай — бишкеги, сакалына карай — искеги. Roughly paraphrasing, perhaps “To every kumiss-bag, its churning-stick (бишкек); to every beard, its tweezers”? (“Let the punishment fit the crime”?)

    This искек apparently has related forms in Khakas испик, искек and Tuvan испик ‘tweezers (пинцет, щипчики)’. Note the alternation between k and labial p and k, as between Пишпек and Бишкек. Very odd. I can’t immediately think of a root that искек could be derived from. There is Middle Turkic es- ‘to pull (a rope or cord, meat from the bone, a pot off the fire)’… but there is the problem of the difference in the vowel and the variable suffix in the Khakas and Tuvan words.

    Clauson (1972) An Etymological Dictionary of Pre-Thirteenth-Century Turkish, p. 294, also notes Lebed (Turkic language of the Lebed River region) pıškı and Tuvan biski ‘churn stick’. He associates these to words for ‘saw (cutting instrument)’ in other Turkic languages (e.g. Chagatai bıčġı, Turkish bıçkı) and makes them derivatives of bič-/bıč- ‘cut’. I suppose the repetitive back-and-forth motion of a saw explains the semantic shift from ‘saw’ to ‘churn-stick’. The š/s from Common Turkic č is typical of the Turkic languages of the Altai region, but Common Turkic č maintains itself in Kyrgyz and Turkish, so that бишкек and bişek ‘churn-stick’ can’t be derived from bič-/bıč- like the words from the Altai region.

    After doing this spadework, I have sent a Kyrgyz colleague some questions about these words. Maybe more later…

  28. Good heavens, what a fascinating tangle! Please do report any further findings…

  29. >Frunze… leaf, cf French frondaison

    And English frond? Or is this a conscious late borrowing separate from a development in Romance or vulgar Latin that French and Romanian shared?

  30. Yeah, frond is a straight borrowing from Latin. I mentioned the French because it’s also a Romance language, but the forms are not directly related; Romanian frunză is apparently from a Late Latin frondia n pl. (which in Gallo-Romance gives Lorrain frogne).

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