Tom at digenis.org has an entry (scroll down to “The Soul of Kazakhstan”) quoting the cover story, “The Soul of Kazakhstan,” from the May/June 2003 issue of Saudi Aramco World. The article is apparently excerpted from a picture book of the same name, with essays by Alma Kunanbay and photos by Wayne Eastep (a selection of the latter can be seen at the book’s website); it includes many facets of Kazakh life, but what interests us here is the material on the Kazakh “art of the word.” To quote Tom:

Kunanbay also mentions the Kazakh belief that words can hold a special, magical power. In the Kazakh language and culture there is a concept called ‘art of the word’ which refers to ‘clever, flowery speech loaded with metaphors, proverbs, and allegory.’

The zenith of this belief is the aytis, a musical-poetic duel between two epic singers (called akin) before a large, knowledgeable audience. Kunanbay says:

The language forms in an aytis are so complex, and the nuances and associations so arcane, that a meaningful translation to another language is virtually impossible. There is a tremendous variety of aytis within Kazakh poetic culture: qiz ben zhigit aytisi, for example, is a verbal duel between a girl and a boy; din aytisi is a verbal duel about religion; zhumbaq aytisi, a verbal duel with riddles; aqindar aytisi, a verbal duel between bards; and so on.

Sounds like it would fit right into the Rothenbergs’ Symposium of the Whole, and I’d like to know more about it. [Mistaken hypothesis deleted thanks to a comment by Dctr.]

Outside of poetic duels, it appears Kazakh, like the other Central Asian languages, is not faring well in the media; see this article by Aleksandr Khamagayev; the issue of Media Insight Central Asia to which the article is an introduction can be accessed via the Cimera publications site—just click on Media Insight Central Asia under Publications at the left, then Archive MICA 2002 (English version), then MICA Nr. 27 / August 2002. If there’s a more direct way, avoiding the damn frames, I don’t know it.


  1. That really was a great piece. I received the latest issue just a couple days ago, and immediately devoured another nice bit they threw in, on Averroës.

  2. The “elaborate and complex verbal forms” or whatever he said make me think of the rhetoric of Persian historical writing, which is so artificial, complicated, and laden with metaphor that at least one Persian historian, Wassaf, has been translated into metaphor-free Persian for people who want to figure out what actually happened.
    Many years ago I saw a book called “The Battle”, which was a translation of an oral contest from the Brazilian backwoods. One of the requirements of the contest was that the respondent first repeat his opponent’s stanza in reverse, starting with the last line and working back to the first, before responding with his own stanza. The Provencal troubadors had a contest form too.

  3. A snarkout to be reckoned with has brought together a few more examples of verbal conflict:

  4. The Kazakh word “aytys” pronounced “eye-tis” (айтыс) unlike in Kyrgyz. I’m sure about it because I was born and raised in Kazakhstan. The aytises were often broadcasted by the local TV station. It was interesting to watch though I didn’t understand much. Akyns were always accompanying themselves on dombras (dombra is a two-stringed mandolin-like instrument).

  5. Aha – thank you, Dctr! I will amend the entry accordingly.

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