Tuesday evening I saw a movie from Kazakstan called The Fall of Otrar. I had wanted to see it for some time, since it deals with a time and place of intense interest to me, Central Asia in the early 13th century, at the beginning of Genghis Khan’s conquests. In 1218 most of what’s now northeastern Iran, northern Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan was ruled by the Khwarezmshah Muhammad, who had expanded Khwarezm (or Khorezm) from its base south of the Aral Sea into a substantial empire. Then he was foolish enough to provoke Genghis, who at that point simply wanted to trade with him; within a couple of years he was dead and his empire was ravaged by the Mongols in one of the most brutal episodes of world history. This story (summarized nicely here, and there’s an interesting sidelight on clothing here) is the focus of the movie, which personalizes it by focusing on a (presumably invented) Kipchak scout named Unzhu who spends seven years as a commander under Genghis learning everything he can, comes back to Khwarezm to warn the ruler about the Mongol peril, gets tortured as a spy, and escapes; by the time he’s proved right, it’s too late. Anyway, the movie is long and relentlessly violent, but it’s in Kazakh (with bits of Mongol and Chinese), so I considered my time well spent. And let me take this opportunity to remind NYC-area readers that the Films from Along the Silk Road: Central Asian Cinema festival is just under way at Lincoln Center and will be going on all month.

Of course, it would have been nice if Khwarezmian had been spoken at least by the court (many of the underlings and military were Turks by this time, and Kazakh is a reasonable substitute for their dialect), but since it’s been extinct for centuries, I’ll give them a pass on that.


  1. Goodness gracious, Languagehat! How is your Kazakh these days? I do know a very bright Hungarian linguist who rather naughtily offered to lend me an “excellent” book in Kazakh on learning Arabic.
    But when I called the Kazakh Embassy here once looking for translators, a man (speaking what I took to be Kazakh-accented Hungarian) in a voice of infinite weariness told me Kazakh translators don’t exist in Budapest, and probably nowhere else. Ever.
    Many Americans mistakenly think the opposite of the American/Anglo “can-do” attitude is a “can’t-do” attitude. The true opposite is of course the much more prevalent, non-negotiable “can’t-be-done” attitude.

  2. Oh, my Kazakh is nonexistent, but I had my little Central Asia Phrasebook and a basic familiarity with Turkish to tide me over.
    Love the embassy story!

  3. The Carnegie Museum and Pitt’s “Russian and East European Studies” center brought these films to Pittsburgh. I recommend “The Killer” more than “The Road”, but didn’t get to see more than just the two Darezhan Omirbaev films.
    The Carnegie Museum was going to host the Pitt Slovak Department’s biggest event ever, a film festival, in January, but about a month ahead of time the museum cancelled its entire film program because of lack of funds. The films eventually got shown in the auditorium on the third (?) floor of Alumni Hall, the building that was always called “The Masonic Temple” until this year.

  4. My li’l sister (the one in Japan) spent a year in Soviet Kazakhstan before University. I don’t think she speaks much Kazhak by now, but my mum has a heroically bad painting of yurts on rolling pastures as a souvenir.
    (Le Nouvel obs this week helpfully points out that «en france, la yourte est rarement une habitation principale,» even if yummy fermented mare’s milk has long since outsold wine over there.)

  5. Let me just add that the city of Khwarezm (now Khiva in Uzbekistan) contributed two words to the English language, both via its most famous son Abu Ja’far Mohammed ibn-Musa al Khwarazm:
    algebra – from the title of his ground-breaking book Al-jebr w’ almaquabala (825 AD). Algebra or Al-jebr means “the reunification of broken parts” and was originally used as medical term which referred to the setting of broken bones.
    algorithm – from a corruption of the fellow’s name. Originally, it referred to the Arabic system of decimal place-notation but more recently has come to mean “a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem”.

  6. Quite so. But the last part of his name, the nisba, should end in -i: al-Khwarizmi ‘from Khwarizm.” (Also, the last word of the book title is al-muqabala. But it’s hard to avoid sticking excrescent u‘s after Arabic q‘s!)

  7. A while back I was collecting medieval Latin forms of Arabic names. They were generally quite amazingly different from their original forms. Al-Khwarizmi was, of course, Algorismus or Algorithmus. In both cases the corruption is explainible by false analysis or folk etymology- -ismus being that -ism ending and arithmos being the Greek word for number. What irks me abotu this, though, is that there is a perfectly good Classical name for Khwarizm, namely Chorasmia.
    In conclusion, why say “algorithm” when you could say “chorasmy”

  8. “Chorasmy” — I like it!

  9. I thought afterwards about adding the “i” as some pages had it. The “qu” slipped in unnoticed.
    Ah well, serves me right for allowing Google to be my fact-checker.
    One thing I did find out though is algorithm’s modern usage is due to a “pseudo-eytymological perversion”:

    [Algorithm comes] from the now-quite-distorted name of a person, Ja’far Mohammed Ben Musa, who was known as al-Khowarazmi, meaning “the man from Khwarazm.” (In a similar way, Leonardo da Vinci was actually Leonard, a man from the town of Vinci.) Around the year 825 al-Khowarazmi wrote an arithmetic book explaining how to use Hindu-Arabic numerals. That book was later translated for Europeans and appeared with the Latin title Liber Algorismi, meaning “Book of al-Khowarazmi.” As a consequence, the term algorism came to refer to the decimal system of numeration. Any use of manipulation of Arabic numerals – especially a pattern used to add, subtract, multiply, etc. – was known as an algorism. Arithmetic itself was sometimes called algorism, and in a similar fashion Europeans who advocated the adoption of Hindu-Arabic numerals were known as algorists. Over the centuries the word algorism underwent many changes in form. In Old French it became augorisme, which then developed into the now obsolete English augrim, agrim, and agrum. The current form algorithm exhibits what the Oxford English Dictionary calls a “pseudo-eytymological perversion”; it got confused with the word arithmetic (which was one of its meanings, and which has several letters in common with it); the result was the current algorithm.
    The Words of Mathematics: An Etymological Dictionary of Mathematical Terms Used in English, Steve Schwartzman, The Mathematical Association of America, 1994.

  10. Hello! I am a Kazakh student in the USA and have long been interested in seeing The Fall of Otrar, never had an opportunity to. If anybody could write to me at where I can purchase or rent this movie, I would be very greatful. Thank you!

  11. Hi, Yerbolat! The best thing I can think of is to write to Film Comment at — they put on the film series, so they might know. Good luck!

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