Identification. The Kyrgyz are a Turkic-Mongol people who live primarily in the mountainous regions of Central Asia, where their traditional livelihood was that of pastoral nomadism. The ethnonym "Kyrgyz" is derived from the Turkic kyrk + yz, "the forty clans," reflecting their patrilineal clan kinship system. In early twentieth-century texts, the term "Kyrgyz" was also used in reference to the Kazakhs, a group with quite similar ethnic characteristics.
Location. The majority of the modern Kyrgyz (about 2 million) live in Kyrgyzstan (the former Soviet republic of Kirghizia), located in the southeastern part of the Tianshan range and the northwestern area of the Pamir-Altai Mountains. These two mountain ranges separate the north and south of Kyrgyzstan not only geographically but also in terms of their economic, religious, and political orientations. Well-adapted to living in the higher elevations, some Kyrgyz fled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and eastern China during various land disputes among the Russians, Chinese, and Afghans over the regulation of pasturage. More so than their Soviet counterparts, the Kyrgyz diaspora still practices nomadic pastoralism. Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country in the center of Asia—with China bordering on the east, Kazakhstan on the north, Uzbekistan on the west, and Tajikistan on the south and southwest. Occupying 198,500 square kilometers, Kyrgyzstan is situated at elevations between 1,000 meters and 7,400 meters with only about 7 percent of its land being desert, steppe, and arable river valleys. Located between 39° and 43° N, Kyrgyzstan has a harsh continental climate with temperatures as low as -23° C and as high as 41° C. More than 600 glaciers cover 6,578 square kilometers of the country. Lakes and rivers abound in this part of Central Asia, including one of largest lakes in the world, Lake Issyk Kul. This unique saltwater lake—at an elevation of 1,500 meters—covers about 6,000 square kilometers, has a maximum depth of nearly 700 meters, and is geothermally heated. Sometimes referred to as the "little Switzerland of Central Asia," Kyrgyzstan, with its exceptionally high mountain ranges and intense seismic activity, is a major site for the study of the geology of Central Asia.
Demography. Kyrgyzstan's population of 4.5 million is 52.4 percent Kyrgyz. Other major ethnic groups living there include Russians, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Germans, Tatars, Dungans, Kazakhs, Uighur, and Tajiks. Since Kyrgyzstan's independence in 1991, there has been a large exodus of Russians, Germans, Ukrainians, and Jews who are migrating to other parts of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Germany, and Israel. In 1989 Kirghizia had the third-highest rate of reported abortions (86 percent of women reporting at least one abortion) of the Soviet republics, with Russia and the Ukraine first and second. Prior to 1990 Kirghizia had one of the lowest rates of emigation in the Soviet Union. Approximately 83% of the population of Kyrgyzstan live in the rural regions around Lake Issyk Kul, the Fergana Valley, Naryn River valley, and the low-lying areas of the Tianshan and the Pamir-Altai Mountains. The other 17 percent live in Biskek, the capital city, or Osh, which is on the former Silk Road and is one of the oldest cities of Central Asia.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Kyrgyz language belongs to the Northwestern (Kipchak) Division of the Turkic Branch of the Altaic Language Family. It is closely related to Kazakh, Nogay, Tatar, Kipchak-Uzbek, and Karakalpak and should not be confused with Yenisei Kyrgyz. Kyrgyz was not a written language until the late nineteenth century. Before that, "Turki," a written form of Uzbek, was the script in use. At the turn of the century, Kyrgyz was first written using the Arabic alphabet, and in 1924, the Arabic alphabet was modified for writing Kyrgyz. In 1928 Arabic was dropped and the Latin alphabet substituted. In 1940, under Soviet influence, the Kyrgyz adopted the Cyrillic alphabet.
The official language recognized by the 1993 constitution of Kyrgyzstan is Kyrgyz. Although all urban dwellers know Russian because it was the language of instruction in the Soviet educational system, the rural population has maintained Kyrgyz as the primary language. Recently, the five Central Asian nations of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan have all agreed to adopt the Latin alphabet by 1995 in order to smooth trade and increase affiliation among themselves.