The Seven Stans
If you’ve been around Sporcle for even a little while, you’ve probably noticed that we have a slight obsession with the fine nation of Kyrgyzstan. Being able to properly spell this country is a bit of a Sporcle rite of passage, and it has held a special place in our hearts ever since users first struggled to spell it in our Countries of Asia quiz way back when.
Kyrgyzstan is one of seven Central Asian countries that end with the suffix -stan, and like Kyrgyzstan, these other countries can be tough to spell as well. Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan – correctly typing these out on your first try is no easy task!
Our infatuation with all things Kyrgyzstan led us to wonder more about where these tough to spell names come from. Why are there so many places that end with -stan?
We did a little research, and it turns out the answer is actually standing right in front of you.
Stan By Your Land
The simple answer to our question is that the suffix -stan is Persian for ‘place of’ or ‘country.’ This suffix is common throughout much of Central Asia, and it’s no real surprise that we find this suffix used in other regions that were influenced heavily by Persian culture, much how colonizers who spoke English and other Germanic languages used -land.
If we look back even farther, we find that the Persian suffix -stan derives from the Proto-Indo-European root -sta, which means ‘to stand.’ Not a whole lot is known about the Proto-Indo-Europeans, who lived on the Eurasian Steppe during the late Neolithic period. They left no written records, but from this prehistoric language family we get many of today’s world languages, including Hindi, Spanish, Russian, and Persian.
As the Proto-Indo-European language spread, and new languages and dialects emerged, -sta evolved into many different forms. The Persian idea of -stan as a place where one lived became especially popular in various regions across Central Asia and Eastern Europe. In Czech, stan means ‘tent,’ in Bulgarian it means ‘camp,’ and in Serbo-Croatian it means ‘apartment.’
In Russia, stan is used to mean ‘settlement.’ As the Russian Empire competed for territories with the British Empire during the 18th century and beyond, they expanded into areas once inhabited by those Proto-Indo-Europeans, and they used -stan in place names. It is from Russia and the Soviets that we get 5 of our -stan countries:
- Kazakhstan – Land of the Kazakhs
- Kyrgyzstan – Land of the Kyrgyz
- Tajikistan – Land of the Tajiks
- Turkmenistan – Land of the Turkmen
- Uzbekistan – Land of the Uzbeks
The name Afghanistan, land of the Afghans, is actually quite older than its other -stan counterparts. References to Afghanistan have been found in 10th-century Persian texts. Conversely, Pakistan is a modern constructed name that translates to land of the pure. Its name actually comes from an acronym for its regions – Punjab, Afghan, Kashmir, Sindh, Baluchistan.
United We Stan
This all brings us back to those Proto-Indo-Europeans and that root word -sta. From -sta, we get the Latin word ‘status,’ which in turn is where the English word ‘state’ comes from. You probably can think of at least one country with ‘state’ in its name.
Yes, English speakers are also descendants of those Proto-Indo-Europeans, so when you think about it, the United States is kind of a -stan country as well.
The United Stans of America – it has a nice little ring to it, doesn’t it?
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.