The Uzbeks are a Central Asiatic people who speak a language belonging to the Chagatay branch of the Turkic language subfamily. They are a predominantly Turkic people, Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school, yet their ethnogenesis shows significant Persian and Turco-Mongol elements. The origin of the ethonym itself is in dispute. One view holds that the group name derives from Uzbek Khan (1282-1342), the last powerful ruler of the Golden Horde and responsible for its conversion to Islam, though the nomadic Uzbeks were never subject to him. Etymological argument states that the name means 'independent' or 'the man himself', from иг, self, and Bek or 'Beg', a noble title of leadership.
The process of the formation of the Uzbeks began in the 11th century and solidified in the 14th as a conglomeration of Turkic tribes. Their language, Chagatai or Old Uzbek, evolved at the same time. These nomads clashed with the Timurids, Ulug Beg and Babur, as they moved south from the Kazakh steppes to dominate Transoxiana in the 16th century. This Shaybanid Uzbek dynasty promoted the transition to sedentary life by merging with the earlier inhabitants in the 16th and 17th centuries, until the name Uzbek came to be used for the whole population.
By the early 20th century, the Uzbeks were yet to be consolidated into a nation. First and foremost an Uzbek was (and remains) a Muslim, while his next point of reference was his home town. The tsarist administration generalized the settled inhabitants of Turkestan as Sarts, or 'traders', a word of Sanskrit origin, to distinguish them from nomads. The Uzbeks comprised three major ethnic layers. The first was the urban population, oasis-dwelling Uzbeks intermingled with the original Persian (Tajik) inhabitants of Central Asia. The second and third layers were the semi-nomadic descendants of the pre-Shaybanid Turco-Mongol tribes and the Shaybanid Uzbek tribes. The latter two groups still preserve some tribal identity, such as the Kipchaks, Karluks, Mangit and Kungrat, ethnic groupings shared by other Turkic nations.
Soviet delimitation, "negative ethnic gerrymandering" in the words of American expert Edward Allworth, gave the Uzbeks the heart of Central Asia, less than the original Uzbek domains, but encompassing the historic power centres. Soviet historiography encouraged an anachronistic Uzbek nationalism, once firmly within the Russian fraternal embrace, but which has since taken on a life of its own. The belief that the glories of Transoxiana are an exclusive part of the Uzbek heritage, plus the Uzbeks' numerical superiority, leaves neighbouring republics wary of 'great Uzbek chauvinism'. At over 30 million strong, the Uzbeks are the third-largest nationality in the former Soviet Union, with substantial minorities in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. Up to two million Uzbeks inhabit northern Afghanistan, with another 15,000 in northwest China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region.