Conversion to the Latin Alphabet in Post-Soviet Asia

The end of the Soviet Union left its newly-independent republics free to pursue their own linguistic policies for the first time. Four of the five predominately Turkic-speaking countries of the former Soviet Union (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) looked to follow the lead of Turkey, which adopted the Latin alphabet under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk back in 1928-29. From a practical standpoint, using Latin script would make computer keyboards easier to use and make learning foreign languages employing the Latin alphabet such as English easier, as a large majority of countries around the world have national languages that employ Latin alphabets. It aids in computer usage, since computer coding, computer programming languages, and computer keyboards were designed around the Latin alphabet. From a political standpoint, discarding the Cyrillic alphabets imposed under Soviet rule could serve to distance the then-newly independent countries from Russia and help assert both independence and pan-Turkic solidarity.

The Central Asian republics and Azerbaijan, however, all had previous experience with Latin alphabets. Prior to Soviet rule, the languages in question were written using Arabic script, similar to other languages in the various predominantly Muslim countries of western and central Asia. Between 1927 and 1929, the Soviet Union implemented the Uniform Turkic Alphabet, a Latin script, coinciding with Turkey’s move to a Latin alphabet. Indeed, Lenin advocated the eventual conversion of all language scripts in the Soviet Union, including Russian, to the Latin alphabet (‘the world alphabet‘). In Central Asia, the Uniform Turkic Alphabet had the added meaning of attempting to stifle Islamic influence in the region and secularise the various peoples of the region. However, as Stalin moved away from the idea of ‘global socialism’ toward a policy of Russification in the 1930s, conversion to Latin alphabets became de-emphasised in favour of promoting the Russian language. Between 1936 and 1940, the Uniform Turkic Alphabet was replaced with individual Cyrillic scripts for each Turkic language in the Soviet Union. Each alphabet included all of the 33 letters used in the existing Russian alphabet (a way to accelerate the teaching of Russian orthography and sounds), as well as extra characters as necessary for sounds not heard in Russian.

Sotsijaldy_qazaqstan

A Kazakh newspaper from 1937 printed in Latin script using the Uniform Turkic Alphabet.

Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan was the first of the predominately Turkic-speaking republics to announce a switch back to a Latin alphabet, doing so less than three weeks after the total collapse of the Union in December 1991. Being close both linguistically and geographically to Turkey, in May 1992 Azerbaijan adopted an alphabet similar to Turkish but with three new characters for sounds unique to the Azerbaijani language (Ә, X, and Q) that were represented by different symbols in the original 1920s-era Latin alphabet. Among Turkic language scripts, Azerbaijani is alone in its use of Ә (schwa) rather than Ä to represent the /æ/ sound.

Turkmenistan’s infamous late dictator Saparmurat Niyazov (Saparmyrat Nyýazow) also made the move to switch the Turkmen language to a Latin script shortly after independence; just one of the methods Niyazov employed to distance Turkmenistan from Russia and emphasise a separate Turkmen national identity. Initially intended to employ unorthodox characters such as various currency signs (£, $, ¥, ¢) in order to represent phonemes not found in other Turkic languages, the alphabet was reformed in 1995 using diacritical marks. It’s hard to say how successful the transition has been given the rather repressive and secretive nature of both the Niyazov regime and the current government under his successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, as little information tends to make it out of the country.

Uzbekistan followed suit with regard to the Uzbek language in 1993. The switchover began in schools, where children were taught the new alphabet first. Schools were followed by newspapers and magazines printed with parallel texts in Cyrillic and Latin. Unlike the (relatively) smooth transition in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan is still struggling with the transition. People in the younger generation that have graduated school after 2005, having learned to read in Latin, are unable to read the vast amounts of Uzbek language books and newspapers printed in Cyrillic and as such are cut off from the information contained within, and have only a small number of Latin-script books from which to read, hampering literacy. Similarly, older Uzbeks that haven’t learned the Latin script can’t read newer texts or conduct written discourse with their children, creating a cultural disconnect. The prohibitive costs of translating and reprinting prior works have eaten into the country’s education budget. The difficulties have led to the continual postponement of the completion of the switchover.

Unlike Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan has yet to inaugurate the transition back to the Latin alphabet, though its government has stated its intention of doing so at some point. As early as 2006, Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev was openly discussing the idea. One of the issues with conversion is the sizeable ethnic Russian minority in Kazakhstan. While the percentage of Russians in the country has declined steeply over the past 30 years (ethnic Russians once formed the plurality in Kazakhstan with over 40 percent of the population; thanks to mass emigration, that percentage is barely half of that today), the numbers are still substantial enough that getting the country’s monolingual Russian speakers to learn Kazakh is important for the government, and keeping the Cyrillic Kazakh script aids in that learning process. Russian is still the major language of business, high education, and much of the country’s mass communication and entertainment. There is also the enormous cost of translating books, documents, road signs, and all other printed material from Cyrillic to Latin alphabets while re-educating Kazakh language users along the way, estimated at US$300 million.

On the other hand, replacing the current 42-character Cyrillic script with a smaller alphabet (most Latinised versions of the Kazakh alphabet end up with a character count in the mid-30s, with the most likely candidate for adoption employing 36) would make using computers far easier for Kazakh speakers. Currently, users typing in Kazakh actually have to switch languages on their keyboard in order to use numbers and supplementary characters such as @ or % because the alphabet takes up so many keys. As well, it promotes closer relations with countries in Europe (not only does the westernmost portion of Kazakhstan lie in Europe, but Kazakhstan is also of member of European organisations such as OSCE and UEFA, Last December, the Kazakh government announced that it was resuming its plans to convert the Kazakh language to Latin script, intending to have the crossover complete by 2025.

Keyboard_KAZ

The layout of the current Kazakh keyboard. Source: Wassily, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Keyboard_KAZ.png. Used under the terms of the GNU General Public License.

As for Kyrgyzstan, while there has been occasional talk of switching to Latin, serious talk at the government level has not occurred. Russian remains an co-official language of the country, and relations between the two countries remain rather close, meaning a change in alphabets is unlikely any time soon.

Further Reading

Bartlett, P. (2006). President Ponders Alphabet Change in Kazakhstan. Eurasianet.org, 16 November 2006. Available at http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav111706b.shtml. Accessed 4 September 2013.

della Chiesa, B., J. Scott, and C. Hinton (eds.) (2012). Ideologies and alphabet reforms in Central Asia. In Languages in a Global World: Learning for Better Cultural Understanding, 133-150. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Open Central Asia (2013). Uzbekistan Locked In Alphabet Limbo. 27 June 2013. Available at http://www.ocamagazine.com/uzbekistan-locked-in-alphabet-limbo-2. Accessed 4 September 2013.

Pavlovskaya, O. (2013). Kazakhstan to switch to Latin alphabet. Central Asia Online, 2 April 2013. Available at http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/features/main/2013/04/02/feature-01. Accessed 3 September 2013.

Prokudin, F. (2006). Alphabet Change Sparks Debate. Reporting Central Asia 471, 10 November 2006. Available at http://iwpr.net/report-news/alphabet-change-sparks-debate. Accessed 4 September 2013.

RIA Novosti (2012). Kazakhstan to Switch to Latin Script by 2025 – President. 14 December 2012. Available at http://en.rian.ru/world/20121214/178158386.html. Accessed 4 September 2013.

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