Azerbaijan International

September 1993 (1.3)
Pages 16-17


Dissolution of the Soviet Union
The Question of Alphabet Reform for the Turkic Republics

Dr. András Bodrogligeti, UCLA

In the late 1930s, most minority languages of the former Soviet Union received a new writing system based more or less on a modifed version of the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet. For languages which had just risen to the level of standard national literary idioms, this was the frst writing system. In the case of others, it replaced Latin or Arabic which already had shorter or longer historical traditions behind them. The introduction of the Cyrillic-based alphabet was ordered by the Party to satisfy "the demands of the toiling masses" who were "unhappy" about their Latin or Arabic alphabets. The new orthographies were designed by native scholars in cooperation with their Soviet Russian colleagues.

The avowed objective of the Soviets in changing the alphabets was to fight illiteracy, especially in rural areas, and to raise the overall cultural level of the minority people. They were successful in both. The cultural-political gain that the Party hoped to obtain was to open a direct channel for the Soviet-Russian prestige-normative culture to penetrate into the heart of the isolationist, self-contained, and heritage-bound world of the non-Russian subjects. After all, literate, educated minorities were more likely succumb to the infuence of the aggressive and all-encompassing Soviet propaganda.

Left: Ataturk, First PResident of Turkey, is often credited with one of the most successful alphabet reforms in the world. In 1928, following the examples of Azerbaijan and other Turkic Republics of the Soviet Union, he urged the adoption of the Latin alphabet for Turkish. Here he introduces the new alphabet to people in the countryside.

Changing the writing system of targeted minority languages, however, was not a surface phenomenon restricted to the orthography alone. It affected the inner structure--grammatical and lexical--of individual languages and offset the mutual intelligibility of related idioms.

In order to promote the new script, normative lexicons and prescriptive grammars were created which incorporated many Russian words and transferred Russian grammatical notions and linguistics views. At the same time, native terms were dropped from the vocabulary in a haphazard fashion which led to the impairment of lexical coverage for notional groups or semantic felds. As a consequence, the cultural content of the lexicon was seriously impaired.

Since these structural changes took place in individual languages, related languages were distanced from one another and their mutual intelligibility faded--a tendency further complicated by the fact that the Cyrillic-based alphabets with which these languages were endowed were not alike. The same phonemes were represented by different characters. The orthographic principles were different and the order of characters in the alphabets was varied. If, indeed, the Soviets were afraid of the formation of cultural-linguistic-racial groups of the Muslim Turkic peoples, this was one way of isolating them from one another.

History has shown that language reforms have never worked the way planners anticipated. If they had, Hungarians would call Copenhagen "Kappanhágó" ("the mountain pass of the capon" and Dresden "Darázsd" ("a place infested with hornets").

Language as a tool develops in its own way in the hands of those who use it. It creates its own values, establishes preferences, brings about new phrases and idioms and enriches its cultural content with new, lasting elements. All this be-comes an integral part of language.

Most minority languages of the former Soviet Union have made astonishing progress during the Soviet period. Rather than serving as a bridge to lead their speakers through bilingualism to Russian monolingualism in the apocalyptic realm of the homo sovieticus, they became stronger and stronger as the main literary expression for the republics concerned, the preservers of the national cultural heritage, and the vehicles of literatures that gained recognition beyond national boundaries. Since the late sixties the nationality languages and their values were the rallying points of the trend frst identifed by American scholarship called "the national awakening" or "the rise of national awareness" of the Soviet minorities.

But the imposition of a Cyrillic writing system injured the pride of the various nationalities because it reminded them of their humiliating status in the Russian or Soviet colonialism. They wanted to exult their own national heroes and celebrities, present and past.

They wanted to be recognized for their own poets and artists, and for the distinctiveness of their own folklore and national talents--not simply because they were producing assiduously for Moscow as pakhtakors (Uzbeki for "cotton workers") and neftchis (Azeri for "oil workers"). It was this attitude that these people resented, not the replacing of the Cyrillic alphabet for other scripts. Consequently, it is very understandable that in the new social-political order that the Cyrillic-based orthographies were targeted for elimination.

Three tendencies are emerging in the rather unsettled milieu new independent republics fnd themselves. One is the restoration of the Arabic script, the writing system of the classical literature of Central Asia which is being promoted by religious leaders and national patriots concerned about their classical Turkic-Islamic heritage.

The acceptance of the Arabic script, however, would be a step backward. The Arabic writing system was created for Semitic languages and doesn't ft the Turkic phonetic and morphological systems as much as the Cyrillic script does. Arabic would be a cumbersome and ineffective means for the mass education of the Turks of today. At present, factions advocating for the introduction of the Arabic script constitute a small minority in the Central Asian arena and appear to be strongest in the Turkmen Republic.

The other tendency is to adopt a writing system based on a version of the Latin alphabet. Representatives of this view look back to some tradition in the use of the Latin alphabet before Cyrillic was introduced. They are also inspired by the success of Atatürk's language reform in Turkey. The Latin alphabet would bring them closer to Turkey and the West and make them less mindful of their colonial association with Russia. The people of Azerbaijan have recently opted for this solution. (UCLA was the frst university to teach intensive Azeri in the new script- Summer 1992).

The Latin-based alphabet which Azeris introduced is slightly different from the alphabet used for Modern Turkish. Unfortunately, for computer users of today, they retained the character "º" from earlier versions of Latin and Cyrillic--a font that must be created as it does not exist on the standard keyboard.

The third tendency is to retain, at least for the time being, the existing Cyrillic-based alphabet as it is. The promoters of this view emanate mostly from people of the old regime bent on maintaining the status quo. However, it includes supporters who have a long-range vision and a pragmatic approach to politics who believe that the Gorbachev dream is not yet fnished and that there are benefts to being a neighbor of a peaceful and prosperous Russian people with solid social fiber and superb cultural values.

For the present, this decision helps them maintain their multilingual republics and to tap the resources inherent in their multilingual status rather than seeking a destructive confrontation in their own nations. The Uzbek Republic is following this path. To regain connection with the knowledge of their own classical literature, Classical Uzbek in the original Arabic script is being introduced in high schools.

On the eve of the frst meeting of the Permanent Turkish Language Conference to be held in Ankara (September 22-26, 1993) in which I am privileged to participate, I would like to voice my belief: Turks of the former Soviet Union should not rush into any radical, hasty language reform, especially if it originates from the outside. Any decision regarding alphabet change should be made by the individual republics themselves. Our role as outside scholars should be only to advise and help--if, and when our opinions are solicited.

From Azerbaijan International (7.4) Winter 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.

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