Winter 2002 (10.4)
Alphabet and Language
with Yet Another Difficult Transition
by Betty Blair
Nikos Kazantzakis (1885-1957), the great
modern Greek writer of "Zorba, the Greek", was known
to be a workaholic. For days on end, he would barely push away
from his desk. His friends would worry and warn him, "Take
good care of your body. Don't abuse it. It's the only donkey
that you have to carry your soul around on earth."
In a sense, the same metaphor can be made between language and
this creation that we call "alphabet" - the real workhorse
of culture. Alphabets carry the load of the written form of all
our discoveries, thoughts and beliefs. Alphabets connect us to
a world beyond our own physical presence, both in terms of history
and geography. That's why we must respect these symbolic systems
and take good care of them.
The trouble for Azerbaijan in the 20th century is that the alphabet
- this beast of burden - has been changed three times midstream.
The nation still suffers greatly from the incredible loss of
this cultural treasury.
The first change came when Latin replaced Arabic, the script
that had been used for more than a millennium. This shift began
in 1923 when Latin was declared the state language alongside
Arabic. By 1929, Soviets had banned Arabic and gone on ravaging
book-burning campaigns throughout the towns and villages of Azerbaijan
and in other Central Asian Turkic-speaking republics, seeking
to scour the alphabet from the land, along with anything else
associated with Islam.
Novruz (Spring) Festival
in Baku's Old City, 1999. Note that the Azeri Cyrillic script
was still being openly used for signs and banners (Photos: Left
- Roshanak Bayramlou, Right - Blair).
In 1939, the cultural burden
was shifted again. This time it was from Latin to Cyrillic, as
Stalin was very concerned that Latin might become a consolidating
factor that would unify all Soviet Turkic-speaking (Muslim) nations
with Turkey itself. The alphabet scripts of Georgia and Armenia,
both of Christian heritage, were not changed. So Stalin imposed
Cyrillic. Finally, in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and
Azerbaijan gained its independence, one of the Republic's first
articulations of delight was to give Cyrillic a kick and begin
transferring the load back onto the Latin script once more -
exactly where it had been before Stalin intervened 50 years earlier.
Left: Novruz 1999: the sign in Azeri Latin
script reads: "May Spring prayers be with our nation."
High wire performances are typical for Novruz Celebrations in
Baku (Photo: Roshanak Bayramlou).
None of these alphabet
changes has truly been successful in terms of enabling younger
generations to access the knowledge acquired by the older members
of their society. Each time the alphabet was changed, the younger
generation was left orphaned, alone on its own to scrounge around
as best it could in search of the repository of national, cultural
and historical knowledge. For the most part, the valued treasure
just slipped off the back of the donkey and plunged into the
swiftly flowing stream of political and economic expediency to
disappear forever. Historians are likely to write that these
frequent alphabet changes were some of the greatest tragedies
that Azerbaijan experienced in the 20th century.
Intellectual resources could not be utilized to their fullest
extent because written records had either been destroyed, were
no longer "politically correct" or were simply unreadable
to younger generations. [See "The Day They Burned Our Books"
by the late Dr. Asaf Rustamov in Autumn 1999 (AI 7.3, page 74).]
The decision to adopt Latin in 1923 seems to be the most deliberate
and calculated of these three alphabet changes. Set in the context
of religious tradition, this switch was thoroughly discussed,
unlike the change to Cyrillic, which followed a few years later
and was imposed by Stalin's regime. Intellectuals blamed the
Arabic script for the nation's backwardness and lack of progress.
They jealously eyed the rapid development and industrialization
that was taking place in Europe which used the Latin script.
Latinists wanted an alphabet that would facilitate literacy and
accurately reflect the Azeri sound system, since the Persian-modified
Arabic script that they used had certain shortcomings. Several
letters represented the same sounds (s, t, z), whereas other
sounds were not represented at all - w, \,= ^. These sounds were
critical for determining meaning in the Azeri language.
It's rare to find books in the Arabic script in the Azerbaijan
Republic today, except in museums. It's rarer still to find young
people who can read these texts, despite the fact that this same
script is alive and vibrant in Iran, where an estimated 25 to
30 million Azerbaijanis live.
Of course, it can be argued that not that many people were literate
in the Arabic alphabet back at the turn of the 20th century and,
therefore, not many books had been printed. But one should not
forget the rare treasures among those handwritten manuscripts,
particularly in the medical field, in which the pharmaceutical
powers of indigenous plants had been so carefully documented.
Much of that rare knowledge went up in flames. It's a great loss
- not only to Azerbaijan, but to the entire world - especially
as modern medicine seeks to unravel the mysteries of traditional
Stalin imposed Cyrillic in 1939, at the height of what is known
as the Stalinist Repression. It was during this time that tens
of thousands of intellectuals who were suspected of criticizing
the regime's political policies were arrested throughout Azerbaijan
and the Soviet Union and either executed or sent into exile in
Siberia. Is there any wonder that Cyrillic met with so little
resistance? Azerbaijanis bowed their heads in submission, clinging
to the hope that adopting the alphabet that was created to express
the Russian language would not wreak havoc on the sound system
Back to Latin
Nowadays, the donkey is again caught midstream, as a transition
takes place from Cyrillic to Latin. Turbulent waters are swirling
around the treasured wealth once again. However, the situation
is quite different from that of previous occasions. As opposed
to earlier periods, there is an abundance of written material
that has been produced during the preceding 70 years of Soviet
power. Some of it should be republished in Azeri Latin. If younger
generations are denied access to these materials, the loss will
When the transition from Arabic to Latin was being considered
in 1926, one advocate insisted that the cost of republishing
all of the Arabic texts into Latin at the time would be no greater
than the cost of a battleship - a sum that he felt was quite
Today, the situation is different. It doesn't take long for a
cash-strapped Azerbaijan to run out of battleships. One publishing
house director figured that if the transition were extremely
well planned (which he insists it hasn't been), republishing
major works could be completed in 15 years.
With today's proliferation of Web sites, who can imagine what
body of knowledge will be available to the youth of the international
community in these next 15 years, while Azerbaijanis struggle
to catch up with themselves? Time will not stand still. Azerbaijanis
need to catapult themselves into the 21st century, or they will
be left far behind. However, the best way to do this is by standing
on the shoulders of their forefathers and drawing upon the best
repository of wisdom and knowledge that has preceded them. They
should not discard the past simply because it was documented
and recorded in a different alphabet.
Azerbaijan doesn't need a donkey right now; it needs a horse
with the speed of lightning - like the legendary Girat of "Koroghlu"
fame, which always comes to the rescue of his master, whisking
him away from danger. What many Azerbaijanis don't realize is
that Girat is alive and well and already exists in their midst
in the form of computers and associated technologies.
Unfortunately, many members of the older generation - often,
the decision-makers-fail to comprehend the power of computers.
They have not grown up using them, nor had any practical, hands
- on experience with them. Most of them view the computer as
a mysterious, sophisticated electronic version of the typewriter.
This, of course, strips the computer of its greatest capability
- the ability to remember, store and communicate information
at the push of a button linking ideas to the worldwide network
of the Internet.
The problems we've discussed in this issue are like "déjà
vu" all over again. In 1993, Azerbaijan International dedicated
one of its earliest issues to the alphabet transition. As Editor,
I wrote my first article about the font problem, entitled "The
Upside-down 'e': An Editor's Nightmare" [See this issue].
Well, seven years [now 10 years in 2002] have passed, and the
nightmare has only intensified. The main culprit is that no standardization
has taken place in regard to character assignment of Azeri fonts
or keyboard layout. Standardization will take place by default,
sooner or later, but it could happen considerably faster and
with much less wasted energy if there were government support.
Young people stand to lose immensely from further delays. Young
people who were weaned on the Latin script in primary school
are now getting ready to enter the doors of the university. And,
for the most part, they are not as well educated as their parents
and grandparents. Students who have followed the Azeri track
at school have had little access to books beyond a few textbooks.
In the university, they'll discover little to read except old,
outdated texts in Cyrillic, as very few higher-level books are
available in the Latin script. What are kids to do? The lack
of intellectual challenge for this generation of youth is an
enormous problem with long-ranging consequences.
Azerbaijanis cannot rely on old print methods to solve this problem
of making Cyrillic texts available in Latin. It's far too expensive,
and there just aren't enough battleships to trade in for cash.
Instead, they need to plunge into new technologies and carefully
strategize to make full use of the Internet. Let the Internet
become the "beast of burden" as it revolutionizes modern
life and the way we acquire information.
Entire books can now be downloaded from Web sites, such as on
the Project Gutenberg Web site. Commercial ventures are developing
electronic books (e-books), the size of a book itself, which
can be filled with scores of books at the same time.
These are the types of tools that Azerbaijan must use to solve
its problems. Azerbaijan must foster the creation of Web sites,
not only by government institutions, but also by entrepreneurs
who want to convert Cyrillic texts to Azeri and make them available
in every major field of endeavor, from science and medicine to
math, history and music. We shouldn't be thinking in terms of
hundreds of books but rather tens of thousands.
Usually, our magazine is descriptive, and our targeted audience
is foreigners who have had little chance to learn about Azerbaijan.
But this time, we hope our issue on Alphabet and Language Transition
can serve as a catalyst to empower Azerbaijanis who are deeply
concerned about this problem and want to push for action within
the Azerbaijani community.
And so our admonition to Azerbaijan is: Take care of that donkey
- the alphabet. Make sure the cultural load this time is transferred
to a speedy critter like Girat, that magical horse of legendary
and heroic strength, so that it can carry the load for generations
to come. After all, it's the only means of bearing up your soul
on this fast-paced planet called Earth.
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AI 10.4 (Winter 2002)
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