Conservatively speaking, the
Azerbaijani or Azeri alphabet to date has been altered four times--to
Arabic after the Islamic conquest; to Latin (1928-1938); to Cyrillic
(1939-1991) and to Latin again (1991 to present). On each occasion,
the motivation for change was political. However, if we consider
the replacement of a single letter in any of the phonetic alphabets
(Cyrillic or Latin), then the Azeri alphabet has been changed
at least ten times (Tables 2,3,4). Nor does this take into account
the pre-Islamic scripts used by the Turkic nations and other
ancestors of modern Azerbaijanis such as Caucasian Albanians.
If those are added, then the historical fgure would be raised
to twelve or more, depending on how far back one digs in search
of ancient scripts. (See Table 1 and Sample 1).
Political Reason for
Changing the Alphabet
For many centuries after the
conquest of Islam, the only offcial written language in the conquered
lands, including Azerbaijan, was Arabic as the Islamic caliphate
had to create a linqua franca to unify their territory. When
these nations began using their own languages for reading and
writing, the Arabic alphabet was retained. The most valuable
contribution that the Arabic alphabet made for the Turkic tribes
and nations was to provide them with a more-or-less universal
script (the Arabic letters generally do not express all the vowel
sounds which is one of the most obvious differences between various
dialects and closely-related Turkic languages). Hence, this common
means of communication made the great poet and philosopher Fizuli
as much Turkish (Ottoman) as he was Azerbaijani or the great
thinker of Turkistan, Ali-Shir Navayi, as much understood in
Tabriz as in Bukhara.
On the other hand, since the Middle ages, it is precisely because
the Arabic script does not express the vowels that it was so
strongly criticized.1 However,
it wasn't until the 20th century that the Arabic alphabet was
totally replaced by another script.
The Monument of "Kultigin" devoted to the famous
Turkic ruler, Prince Kultigin (685-731 AD) is one of the Orkhan-Yenisey
scripts which were found near the Orkhon river in Mongolia. Orkhon-Yenisey
alphabet was used by the Turkic nations before they accepted
The frst attempts to alter the
Arabic script (1860-1870) were made by three individuals: Manif
Pasha, a scholar in the Turkish court; Malkom Khan, an Iranian
Armenian intellectual in the Russian Embassy in Tehran; and Akhunzadeh,
the great Azerbaijani thinker, writer, and dramatist, who was
the most active of all. All three were friends who wanted to
westernize Muslim society. Akhundzadeh, an atheist, pushed for
the reform to counter Islamic culture though none could ever
have dared to suggest adoption of the Latin alphabet as it would
have been blasphemous.2 Instead,
they pushed to eliminate the dots, express each vowel and make
the writing smoother and more continuous. Akhundzadeh believed
that one of the main reasons for "backwardness" among
the Muslim world laid in their style of education which was based
on the Arabic alphabet. As their reformist proposals were considered
political and anti-Islamic both by Istanbul and Tehran, they
were rejected. 3
Bans the Arabic Alphabet
After the death of Akhundzadeh
in 1878, the issue of "modernizing the alphabet" was
forgotten for a while, at least in offcial circles. After the
Revolution of 1917 and the fall of the Tsarist Empire, Azerbaijanis
established their own independent Republic which survived from
1918 until 1920 during which time the government continued publishing
all its offcial correspondence in the Arabic alphabet and the
issue of Latinization was offcially never raised.
In 1920, the Bolsheviks toppled the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan.
It was the "Soviet of Azerbaijan People's Commis-sars,"
set up by the Communists which in late 1921 organized the "New
Alphabet Committee." This was before any change had taken
place in Turkey regarding alphabet reform. In 1926 the frst Turkology
Conference was held in Baku which provided the linguistic and
scientifc justifcation for the Latin script which was adopted
fnally in 1929 ("Old Latin"-Table 2). For the Soviets,
Latinizing the alphabet was a means of severing the Muslim population
from their past and of preventing outside infuence. This process
was not confned to Azerbaijan but was carried out throughout
the entire Turkic Muslim population of Soviet Union.
In 1928, the Republic of Turkey replaced the traditional Arabic
alphabet with Latin. Although their motivations were similar
to the Soviets--centralization, westernization and disassociation
with the Islamic past--the modifcations to the script were signifcant
enough to make reading between the Latin scripts of the Soviet
Republics and Turkey diffcult. Whether this was intentional is
Although Lenin had called Latinization
"the great revolution of the east," in 1939 the offcial
Literaturnaya Gazetta disagreed and wrote "the Latin script
does not provide all the necessary conditions for bringing the
other people (nationalities) closer to the great Russian people's
culture." Overnight, the Turkic populations of Soviet Union
were forced to convert to a new alphabet--Cyrillic. This decision
was so sudden that in Azerbaijan alone, certain characters were
changed several times (Table 4).
to Cyrillic was carried out with two main goals: Russifcation
and isolation between Turkic nations. The second goal was achieved
by using different Cyrillic characters for the same sounds in
various Turkic languages; for example, the symbol "o"
was used in Uzbek for the same sound that appeared as an "a"
in Azeri, etc. The variety was suffciently complex so that ordinary
people of each nationality were not able to communicate in writing
with each other.
An illustration of the evidence
of alphabet changes in Azerbaijan even on grave markers - here
in Arabic and Cyrillic. (Sufi Hamid Cemeteryone hour south of
Baku). Photo: Farid Mamedov
came Alphabetical Perestroika 4
In 1985 with Gorbachev's nomination
as the new leader of the Soviet Union, the new policy of Glasnost
was announced. The frst signs of this new political openness
in Azerbaijan became evident by the enormous number of articles
in Azeri newspapers criticizing the colonialist nature of the
Cyrillic alphabet and the need to revive the old alphabet (Arabic).
This movement was led by the famous poet and writer, Bakhtiyar
Vahabzade, who in his long dramatic poem, "Iki Qorkhu"
(Two Fears) describes how Stalin frst used the Latin and then
the Cyrillic alphabet to separate Azerbaijan from its thousand
year old literature and southern brothers and sisters. Other
pro-traditional alphabet articles followed.5
Ziya Buniadov, a famous Azerbaijani scholar, was the frst to
call for a return to the Latin alphabet in July 1989.6 The
issue soon divided Azerbaijani intellectuals into pro-Latinists
and pro-Arabists. Heated discussions extended beyond geographical
boundaries into Iran and Turkey and took on a political entity
of their own. The days of Glasnost were over and the days of
the "Great Game"7 made
the alphabet yet again a victim of political competition and
Game" and the Azeri Alphabet
The alphabet was the main ingredient
in the boiling pot of Turkish-Iranian politics. While the Latin
alphabet came to symbolize a propensity for the West, secularism,
and pro-Turkism; the Arabic (Koranic) alphabet was clearly associated
with the Islamic Republic of Iran and all its religious ramifcations.
Each competitor used different tactics to promote their own script.
Iran began increasing the number of publications available to
their own Azerbaijani populations. (Publication in Azeri had
been forbidden in Iran during the Pahlavi era from 1925-79) except
during the brief period from 1941 to 1946 when the country was
occupied by Allied forces.8
Many Azeri publications of the Revolution (1979-81) did not survive
under Islamic rule. In 1989, there was only one single Azeri
publication, Varliq, produced quarterly, half in Persian, half
in Azeri from the private resources of Dr. Javad Heyat. Varliq
only had a circulation of 2,000 despite the fact that more than
20 million Azerbaijanis lived in Iran. However the Iranian government
suddenly started devoting pages for Azeri in its offcial papers;
even the publication of Azeri books was somehow encouraged.9 Often
these papers concerned Northern Azer-baijanis more than Iranian
Azerbaijanis. A typical article would promote the Arabic alphabet
reminding the reader that the revival of Islam in Azerbaijan
demanded the revival of the Arabic alphabet.10
The most convincing and scientifc of these articles, however,
was published in Varliq by Dr. Abbas-Ali Javadi in 1369-1370
In any case, northern Azerbaijani intellectuals argued that they
did not have a role model for the Arabic alphabet as Iranian
Azerbaijan did not provide them with a strong literary basis
for revival of the Arabic alphabet. The monthly Odlar Yurdu published
in Baku went so far as to argue that if the Iranian government
established Azerbajani schools where Azeri would be taught in
Arabic alphabet, then the North would welcome this by adopting
the Arabic alphabet instead of Latin. In itself, this was a very
political argument. It was like saying, "You have no right
to tell us what to do when your own Azeris don't even have a
single school in their own mother tongue."
This, along with various other reasons, including the lack of
expertise with the Arabic alphabet and its more tedious spelling
and writing techniques made the Turkish position for the Latin
script stronger. Turkey busily organized many linguistic seminars
and conferences on the Turkic alphabet. The most well known conference,
"The Common Alphabet of the Turkic Nations," was held
in Ankara in October of 1990 and organized by the Turkish Language
History Organization (Türkiye Dil Tarik Kurumu). In many
of these seminars and conferences, the arguments set forth were
extremely political: "A common alphabet is essential for
bringing together all the Turks of the world." In other
words, that which the Arabic alphabet had already done for many
centuries was now expected from Latin. The phonetic nature of
Latin made it too diffcult to hide the differences between them
as had been done with Arabic. This created another question of
what would happen to all the sounds which existed in the Turkic
languages other than those that existed in the Turkish language?
The radical answer was "get rid of them, make them sound
just like Turkish."
As one of the participants of the First International Congress
of Azerbaijan Turkish Associations (Istanbul, November 1990),
I was surprised that one of the leaders of Motherland (Anaveten)
party gave a "speech" basically declaring, "Your
alphabet must be exactly the same as ours." That a major
Turkish party leader was asking Azerbaijanis to copy the Turkish
Latin made the issue of alphabet so political it was hard to
believe that there was any other motivation behind it.
It could be argued that Turkey won the "Great Game"
of the alphabet. In May of 1990, the Republic Supreme Soviet
of Azerbaijan established a commission to work on the Latinization
20 and on December 25, 1991, the National Council of the Republic
of Azerbaijan offcially replaced the Cyrillic script with a modifed
Latin alphabet (See table 2)
But the Latin alphabet which the Azerbaijanis adopted was not
identical to the Turkish script. The new Azeri Latin now has
three letters which do not exist in Turkish Latin - x (kh sound),
upside down "e" (ae sound in "fat cat") and
q, which express sounds particular to the Azeri language which
do not exist in Turkish. Initially, a two-dotted (ä) was
designed for expressing the vowel sound in the English word,
"and". The idea was to make it look as similar to Turkish
and European alphabet as possible as well as to be able to use
foreign typewriters and read-made software. It must also be mentioned
that one of the criticisms against using the Arabic script was
its cumbersome use of dots which made writing so tedious. But,
because this sound is so frequent in Azeri, and the dots so cumbersome,
six months later, they reverted to the up-side down 'e' - a symbol
that had become very familiar to their eye as it had been used
both in the early Latin alphabet in 1928 and had even survived
Changing the alphabet so many
times in Azerbaijan has had severe consequences on the accumulative
wealth of knowledge and culture of the nation. It has hindered
continuity of the literary development, isolating the people
from centuries of knowledge, cultural insight and human wisdom.
It has erected intellectual barriers between generations. Children
often can't read their parents writing much less that of their
grandparents. And in some cases, brothers and sisters have even
experienced this separation and isolation from one another.
Alphabet change has created an incredible fnancial strain on
the society. Who pays for all the street signs and government
documents that must be transliterated much less the thousands
of books which should be republished?
At different times in its history, alphabet changes have served
to isolate Northern Azerbaijan from Southern Azerbaijan. If the
Araz river was the "natural" border between the two
Azerbaijanis and if the barbed wires emphasized physical separation;
then alphabet differences created a third boundary - an invisible
It has served to isolate Azerbaijan from related Turkic-speaking
peoples and from the West. But, perhaps, the greatest tragedy
to what is nearly a century old process is that if alphabet change
is carried out solely, or even, partially, for political purposes,
the damage can be catastrophic, as future purges by the ruling
politics will again and again make the "defenseless"
1 Abu Reyhan Biruni has emphasized the necessity
of using "E'rab" signs for vowels) in the Arabic script
in his book, Al sidle--on Seeds and Fruits--in Arabic.
Hamid. Malkum Khan, Akhundzadeh and the Proposed Reform of the
Arabic Alphabet, Middle Eastern Studies. 5, 1969.
Hamid. 1969. Religions and State in Iran, 1785-1906: The Qajar
Period. Berkeley and Los Angeles.
openness" and Peristroika--"restructuring" were
two terms introduced by Gorbachev and which soon became part
of the international vocabulary. In Azeri, they were called ashkarliq
and yeniden qurma..
Javadi. 1990. Alphabet Changes. Varliq. Winter (1369, pp. 24-29;
Summer (1370) pp. 88-96; Autumns (1370) pp. 91-102.
L. Alstadt. 1992. The Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under
the Russian Rule. Hoover Institution Press. Stanford University,
Stanford, CA, p. 209.
"Great Game" was a term used to refer to the political
competition in the Middle East between Russian and Britain during
the 19th century. Recently many journalists have used it to refer
to the competition between Iran and Turkey over the former Soviet
Ehsan, Ed., 1992 Encyclopaedia Iranica. Javadi, H. and K. Burrill
in "Azeri Literature in Iran." Routledge & Kegan
Paul: London. p. 251.
papers like Kayhane Havayi and Etela'at printed a few pages of
Azeri in the Arabic alphabet. In Tabriz the new Azeri papers
like Sahand and Ark have been published and Islami Birlik even
includes a few pages in the Cyrillic alphabet.
are more or less similar articles on this topic in almost every
issue of the journal, Yol, between 1990-1992.
(1.3) September 1993
© Azerbaijan International 1993. All rights reserved.
to Azeri Language