Azerbaijan International

Winter 2002 (10.4)
Pages 68-71

Article from Spring 2000

Alphabet and Language
Dealing 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.

Three Alphabet Changes
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.

Photos: 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).

Orphaned Youth
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).]

Deliberate Choice
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 medicine.

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 of Azeri.

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 be irreparable.

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 manageable.

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.

Legendary Speed
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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