A statement by a Kazakhstan minister that his country will eventually shift from a Cyrillic-based alphabet to a Latin-based script and reports that some scholars in Dushanbe are considering dropping another four Russian letters from the Tajik alphabet suggest that a new battle of the alphabets may again be shaping up in Central Asia.
Russian commentators have reacted by suggesting that this is yet another effort by nationalists in those countries to reduce the role of the Russian language and hence of the influence of Russian culture, but in fact the controversy over any such change is far more complicated than that.
Many advocates of such a shift away to a Latin script to Cyrillic believe that the former more fully captures the sound values of their languages than does the latter, a position with which many linguists around the world agree, and are pushing it as a means of preserving their native tongues.
But while they seldom attract much attention, many in Central Asia are opposed to such a change either because of the enormous expenditures that their countries would have to bear or even more because every alphabet change of this kind renders parts of the population functionally illiterate and less interested in reading than they were before.
Consequently, what might look as a simple struggle between the national aspirations of the peoples of this region and the desires of both ethnic Russian communities there and especially Moscow to maintain Russian influence is likely to proceed in a more complicated, even convoluted way than many expect.
Aleksandr Shustov, a Russian commentator who opposes any shift away from the “Russian” alphabet in Central Asia, nonetheless provides one of the most comprehensive recent discussions
of the state of play of alphabet change in the four Central Asian Turkic republics.
Last week, Shustov reports, Kazakhstan Culture and Mass Communications Minsiter Mukhtar Kul-Mukhammed said that at some point in the future “life itself” would cause Kazakhstan to drop the Cyrillic alphabet and turn to a Latin script like the one Kazakhs had used in the 1920s and 1930s.
Kul-Mukhamedov’s comments came as he announced the Conception of State Language Policy for 2011-2020, a context that suggests he sees this shift happening sometime over the next decade but not necessarily in the next year or two. At the same time, he insisted that this would not be a political step because “an alphabet does not have a national face.”
Shustov clearly disagrees as his discussion of the history of alphabets in Central Asia over the last century makes clear. Prior to 1917, he notes, the small literate population there used the Arabic script. Then the Soviets introduced a Latin script to promote unite and in the late 1930s the Cyrillic to tie these peoples more closely to the family of Soviet peoples.
When the USSR fell apart, many Central Asians talked about alphabet changes, and both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan moved in that direction. But Shustov suggests that their respective efforts were far from successful, costing more than the two regimes had expected and thus serving as a warning to others.
Kazakh officials began talking about shifting from a Cyrillic script to a Latin one in October 2006 when President Nursultan Nazarbayev suggested that this question deserved consideration. A year later, he created a special working group in that country’s education and science ministry to work up proposals in that regard.
But the commission does not appear to have been that active, Shustov suggests, possibly a reflection of the difficulties he says such a step would entail. Kazakhstan has a larger ethnic Russian population than do the other Central Asian countries and consequently an alphabet change would exacerbate divisions between the Kazakhs and the Russians there.
Shustov even argues that “a paradoxical result of an [alphabet] reform could be the further strengthening of the role of Russian which under conditions of the introduction of an unfamiliar Latin script would remain almost the only understandable and accessible to all the peoples of Kazakhstan means of inter-ethnic communication.”
At the conclusion of his essay, Shustov notes that the only Central Asian country which does not appear to have been caught up in this new alphabet struggle is Kyrgyzstan, but that reflects, he says, less interest there than the poverty of that country and its inability to bear the costs of any such change.
In his essay, the Russian commentator does not talk about Tajikistan, a Persian-speaking country in the region. But in some ways, what the Tajiks are talking about regarding alphabet reform may be the most interesting. In 1998, the Tajiks dropped four Russian letters from the Tajik alphabet, and now, one senior linguist in Dushanbe is calling for the elimination of four more.
In the November 6 issue of “Dzhumkkhuriyat,” Sayfiddin Nazarzoda, the director of the Tajikistan Academy of Sciences Institute of the Tajik Language and Literature, said that Dushanbe was considering dropping four more Cyrillic letters from its national alphabet. That would leave Tajik with an alphabet of 31 letters rather than the 35 it has now.
But not everyone in Tajikistan is enthusiastic about the idea, Giesiddin Kodirov, the deputy director of that institute, told the media that “no letters will be excluded from the Tajik alphabet and that no new ones will appear.” Nazarzoda’s proposal, he suggested, “is only part of a scholarly study” and not yet state policy.
Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia, he can be contacted directly at email@example.com. You can read all his blog entries at http://windowoneurasia.blogspot.com/