ALPHABET REFORM: CYRILLIC OR LATIN?

Vladimir ALPATOV


Vladimir Alpatov, D.Sc. (Philol.), professor, deputy director, Institute of Oriental Studies, RF Academy of Sciences


It was a while ago that the problem of alphabet for the languages of Soviet peoples seemed to be settled. The situation remained stable for fifty years during which several generations grew accustomed to their alphabets, mainly the Cyrillic one. Social changes resurfaced the problem. As a result many ethnoses again have to learn to read and write.

1. The Past

In the 1920s and 1930s all old habits and traditions of the Russian Empire were uprooted to be replaced with new ones removed in their turn before they could strike roots. The systems of writing were no exception: some of the languages lost their systems three times, many peoples had to learn how to write in their own language from scratch. Here is an example. Tartar writer Musa Jalil wrote his Moabit Notes when kept prisoner in Germany partly in Arabic and partly in Latin script.1 The author, born in 1906, learned to read and write in his native Tartar tongue when the Arabic alphabet was in use. He mastered the Latin script as an adult. In 1930, the Cyrillic alphabet was introduced yet he was obviously unable to master it by 1941.

Stabilization came when the Cyrillic alphabet was introduced (1937-1941) for a considerable number of languages in the Soviet Union; later in 1953 the Dungan language received Cyrillic script, in 1957, the Gagauz language, in 1954 the Abkhazian and the Ossetian language of South Ossetia were transferred from the Georgian to Cyrillic script.

In the 1940s through to 1980s the written languages of nearly all nations and ethnic groups were based on the Cyrillic alphabet. The Russian, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian languages preserved it throughout the entire Soviet period. The Latin (Roman) alphabet was preserved in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia as well as among the Soviet Germans, Finns, and Poles. The Georgian and Armenian languages, and Yiddish were using their traditional scripts. In the 1920s-1930s over 70 written languages were created in the Soviet Unionall of them based on the Latin alphabet. None of them survived to the 1950s: the majority received Cyrillic writing while over a dozen others lost their newly created written languages altogether.

The Soviet Unions disintegration and an official rejection of the communist ideology allowed the elites in many former Soviet republics and abroad (Bulgaria, Mongolia, and others) to embrace new political and cultural priorities which, among other things, stimulated a desire to abandon Cyrillic in favor of another script.

2. Factors Behind the Choice of a System of Writing

Today, no new systems of writing are created, among those officially recognized and used around the world the Korean system of writing, invented in the fifteenth century, is the latest. At best, one can choose among the already existing systems. If a language has a system of writing (below I shall discuss only such languages), the choice is either sticking to the old system or switching to another one. The choice depends on many factors: linguistic, economic, psychological, and cultural-political (there are hardly purely cultural factors left in the world).

2.1. Linguistic Factors

I am convinced that among the factors enumerated above the linguistic factors are least important. One might find this statement strange because more likely than not the choice is supported by arguments of a linguistic nature. In the 1920s and early 1930s there was no lack of arguments in favor of the Latin script that were replaced in the late 1930s with arguments in favor of the Cyrillic system of writing. Today, there is much talk about Latinization of the Tartar language (more about this below): people argue that the Latin alphabet is better suited to Tartar phonetics than the Cyrillic alphabet. However, linguistic arguments are usually used to pin up the extra-linguistic considerations.

Let us discuss the recent pronouncements of prominent ethnographer, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences Sergei Arutiunov2 who stated in so many words that all languages using the Cyrillic alphabet, including Russian, should be transferred to the Latin alphabet. He uses linguistic and extra-linguistic arguments, the latter being much more important for him than the former (about this below).

Arutiunov writes: The Latin alphabet is much more adjustable than the Cyrillic alphabet which has many faults. In fact, it is not an alphabet at all because such letters as ߒ and ޒ are syllable graphemes and do not reflect the phonemes, and this causes many problems. My own daughter born with perfect phonetic hearing could barely master the Russian Cyrillic alphabet as a child. She could not understand why the word when written down should be read as diadia rather than dyiadyia.

His arguments contain a number of faults. He contradicts himself when he cites the word to illustrate his idea of a syllable grapheme. In this word the letter ߔ corresponds to the phoneme. (It can be described as a syllable phoneme in the beginning of words or when it follows other vowels.) In the above example it acts as the sound [a] after soft (palatalized) consonants. It is linguistically incorrect to say that the letters that either correspond to phonemes or a combination of two phonemes (in definite situations) do not reflect phonemes. On the same ground one may say that the letter X in the Latin alphabet that always reflects a combination of two phonemes is one of the alphabets faults.

This is not the main thing. What is important is the fact that Sergei Arutiunov lumps together the quality of the alphabet per se and its application to any particular language, Russian in this case. Psychologically, Russian is always associated with the Cyrillic alphabet (more of this below). Even if orthography of any language, a very widespread one, is bad, this has nothing to do with the alphabet it uses. If we identify the Latin alphabet with the English language we have to point to its numerous shortcomings: for example the word daughter is pronounced as [do:te] while the word ewe as [ju:]. The correspondences are not regular (as is the case in Russian). We know of many other languages where the Latin alphabet reflects phonemes in a consistent and straightforward way. The same can be said about the Cyrillic alphabet even if such orthography differs from the Russian one as is the case with the Serbian language.

It seems that Evgeni Polivanov, outstanding linguist and public figure, and a theoretician of Latinization in the U.S.S.R., was quite right when he wrote that the Latin alphabet is neither superior nor inferior compared with the Cyrillic alphabet.3 The Soviet linguistic experience confirms this.

Contrary to what Sergei Arutiunov has written the letters similar to ߔ and ޔ perfectly suit Russian. If the soft and hard consonants used different letters then either the Russian alphabet should have many additional letters or one phoneme require a combination of several characters. In fact, several additional vowels have resolved the problem. Another outstanding theoretician of Latinization Nikolai Iakovlev derived a mathematical formula of an alphabet4 for the Russian language. In the Russian language this method has developed all by itself while it was deliberately employed for several national languages in the Soviet Union based on the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets.

Together with his associates Iakovlev developed the so far unique scientifically substantiated project of Latinization of the Russian language.5 It turned out that it is next to impossible to drop such letters as ߔ and . I do not refer here to the widespread transcriptions of Russian words in which the above-mentioned looks like diadia while two different words and look absolutely the same as zveria. This transcription is intended for the languages that have no palatalized consonants (English, German, French, etc.) and is ill suited to reflect the Russian phonetic system. This explains why the Latin alphabet (or, rather, its several variants) suggested by Iakovlev contained analogies to ߔ and ޔ: either special letters a and u with diacritical marks or letters ä and ü.

On the other hand, the Cyrillic alphabet should not necessarily coincide with the Russian language. I shall demonstrate using the Tajik language as an example that not needed letters can be discarded.

In fact, ten years ago Sergei Arutiunov defended a different point of view: he said that while being suited for the Slavic tongues the Cyrillic alphabet is unsuited for others6 without offering any arguments. Obviously, linguistic arguments may differit cannot resolve the dispute.

There are cases when a system of writing has certain faults but normally they can be remedied. The Arabic system of writing in its traditional form that drops out the vowels cannot be applied to the non-Semitic tongues, the Turkic and Iranian languages included. Yet in the 1920s in the Soviet Union the Arabic system of writing was reformed to include vowels, some of the results being very interesting. In the Turkic languages with their vowel harmony the vowels in the syllables other than the first vary so as to belong to the same class as that of the first syllable. Kazakh enlightener Akhmet Baitursunov when trying to adjust the Arabic alphabet to the Kazakh language suggested that each word should acquire a sign (like the bass or treble clef in notation) to indicate the vowel class so that to limit the number of newly introduced vowels. Evgeni Polivanov hailed the project as ingenious.7 The project was never realized not because of its faults. The same can be said about Iakovlevs application of the Latin alphabet to the Russian language. One can also point to the Jewish alphabet that acquired methods of indicating vowels while being adjusted to Yiddish.

2.2. Economic Factors

They can be reduced to a simple thought that it is very expensive to change the alphabet. The country will need new textbooks, printing types, signboards, stamps, and many other things. Those who will teach the people should be paid, too. In short, the economic factors are conservative and help preserve the existing system of writing.

Normally, these factors are not all-important. They may slow down the speed with which the alphabet is changed but cannot affect the choice. J.M. Landau and B. Kellner-Heinkele have written that financial considerations rarely prevail over nationalist ideology.8 In the 1920s and 1930s the Soviet Union was not rich yet alphabets were changed two or three times with no thought given to the financial side. When the former Soviet republics talk about moving farther away from Moscow they disregard the cost. Sometimes, however, the cost may play the decisive role. It is believed that the economic factor stopped the officially announced transfer from the Cyrillic to the Old Mongol alphabet in Mongolia. Other factors that I prefer to call psychological may have interfered there as well.

2.3. Psychological Factors

They can be of a dual nature. In its purest form they are a natural unwillingness of the adults to learn anew. Here I shall discuss precisely this side of the psychological factors, the other side being connected with politics and culture (any alphabet is associated with a definite culture and definite political orientation). Back in 1937 the last plenary meeting of the All-Union Central Committee for a New Alphabet (folded up soon after that) pointed out: A change of the alphabet makes huge masses illiterate for a certain period of time.9

It seems that the psychological factor, conservative by nature, played a certain role (together with others) in preserving the Cyrillic alphabet for the Russian language after the 1917 revolution, the hieroglyphic writing in China after the 1949 revolution and in Japan occupied by Americans. In Russia linguists and many of the political and state figures (Lunacharskiy and Lenin, according to Lunacharskiys reminiscences) were in favor of Latinization.

In the first half of the twentieth century it was commonly thought, in the Soviet Union and outside it, that the preserved hieroglyphic system in China and Japan was a sign of extreme backwardness kept alive by the archaic relations. In the Soviet Union serious authors wrote that in China it was only the representatives of the ruling classes not burdened by the need to work and being therefore free who could learn the hieroglyphs.10 After 1945 the American Occupational Administration wanted to replace the hieroglyphic system of writing with the Latin alphabet in Japan, yet the tradition and the habits of the literate Chinese and Japanese proved stable.

Psychologically it is hard to change the alphabet in a society with a high share of literate people and strong traditions. In the 1920s and 1930s it was easy to change alphabets in the Soviet Union because of a large share of illiterate and weak positions of the new alphabets. In the nineteenth century Rumania switched from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet; the modern Byelorussian language (in the 19th century) at first used the Latin alphabet, the Cyrillic alphabet was introduced in the early twentieth century. At that time few people could read and write in these countries. Today, in Uzbekistan and Tatarstan nearly all are literate, and several generations have been using the Cyrillic script, which increases the role of psychological factors.

The psychological factor is especially important during periods of stability when there is no talk about political changes. In Russia the Cyrillic alphabet could be probably replaced with the Latin one immediately after the 1917 revolutionnew power just reformed the rules. In 1930 when Nikolai Iakovlev offered his project the situation had already changed. The same is true of China where there were several abortive attempts at introducing Latinization nearly ten years after the revolutionary years of 1949 and 1950.

The system of writing can hardly be totally changed or even partially reformed during the years of stability. Partial reforms are called reforms of orthography. The Russian language has experienced two deep-cutting reforms of this sort: under Peter the Great and in 1917-1918, that is, in periods of revolutionary changes. The latest reform was prepared in 1904 yet never realized until after the 1917 revolution. The country still remembers the storm of discussions of 1964-1965 stirred up by a planned reform of orthography. It changed much fewer cases than the 1917-1918 reform and was scientifically well substantiated. The authors failed to take into account the psychology of millions of people who did not want to start learning all over again. Public opinion rejected the project and it was abandoned.

The project put forward today is even narrowerit specifies rather than alters orthography yet it has been already denounced by many worthy people, even by Nobel prize winners. They look at it as a deep-cutting reform of the Russian language robbing it of its spirituality. The authors of the project have already beaten retreat and promised to drop new spellings for two words: and . An attempt to change the spelling of two words caused a stormone can imagine an upsurge of indignation at a suggestion to introduce the Latin alphabet. Sergei Arutiunov has failed to take this into account. There were several attempts at reforming English and French orthographies that are much more complicated and more archaic than even Russian pre-revolutionary, to say nothing of modern, orthography. All attempts were rejected and there is no prospect of such reform in the foreseeable future. Bernard Show bequeathed the larger part of his wealth to a reformer of English orthographythe money has not yet been claimed.

2.4. Cultural-Political Factors

Psychology may display a different dimension: today several dozens of languages are still using the Cyrillic alphabet; outside the former Soviet Union the alphabet is used in Bulgaria and Serbia yet for obvious reasons it is primarily associated with Russia. The Cyrillic alphabet is always associated with the Russian language, Russian culture, Russia and its ideological systems.

Until quite recently the Latin alphabet was not clearly associated with one language and caused no negative associationsthis explains why in the 1920s it was preferred in the Soviet Union. Today, there are two languages that have come to the fore from among hundreds of languages based on the Latin alphabet.

They are English that is spreading at a fast pace and Turkish, the only Turkic tongue that has been using the Latin alphabet for eighty years. This is also the only Turkic tongue outside the sphere of Moscow domination and socialism. Today, a considerable part of the Turkic elites associates the Cyrillic alphabet with a road leading nowhere and the Latin alphabet with a road leading to prosperity.

The Latin alphabet used by all NATO members except Greece is even wider associated with their economic successes and the Western values so popular today. Pragmatic considerations are as important as ideology: obviously Latinization will ease the task of drawing closer to the United States and Turkey for any country. It should be taken into account that the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets are not the only ones in the world. The Central Asian, formerly Soviet, nations may find the Arabic script even more pertinent because of the strengthening Islamic factor. Today, the Cyrillic alphabet may be preserved not so much through the efforts of the Russia-oriented political forces (even if there are such people among the dominating nationalities they never openly demonstrate their views; Kyrgyzstan is the only exception). The psychological factors, traditions and habits may be more instrumental in preserving the Cyrillic alphabet.

Today, all former Soviet nations that used the Cyrillic alphabet can either retain it or restore the Latin alphabet (or, rarely, introduce it). The nations among whom Christianity is not the predominant religion have one more variant: restoration of the pre-revolutionary system of writing (Arabic or Old Mongolian). Some of the Muslim peoples never used Arabic writing. It should be noted that the Arabic alphabet can be restored in its original form sanctified by the tradition despite its faults.

The projects like the Arabic script suggested by Baitursunov are forgotten. The Latin script has future: the alphabets of the 1930s can be restored, or they can be moved closer to the Turkish alphabet, other variants are also possible.

Today, globalization is one of the arguments in favor of Latinizationthe major one used by Sergei Arutiunov in the article mentioned above (his linguistic arguments are of secondary importance). These arguments bring to mind what Nikolai Iakovlev and other authors said in the 1920s and 1930s (as linguists they realized that by themselves neither of the alphabets were superior or inferior to others). Iakovlev wrote: The Russian alphabet is an absolute anachronism and a sort of a graphic barrier that separates the numerically large group of the peoples of the Union both from the revolutionary East and the toiling masses of Western proletariat.11 Here is what Arutiunov has to say: The Latin alphabet should be accepted worldwide as an indispensable requirement of the globalization processes. If Russia wants to keep pace with the progressive world and become part of Europe, it should completely accept the LATIN alphabet. Sooner or later the country will arrive to this decision. Everything is the same: categorical tones and the desire to look at things in the worldwide context. The world revolutions have been replaced with globalization.

Sergei Arutiunov says that politics is of secondary importance, and that it is the general processes of cultural development that count. However, his examples are directly related to politics. He mentions Bulgaria where there are calls to abandon the Cyrillic alphabet in favor of Latinizationyet the calls are directly related to the demands to join NATO. Some people say that the Cyrillic alphabet spoils Bulgarias image in Europe. There is a cultural aspect in all this: part of the Bulgarian society wants to forget Russian culture, to integrate in the Western communityyet here culture and politics cannot be separated. The same is true of another example used by Arutiunovthe Republic of Tatarstan of which more below.

For none of the languages based on the Cyrillic alphabet (except Russian) the desire to drop it can be explained only by globalization. Everywhere there is a desire to move away from Moscow. The pace is different in different countries: in some places the Cyrillic alphabet has been abandoned, in others it is still used, in parts or totally, in still others its positions look stable.

3. Latinization Outside Russia

The situation across the post-Soviet territory varies from one place to another. The Cyrillic alphabet has so far preserved its positions in Ukraine and Belarus where even the most radical Westerners do not officially demand a change of the alphabet. In Lvov (Western Ukraine) extremist groups are using the Latin alphabet.

The Crimean Tartars in Ukraine have already started Latinization while Moldova completed it in Soviet times, in 1989. The alphabet was totally accepted in the areas beyond the Dniester, on its right bank, while the left bank is still using the Cyrillic alphabet. Georgia and Armenia are using their traditional scripts.

Moldova is not the only republic where the alphabet problem is an acute one. The same can be said about six post-Soviet states with the predominantly Muslim populations. Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan have already decided to change the alphabet while Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are still using the Cyrillic alphabet. None has switched to the Arabic script and this will probably not happen under present authorities. In my description of the situation I rely on the book by Landau (Israel) and Kellner-Heinkele (FRG) published in 2001 based on vast factual material. When writing about Uzbekistan I rely on my personal impressions gained during my trip to Tashkent in 1999.

These republics had started discussing a possible change of the alphabet during the last years of Soviet power yet could move to the problems practical realization when they gained independence in 1991. Latinization was regarded as a symbol of leaving the Soviet past behind and of new relations with the West. For different reasons the change acquired different forms in different countries. Landau and Kellner-Heinkele believe that the numerical strength of Russians in these republics was one of the decisive factors.12 This is not the only and not the main factor. For example, the number of Russians in Tajikistan is smaller than in any of its Muslim neighbors yet it has preserved the Cyrillic alphabet. In Uzbekistan the Latin alphabet is gaining popularity though the role of Russian-speakers (if not their numbers) remains considerable. Tashkent is still a Russian-Uzbek city. Other factors should be taken into account: the degree of closeness with Russia (Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan have moved away from Russia to a much greater degree than other newly independent states while Tajikistan remains close to it); the level of knowledge of the native tongue among the title nations (in four states out of six the level is close to 100 percent while part of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz living in cities speak Russian). One should bear in mind that the five Turkic-speaking republics are experiencing a strong influence of Turkey while the Iranian-speaking Tajikistan is not contemplating Latinization because none of the Iranian languages uses the Roman alphabet.

Azerbaijan was the first to introduce the Latin alphabet because its language was very close to the Turkish and the country maintained close ties with Turkey. Today, linguists are discussing whether Turkish and Azerbaijanian are two variants of one and the same tongue. There are no such discussions in Central Asiathe languages are obviously different. Local traditions should also be counted: in the 1920s the Azerbaijanis were the first Turkic people in the U.S.S.R. to accept the Latin alphabet by-passing a modernized Arabic alphabet.

It was on 25 December, 1991, nearly synchronous with the official dissolution of the Soviet Union, under the first post-Soviet president Mutalibov who, on the whole, was conducting pro-Russian policies, that the parliament passed a decision about Latinization (though not restoring the Latin alphabet that had been used in Azerbaijan in the 1920-1930s) based on the slightly modified Turkish alphabet. The law of 25 December, 1991 introduced a rather radical Latinization program.13 Under President Elchibei (1992-1993) who looked at Turkey the program was realized at a much faster pace.

The economic and psychological factors were not conducive to a fast change of alphabet. Heydar Aliev who came to power in 1993 preserved the general course yet abandoned haste. Landau and Kellner-Heinkele who visited Baku in September 1998 wrote that by that time the program had been only partially realized. The first effort to publish newspapers in two scripts made in the early 1990s failed for want of money. In 1998 the newspapers in Azerbaijan were normally using the Cyrillic alphabet with titles written in Latin script. At that time there were few books with Latin letters on sale; signboards and street names were mainly written in Cyrillic letters. The textbooks for the first through to seventh years were written in Latin letters.14 Finally, in summer 2001 it was announced that the country was finally switching to the Latin script. If the effort succeeds, Azerbaijan will become the first of the six Muslim states to abandon the Cyrillic alphabet for the sake of the Latin one. It seems that the languages of the Muslim minorities (the Kurds, Lezghians, Talyshes) and the Tat language spoken by some of the Muslims and Jews will preserve the Cyrillic alphabet. In any case, in 1998 there were no textbooks in these languages printed in the Latin script.

Uzbekistan kept the Cyrillic alphabet for the first two years of its independence yet the media were actively campaigning for Latinization. On 2 September, 1993 the parliament passed a decision about adopting the Uzbek alphabet based on Latin letters. As distinct from Azerbaijan the Latin alphabet in Uzbekistan was not based on the Turkish one.

As distinct from Azerbaijan, from the very beginning the republic was not planning a swift shift. Two years were given to the people to learn the alphabet, the beginning of the shift proper, designed for five years, being scheduled for 1 September, 1995. The situation was complicated by the fact that in May 1995 the changes in the newly accepted alphabet had to bring closer the Uzbek and English orthography.

It turned out that the schedule was unrealistic. In January 1999 I personally saw a complete chaos in Tashkent. Books and the press (except part of school textbooks) used the Cyrillic alphabet while some of the newspapers and magazines used the Latin script for the titles. Names of the official organizations were written in Latin letters while less official signboards still used Cyrillic letters. In some places (educational institutions) names were written in both Latin and Cyrillic letters. In the same streets names were written in Latin and Cyrillic letters in different places. Some of the bank notes issued in the first years of independence used the Cyrillic script, others, issued after 1995, the Latin script. Adverts used Cyrillic letters, political slogans and posters, Latin letters. A New Year poster on one of the streets greeted people in Latin letters while the date on the calendar shown in it used the Cyrillic script since the calendars and other printed matter in Uzbek had not been Latinized. The chaos was completed with a large number of signboards in Russian (written in Cyrillic letters), in English (written in Latin letters) and in Arabic letters that were mostly symbolic or decorative.

On the whole one could discern a certain pattern (that has been probably preserved till this day): symbolic texts were written in the Latin script, the texts the content of which was important were mostly written in the Cyrillic script (or even in Russian).

By September 2000, announced as a deadline, the process was far from completethe transition period was extended till 2005. According to visiting Uzbek academics by the late 2001 the situation remained more or less the same. Starting with 1995 the Karakalpak language was expected to become Latinizedthere is nearly no information about what is going on in this sphere there.

The situation in Turkmenistan is more or less similar. It announced a transfer to the Latin script earlier. While in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan the shift was initiated by the parliament, in Turkmenistan it was President Niyazov who issued a decree on 12 April, 1993. Landau and Kellner-Heinkele have written that it was intended as a present to the Turkish President Ozal on visit in the republic.15 It was a month later, in May 1993, that the parliament passed the corresponding law. It was planned to complete Latinization by 1 January, 1996. Early in 1995 the first book that used the Latin script was published. It described the activities of the Turkmenian president. Like in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan intends to use the Latin alphabet accepted in Turkey with certain necessary modifications. On the whole, the process is far from complete and two alphabets are still in use.

In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan the situation is different: the problem is still discussed and no practical steps were taken. The development program for Kazakhstan till 2030 does not mention the system of writing. Obviously, the republic is pursuing a cautious policy toward Russia while the population is very much attached to the Cyrillic alphabet. Besides, the Russian language is quite widespread in both republics. The role of Russians there is considerable while the title nations use the Russian language much more frequently than Kazakh or Kyrgyz. The republics linguistic policy is much more cautious too: they alone, among their Muslim neighbors, made the Russian language an official one. In December 2001 Kyrgyzstan made it the second state tongue. In this context Latinization will complicate the situation in both countries or even push the Kazakh language aside.16

Tajikistan is preserving the Cyrillic alphabet for different reasons: the country cannot look at Turkey because Iran and Afghanistan, that use the Arabic script, are culturally and linguistically closer to it. Until recently Western influence was much weaker than Russian, which explains why in the 1990s Latinization was not even discussedthere were attempts to restore the Arabic alphabet. There is a common opinion that the Persians of Iran and the so-called Afghan Tajiks and the Tajiks of Tajikistan are one people with a common tongue that logically needs a common alphabet. The long civil war, economic hardships and, probably, the republics reluctance to spoil relations with Russia together with the fear of Islamists coming to power are responsible for the lack of progress in introducing the Arabic alphabet. A reform of orthography was the only realized measure. In March 1998 the Tajik language was de-Russified, the Cyrillic alphabet in the republic was deprived of letters , , , and ܔ used in the words borrowed from Russian.17

It should be said that the language situation that differs from one republic to another makes it hard for the states and nations to communicate. It also divides members of the same nation living in different countries. Indeed, Uzbekistan has accepted the Latin script for its textbooks while the Uzbek schools in Kyrgyzstan are still using the Cyrillic script. The republic had to stop buying textbooks in Uzbekistan and start printing its own. If the trend persists, the Uzbeks linguistic unity may be disrupted.

Landau and Kellner-Heinkele had published their book before the United States and their Western allies stationed their troops in Central Asia (except Turkmenistan) late in 2001 and early in 2002. This new factor may speed up the process of Latinization in the countries where it is underway and start it in the countries where it is absent. Time will show whether this happens.

4. The Future of Latinization in Russia

The problem has two levels: Latinization of the Russian language and of languages of other peoples of Russia. It is interesting to note that the so-called democratic movement in Russia never called for Latinization as distinct from similar movements in Moldova and Azerbaijan (in general this movement was concerned with anything under the Sun but linguistic problems). The psychological factor is very important for the Russian languageit is wrong to reduce the reasons why the Cyrillic alphabet retains its positions to the idea of the Russian great power ambitions, that is, a harmful and reactionary idea, as Sergei Arutiunov put it. His article tests public opinionit offers an idea that might win the masses. In any case, the prospects are unclear and will remain so in the foreseeable future.

The idea of Latinization of other languages used in Russia is much more topical (so far the idea of Arabization plays no significant role). The nationalist-minded intellectuals from among these peoples have been discussing these ideas since the perestroika years. They are also looking at those newly-independent states that have already dropped the Cyrillic script. It is preserved not only because of the psychological and economic factors common to the entire post-Soviet expansethere is also a political aspect. Russia should be preserved within its present borders as a united state. Therefore, Latinization of the majority of the federation subjects remains a discussion issue for groups of intellectuals.

There are two exceptions to this rule. In Chechnia President Dudaev announced a shift to the Latin alphabet. In the mid-1990s everybody could see in TV programs broadcast from Chechnia signboards written in Latin letters. The war did not promote the process. Today, information is scarce but no Latin signboards can be seen over TV.

In Tatarstan, in 1999 the local legislatures passed a law on a stage-by-stage shift to the Latin alphabet (from 2001 to 2011). Prominent French specialist in Russia Ellen Carrer dAncos commented in Figaro: Obviously, President of Tatarstan M. Shaimiev is demonstrating a lot of political independence... The final aim of the reform is undoubtedly a political one. It brings closer together the Tartars and their brothers from the Central Asian independent states and the Muslims of the Middle East (only Turkey can be included among the latter.V.A.). What is even more important is the fact that the reform destroys one of the few factors of the Russian Federations integrity, namely, the same alphabet that makes it easy to use the Russian language. That causes concern all by itself and may set an example for other peoples of the Russian Federation.18

In 2001 it was announced that the implementation of the law was postponed. Those who support Latinization believe that the republic, at least, all schools were prepared to accept the Latin script but for Moscow interference. President Shaimiev preferred a compromise: There is no haste but the experiment of Latinization of the Tartar writing should be continued.19

So far, part of the bi-lingual signboards in the center of Kazan, the republics capital, were replaced with new ones on which the Tartar words are written in Latin characters. There are experimental classes where children are using textbooks written in Latin. So far, there were no troubles in the republic yet the nationalist-minded intellectuals demand that the president should abandon the Cyrillic alphabet as promptly as possible. In Moscow, the State Duma and certain newspapers20 look at the idea as a manifestation of separatism. So far, Tatarstan is not abandoning the Cyrillic script in haste yet the future is hard to predict.

The replacement of the Cyrillic script with the Latin alphabet is undoubtedly a sign of weaker political, economic, and cultural positions of Russia among certain nations and a stronger Western influence in some of the Russian regions. This process is still unfolding and the results are still unclear.21


1 See: K.M. Musaev, Iazyki i pismennosti narodov Evrazii, Alma Ata, 1993, p. 71.

2 See: S. Arutiunov, Vseobshchiy perekhod na latinitsu neizbezhen, Nezavisimaia gazeta, 7 August, 2001.

3 See: E.D. Polivanov, Osnovnye formy graficheskoi revoliutsii v turetskikh pismennostiakh SSSR, in: Noviy Vostok, Book 23-24, Moscow, 1928, pp. 321-322.

4 N.F. Iakovlev, Matematicheskaia formula postroenia alfavita, in: Kultura i pismennost Vostoka, Book I, Baku, 1928.

5 See: F. Ashnin, V. Alpatov, Putin za realjnyje celi, Nezavisimaia gazeta, 31 March, 2001.

6 See: Etnopolis. Etnopoliticheskiy vestnik Rossii, No. 1, 1992, p. 112.

7 E.D. Polivanov, op. cit., pp. 322-323.

8 See: J.M. Landau, B. Kellner-Heinkele, Politics of Language in the Ex-Soviet Muslim States, London, 2001, p. 126.

9 Revolutsia i natsionalnost, No. 3, 1937, p. 66.

10 Zapiski instituta vostokovedenia AN SSSR, Vol. I, Moscow-Leningrad, 1932, p. 39.

11 N.F. Iakovlev, Za latinizatsiu russkogo alfavita, Kultura i pismennost Vostoka, Book 6, Baku, 1930, p. 36.

12 See: J.M. Landau, B. Kellner-Heinkele, op. cit., pp. 139-140.

13 See: Ibid., p. 132.

14 See: Ibid., p. 197.

15 See: Ibid., p. 143.

16 See: M. Kirschner, Eine dritte Letinschrift für das Kasachiche? Festschrift für E. Taube (in print).

17 See: J.M. Landau, B. Kellner-Heinkele, op. cit., p. 146.

18 Quoted from: Globus. Bulletin of ITAR-TASS, No. 50, 1999.

19 V. Postnova, O latinitse i ne tolko, Nezavisimaia gazeta, 20 October, 2001.

20 See, for example: E.F. Volodarskaia, Latinitsa ili kirillitsa? Khorosho by novoi grafikoi ne prishchemit iazyk, Vek, 14 September, 2001.

21 See also: V.M. Alpatov, 150 iazykov i politika: 1917-2000, Moscow, 2000.


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