12 july 2020

Central Asia news

The Uzbek language exists in two graphic forms simultaneously and neither seems capable of ousting the other

28.04.2007 17:47 msk

Omar Sharifov (Tashkent)

Analytics Uzbekistan

A stranger or foreigner in Uzbekistan will be hard pressed to tell what script in this country is official. All street signs from billboards to posters to signboards to road signs offer a staggering hodgepodge of languages and alphabetic notations. This period of an utterly unrestricted use of languages and graphic systems has been under way for years now. There is nothing to indicate that it may be coming to its end. Abandonment of the Cyrillic alphabet in favor of Latin is demanded by the law adopted fourteen years ago but practically nothing has been done to enforce it.

Uzbekistan: 4 alphabets in 80 years

The 20th century became a period of turmoil. Uzbekistan adopted and abandoned three alphabets in 80 years. The currently used one is the fourth. The traditional Arab alphabet gave way to Latin in 1929 which was abandoned in favor of a modified Cyrillic alphabet eleven year later. A return to the Latin alphabet was ordered in 1993.

Everything began in the wake of the 1917 February revolution. Permitted and encouraged to speak their mind, enlighteners representing Caucasus and Asian peoples of the former Russian Empire brought up the necessity to modify the Arab alphabet or even abandon it in favor of Latin. Debates over the matter became positively heated in the early 1920's. This drive for Latinization simultaneously became a state policy. "Transition to the Latin alphabet... will tear down the wall between European and Moslem cultures," Anastas Mikojan announced in 1925.

The first half of the 1920's was a period of relative freedom and liberalism when the bold idea of adoption of the Latin alphabet was not yet monopolized by the state. It was promoted on the enthusiasts' and enlighteners' personal initiative then. Conferences were taking place in autonomous republics and regions where pros and cons of Arab and Latin alphabets were discussed.


Latin alphabet promoters in Turkestan for instance pointed out that this system was better for the Turkic languages than the Arab alphabet since the latter had few vowels but lots of specific consonants Turks were never using. Some advocates claimed that the transition to the Latin alphabet would help fight illiteracy. Generally speaking, three options were suggested and promoted: 1. retain the Arab alphabet; 2. adapt it to the Turkic languages; 3. abandon it favor of the Latin alphabet.

The third option was first suggested at the Uzbek Orthography Congress arranged by the Chagatai Gurungi philological society in 1921. The idea was turned down because most delegates stood for adaptation of the Arab alphabet. The 2nd Conference of Uzbek Teachers in Tashkent a year later had a different opinion. Most delegates there were convinced of the Latin alphabet's advantages over Arab.

It was the Caucasus and Azerbaijan that were chosen for "field tests" of the new (for them) alphabet. Azerbaijani scientists drew up a Latinized alphabet on the orders from the government. Its introduction in the republic began in 1922. The authorities upped its status and made it equal to the Arab language a year later (the year when North Ossetia, Ingushetia, and Kabarda adopted the Latin alphabet as well). The Latin alphabet became official in Azerbaijan several years later.


The Latin Letter Association for Turks was established in Moscow in 1924. Preparations for a congress of Turk scientists were launched. It opened in Baku in February 1926. Representatives of practically all Turk peoples of the USSR were present: Tatars, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Chuvashians, and Turks from the Caucasus, Siberia, and Yakutia. Scientists from the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, Eastern Studies Association, Ukrainian Academy, Eastern Studies Association of the Caucasus, and scientists from Turkey, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Persia were present as well. Transition to a new, Latinized alphabet, was the central issue of the agenda.

Alimjan Sharafov of Tataria headed the opposition. Sharafov dismissed Azerbaijani experience as unconvincing and suggested adaptation of the Arab alphabet. All of the Tatarian delegation and some men from the Kazakh one suggested adaptation of the Arab alphabet but they were vastly outnumbered and therefore outvoted. The motion to adopt the Latin alphabet was carried by 101 votes against 7 (six abstained).

Advocates of the Latin alphabet were elated. That same year the 4th session of the Central Executive Committee of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic passed a resolution ordering abandonment of the Arab alphabet in favor of Latin. The latter was introduced in the republic later that year.

It was actually reasonable. The Arab alphabet does not really jibe with the Turkic language structure. Only one letter out of 28 is not a consonant. Other cons include a multitude of diacritic marks, complexity of writing, and poor legibility of letters. All of that made understanding of the language by the illiterate masses even more difficult. All the same, it all could be modified and corrected, so that the actual reasoning behind the decision to adopt the Latin alphabet must have been ideological: rapprochement with the Western working class on the one hand, an attempt to isolate the masses from higher classes and religion (traditional users of the Arab alphabet) on the other. Leaders of the revolution did not give a damn about cultural heritage or continuity.

Enforcement of the Latin alphabet encountered resistance all over the Soviet Union from Azerbaijan to the Caucasus, Crimea, Trans-Volga region, Kazakhstan, and even to Siberia. The authorities meant to have their own way or Uzbekistan and other Central Asian republics would have been left with an adapted Arab alphabet. As things were, however, the movement for Latinization became a state policy in the second half of the 1920's. Debates gave way to outright orders to abandon the Arab alphabet and adopt Latin. Books written in the Arab alphabet (religious ones, first and foremost) were condemned as reactionary and mercilessly destroyed. The Arab alphabet disappeared from Uzbekistan altogether by the end of 1929.

It should be noted that Turkey made a similar transition to the Latin alphabet in 1929. Its president ordered it in late 1928, ascribing the decision to the European orientation of the country and to the necessity to thwart isolation from the Turk peoples of the USSR reverting to the Latin alphabet en masse.

Vladimir Lenin appraised Latinization as "the Great Eastern Revolution". The scope of the process was impressive indeed: over 50 languages were converted to the Latin alphabet in the 1920's and 1930's.

All in all, transition to a new alphabet proved relatively simple because the majority of the population of the involved regions was illiterate in the first place and had to be taught from scratch.

It never occurred to anyone in the 1920's to suggest transition to the Cyrillic alphabet. The idea would have been regarded as an affront then, as violation of the principle of proletarian internationalism, and continuation of the Tsarist policy of Russification of the indigenes. The Latin alphabet on the other hard was viewed as international, universal alphabet of the future. Even some leaders of the USSR suggested abandonment of the Cyrillic alphabet and adoption of Latin. People's Commissar of Education Lunacharsky was an ardent supporter of the idea. It was under Lunacharsky that the People's Commissariat of Education condemned the Cyrillic alphabet as "ideologically hostile" and a "holdover from the class of Russian feudals - landlords and bourgeois." In 1929, the People's Commissariat of Education even formed a special commission to chart the future transition of the Russian language to the Latin alphabet. In early 1930, the commission came up with three variants of the Latinized Russian. That was essentially the end of the whole project.

Josef Stalin abandoned the global revolution thesis in the late 1930's in favor of rapprochement and eventual merger of the peoples of the USSR into a "single Soviet nation". State policy was suitably amended. The campaign for Latinization waned and actual transition to the Cyrillic alphabet began in 1936. Letters to newspapers from workers and collective farmers were organized, each and every one of them condemning the Latin alphabet and backing Cyrillic. The CPSU complied with "their wishes". In 1940, the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (and most other ethnic formations) switched over to the Cyrillic alphabet.

The second Latinization

Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika brought with it freedom and a rebirth of national patriotism which unfortunately deteriorated into bigotry in no time at all. Instead of pinning the blame on the Bolsheviks, regional and republican intelligentsia ended up blaming the Russians (and whoever else did not belong to the titular nation for that matter).

Debates over the national language and alphabet began in all ethnic republics in the late 1980's and Uzbekistan was not an exception. Part of the local intelligentsia demanded abandonment of the Russian language and Cyrillic alphabet and reintroduction of the Latin alphabet. History repeated itself. People began saying that the alphabet that had been a tool of all national science and practically all literature was not fit for the Uzbek language.

Radicals were suggesting a return to the Arab alphabet. They referred to the necessity to acquaint the new generations with the ancient manuscripts in the dusty vaults written in the Arab alphabet.

In any case, a turn to the Latin alphabet at the state level was executed when the Soviet Union had disintegrated. Five new Turkic-speaking states were established in 1991 and official Ankara did its honest best to bring them into its orbit. The first summit of presidents of the Turkic-speaking states took place in 1991 on the initiative of the president of Turkey. A linguistic conference in Ankara followed. Transition of the newly-formed countries to the Latin alphabet was the only issue of the agendas. A draft alphabet was created at the conference and offered to the new sovereign states. The agreement was made that the alphabet, with some minor modifications, would be made common for all Turkic-speaking countries.

The Uzbek leadership was persuaded and had a special law on adoption of the Latin alphabet passed on September 2, 1993. As before, it was ascribed to the wishes of the general public.

Symptomatically, but adoption of the law was a direct violation of the Constitution adopted a year earlier. The Constitution insists on a nationwide referendum on every issue of this magnitude, but no referendum was organized in this particular case. The authorities feared, not unreasonably, that the population would vote against the idea. Shortly speaking, President Islam Karimov had the law adopted as demanded by a bunch of the so called national patriots without so much as a thought spared to the rest of the population.

Return to the Latin alphabet did not mean readiness to accept Western values or democratic principles. It was but a means of disassociation with everything Russian and a gesture aimed to please Turkey. Relations with this country were at their all-time high at the moment. Also importantly, this transition to the Latin alphabet made impossible a return to the Arab alphabet suggested by advocates of the Islamic way of life.

Transition to the Latin alphabet was to be completed by September 1, 2005.

(By the way, the Karakalpak language was also converted to the Latin alphabet. Approximately 400,000 people speak Karakalpak in Uzbekistan. Needless to say, this conversion too was supposed to have been initiated by Karakalpak-speakers themselves.)

New Uzbek Latin alphabet and its differences from the Latin alphabet of the 1930's

The law on adoption of the Latin alphabet refers to the "rewarding experience" of transition to it in 1929-1940. As a matter of fact, this experience was not exactly rewarding even though the Uzbek Latin alphabet of the 1930's was much better and more convenient than its modern counterpart.

No need to prove that the best convenient script is the one where there is a single letter for every individual phone. From this standpoint, the Janalif (the Latin alphabet of the 1930's modified for the Uzbek grammar) had a distinct advantage because it did not include a single double character. It used diacritic marks and special symbols designed by scientists. The Uzbek alphabet adopted in 1926 had 34 letters including the apostrophe. And yet, even the Janalif was not perfect.

A new orthography of the Latin alphabet was adopted in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1929, one based on vowel harmony typical of Turkic languages. Three new vowels were introduced. The idea was doomed to failure. Vowel harmony had been lost in Uzbekistan due to intermarriages with Iranians and changes in the Uzbek languages brought in by the latter. To make a long story short, orthography based on vowel harmony was abolished in 1934, and four letters were dropped from the alphabet. Blame for the incorrect choice of the orthography and the alphabet was predictably pinned on bourgeois nationalists.

Contemporary Uzbek Latin alphabet adopted in 1993 differs from its predecessor dated the 1930's. The Latin alphabet was upgraded (if that is what is was) two years later. It became the third reform of the Uzbek Latin alphabet (1934, 1993, and 1995) - and so far the last.

The Uzbek Latin alphabet includes 29 letters with the apostrophe. There are no symbols or diacritic marks in it save for the apostrophe. Classic Latin alphabet in the meantime includes only 27 letters, and so the absence of special marks and symbols had to be recompensed for with new complications. Letters —, ˜, – (sometimes), Ÿ, ž, ð, and … (when it is the first in the word) are denoted by two symbols.

This "improvement" made spelling longer and generally more difficult.

Uzbek Latin alphabet: sphere of application

Introduction of the Latin alphabet in Uzbekistan has stopped. Aware of the difficulties encountered in the process, in 2002 the authorities moved the deadline to 2010. Time is slipping away, and success of the linguistic reforms even by 2010 is highly questionable.

It is questionable (if possible at all) for a number of reasons. Implementation in practice turned out to be unbelievably more difficult than anyone had ever expected, the wave of nationalism receded to a certain extent and changed public opinion of the Latin alphabet. More importantly, overall political situation changed.

This last factor is important indeed. Uzbekistan is pro-Russian again (actually, the rapprochement began in 2004 and was greatly facilitated in the aftermath of the tragedy in Andijan), and Russian-speakers are no longer shunned in the republic. Friendship with Turkey ended in the 1990's. The Uzbek-Turkish relations are fairly cold at this point. Karimov even missed the latest summit of presidents of the Turkic-speaking states that took place in Antalia in November 2006. Deterioration of the relations with Europe and the United States had its effect on the attitude towards the Latin alphabet too.

What really counts, it turned out that nobody really wants or needs the Latin alphabet in Uzbekistan.

Two alphabets are used in Uzbekistan these days. The Latin alphabet is used in schools but sporadically even there. Teachers of exact sciences usually boycott the Latin alphabet. The Latin alphabet prevails in street signs and in designation of transport routes and that is practically all. The Cyrillic alphabet is used is practically all other spheres.

All but transferred to the Latin alphabet several years ago, records management is using Cyrillic again now. Cyrillic is the alphabet used in government documents and standard acts and even in everyday life - down to the price tags in stores. Uzbek texts in the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets are frequently followed with a Russian translation.

Most newspapers and magazines in Uzbekistan, not to mention fiction and reference literature use the Cyrillic alphabet. Ditto books.

Neither is the Uzbek television in a hurry to adopt the Latin alphabet alone. Both alphabets are used there.

Uzbek Internet is using both graphic systems. Most web sites use the Cyrillic alphabet but some do prefer Latin. To some extent, all official web sites (web sites of state structures and organizations) use the Latin alphabet - but only sparingly. They usually reserve it for headlines and columns and follow with the texts in the Cyrillic alphabet. Some web sites (like that of the Central Bank) offer their content in the Russian and English languages and in both graphic systems.

Even the Uzbek monetary unit, the sum, is using both graphic systems (Cyrillic alphabet only on banknotes and Cyrillic and Latin on coins). If the authorities mean to complete transition to the Latin alphabet alone by the end of 2010, they will have to carry out currency reforms (withdraw all banknotes from circulation and issue new ones).

The gist is therefore as follows: the Uzbek language exists in two graphic forms simultaneously and neither seems capable of or intent on ousting the other.

Problems and prospects

Let us try to gauge the results of the enforced changes of the alphabet so far.

The coveted integration into the global information space (introduction of the Latin alphabet was once hailed as a path to this particular goal) never came to pass, but the scientific and cultural legacy accumulated over the previous half a century certainly dissipated. It resulted in a general reduction of the level of science, culture, and even literacy. Loss of cultural legacy is a menace not to be dismissed anymore.

As a matter of fact, a great deal of observers comment with regret that youths read infrequently and sporadically which narrows down individual horizons.

Azerbaijan encountered similar difficulties in its reckless transition to the Latin alphabet. Everything was done without much ado there. President Heydar Aliyev banned the use of the Cyrillic alphabet in the country and that was that. The national parliament voted for a return to the Latin alphabet in 1992. The use of the Cyrillic language is an administrative infraction in Azerbaijan and has been since January 1, 2002. The ban never made the population any more literate or better educated.

Karimov too could order the nationwide use of the Latin alphabet and leave it at that knowing that the order would be carried out but the Azerbaijani attempt must have discouraged him. It smacked of extremism and, worse, failed to produce the desired results. Even discounting trifles like the people's right to decide what alphabet they want, it is clear that disadvantages of such an enforcement will vastly outnumber benefits.

Uzbekistan is facing a dilemma, in other words. Continuation of transition to the Latin alphabet will cost the country its scientific and intellectual potential. Return to the Cyrillic alphabet on the other hand will necessitate that something be done with schoolchildren taught in the Latin alphabet nowadays. Whatever Tashkent chooses will only worsen the situation, at least to some extent.