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The Turkic world’s alphabet soup

Sotsijaldy_qazaqstan - full image 1937

A 1937 Kazakh newspaper in the old transitional Latin script

News travels slowly from Central Asia, and I only just caught up with the December’s news that Kazakhstan will shift the writing of its Kazakh language to a new Latin script by 2025. Having already changed from Arabic to a previous Latin script in 1927, and then to Cyrillic in 1940, Kazakhstan won’t be the first time a state in and around Central Asia has switched, or been forced to switch, its written national literature about. One of them, Azerbaijan, has done so four times in the past century. Here’s how I wrote up the story for the Wall Street Journal a decade ago:

The Wall Street Journal, 20 October 2000

Freed of Russian Yoke,

Turkic Nations Find

They Miss the Alphabet

New Countries Proudly

Adopt Their Own

Version of ABCs; Now

Try Reading the Menu


By Hugh Pope

Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

Baku street in 2000, featuring Persian-style Arabic script, new Azeri Latin script, European Latin script and Russian Cyrillic

Baku street in 2000, featuring Persian-style Arabic script, new Azeri Latin script, European Latin script and Russian Cyrillic

BAKU, Azerbaijan — When a shoe salesman here named Mehman Alimuradov had to move some footwear this summer, he faced an odd marketing problem.

First, few people could clearly recognize the store’s sign out front, which was printed in the government-imposed Latin alphabet. But if he switched to the Russian-style alphabet most people could read, he faced possible fines from inspectors.

So the 22-year-old struck a compromise: He left the store sign alone. Above it, he hung a Russian-scripted, yellow sales banner, one provisional enough to keep inspectors off his back.

“You never know what will happen tomorrow,” Mr. Alimuradov says without much thought. “This is Azerbaijan.”

It’s also one of the world’s great alphabetical messes.

Most people here speak Azeri, so oral communication isn’t a problem. Written communication is. No one can decide how to write out the Azeri language. There have been four completely different alphabets in the last 75 years, and steady replacements of various letters.

These days, at restaurants it’s common to get a menu printed in Latin script, eat your meal, and then get the check written out in Russian-style script. (Those Latin characters look like the ones you’re reading right now.) Azeri newspapers don’t offer much clarity. Most have Latin-scripted headlines, and Russian-scripted articles. At one paper, Azadliq, the only recent all-Latin article was about former president Abulfez Elchibey, who made such a presentation a condition of his interview.

In the early 1990s, Azerbaijan and others celebrated their liberation from the USSR by announcing they would junk the Cyrillic alphabet that had been imposed by Soviet rule for 50 years. Azerbaijan was joined by the nations of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, as well as Tatarstan, which technically is still a republic of Russia. Altogether, it has been nine years of alphabetic fits and starts.

Changing scripts isn’t easy. There’s logistics: think street signs and textbooks. There are philosophical issues: Is it really a good idea to make it more difficult for people to read? And there are the larger realities of Central Asia: not much money, half-implemented reforms, corrupt governments, emerging ethnic rivalries and a swing back to Russia.

Take Turkmenistan. A bit larger than California, it’s full of desert, natural gas, and lavish government spending on projects such as a revolving, gold-plated statue of the president perched atop a tower in the capital. Appropriately enough, when Turkmenistan went to a Latin-script seven years ago, it briefly added three characters: $, yen, and pound sterling. These characters didn’t simply mean dollar, yen and pound. They corresponded to certain sounds spoken by the Turkmens.

In all, the “Turkic region” spreads from the Balkans to Siberia, and includes five former Soviet republics and the nation of Turkey. Each has its own spoken language, a Turkic dialect. Needless to say, life would be simpler if they all shared the same alphabet. At last count, though, the region had 21 different published scripts — in various forms of Arabic, Cyrillic, and Latin.

More than 1,000 years ago, Turkic-speaking people actually wrote in a single, official script: Runic.

Then they started converting to Islam, and adopted an Arabic script. The 1500s ushered in the great Asian Prince Babur, who had tough genes. His mother had descended from Ghengis Khan, the great Mongol warrior, while his father had came down from Timur, the Turkic conqueror.

Prince Babur, who himself founded India’s Moghul dynasty, felt the Arabic script’s lack of vowels couldn’t convey the rich harmonies of spoken Turkic. He tried to reform it. But Muslim clerics controlled the alphabets and blocked the Prince’s project.

Arabic scripts finally succumbed to revolutions and intellectual fervor. In 1926, here in the port city of Baku, the region’s First Turkology Congress convened inside the expropriated palace of an oil baron to discuss the alphabet issue. In a 101-7 landslide, they picked a Latin alphabet, returning to their respective countries to spread the new gospel.

To the north, Joseph Stalin was watching all this — even as much of the region was turning to communism. The Russian leader apparently liked the conversion to Latin letters, because it separated the region from Islamic countries to the south. But Stalin also wanted his own control. So, in the late 1930s, he imposed Russian-style, Cyrillic alphabets. To help drive a wedge among the Turkic nations, he assigned unique Cyrillic characters depending on the nation. So, even though Turkic dialects had the same sounds, those sounds were written differently.

These unique alphabets, in turn, further altered how people pronounced words, which further fragmented the region.

In 1992, a year after the Soviet Union collapsed, Turkey organized a modern-day alphabet congress. Academics arrived from throughout the region, and agreed on a standard 34-character, Latin alphabet — one based on Turkey’s script. Everyone promised to go home and preach another Latin conversion. But few had much sway with the ex-Communist governments.

Azerbaijan, a country the size of Maine, has made the most progress — particularly given wrenching problems, like a six-year war in the mountains separating it from Armenia that displaced one-tenth of its population. Many Azerbaijani kids now can read their native Azeri language in Latin. But they can’t read all the Azeri literature and history printed in Russian-style Cyrillic. Their parents, meantime, can’t read newly published books. In public spaces and on billboards, there’s now a kaleidoscope of Cyrillic, Latin, even some Arabic.

Elsewhere, alphabet conversions have gone even slower. One big problem: Because the Turkic states were just freed of the Soviet Union, they feared a new big brother in Turkey. So, even those who went Latin did so on their own terms.

Meanwhile, businesses throughout the region still use Russian for conversations. So do Turkic presidents, while speaking at regional summits. For many younger people, oddly enough, Russian now is seen as cool.

Recently, a young man walking through historic, downtown Baku — near the confused shoe store — turned his head when two young women walked by, not just because they were pretty, but also because their spoken Russian made them sound sophisticated. And, where Russian is spoken, of course, Russian is written — which means the Cyrillic script.

Many feel that the Internet will ultimately drive people to Latin scripts. But this isn’t easy either. The idiosyncratic variations on the Cyrillic alphabet that Stalin imposed aren’t readily available on computers. So Turkic cybersurfers make do by adopting obscure letters from well-known American computer fonts, which of course aren’t part of the 34-character Latin alphabet established at the Turkey linguistic confab eight years ago.

And there’s always politics, in places like Uzbekistan, a large, dusty nation whose oasis cities like Samarkand evoke the famed Silk Road to China. In 1993, a nationwide committee adopted a Latin alphabet — with a goal of full conversion by 2000. Tellingly, the committee had more provincial governors than linguists.

By 1995, relations soured with Turkey. Uzbekistan changed two Turkish-style consonants to English-style “ch” and “sh.” And controversy remains about writing an “o” script when you’re saying an “a” sound. One result of all the manipulations: When Uzbeks write “Isaac, ” people elsewhere read “donkey.”

The new alphabet doesn’t sit well with everyone. “It’s so ugly. I can’t bear to see it,” says Mohammed Salih, Uzbekistan’s opposition Erk Party leader, speaking by telephone from his exiled home in Norway. A poet, he chooses to write in Cyrillic rather than what he sees as a bastardized script.

“If we come to power,” Mr. Salih says, “we’ll have to modify the Latin alphabet again.”