Monday, March 10, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Will Kyrgyz Be the Next to Shift from Cyrillic to Latin Script?

Paul Goble

Baku, March 10 – Many officials and academics in Kyrgyzstan want to change the script their language is written in from one based on the Russian Cyrillic alphabet to another based on the Latin. But others there and in Moscow oppose the idea fearing that it would increase the divide between the Kyrgyz and Russian communities.
The Soviet government imposed Latin-based scripts on the Turkic peoples of the USSR in the 1920s and then Cyrillic ones in the 1930s, and many language specialists have argued that the Latin scripts were far more adequate in representing the sounds of these languages than were the ones based on the alphabet the Russians use.
Consequently, since the end of the Soviet Union, three of the Turkic countries – Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and most recently Turkmenistan -- have switched back to scripts based on the Latin script. Kazakhstan has indicated that it would like to do so eventually. And now Kyrgyzstan may be about to join this trend as well.
In addition to the ways in which this reflects an entirely natural national assertiveness, the decision of these countries also reflects their desire to expand their cooperation with the Turkic world in general and Turkey in particular, which has used a Latin-based script since the 1920s.
In a Novyye izvestiya article last week, Zhanna Zakharova surveyed the state of the debate in Bishkek and elsewhere about such a shift. Supporters, like Nurdin Mamanbetov, a professor of Kyrgyz philology at the Kyrgyz National University, said it is the only way forward (
“The Latinization of the Kyrgyz alphabet,” he argued, “is a necessary step. Yes, there are problems with [our] language [but] we can solve them by Latinizing it.” Once the Latin script is introduced, the philologist continued, “we will be closer to the world community … and we will have out own really Kyrgyz language.”
But opponents point to three potentially serious problems of any such shift. First, many Kyrgyz, especially in urban areas, do not speak their own language well. They use Russian and changing the alphabet of the “titular” language could make it more difficult for them to learn it.
Second, Latinization would make it more difficult for non-Kyrgyz living there to learn the national language. Many of them who know Russian find that they can pick up Kyrgyz because it is written in the same script. If it were not, they say, learning it would be harder.
And third, Latinization of Kyrgyz would divide that nation and that country from Russians and the Russian Federation, reducing the likelihood that the Kyrgyz would look to Russia as a cultural center and increasing the likelihood that they would look to the broader Turkic world instead.
But from the point of many Kyrgyz and even more from that of Turkic world activists, that is exactly the point. Last November, the 12th Congress of Turkic Peoples in Baku adopted a resolution calling for the creation of a single Turkic language for all Turkic speakers.
As a first step toward that possibly utopian goal, Nizami Jafarov, the chairman of the Azerbaijani parliament’s committee on culture, subsequently called for the creation of a single Turkic alphabet based on the one now used in Anatolia as a first step (
In January, he suggested that this process should be completed by 2010, urging that consultations begin to agree on common letters for the same sounds. At present, different Turkic languages currently use different letters, even in Latin script, for the same sound values.
That is something “the ministers of education and culture of the Turkic-language states need to address now, “Jafarov said, arguing that any delay in “the coordination of the alphabet” will lead to more problems. And that in turn will only delay the achievement of greater Turkic unity.
There is an ironic twist to this development in the post-Soviet states. The Latin script Turkey has been using for almost 90 years was developed by Soviet specialists and presented at the Congress of Peoples of the East in Baku in 1920. And thus, the Latin script is now simply coming home rather than being imported from abroad.

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