November 4: Central Asian countries that proclaimed independence after the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) disintegrated in 1991 are not merely beset by the usual political and economic uncertainties that mark all new nations. They are uncertain about their alphabets too. At the root of all this confusion is an identity crisis that the countries are suffering.
Take Azerbaijan, for instance. Since most people here speak Azeri, verbal communication is not a problem. But, as no one can decide on the written script, written communication is a problem. And this confusion is not a new thing either. In the past 75 years, Azerbaijan has seen four completely different alphabets come and go one after the other.
So if you visit a restaurant in Azerbaijani, chances are, you’ll get a menu printed in Latin script, and see your host sign a cheque in Russian-style script. The confusion is only compounded by Azeri newspapers, which have Latin-scripted headlines and Russian-scripted articles. A ‘Wall Street Journal’ report on the alphabetic mess was published recently in ‘The Indian Express’.
In the early 1990s, Azerbaijan and other countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan celebrated their liberation from the USSR by abandoning the Cyrillic alphabet that had been imposed by Soviet rule for the past 50 years.
But once the initial euphoria died down, and the countries settled down to actually searching for an ideal alphabet, they realised that changing the script of a nation wasn’t easy.
Take the example of Turkmenistan, says the report. The country that is somewhat larger than the American state of California is full of deserts, natural gas and a government that is trying to build its stature by spending lavishly on projects such as a revolving, gold-plated statue of the President perched atop a tower in the capital Ashgabat.
When Turkmenistan adopted a Latin script seven years ago, it added to it three characters – the signs for dollar, pound and yen. These also corresponded to certain sounds spoken by the Turks.
But if you think that the people of the Turkic region, which includes five former Soviet republics and the nation of Turkey, have a common script, you are mistaken. In the 1930s, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin imposed the Russian-style Cyrillic alphabets among the Turkic nations by assigning each nation unique Cyrillic characters.
These unique alphabets, altered the way people pronounced words, and caused further fragmentation of the region.
Over 1000 years ago, Turkic-speaking people actually wrote in a single, official script named Runic, which made way for the Arabic script after the conversion of the majority to Islam.
So, after the fall of the Soviet empire, an alphabet congress was even organised by Turkey in 1992 at which all the Turkic states agreed on a standard 34-character Latin alphabet based on the Turkish script.
But predictably enough, nothing happened. One reason was that the Turkic states, just freed of the rule of the Soviet Union, did not want to fall under the sway of Turkey by adopting its script too readily.
So chaos reigns in written communication in these countries. Public spaces and billboards reflect the chaos, with statements in Cyrillic, Latin and even Arabic. Business establishments throughout the region still use Russian and in state functions by the leaders. Strangely enough, the youth appears to find Russian cool.
Language is thought, it has been said. And sure enough worsening relations between two rival Turkic countries is now being used as an excuse for one nation to change the sounds in its alphabet that correspond to letters in the rival nation’s alphabet.
In 1995, Uzbekistan’s relations with Turkey soured. It changed two Turkish-style consonants to English-style “ch” and “sh”. So, the written Uzbekan word “Isaac” means “donkey” to people somewhere else.
There can’t be a more fitting comment on the politics of language.