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In the past few years, the governments of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have both made a rather bold commitment: They will soon use the Latin alphabet to write their respective Turkic languages. They will refrain from Cyrillic, a writing system originally developed to help convert the semi-literate Slavic cultures of the Middle Ages to Christianity; it has been in official use throughout the region since roughly 1940. These aren’t the first former Soviet republics to make this declaration either—Azerbaijan, Moldova, and Turkmenistan have also moved their countries away from a Cyrillic writing system in favor of a Latin one.

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The question of alphabet reform is hardly new for these countries—over the last 150 years or so, Kazakh has been written in Arabic, Latin, and Cyrillic, each prevailing at different points in the language’s history. The writing systems used to record the languages have changed about as many times as have the hands ruling over their speakers. In turn, the alphabets end up reflecting efforts to retain (or erase) individual cultural identities, the symbols themselves becoming political tools to further nationalist agendas.

That the Cyrillic alphabet is used so widely, even in non-Slavic languages like Mongolian and Chechen, is curious, though not altogether unusual. Plenty of languages have borrowed writing systems over the years and adapted the letters to fit their respective phonological systems. English, for example, was once written using Anglo-Saxon runes that have since been replaced by the Latin-derived characters you’re reading right now.

What is somewhat peculiar is the frequency with which these languages have undergone alphabet reform. From 1923 until the early 1930s, the Soviets undertook a program of “indigenization,” rooted in an anti-imperialist philosophy that attempted to reverse the inter-ethnic tensions created by the previous empire’s “Russification.” Indigenization called for the promotion of several minority languages that the Russian empire had neglected for years.

As part of these indigenization efforts, Soviet leaders developed alphabets for several minority languages, most of which were previously unwritten or relied on scripts deemed unfit for everyday use, either due to a non-secular (and therefore, non-socialist) quality, or a lack of standardization. A decade later, Soviet leaders reversed course, leading to the development of Cyrillic-based counterparts still operating in more than 100 different languages across the former territories of the Soviet Union.

Before the Soviets, however, the Russian Empire was in charge. From its inception in 1721 until the 1917 revolution, it largely dismissed the non-Slavic languages of the Eurasian Steppe. This was part of a broader program of “Russification,” wherein Russian language and culture were imposed upon non-Russian ethnic groups. Historian Wayne Dowler notes that Russians throughout the empire viewed territories like modern-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as “integral parts of Russia,” despite the fact that Kazakhs and Uzbeks shared few linguistic or cultural commonalities with the Russian ruling class.

Though they were not ethnic Russians, the native peoples of territories that today make up Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were encouraged to use Russian and act as Russians. “Even the most enthusiastic supporters of self-determination for non-Russians believed that they would at most opt for cultural autonomy within a federal political structure and predominant framework of Great Russian language and culture,” Dowler writes.

At the same time, most of the minority languages throughout the empire were rarely, if ever, written down. Those that were (typically Turkic languages like Kazakh or Tatar), tended to use a complicated and nonstandard form of the Arabic alphabet. The Arabic alphabet—also called an abjad, a term to describe writing systems that depict consonants but not vowels—was far from ideal, particularly for Turkic languages. Because the abjad doesn’t transcribe vowels, diacritical marks and additional symbols were needed to adequately convey the vowel harmony that plays a major role in the phonology and word structure of most Turkic languages.

Plaque to Orbeliani Baths of Tbilisi in Georgia with a quote from Pushkin in Georgian and in Russian that reads, “I have never seen … anything more luxurious than the Tiflis baths.” via Wikimedia Commons

For example, a Kazakh version of the Arabic alphabet featured seven annotated variants of the Arabic character “waw” (“و”) to indicate different vowels and diphthongs that simply don’t exist in Arabic.

To a varying extent, Muslim groups of the Russian Empire, such as Kazakhs and Tatars used the Arabic alphabet to write their languages, but for the most part, these languages were unwritten until the latter portion of the 19th century. Orthodox missionaries in predominantly Muslim regions struggled to win over converts in part because they could not communicate. The missionaries had little opportunity to learn the local languages and although the empire wanted its non-Russian subjects to assimilate into Russian culture, it didn’t make a particularly meaningful investment in teaching its minority subjects Russian. Essentially, the quality of education outside of major Russian cities was poor.

According to Dowler, Nikolai Ilminsky, a 19th-century philologist specializing in Turkic languages, feared that Muslim Tatar forces would leverage this vacuum of literacy and Orthodoxy to convert swathes of the population against the Russian Empire. Ilminsky maintained that Cyrillic-based transcriptions for the minority languages of the empire would allow minority subjects to preserve their language, while also easing Russian-language instruction.

“The most effective method of preserving them was to transform them into written languages transcribed in Russian letters,” Dowler writes. “In that way, the Cyrillic alphabet became the alphabet of Orthodoxy and a shield against the Islamicizing Arabic alphabet of the Tatar Moslems.”

Ilminsky tested this hypothesis with the Tatar language, a Turkic language native to the eastern frontiers of European Russia. In 1864, he opened a school for Tatars in Kazan that followed his educational philosophy of preserving their native language through the Cyrillic alphabet. Not only did this—as Dowler put it—shield them from the Arabic alphabet, it also made learning to read Russian simpler.

Cyrillic transcription efforts similar to Ilminsky’s took place in other parts of the empire. The Ministry of Education struck down efforts to transcribe and conduct education in local languages in 1867, declaring that local languages should only be used to aid students in learning Russian. It would later flip-flop on this decision, but all in all, minority languages remained in an unstandardized, semi-literate limbo.

When they rose to power in the early 20th century, Soviet leaders inherited a highly illiterate country, and this was particularly true of its non-Russian territories. The Soviets viewed literacy as critical to spreading the socialist message—as such, they were notably progressive in their efforts to develop a functional infrastructure for the minority languages of their territory, as historian Geoffrey Wheeler argues.

High levels of illiteracy—almost certainly a result of poor educational infrastructure and the Russian Empire’s ambivalence toward minority languages—presented an obstacle for the Bolsheviks in any such efforts to develop these institutions. It’s hard to estimate exactly how low literacy rates were in the Russian Empire’s outer territories, since the empire didn’t keep track of this information. However, census data from the Soviet Union shows that Kazakh Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic suffered an abysmally low literacy rate just below 7 percent in 1926.

In 1923, the young Soviet Union began to employ an ideology called “korenizatsiya,” typically translated into English as “indigenization.” This short-lived policy essentially advocated for the development of Indigenous cultures, lending them a degree of cultural autonomy they hadn’t enjoyed since before the Russian Empire took over, particularly when it came to language.

Josef Stalin—himself a native speaker of Georgian who reportedly spoke Russian with a thick foreign accent throughout his life—stated in 1921 that the Russian Communist Party should aid each of these regions in developing regional “press, schools, theaters, clubs and cultural and educational institutions generally, functioning in the native language.”

To promote the native languages and tackle illiteracy, alphabet reform—or perhaps more accurately, alphabet imposition—was necessary. Early reformers were skeptical of Cyrillic’s ability to take hold among minority language speakers. Fearful of provoking resentment toward an alphabet that could be viewed as overly imperialistic or Russifying, early Soviet theorists by and large considered the Latin alphabet as the best vehicle for the Soviet project.

Proponents of Latinization for minority languages argued that it was more fitting—both linguistically and politically speaking—than using the Arabic or Cyrillic alphabets. Cyrillic would be deemed excessively imperialist; Arabic, they maintained, was confusing and insufficiently secular.

The Latin alphabet, which is more widespread and used in a variety of languages, was seen as more internationally recognizable; it even serves as the basis for the International Phonetic Alphabet, which was developed just a few decades before the local communist party leaders devised their Latin-based writing systems for the minority languages of the Soviet Union.

Indeed, there were even murmurs in 1930 of transitioning over to a Latin alphabet for the Russian language as well, though this idea did not go much further than the pages of the state-run newspapers. Vladimir Lenin himself was quoted in a Krasnaya Gazeta article, saying “I do not doubt that there will come a time for the Latinization of the Russian script.” Instead of all-out alphabet reform for Russian, the early Soviet Union mandated spelling reform, wiping the language clean of archaic or redundant Cyrillic characters.

Talks over Latinization for the union’s Turkic languages culminated in the First Turcological Congress in 1926, wherein Turkic-speaking peoples and Soviet leaders ultimately settled on a Latin alphabet for the Soviet Union’s Turkic languages, such as Azeri, Kazakh, and Turkmen, to name a few. Ahmet Baitursynov—a noted opponent of Latinization who, in 1912 devised a simplified, more standardized version of the Arabic alphabet for his native Kazakh—was present among the conference’s participants, arguing against the use of a Latin alphabet.

“It is much more difficult to invent something of your own and new than to take over something ready from the others,” Baitursynov argued two years earlier at a congress on Kazakh education policies. “The Kazakh youngsters must demonstrate resourcefulness, creativity and inventive minds.”

Shortly after this congress, the Turkic-speaking republics of the Soviet Union adopted a standardized Latin alphabet. In the decade following the congress, Latin-derived alphabets were derived for some 70 minority languages spoken throughout Soviet territories, as Soviet leaders believed Latinization to be the most straightforward solution to the problem of low literacy in the country.

Notable exceptions were the Armenian and Georgian languages, which maintained their respective, indigenous alphabets throughout the Soviet Union’s tenure—these languages, however, had been written for several centuries prior to the Soviet Union’s existence, unlike most of the other minority languages. As such, illiteracy was not such an obstacle to the Soviet agenda here, nor was alphabet reform necessary.

Latinization efforts halted in 1934, around the same time the Soviets soured on indigenization. Leery of promoting nationalistic movements which could potentially derail the socialist project, the Soviet Union began to reverse course. A little more than a decade after the First Turcological Congress, many of its participants—including Baitursynov, who remains a national hero in Kazakhstan—were executed over accusations of nationalism.

In the midst of this ideological about-face, the Latin alphabet became suspect as well. In 1940, the vast majority of the Soviet Union’s minority languages would be given a not-so-new writing system: the Cyrillic alphabet, much like the ones Ilminsky and his contemporaries developed when transcribing minority languages during the previous century. The Cyrillic alphabet maintained linguistic hegemony until the question of alphabet reform reemerged in the late twentieth century, following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But alphabet reform is a tricky thing to get right—consider all the street signs, books, documents, and more that need to be transcribed and printed anew. That’s not to mention that alphabet reform in a literate society essentially creates a blank slate, a population  suddenly illiterate. Kazakhstan today boasts a youth literacy rate of 100 percent, a far cry from the 7 percent rate from a century ago. While the Cyrillic alphabet may not be the most functional (of course, no alphabet is perfect), the recent, nationalism-inspired wave of alphabet reform is a risky gambit with dubious benefits.

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