Battle of the alphabets in Central Asia

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Paul Goble, "Another battle of the alphabets shaping up in Central Asia", Kyiv Post 11/16/2010:

A statement by a Kazakhstan minister that his country will eventually shift from a Cyrillic-based alphabet to a Latin-based script and reports that some scholars in Dushanbe are considering dropping another four Russian letters from the Tajik alphabet suggest that a new battle of the alphabets may again be shaping up in Central Asia.

Russian commentators have reacted by suggesting that this is yet another effort by nationalists in those countries to reduce the role of the Russian language and hence of the influence of Russian culture, but in fact the controversy over any such change is far more complicated than that.

As far as I can tell, everything in Central Asia is always more complicated than that. For more complexity than you probably want, see

"How alphabetic is the nature of molecules", 9/27/2004
"Birlashdirilmish yangi Turk alifbesi", 9/27/2004
"Vaslav Tchitcherine, call your office", 10/19/2006

Paul Goble's article continues with this strange assertion:

Many advocates of such a shift away to a Latin script to Cyrillic believe that the former more fully captures the sound values of their languages than does the latter, a position with which many linguists around the world agree, and are pushing it as a means of preserving their native tongues.

It's plausible that some particular Latin orthography "more fully captures the sound values" of some language than some particular Cyrillic orthography does, but it's not plausible that this is a property of the scripts themselves, which can surely be adapted in entirely isomorphic ways.

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23 Comments »

  1. Ben C said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

    I believe the correct term is "Alphabet Death Match". :)

  2. Henning Makholm said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 7:46 pm

    Well, switching scripts does provide an opportunity to redo the orthography from scratch, which could fix inaccuracies that have crept in due to linguistic drift or imperfect understanding on the part of the people who originally devised the written language. (Which happened when and under which circumstances? Were they native speakers or colonizers / missionaries / anthropologists?)

  3. jfruh said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 8:01 pm

    Central Asia certainly has some weird script history; I know Mongol, Manchu, and (I think?) Uighur at one point used scripts ultimately derived from Syriac (which arrived via Nestorian Christian missionaries). Did any of the Central Asian languages ever use an Arabic-derived script? It would sort of make sense if Tajik went that route, as (if I understand correctly) it's mutually intellgible with Farsi.

  4. Brian said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 8:35 pm

    Many advocates of such a shift away to a Latin script to Cyrillic …

    Argh. I assume that the second "to" should actually be "from"? I initially read it the other way round (replacing the first "to"), but that doesn't work in context.

  5. Dan Parvaz said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 9:33 pm

    In the case of Tajik (which, along with Dari and Farsi, can be collectively thought of as "Persian", depending on whether you lump or split), at one point it was written in Perso-Arabic script, and the fashion is slowly returning, although it is far from universal. Latin script was also used in the early 20th century, but was offered no advantage over Cyrillic. Hebrew script was even used by the Jewish community but was even more defective than the Arabic script and never caught on. The unused Russian letters are the yotated vowels as well as the letter "shcha".

    Each orthography presents advantages while introducing its own set of ambiguities. It's really a matter of choosing whose baggage you wish to carry :-)

    For more information, I recommend Perry's _Tajik Persian Reference Grammar_ (Brill).

  6. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 9:46 pm

    For the Turkic languages (Kazakh, Kyrghyz, Turkmen and Uzbek) I think there is some influence from Turkey, though it probably isn't strong enough to make them adopt ı and İ.

  7. Leonardo Boiko said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 9:51 pm

    > Well, switching scripts does provide an opportunity to redo the orthography from scratch

    You English people should consider switching back to runes =)

  8. GeorgeW said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 10:03 pm

    @Henning Makholm: Your suggestion might be very appropriate for English. We could get rid of those vestigial X's and C's. We could add a theta, etc. Then, there are our vowels – boy, these could stand some serious revision.

  9. The Ridger said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 10:36 pm

    Considering that the individualized Cyrillic scripts were devised for and forced on the Central Asian languages to forestall pan-Turkism and make sure that Uzbeks couldn't read Kazakh or Kirghiz or Turkmen or Tajik (not easily at any rate) and vice versa (or whatever you say for a five-way), and especially couldn't read Turkish – I expect that much, much more than simple orthography is at stake here.

  10. D.O. said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 11:11 pm

    @The Ridger: Cyrillic script is not that different from the Latin one.

    As far as I can tell, everything in Central Asia is always more complicated than that.

    Or, as they say in Russia "East is a delicate thing."

  11. Chris said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 11:29 pm

    Uyghur was first written with the Sogdian alphabet, but is usually now written in a modified Perso-Arabic script (Ereb Yiziqi). The traditional Mongolian writing system (Mongol bichig) derives from the original Perso-Arabic Uyghur script. The Manchu script derives from the Mongolian one. Keep in mind also that in the case of these three languages (Uyghur, Khalka Mongolian, and Manchu) we're talking about three separate language families (Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungustic, respectively). Nowadays, Mongolian (whether in Russia, Mongolia, or China) is usually written with the Cyrillic alphabet. Manchu is nearly extinct, but you can still see the writing all over China, including on the currency.

  12. Chris said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 11:33 pm

    Whoa! Error alert (perhaps commenting on Friday night after a long week is not a good idea)! Mongol bichig comes from the old (Sogdian-based) Uyghur alphabet, not the Perso-Arabic one. The Perso-Arabic and Sogdian-based Uyghur alphabets co-exited when Mongolian borrowed one, but I switched which one they borrowed! It is a confusing history!

  13. ShadowFox said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 2:38 am

    @Henning Makhom

    … could fix inaccuracies that have crept in due to linguistic drift or imperfect understanding on the part of the people who originally devised the written language. (Which happened when and under which circumstances? Were they native speakers or colonizers / missionaries / anthropologists?)

    If I recall correctly–and I have not looked at the history of these scripts in quite some time–the scripting of all the Central Asian (and a number of other languages of animistic and Muslim minorities) was quite unsettled under the Russian Empire. Some classes spoke and read/wrote Arabic and/or "Persian" and likely used variations on the Arabic scripts to preserve some writing in these languages. However–and this may be overstated by old Soviet propaganda–majority of speakers were illiterate. Early Soviet language policy provided for new scripts–mostly Cyrillic based, although not all–for all major languages of these groups sometime between 1922 and 1932. Much of it was indeed genuine idealistic linguistic effort, with an effort to create notation for non-Slavic idiosyncrasies of each language, but, as with all things Soviet, a part of it was also destructive. Of course, not all the efforts were new–scripts and transcription had been introduced for a century prior to that, but none of them had the force of "language". What the Soviets had accomplish is tying together the language, a common script and the national identity for each of the groups, at the same time increasing the literacy rates.

    @The Ridger

    … Cyrillic scripts were devised for and forced on the Central Asian languages to forestall pan-Turkism and make sure that Uzbeks couldn't read Kazakh or Kirghiz or Turkmen or Tajik …

    To some extent, I agree with that, but the obvious complication is the fact that most of these languages are not mutually intelligible to begin with, so a common script would not alleviate that concern. And the concern about Turkish only would have made sense with Turkmen and Azeri which are closest to Ottoman Turkish, but not so much with Kazakh, Kyrgyz (both closer to Bashkir and Tatar) and Uzbek (closer to Uighur and also spoken in parts of Afghanistan), which are quite different. And it would make no sense at all with Tajik which belongs to an entirely different family (diverted from other Persian, not Turkic languages). But there was a reason for new unified scripts and it was the same as that introduced by the Young Turks in Turkish–to eliminate the influence of Arabic and, with it, of Islam. With Turkey looking to the West and, therefore, choosing a Latin alphabet, it was only natural for Russian-dominated Central Asian languages to be offered a Cyrillic alphabet (although some minority languages got the Latin treatment).

    I am sure someone can correct and extend what I said above. But, given this history, it is interesting to note that the Russians may indeed be correct and it may well be nationalist elements at work in each of the republics with at least some of the "reforms" being frivolous.

  14. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 4:24 am

    I'd forgotten how much I love that Kirghiz section from Gravity's Rainbow. So lyrical and so loopy. It's meant to be the complementary opposite of the Herero bits in south-west Africa, in some way I never really understood, that has to do with aromatic compounds and mandalas and film negatives. But never mind, there's always the option with Pynchon of just going with the flow.

    On sidewalks and walls the very first printed slogans start to show up, the first Central Asian fuck you signs, the first kill-the-police-commissioner signs (and somebody does! this alphabet is really something!)…

  15. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    I recall reading that when the USSR went down the drain, the Turkish government shipped thousands of Turkish typewriters into the republics in order to jump-start use of the Latin alphabet.

  16. Matt McIrvin said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

    It's been a long time since I read Gravity's Rainbow, but that passage just sucked me in again.

    Maybe I need to take another stab at Against the Day…

  17. abd-ul-satya said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

    Azerbaijani did adopt ı and İ for its Roman alphabet. Turkmen uses the more Russologist-oriented "y" for its unrounded/centralised close vowel (along with "ý" for yod). Uzbek doesn't seem to have a sound like that, but, in any case, they seem to have gone out of their way to avoid letters that aren't found on English keyboards (although I don't know what's going with the direction of their apostrophes).

  18. The Ridger said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 9:41 am

    @ShadowFox: All that you say may be true (I don't know) but that need not have played any part whatsoever in official Soviet decision making. I do recall reading that around the end of the 19th century it was said that one could go from Sinkiang to Istanbul and be understood while speaking the same language all the way. True or myth, this sort of thing (and even today, someone like Stuart Loory has no qualms about saying "One leg of the fabled Silk Road passed through the modern day Xinjiang Province, home of the ethnic Uighurs, a group of Chinese who speak not Mandarin but their own Turkic language. Many are practicing Muslims and can be understood by citizens of Istanbul more readily than Beijing." source), so one can understand a certain Russian paranoia about the Turkic giant they were attempting to divide and conquer.

  19. The Ridger said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 9:42 am

    Ooo, that parenthetical got away from me. "True or myth, this sort of thing… was widely believed, so one can understand…"

  20. Bob Violence said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 2:53 am

    Uzbek doesn't seem to have a sound like that, but, in any case, they seem to have gone out of their way to avoid letters that aren't found on English keyboards (although I don't know what's going with the direction of their apostrophes).

    From what I can tell, right-facing apostrophes appear in the letters Gʻ and Oʻ (which are distinct from G and O), while left-facing apostrophes (ʼ) serve different purposes (vowel lengthening, glottal stops, syllable boundaries). But I've also seen ` for ʻ, and some use ' for both.

  21. Anthony said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

    Many advocates of such a shift away to a Latin script to Cyrillic believe that the former more fully captures the sound values of their languages than does the latter

    Perhaps this is a result of the greater diversity of pronunciation of individual latin letters, as compared to cyrillic letters? With C, J, Q, W, X, Y, and Z effectively able to stand for any phoneme at all, because there's a precedent for it in some latin-alphabet language somewhere, it probably is easier to fit the sounds of those languages to the Latin alphabet than it is to the Cyrillic alphabet, which seems to have much less phonemic diversity per letter. Also, since much of the communication with outsiders in those countries is still with Russians, it will be more confusing to adjust the sounds of too many cyrillic letters; while visitors from latin-alphabet countries will be used to variations in how different letters are pronounced.

  22. Bob Violence said,

    November 24, 2010 @ 2:12 am

    Manchu is nearly extinct, but you can still see the writing all over China, including on the currency.

    There's no Manchu on the modern currency, or on any other PRC currency. All notes from 1953 on have Hanzi, Tibetan, Mongolian, and Uyghur (in Arabic script); Pinyin and Zhuang were added in 1960. The Mongolian is written in the old script. Some Chinese Mongolian-speakers know the Cyrillic orthography, but the traditional script is the only one with any official status in China. (Cyrillic was adopted in 1955 but never implemented, and it was unsurprisingly abolished a few years later.) Manchu proper has indeed fared poorly in modern China, but Xibe (which is mutually intelligible and uses the same script) has perhaps 35,000 speakers.

  23. the next Prescott Niles said,

    November 25, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    @Pflaumbaum, M. McIrvin: If I had to pick eight words to illustrate what I love so much about Pynchon's tone in GR,

    (and somebody does! this alphabet is really something!)

    might well be the eight.

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