Monday, April 1, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Kazakhstan Should Adopt a Common Turkic Script Rather than Its Own National Variant, Linguist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 1 – Kazakhstan has decided to shift from a Cyrillic-based script to a Latin-based one, but instead of adopting a common Turkic one, it appears ready to adopt a specifically Kazakh variant, a step that will, like the scripts developed by other Turkic peoples in the former Soviet space, limit rather than promote pan-Turkic integration.

            And while each people has the uncontested right to make such a choice, an Azerbaijani linguistic scholar suggests, any alphabet change is so fraught with difficulties that Turkic peoples should ask themselves whether they might not be better off with a common Turkic script rather than a specifically national one (

            All Turkic peoples can only be pleased that Kazakhstan has decided to shift from a Cyrillic (Russian) script to a Latin alphabet, Azer Hasret argues, but they have the right to ask why that Central Asia nation has adopted a national variant of that script rather than one that could be used by all Turkic peoples.

            The Kazakhs are a Turkic people, Hasret says, a people who along with the Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Turkmens, Karakalpaks, Uyghurs, Tatars, Bashkirs, Gagauz, Chuvash, Kumyks, Nogays, Karachays, Balkars, Shors, Khakhas and others “share a common past, a common history, and what is most important common roots!”

            The languages of these peoples are common as well, with such distinctions as do exist in large measure “artificially created by the occupiers of our lands, Russia, Iran and China.” And it is time to overcome that past and recover this commonality even if it isn’t yet time to unite politically, he continues.

            Kazakhstan, like the other post-Soviet Turkic peoples, has broken away from the Soviet empire. “This was an evil empire, an empire of the supremacy of nation over others,” and the Turkic peoples were constantly told that they were not united and that their languages “did not have a common past.” But this was nothing more than a “divide and rule” policy.

            But the former Soviet Turkic republics have been independent for “more than 20 years” and “can take decisions of an all-national character without considering the opinion of other peoples who do not have any relation to our purely national values” – an obvious reference to the Russians – “one of which is our alphabet.”

            If no nation has the right to interfere in Kazakhstan’s choice, Hasret says, it is nonetheless the case that “Turkic peoples related to it have the right to express their opinion” and should be involved in that country’s transition so that it “will not repeat those mistakes which Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and even Turkey have made.”

            Nearly 20 years ago, the Turkic peoples recognized the need for a common Turkic alphabet and even signed an agreement to work together toward that end. “But unfortunately, our governments were not sufficiently quick in introducing this idea and so it has remained an idea” rather than a reality.

            Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan were the first to take this decision and to complete the process, Hasret says. Uzbekistan has made the decision but has not yet completed the transition. Each of these, just like Turkey 75 years earlier, however, has deviated from a common Turkic version of that script.

            Azerbaijan was the first of the post-Soviet Turkic states to make the change from a Cyrillic to a Latin script. For some “unknown reason,” he points out, it did continued to use the letter “E” rather than the umlauted “A” of what is the common Turkic alphabet and it did not include “N” with a cedilla, although this sound “is still used in Azerbaijani.”

            Turkmenistan was next, but its new Latin alphabet diverged from a common Turkic one even further, using “J” in place of the Turkic “C” (which is pronounced like “J”), “Z”, “W,” and  a variety of other variations which have the effect of distancing the Turkmens from other Turkic peoples rather than helping them overcome divisions imposed by others.
            Uzbekistan unfortunately, in Hasret’s view, has gone even further in departing from a common Turkic Latin script.  What it planss to do is simply to introduce “a purely English alphabet with 26 letters” and therefore using double letters to designate Turkic sounds that in a common alphabet are represented by a single letter, such as Ch for a C with a cedilla.

            There are even problems with the alphabet Turkey adopted earlier, but its departures from the norm are much less than those of the three post-Soviet Turkic peoples and, again according to the Azerbaijani linguist, “do not interfere” with the ability of Turkic peoples to read texts written in that alphabet.

            Kazakhstan still has the chance “to consider all these mistakes” and make the right choice. It would certainly benefit from considering what its fellow Turkic countries have done, Hasret argues. And it could even take the lead in developing a common Turkic Latin script even if the Kazakhs choose to call it “a Kazakh alphabet.”

            One model he suggests Kazakhstan should consider is “the unofficial common Turkic Latin script” in which the online newspaper is issued.  That paper contains “texts in all Turkic languages including Kazakh without translations and is easily read by all Turkic peoples of the world.” 

            While Hasret does not mention this possibility, it would be a fascinating development if the Internet now were to become the driving force for a move to a common script, one that many Turkic peoples have long dreamed of and that Ismail Bey Gaspraly (Gasprinsky) sought to introduce nearly 150 years ago via his newspaper “Tercuman” in the Arabic script.

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