Sunday, July 9, 2017

Chuvash Activists Push for Shift from Cyrillic to Latin Script for Their National Language

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 9 – Arguing that Russian law requiring all languages in the Russian Federation to be written in Cyrillic both puts a brake on their development and violates the rights of citizens, the Chuvash Ireklekh organization is calling on their republic government to shift to the Latin script.

            In a letter to the Chuvash republic head Mikhail Ignatyev, the organization details the ways in which the continued use of Cyrillic is cutting the people of the republic off from the international community and making it more difficult for them to engage in research and public life (

                The Chuvash thus become the latest Turkic republic in the former Soviet space to make that demand. Most of the now independent Turkic countries there already have made the shift or are in the process of doing so, and the Turkic republics within the Russian Federation, including Tatarstan, have been seeking a similar change.

            Chuvashia, a 1.2 million-strong republic just to the west of Tatarstan, seldom gets the attention others have. But it may play an even larger role in changing the alphabet regime in Russia than any of the others. That is because it represents a kind of bridge, its titular nation being Turkic by ethnicity and Russian Orthodox Christian by religion.

            Consequently, this call has the potential to promote a shift away from Cyrillic to Latin script go beyond the Turkic world and affect neighboring Finno-Ugric and other nations in the Middle Volga and perhaps more generally. Russian officials are very much aware of this danger to their position as they understand it and will actively oppose what the Chuvash want.

            The Ireklekh appeal begins by noting that arguments for using Latin script rather than Cyrillic have been made for more than a century and are now being advanced not just by nationalist activists but also by “leading scholars and linguists of the Chuvash State Institute for Humanities,” a government institution.

            What makes the appeal especially powerful is that it is less on the national feelings of the Chuvash than on the current features of the Internet and the difficulties anyone not using Latin script faces in gaining access to what is becoming the most important channel for international scholarly communication.

            “The English-language origin of the Internet means that URLs and e-mail addresses are presented in Latin script letters” or in some cases in non-Latin script but with “the use of letters of the Latin script” as the underlying element, the appeal says. And it points to the “technical” difficulties facing anyone who is not using Latin script all the time.

               Cyrillic keyboards don’t have all the Chuvash letters needed. That not only makes it more difficult for Chuvash speakers to gain access online, but it also means that those who want to find Chuvash texts face a far more difficult challenge in searching for them.  This problem is even more critical in SMS messages because so much space has to be given to the alphabet issue that little additional information can be conveyed.

            What needs to be remembered, the organization reminds the republic head is that “the Chuvash alphabet on the basis of the Latin script is already being used in the Chuvash sphere of the Internet in the establishment of sites, the carrying out of blogs, and in communications via messengers, and also by German, Hungarian, Finnish and Turkish researchers of Chuvash.”

            But that raises another problem which going over to Latin script more broadly could solve, Ireklekh says.  There is at present no standard Latin script for Chuvash but rather several, and the government can play a positive role by promoting a single standard Chuvash Latin script so as to avoid confusions.

            And the organization suggests that at least as a transitional measure, there is no reason why Chuvash in the Latin script cannot coexist with Chuvash in Cyrillic, something that would allow the republic to follow both the republic law on languages and the Russian Federation law on alphabets.

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