Staunton, August 22 – The alphabet wars in Central Asia have taken a new turn: In Uzbekistan where the late president Islam Karimov effectively blocked any criticism of his policy to shift from Cyrillic to Latin script, his passing has opened the way for a new debate on whether that change, still far from complete, is a good or bad thing.
The current debate was opened by open letter to Karimov’s successor from Uzbek literary scholar Shukhrat Rizayev in Kitob dunesi arguing that Uzbekistan should return to Cyrillic lest it fall further behind the world because Uzbeks still have to rely mostly on Uzbek materials published in Cyrillic (kitobdunyosi.uz/publitsistika/460-prezidentimizga-maktub.html).
That letter provoked a discussion of the issue in many Internet portals with some backing Rizayev’s ideas and others insisting that the current course of promoting a Latin script is the correct one. The FerganaNews portal asked Alisher Ilkhamov of SOAS to comment on the implications of alphabet reforms (fergananews.com/articles/9524).
In fact, Ilkhamov points out, Rizayev didn’t call for returning everything in Uzbekistan to the Cyrillic script but only legalizing the situation in which now and for some decades ahead much of the popular and scientific literature in Uzbek will remain in Cyrillic and Uzbeks need to be able to use it, even if they also use the Latin script.
The London-based Uzbek scholar also argues that a shift from one alphabet to another is more a political issue than a substantive one because the sound values of letters are set by convention. (He doesn’t discuss the earlier shift from Arabic to Latin script because then alphabet change mattered more as Arabic didn’t show vowels while the Latin did.)
The push to shift from Cyrillic to Latin scripts in the Turkic republics followed a November 1991 meeting in Istanbul at which representatives of the soon-to-be independent union republics supported the idea of shifting to Latin script as a move away from Russia and toward Turkey.
“For leaders of the Central Asian republics, frightened by the growth of Islamic movements, and especially for Islam Karimov, the Turkish political model represented a real alterantive to both Islamism and the hegemonism of Moscow,” the SOAS scholar continues. And in 1993, Karimov pushed through a law calling for that shift.
Some progress has been made but it is far from complete. Schools have been using the Latin script, and consequently almost one in four adults now uses it. But except for school textbooks, most other publications remain in Cyrillic – and almost three-quarters of adults still prefer Cyrillic to the Latin script given that what they need is in Cyrillic, not Latin.
For the rising generation to displace the Cyrillic group will take 30 to 40 years at a minimum, Ilkhamov says; and even when they are a majority, many of the books and publications on which Uzbeks will continue to rely will still exist only in Cyrillic and not in Latin script. It isn’t “realistic” to expect anything else, he concludes.
And he cites with approval the comment of one Uzbek woman on Facebook: “’To choose Cyrillic is not ‘a return to the past.’ For we still haven’t left it.” One needs only add the following: even if Tashkent doubled its spending on the transition, it wouldn’t be able to affect the sttus quo anytime in the next several decades.