Friday, January 25, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Thanks to Latinization, ‘Sex’ Appears in Tashkent Streets, But Uzbek Readers May Disappear

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 25 – Uzbekistan’s effort over the past two decades to replace the Soviet-imposed Cyrillic alphabet with a Latin-based script as part of its affirmation of its independence and links to the broader Turic world has had mixed results and some very unexpected consequences, according to a Russian blogger.

            Writingon the “Asia Terra” blog this week, A. Volosevich says that the 1993 law has not been fully realized. Today, “school children study in the Latin script, but when they enter universities, they use Cyrillic,” and “90 percent of Uzbek language literature continues to appear in Cyrillic -- otherwise no one would buy it” (

            In the early 1990s, “the ways of nationalism and the euphoria from the acquisition of independence” led many Uzbek university instructors and government officials to conclude that they needed the change from a Cyrillic-based to something else, Arabic in the view of some and Latin according to others.

            Turkey played “the most important role” in the Uzbek decision to go over to a Latin-based script, Volosevich says.  And “the first variant of the Uzbek Latin script, adopted in 1993, was as close a possible to the Turkic alphabet,” but four years later, President Islam Karimov became angry with Ankara and announced that Uzbekistan would not follow “the Turkish path.”

            As a result of Karimov’s anger, Tashkent changed the alphabet several times in order to eliminate what it referred to as “the ‘Turkish’ letters.” (On this complicated period, see Omar Sharif’s 2007 article on the Uzbekistan experience Latinization more generally at

            With these changes, the Uzbek Latin script resembled the one that Moscow had introduced in the 1930s more than anything else. It has 29 letters or six less than the 35 that had existed and still exist in the Cyrillic script used for Uzbekistan.  That has had some unanticipated consequences, Volosevich notes.

            On the one hand, the need to use two letters in place of one to capture the sound values of the language has meant that written texts are “10 to 15 percent” longer than they could be, the Asia Terra blogger says. But it has also had some other consequences that few would have guessed in advance.

            X and X, which became X and N, where the letter X “was somehow left as it was in the Cyrillic.”  That has meant that the word “tsekh” is now rendered as “sex” on street signs, who words which, Volosevich helpfully points out, have “completely different semantic meanings and connotations.”

            Looking back at the reform effort, he continues, the use of a Latin script has not helped anyone to learn Western languages – “everyone knows the Latin letters already” – and it has not by itself reduced the use of Russian, as many of the advocates of the change had suggested it would.

            Nor has the reform spread into the countryside as many expected. Indeed, the blogger says, “the further from the capital, that is from the eyes of the bosses, the more rarely one encounters signs and advertisements in the Latin script and the more often one finds them in the Cyrillic alphabet. 

            And this situation is unlikely to change in the future, Velosevich says. If Tashkent tries to push Latinization even harder, then “according to many bilingual Uzbeks, who freely read both langauges, they would most likely completely go over to the Russian, thereby depriving the local publications of an essential part of their audience.”

            This experience should be instructive to those in Kazakhstan who are now pushing for the Latinization of the alphabet in that country, he continues.  Like the Uzbeks, they may face “an unwelcome surprise” if  “a significant part of the bilingual Kazakhs then decide not in favor of Kazakh language texts in the Latin script but in favor of the Russian language.”

            Meanwhile, another leader who is dealing both with demands for a shift in scripts and with growing Russian opposition to instruction in non-Russian languages in the republics of the Russian Federation provided in an interview published today in Kazan a spirited defense of Tatar and its utility for Tatars and for Russians (

            Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov said that his republic will continue to defend the Tatar language and its use in the schools and government there.  “That’s not just my position,” he said; “it has been developed by our parliament and is reaffirmed in the [republic] constitution.”

            “Preserving a native language is difficult” but essential, he continued. “In the first instance, one must begin with oneself.  Mothers must speak with their children in the nativelanguage. We require the government and school to do so,but in the first instance everyone must recognize his own guilt.”

            “Let everyone speak their native language at home. The Chuvash in Chuvash, the Russians in Russian, and the Tatars in Tatar. In Tatarstan, there are two state languages, and if one is going to work with Tatars, one must study Tatar.” Kazan can improve the methods of instruction, but it must insist on everyone studying the language.

            “If I knew Chinese or French,” the Tatarstan leader said, “would that be something bad? Knowing Tatar, you will understand Kazakh, Uzbek, Azerbaijani, Turkish … Who suffers from that? In what is the harm?  An intelligent person will not say that one need not study the language.”

            “Parents must think about the future of the child.  A Russian child who knows Tatar will have greater opportunities than one who doesn’t,” Minnikhanov argues and then asks rhetorically “Is that really such a bad thing?”


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