Sunday, April 23, 2017

Latin Script Making Inroads Even in Belarus and Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 23 – Russian commentators have reacted hysterically to the decisions of Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan to follow the other Turkic republics of the former Soviet space and shift from the Cyrillic-based alphabets Moscow imposed on them in the 1930s to Latin scripts in order to integrate with the Turkic and Western worlds.

            The process of making such transitions, as the experience of those countries shows, is both complicated and expensive, with many people finding it difficult to learn a new alphabet and some choosing not to read as much if publications are in it rather than the one they have been used to.

            But the desire to escape the Soviet past and Moscow’s continuing influence by making a shift away from Cyrillic is powerful and not limited to the Turkic countries.  Some Tajiks seek to go back to the Persido-Arabic script, and even in Belarus where Alyaksandr Lukashenka has said it won’t happen, the Latin script is increasingly making inroads.

            There Belarusian in the Latin script not only appears on the signs of shops but even officially at railroad stations, where the process of Belarusianization has led to Latinization in place of the Cyrillic the Soviets had imposed (

            And despite Russian laws specifying that all official languages in Russia must be in Cyrillic, a law adopted to block Tatarstan from following the path of its Turkic counterparts, interest in the Latin script remains high. In Kazan, for example, scholars use it; and the Karelians have managed to retain their Latin script since their language is not a “government” one.

            The Karelian case is interesting because the Karels are currently the only indigenous people of the Russian Federation who use the Latin script. It was officially adopted in 1989, and in 2007, the republic government declared that it was the script to be used for all dialects of Karelian – allowing Moscow to keep it from becoming an official language of the republic.

            But more significant are developments in Belarus and discussions in Ukraine. Historically, Belarusian was written in both Cyrillic and Latin script. The latter predominated in Western Belarus and in the Belarusian emigration, but from the end of Soviet times, Belarusian publications in the Latin script returned to Belarus itself.

            In 2000, Minsk ordered that all geographic names in the republic be transliterated into the Latin script.  And Belarusian railways and the subway system in Minsk itself began using the Latin script rather than the Cyrillic one for the names of stations. Perhaps because of this, discussions about Latinization have even broken out in Ukraine which lacks a Latin script past.

            Belarusian linguist Vintsuk Vecherka says that the choice of alphabet is a choice of civilization.  “The Russian and then the Soviet empire held under its power peoples of various civilizational identities and sought to unify them including via the alphabet.” But the peoples who were subjected to that process never forgot their pasts.

            Now, “the world of Latin letters is the space of information and information technology … [and] a bridge to other languages which use the Latin script,” he says. The Kremlin fears it and is doing what it can to suppress any discussion about the spread of the Latin scrip to places like Tuva and Buryatia. 

            Vecherka doesn’t expect Belarusian to make a complete break with Cyrillic, at least not any time soon.  But he does believe that despite Lukashenka’s promises and Moscow’s threats, Belarusians will soon be using the two scripts at the same time, something that will help Belarus escape the Russian world and rejoin the international one.

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