Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Circassian Scholars Take Up the Cudgels to Save the Letter Щ

Paul Goble

UPDATE: The original story is not true. I am grateful to an alert reader who called this to my attention. And I regret being misled or misleading others. Moscow in fact isn't planning to cut these letters out. But the reaction ascribed to the Circassians tells something important about the sensitivity of the language issue in all its complexity. 

            Staunton, February 19 – Olga Vasilyeva, the Russian minister of science and education, five days ago announced that as part of a new orthographic reform, seven letters now part of the Russian alphabet will be dropped as of 2020, a change that not only Russian traditionalists but Circassian linguists oppose.

            Vasilyeva says that next year Russians will cease to use the letters ы and ъ in place of which will be used the letter ь. In place of ё will be used е, and in place of ц, х, ч, ш, and щ will be introduced a single new letter still being discussed and to be announced later (

            This will represent the greatest change in the Russian alphabet since 1917 and is certain to become the subject of controversy. The first to weigh in against it, however, are not Russian traditionalists who can be expected to complain but rather Circassian linguists who say the elimination of Щ will make it impossible to express the sound values of their language.

            Linguists from the Adgyey Republic Academy of Sciences have sent a letter to the ministry of enlightenment asking that that letter be preserved. “We cannot replace the letter Щ,” they say, because it is needed to express certain sound patterns in Circassian. Without it, the language would be distorted and impoverished (

            This problem arises, of course, because the Putin regime has insisted that all languages used by indigenous peoples within the current borders of the Russian Federation use alphabets based on Cyrillic than on Latin or Arabic script or their own traditional writing systems.  Were that not so, changes in Russian orthography wouldn’t matter for the non-Russians. 

            At least some Russian officials appear to be listening although for what reasons remain unclear. Veronika Yashurova, deputy to Vasiliyeva, said in response that “the ministry will never go against the interests of the people. This reform is being carried out for the people. Fewer signs means less bureaucracy, fewer grammatical errors and higher scores on school tests.”

            “We will preserve the letter Щ for Adgyeya and for all Russia, but work over this reform will continue, Yashurova declared. 

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