Legacy of Alphabet Latinization in Central Asia

According to the article New Alphabets, Old Rules: Latinization, Legacy, and Liberation in Central Asia, written in 2021 by Huw du Boulay and Sofya du Boulay of Oxford University, Latinization of the alphabet has been the most successful in Turkmenistan compared to other Central Asian countries. In this article, they examine the historical significance behind Latinization and how authoritarianism in the country has impacted the process.

Purpose of Latinization in Central Asia

Latinization of the alphabet in Central Asian countries has been used by authoritarian leaders to legitimize their regimes by tying Latinization efforts to their personal legacy. Successes and failures of the autocratic presidential regimes in Central Asia are portrayed as revolving around the level of success with Latinization, with an aim to appeal to the nationalism of the people.

Latinization is also used to form a post-colonial identity. Transitioning the alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin symbolizes liberation from the Soviet legacy and Russian influence, establishing a stronger sense of national identity. However, the transition of distancing from Russian influence has not been as smooth as planned, and it has been a challenge for Central Asian countries to fully reclaim previously suppressed culture, language, and traditional values. 

The third purpose of Latinization is for Central Asian countries to demonstrate modernity. The idea is to modernize and become more attractive on the global market. Despite the primary audience being domestic, alphabet reforms in Central Asia serve to encourage international legitimation processes.

Historical Context

The current wave of Latinization is actually the second wave in Central Asian countries. It changed from Arabic scripts to the Latin alphabet in the late 1920s; in turn, the Latin alphabet was replaced with the Cyrillic in the 1930s. 

The most important moment of the “first wave” of Latinization came a little under 10 years after the replacement of the Russian Empire by the Soviet Union. The “turning point” in the history of Soviet Latinization came in 1926, when an all-union Turcology conference was held in Baku. Representatives of Turkic language speakers from all across the USSR came together to discuss whether the previously used Arabic scripts for their languages should be replaced with the Latin alphabet. Tatar and Kazakh delegations voted for an adaptation of the Arabic script, but they lost, because most of the delegates believed that a change from Arabic to Latin characters would be more favorable for entry into the modern world. 

However, the Latin alphabet was only adopted until 1938, after which all the Turkic Soviet states were obliged to use the Cyrillic alphabet. This was due to a change in Soviet language policy from the creation of national alphabets to an emphasis on the supremacy of Russian and Russification as the main force of the state. Indeed, in 1938 studying Russian was made compulsory and local languages only voluntary. This imposition was not welcome by local intelligentsia which they saw as a form of oppression, although they were fearful of saying so. These rules were enforced until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Under Soviet rule, the goal was to enhance cultural unity and mutual understanding among Turkic peoples, making sure that the alphabet was uniform. This is a large contrast to the Post-Soviet mentality where each country wants to reclaim its unique identity. 

The Case of Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan was the pioneer post-Soviet state in Central Asia in adopting the Latin script in 1993, then revising those changes two years later. President Saparmurat Niyazov signed a decree that approved the state program implementing the Latinization of the Turkmen language based on a specially designed national script, reflecting the spirit of independence and cultural revival.

The Ministry of Education was responsible for the production of Latin-based textbooks and a new academic curriculum. The Supreme Council for Science and Technology and the National Council of Culture, both institutions supervised by the Presidential Administration, were to approve these manuscripts before mass publication. In early 1995, the first book was released in Latinized Turkmen, dedicated to President Niyazov. 

However, the majority of the population, especially the older generation, had a hard time because they were not properly introduced to the new writing system. As of 2017, between 30%-40% of the population did not know the latin script. 

Simultaneously with the Latinization of the Turkmen alphabet, the government initiated the “National Revival Movement,” which was supposed to move the country away from Soviet-era practices.

The aggressive politics of “Turkmenization” and nationalization influenced outward migration and the political and social climate. According to the 1979 census, Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians) made up 17 percent of the population in Turkmenistan, but by the end of 1999, as Turkmenbashi himself stated in a speech, Slavic representation had fallen to 3 percent. 

Another outcome of Latinization in Turkmenistan became growing illiteracy and confusion with respect to the writing system. Secondary school students who started studying in the Latin alphabet in early 2000 were obliged to learn the Cyrillic script in order to access old academic materials. Other factors affecting the level of literacy of the population included the abolition of the Academy of Sciences and the strong ideological indoctrination based on personality cults of the former and current presidents.

Overall, Turkmen Latinization is usually seen as the biggest success by its Central Asian neighbors. However, the radical character of the reform and the strongly nationalist character of liberation negatively affected different spheres, resulting in a lower literacy level, mass migration, and the strengthening of the personality cult in post-Soviet Turkmenistan.

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