Escape from Cyrillic. Latin alphabet grows away from Putin

Belarus, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan... What the post-Soviet countries are doing about changing the alphabet. Paradoxically, Ukraine – after Russian aggression – no longer needs this.

Russia – whether Tsarist, Soviet or contemporary – based its unity, among other things, on the spread of the Russian language. And if it allowed other languages, it preferred them to be written in Cyrillic. Today, for the countries of Central Asia, moving away from the Cyrillic alphabet is a way of breaking away from Russian domination. Some oppositionists in Belarus also think the same way.

Of the Slavic nations using the Cyrillic, it is the Belarusians who have made the most – and most successful – attempts to introduce the Latin alphabet. Belarusian Latin has existed for a long time. It is largely based on the alphabet created by Jan Hus, a writing system adapted to Slavonic languages, especially Czech; it also introduces the letter ‘ŭ’, which is also used in Esperanto and the transcription of several other languages. In short, in Belarusian it usually replaces the letter ‘w’ used in Russian. This is particularly evident in the case of surnames – Kovalov in Russian, Kovaloŭ in Belarusian; Ivanov in Russian, Ivanoŭ in Belarusian.

In 1853, a decree was issued in the Russian Empire forbidding the publication of texts in the “Latin-Polish” alphabet, i.e. in Latsinka. But not much later, in 1862-63, a team led by Konstanty Kalinowski, the organiser of the January Uprising in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, published the periodical “Mużyckaja prauda” (“Peasant Truth”). It was branded by “Jaśko haspadar z pad Wilni” (“Jaśko the farmer from under Vilnius”). At the beginning of the 20th century, the two Belarusian periodicals “Nasha Dola” and “Nasha Niva” were published in two versions – in Cyrillic and Latin.

But then Latsinka disappeared. In the Second Polish Republic, Belarusians feared that the “Latinised” Belarusian language would become polonised, and the USSR authorities feared the divergence of Belarusian from Russian. Moreover, Belarusian was then subjected to changes leading to a kind of Russification. In 1933, a language reform was introduced, creating a language popularly known as “narkamouka”, from the word “Saŭnarkom”, an abbreviation for the Council of People’s Commissars, i.e. the government of the Belarusian SSR (People’s Commissar was the Bolshevik name for a minister).

Over the following years, Belarus was systematically russified. Achieving independence did not change the situation much. When Alexander Lukashenko, who knows Belarusian but speaks Russian on a daily basis, came to power, the Russification process was restarted. Only 53 per cent of the country’s citizens considered Belarusian to be their mother tongue in 2009, and only 23 per cent spoke it at home.

Belarusian was spoken mainly in the countryside and was also used by the anti-Lukashenko opposition. In recent years, many people have demonstratively switched away from Russian to show their opposition to dictatorial rule. And recently, the independent Nasha Niva portal created a version of its pages in the Latin alphabet. It should be added that the weekly “Nasha Niva” was closed down by the authorities in Minsk several years ago and its editors were repressed. The online content published by the portal is considered to be “extremist”…

Let us take a look at an exemplary (and dramatic in content) article on the portal, dedicated to the sentence received in a Belarusian court by human rights defender and Nobel laureate Ales Bialiatski. Titled: “10 hadoŭ. Vyniesieny prysud nobieleŭskamu łaŭreatu Alesiu Bialackamu” – means simply “10 years. Punishment for Nobel laureate Ales Bialiatski has been pronounced”.

And the very beginning of the text: “Suddzia Maryna Zapaśnik vyniesła siońnia žorstkija prysudy pravaabaroncam «Viasny» za ich pravaabarončuju dziejnaść”, i.e. “Judge Maryna Zapaśnik ruled today a harsh punishment for human rights defenders from «Viasna» for their activities in defence of human rights”. Of course, our languages differ, but it is quite easy for a Pole to understand Belarusian Latin.

As explained on the pages of “Nasha Niva”, the Latsinka used in the article resembles “its classical variant as used in the 20th century”. The texts are translated into Latin using a computer algorithm. Of course, “Nasha Niva” is not enough to talk about any kind of breakthrough. If we want to Latinise the language, it would be necessary to popularise it in Belarus first…

Kazakh Latin alphabet

However, work on the latinisation of the Kazakh language is advanced. The Kazakh literary language was not established until the 18th century, and the heyday of Kazakh literature was the 20th century.

This was brought to an end by the Stalinist terror – the most important creators of Kazakh culture were then accused of nationalism and of attempting to separate Kazakhstan from the USSR. Kazakhstan was treated as an area for intensive colonisation and, at the same time, as a place of exile – before the Second World War, it was here that thousands of Poles from Ukraine and Germans from the Volga region were sent, and a gigantic gulag system was created.

The revival of the Kazakh language started only with Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991. Kazakh replaced Russian as the main language of instruction, and Kazakh-language films and television programmes related to the country’s local culture and traditions were widely promoted.
“Muzhitskaya prauda” by Konstantin Kalinovsky (Kastuś Kalinoŭski). Photo Wikimedia
Kazakh belongs to the Turkic group of languages (Kipchak-Nogai subgroup). These languages are spoken by many millions of people, from North Macedonia and the Crimea, through Turkey and Azerbaijan, to Russian Siberia and western China. Kazakh is quite distant from Turkish; as a result, a Kazakh may have more problems communicating with a Turk than, for example, a Pole with a Serb.

  Kazakh is based on the dialect of Alma-Ata, the former capital of Kazakhstan. Originally written in Arabic, the Latin alphabet was introduced in 1929, but a switch to Cyrillic was ordered as early as 1940. In independent Kazakhstan, a switch to Latin was considered several times. In 2006, this was discussed by president Nursultan Nazarbayev; at the time, it was estimated that the cost would be $300 million and the process would take up to 12 years.

In 2007, Nazarbayev abandoned the idea and returned to it ten years later. Presidential Decree No. 569 of 26 October 2017 mandated the replacement of the Cyrillic alphabet with the Latin alphabet by 2025. The details were not disclosed until the end of January 2021, when the Kazakh government announced that the entire operation would take place between 2023 and 2031.

Kazakhstan has a large Russian community – around 25 per cent of the country’s 18.75 million population – and Russian is spoken by more than 90 per cent of its citizens. There are estimates that only 66 per cent of the population speaks fluent Kazakh. But “kazakhisation” has been going on for years. There is a rule that offices, institutions and even companies should be headed by a Kazakh, while representatives of other nationalities, including Russians, can only be deputies.

The authorities are pushing for increasingly widespread use of Kazakh, setting deadlines by which every citizen should already be able to speak it. They want Russian to be recognised as a foreign language – just like English. And teach three languages in schools: Kazakh, English and Russian.

“In Kazakh schools, in the primary grades, it is necessary to teach exclusively in the Kazakh language. And only then can English be introduced. But Russian is not necessary. It should be completely removed from the curriculum. I am an Orałman [compatriot – Kazakh] from China. I returned to my historical homeland 24 years ago. I don’t know a single word of Russian and I haven’t tried to learn it. And I don’t suffer because of it” – wrote well-known poet and social activist Auyt Mukibek to the Minister of Education last year.

Russian media were outraged that Kazakhs wanted to persecute Russians. The authorities have denied that they want to restrict the use of Russian, but the political situation in the world favours the Kazakhs. Russia, involved in the war with Ukraine, is weakening, and Kazakhstan has a very strong ally backing it up – China. Hence the acceleration in the transition to Latin.

Initiated by Azerbaijan

The transition to the Latin alphabet was started by Azerbaijan. In this country the situation was somewhat similar to Kazakhstan: Arabic was used first, Latin was introduced in 1922, replaced by Cyrillic in 1938. But in 1992 the transition to the Latin alphabet began again and lasted until 2003. Azerbaijani is very similar to Turkish, although it has its own additional letters in the alphabet.
In Uzbekistan, the transition from the Cyrillic alphabet was very slow; it is worth noting that, unlike in other Turkish languages, the Latin alphabet in Uzbekistan uses English transcriptions for the digraphs ‘sz’ and ‘cz’ – ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ respectively. Theoretically, the Cyrillic alphabet is due to disappear this year, but this is unlikely to happen. The “Turkification” of the alphabet may also take place, with ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ being replaced by ‘ş’ and ‘ç’ respectively.

In Kyrgyzstan, it began and ended with making plans. Latin was used from 1928 to 1940. After 1991, there were ideas of returning to it, but no final decision was taken. The situation is completely different in Tajikistan, as Tajik is a variant of Farsi or Persian.

However, there are no plans to abandon the use of the Cyrillic alphabet in Ukraine. Yes, the Crimean Tatars are switching to Latin (their language is also part of the Turkic group), but the Ukrainian language is sticking with the existing alphabet. Admittedly, a few intellectuals, such as Yaroslav Hrytsak, are calling for change, but the majority is against it.

An official petition to president Volodymyr Zelensky in December 2022 reads: “Ukraine’s success is impossible without switching to the Latin alphabet. Cyrillic is the ‘Russian world’. Latin is the international standard. Ukraine must follow the example of Kazakhstan and the other republics of the former USSR and also switch from Cyrillic to Latin.” At the time of this article’s publication, about 150 people had signed the petition, and 25,000 signatures are required...

The motivations seem clear. Ukrainians no longer need to prove that they are different from the Russians, because the Russians have proved to be their fierce enemies. And the fact of using the Cyrillic alphabet will not result in Russification or in Ukraine moving away from Europe and closer to Russia. Ukrainian culture is strong enough to cope with Russian culture. In Belarus, on the other hand, there has been a relentless onslaught of Russia and the Russian language for years. The same was true in central Asia.

Indeed, the alphabet is a political issue. For its choice signifies the direction in which the state wants to go. Outside Ukraine, the choice to adopt Latin is synonymous with a political orientation opposed to Russia. For Turkic-speaking countries, it may not necessarily be a turn towards the West, but for Belarus it certainly will be. The Russian-Ukrainian war may prove to be a catalyst for change that will be detrimental primarily to Russia.

– Piotr Kościński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

– Translated by jz
Photo: Wikimedia
In the 19th century, Russia made attempts to "cyrillize" the Polish language.
Main photo: Will Kazakhs switch to the Latin alphabet? Pictured is a publication in an Almaty newspaper in 2017. Photo by SHAMIL ZHUMATOV / Reuters / Forum
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