Foreign Affairs July 1997

New-Alphabet Disease?

It's tough suddenly changing from one alphabet to another. Azerbaijan is on its third one this century

Leaflets printed in Iran appeared, urging Muslims to return to their religious and cultural roots by reviving the Arabic alphabet, which, it was noted, is the alphabet of the Koran. Several prominent Azerbaijani literary figures argued that a return to Arabic letters would give access to the hundreds of years' worth of Azerbaijani literature and scholarship from before the 1920s. Iranian clerics traveled around the country preaching about the dangerously secular interests of those— American and Israeli agents, some suggested— who were promoting the Latin alphabet.

At the same time, Turkish diplomats and entrepreneurs began to waft amiably into the country, sporting Western clothes and an almost irresistible aura of prosperity. They offered immediate donations of Latin-alphabet typewriters and textbooks and promised speedy integration with Turkey and the West— if only Azerbaijan would adopt the Turkish version of the Latin alphabet. "If we leave them alone," one Turkish diplomat warned at the time, "the Arabs and the Iranians will sway their minds." Pan-Turkists spoke rhapsodically of the economic and social benefits of a unified Latin alphabet and of a cultural bloc across Eurasia. Those with their eyes on free markets argued that use of the Latin alphabet would open up trade with the West. (Zealous reformers in Turkmenistan, possibly getting carried away by the Latin alphabet's financial promise, proposed that $ and ¢ be the upper- and lower-case letters for the "sh" sound.)

Russians, local Communists, and even cautious reformers in Azerbaijan argued that a hasty rejection of Cyrillic would only exacerbate an already painful transition. Why assume that a switch to the Latin alphabet was necessary to gain access to Western markets? The Japanese, the Koreans, the Israelis, and even the neighboring Armenians all seemed to be doing quite well without making that particular concession.

Nevertheless, on December 25, 1991, the Azerbaijani parliament passed a decree (written in Cyrillic letters) mandating a switch from the Cyrillic alphabet— which the decree referred to as a "historical injustice" introduced "despite the people's will" and as a "continuation of the mass repressions of the 1930s"— to a thirty-two-letter Latin alphabet. Firudin Jalilov, at the time a progressive member of the National Assembly and one of the leaders of the specially created Latin Alphabet Commission, explained the decision. "Our concern was to disconnect us from Russia and to connect us with the Latin alphabet used in the West."

Debate raged on, however. According to Shaig Safarov and others, the National Assembly spent days in January of 1992 arguing exclusively about the letter used to render the most common sound in the language (the a sound in hat)— which, according to the December decree, was to be ä. Should the letter remain ä, with its cumbersome dots, in line with what had been proposed in other Turkic republics? What about simply e, as Turkey had it? A practical solution would be the letter letter, used in the Azerbaijani variant of the Cyrillic alphabet to represent the sound. It would be immediately familiar to everybody and at the same time would distinguish the Azerbaijani Latin alphabet from others. But was it too heavily invested with Cyrillic, and thus imperial Russian, connotations? Safarov claims that behind the scenes progressives and Communists in the Azerbaijani parliament bartered political appointments for an acceptable form of the new letter. In the end a decree was issued changing ä to letter. "I was struggling for our little letter letter," Safarov says. "It differentiates us from all other languages."

After the switch of alphabets "Russian people living in Azerbaijan were so frustrated," says Solmaz Aliyeva, an Azerbaijani interpreter. That was, of course, part of the point. More potently than any other single reform, the new alphabet symbolized the birth of a new order and the death of the old— just as Turkey's change in 1928 clearly demonstrated to the world that the Turkish government was casting off Muslim and Ottoman history and lighting out for the secular West. Azerbaijan's decision to create a unique and independent Azerbaijani Latin alphabet not only signified a shifting of allegiances and a rejection of Russian and Iranian influence; it also marked a new consolidation of national identity.

IN some ways Turkey had an easier job with its alphabet reform than Azerbaijan has today. The literacy rate in Turkey in the 1920s was less than 10 percent; thus most of the population didn't have an old alphabet to unlearn. One of the positive aspects of the ambiguous legacy left by the Soviet Union to its former republics is almost universal literacy; the result is that changing alphabets now affects entire populations whose working lives depend on the ability to read. Following through on the alphabet decision is a hugely expensive and complicated proposition. Converting textbooks, newspapers, and magazines to the new alphabet requires new printing presses. People have to be trained to operate them. New government documents, money, stamps, and license plates— to mention just a few of the most obvious components of a society— have to be issued. Reference materials of all sorts— medical, legal, historical, literary— have to be converted. In a part of the world where shortages (particularly of cash) are unending, trying to finance such projects seems quixotic.

Beyond the financial and logistical difficulties are the psychological ones. "You have to change your brain," Solmaz Aliyeva says. Educators must be trained to read and write in the new alphabet; only then can they teach it to students. Textbooks printed in the new alphabet have to be made universally available. David Nissman, a U.S. expert on Azerbaijan, points out another aggravation: "It's given them terrible handwriting." Different generations now read and write in different alphabets, and a divide is opening up that can make letter writing or even simple household notes ("Please pick up yogurt and a can of vodka— Love, Dad") an ordeal. Children learning the new Latin alphabet sometimes bewilder their parents and teachers by writing Russian in Latin letters. Decades' worth of mostly scientific Russian loan words that have crept into Azerbaijani must now be rendered in the new Latin letters.

Azerbaijanis in all walks of life, when asked for an opinion, tend to rally behind the cause of the Latin alphabet, but when pressed to reveal the alphabet they currently use to read and write Azerbaijani, most people shrug and smile (revealing one of the country's secret economic resources: huge reserves of gold teeth) and admit that they use Cyrillic. Either too much of their lives has been spent reading in the Cyrillic alphabet, or their efforts to seek out texts in the Latin alphabet are unavailing. Naturally, children now learning the new alphabet in elementary schools are the most comfortable with the change. Some of the few Azerbaijanis who have computers have access to software programs that allow them to write in Cyrillic letters and then, with a single keystroke, convert the text into Latin letters.

In the absence of a magical keystroke that would allow people mentally to adapt to a new alphabet, progress is bound to be slow. The present government, led by Heydar Aliyev, a former chief of the Azerbaijani KGB and member of the Soviet Politburo, has turned its attention away from alphabets to more-pressing problems: the conflict with Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has brought about an influx of almost a million refugees into Azerbaijan; relations with Russia, whose looming presence still overshadows Turkey's; and drilling rights in the Caspian Sea. Many members of the zealously pro-Turkish and pro-Western Popular Front that passed the alphabet decree in 1991 have been removed from power. The new government remains at least officially committed to the new alphabet, but many now in positions of power prefer to write Azerbaijani in Cyrillic letters— and often prefer to speak Russian.

Ahmad Abdinov, a vice-minister of education, who is charged with implementing the new alphabet in Azerbaijani schools, was clearly ambivalent about his assignment when we met in his office. After blandly and dutifully reporting the number of textbooks he had managed to convert to the Latin alphabet (149), he sighed and leaned back from his desk, which was littered with Azerbaijani documents written in Cyrillic. Speaking (in Russian, not Azerbaijani) with a candor and sincerity remarkable for an official responsible for his government's reforms, he said, "The process has been rushed; it will be a big loss. Not only our own literature, but lots of important world literature— Dreiser, Maupassant, Jack London— has all been translated into Azerbaijani using Cyrillic, not Latin, letters. If we teach in the universities in the Latin alphabet, it won't be 'higher education.'" Abdinov is clearly daunted by the prospect of wholesale change as he contemplates the national predicament. "It's as though we have been in a dark room for a long time, and suddenly have come out into the light. We can't see."

Notwithstanding economic hardship and foot-dragging by the former Communists who are again in power, the change to the Latin alphabet seems inevitable— especially if alphabets do indeed follow trade, as one historical theory proposes. Turkish restaurants are opening, and supermarkets that stock expensive bottles of Evian and bars of Toblerone chocolate are springing up in Baku. British and Turkish airlines now fly into Baku regularly. CNN and Rupert Murdoch's Sky Channel, via satellite, beam in hourly news in English— along with episodes of Cops, Baywatch, and The Simpsons. Russian goods and services, although still omnipresent, are thought of as second-rate, and Iranian products are generally scoffed at. ("Iranian bags!" I heard one Azerbaijani vendor mutter when a bag of cherries he was selling burst open. "What do you expect?") Most important, oil money, lots of it, is expected to arrive soon, mainly from Western exploration and drilling.

Azerbaijan will not emerge from more than seven decades of Soviet rule— and centuries of occupation— simply by decreeing a change of alphabets. It's a nation with multiple identities and no identity, where contradictory forces still contend for influence in realms that in most of the West constitute the stable building blocks of society. But deciding that some of those blocks should be labeled A, B, C— rather than cyrrillic or cyrrillic— represents a start.

Toby Lester is a new-media editor at The Atlantic.
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