New-Alphabet Disease?

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

Stoyan Nenov / Reuters

Think for a minute about the agonies that Americans anticipated when the country was faced with the prospect of conversion to the metric system, in the 1970s. Miles to kilometers. Fahrenheit to centigrade. Acres to  ... what? Hectares? The nation shuddered, and went on pumping gas in gallons. Now imagine the reaction if, say, a newly elected Congress were to decide that our brand of English had to be written in an entirely different alphabet. Members of the House and the Senate might argue that the Latin alphabet we inherited from the Romans (usurpers, imperialists) had to be dropped. The ancient Greek alphabet (less ideologically tainted, closer to our Platonic and Aristotelian roots) would be proposed as an alternative. Debate leading up to the decision would split neatly down party lines, with one side dourly pointing out the enormous cost of making such a change and the other passionately championing it in the name of social liberation. Washington lobbyists and concerned diplomats would throw themselves aggressively behind one alphabet or the other. In the end the President would sign into law a bill decreeing that English was henceforward to be written only in ancient Greek letters. The Constitution would be reprinted and distributed to libraries and schools nationwide; its opening words, which would still sound as they always have, might now be written "Constitution in Greek Letters" >The New York Times, delivered to newsstands all over the country, might become "The New York Times in Greek Letters." A new generation of schoolchildren might meet Abraham Lincoln as "Abraham Lincoln in Greek Letters."

Improbable? Maybe in the United States. But just such an attempt to change alphabets is now taking place in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. As it lurched away from Russia and communism, the country's new government decreed in 1991 that Azerbaijani, which during most of Soviet rule had been written in the Cyrillic letters also used to write Russian, was now to be written exclusively in Latin letters. Though in most parts of the world this changing of alphabets might seem a bizarre form of cultural torture, for Azerbaijanis it is nothing new: they have changed alphabets twice before in this century— from Arabic to Latin (in the 1920s) and from Latin to Cyrillic (in the 1930s).

One hears a lot about the economic trauma of moving from a communist system to a free market, but some of the other psychological and social traumas of post-Soviet nation-building have received little attention in the West. The alphabet reform currently under way in Azerbaijan is the most difficult and ambitious ever undertaken. The significance of such an attempt is easy to ignore in the Americas, where the Latin alphabet reigns supreme from Point Barrow to Tierra del Fuego. But Azerbaijan is one of the world's great linguistic and orthographic battlegrounds; to a degree unimaginable in the West, alphabets there are politics, religion, and culture. Complex historical and linguistic forces are at play, an understanding of which will become increasingly important to outsiders as prosperity, from oil profits and the free market, comes to the region.

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Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, hugs a crescent-shaped stretch of shoreline on the western edge of the Caspian Sea. Home to approximately two million people, the city rises up from the water and onto the adjacent hillside. Rusting hulks of oil tankers loom in the harbor, the best natural port on the Caspian. Hundreds of oil derricks sit idle in pools of black sludge along the city's southwestern shore, reminders of the country's unrealized economic potential. Strong winds often sluice powerfully up the city's streets— past the walled old city, built at the end of the sixteenth century, past the stately turn-of-the-century opera house and theater, and past monumental Stalinist office buildings. Clusters of communist-style apartment blocs cling to the semi-arid hillside, and shiny white satellite dishes, newly available, sprout from their balconies, like mushrooms growing rampant out of dying trees.

A walk through the streets of Baku today reveals an incongruous blend of old and new, East and West, socialist and capitalist, secular and religious. Peddlers arrange American cigarettes, soft drinks, and candy for sale in neat little piles on almost every street corner. Next to the pyramids of Marlboro cartons and Snickers bars are bottles (and cans, even) of Russian vodka, bottled water and kitchenware from Iran, tinned goods from Turkey, cheap calculators from Asia. Here the country's famous black caviar, fresh from the Caspian Sea and laughably inexpensive by Western standards, is less sought after than a more exotic delicacy: Hershey's Kisses. Western oil companies are setting up shop— bringing in computers, Land Rovers, portable telephones — while in the same neighborhoods mosques are being built or restored with funds from Turkish and Iranian Muslims. Billboards, awash in vivid reds and blues, arrest the eye at every turn with pictures of beautiful young American couples, vistas of the American West, views of the Manhattan skyline; they beckon consumers into the worlds of Lucky Strike, Marlboro, and Coca-Cola.

But nothing sums up Azerbaijan's current identity crisis better than the dizzying display of alphabets one finds in Baku and everywhere else in the country. Some of this display is a natural result of geography: Azerbaijan is a small Turkic nation of eight million people nestled among three much larger and more powerful countries (Russia, Iran, and Turkey), each of which writes its language in a different alphabet (Cyrillic, Arabic, and Latin). Azerbaijan has a long history of occupation by and involvement with all three countries; as a result, in shops, on vehicles, on television, and at newsstands one finds Russian, Persian, and Turkish, each written in its respective alphabet. It's a confusing hodgepodge.

What's most disorienting, though, is that the Azerbaijani language itself— a Turkic tongue very similar to that spoken in Turkey and related to those spoken in many parts of Central Asia— is found written in different alphabets. Newspapers have headlines in Latin letters, but almost all articles are printed in Cyrillic. (Again, it's all the same language; only the lettering is different.) Next to street names carved in Arabic script on the stone walls and houses of Baku's old city are those same names, on faded Soviet-era signs, written in Cyrillic. Bright new street signs in Latin letters are popping up everywhere, some put up by the government and some by individuals. The writing on paper money is all in the new Latin alphabet; vehicle license plates appear to be issued in Cyrillic or Latin letters at random; buses advertise their destinations sometimes in Cyrillic, sometimes in Latin, sometimes in both alphabets. The names on the doors of government ministries and universities are often printed in Latin characters, but the paperwork shuffled inside is for the most part still written in Cyrillic letters. Change is happening— and it isn't. Nobody seems to be in charge, or to know what's going on. Is the country Spelling 1, spelling 1, or Spelling 3?

"This question of alphabets," says Richard D. Kauzlarich, the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, "is one aspect of the larger question Who are we?"

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The territory now known as Azerbaijan has long been subject to the imperial intentions of regional powers. Cyrus the Great, of Persia, invaded the area in the sixth century B.C. Alexander the Great came two centuries later, and Roman legions three centuries after that. The Arabs brought Islam— and the Arabic alphabet— to the region in the seventh century A.D., and in subsequent centuries the Persians and the Ottomans vied for influence there. By the nineteenth century the area was a pawn in the Great Game for territory and power played out by the Russian and Persian empires. It was in the nineteenth century that Russia and other Western countries realized that Azerbaijan had bountiful petroleum reserves, and by the turn of the twentieth century Baku had become the world's largest producer and exporter of oil. Forced to the surface by abundant natural gas, oil was so plentiful (it is estimated that Azerbaijan's reserves rival Kuwait's) that it was easily extracted from shallow pits with buckets and pulleys. Profits made Baku a boomtown; the city soon reveled in music, theater, literature, and a grand architectural style imported from Europe.

Azerbaijani scholars argue that the political entity now known as Azerbaijan has a distinct history that goes back perhaps as far as the sixth century B.C. Only under Soviet rule, however, did the name Azerbaijan attain widespread and official use— primarily as a pre-emptive Soviet move to discourage an emerging "pan-Turkic" movement among the peoples who inhabited the region stretching from present-day Europe and Turkey through Central Asia and into present-day China. Now that the Soviets are gone, Turkey and Iran— and Marlboro and Coca-Cola— are eagerly positioning themselves to fill the vacuum.

Azerbaijanis themselves would like to fill that vacuum, but the relentless march of occupiers through the region has left them little sense of themselves with which to be assertive. "We don't know anything about our country now— its history, its traditions, its language," says Shaig Safarov, a political activist turned oil-company employee. "For us it's just wonderland. We have to imagine everything."

In the 1920s the Soviet leadership in Moscow, taking sides in an existing debate within the Turkic republics of the USSR, had decreed that Azerbaijani, which had been written for centuries in Arabic script, would thenceforth be written exclusively in the Latin alphabet. The problems with the old Arabic script were clear; one of the most important was that the Turkic languages use eight vowels but the Arabic alphabet accommodates only three. Reading and writing were therefore tasks that required a formidable memory and tolerance for ambiguity. The Azerbaijani reforms provided a model for neighboring Turkey's famous transformation to its own variant of the Latin alphabet in 1928, but in 1939 Stalin decreed that all Turkic languages were to be written exclusively in the Cyrillic alphabet— a draconian measure designed to promote unity among Soviet republics and to isolate the Soviet Turkic republics from the recently latinized Turkey.

Not surprisingly, when the former Soviet republics gained independence, several of them decided to shed the Cyrillic alphabet. How better to break with more than seventy years of communist rule, the argument went, than by a drastic, immediately visible, and richly symbolic change? Why not free their languages from the shackles of the oppressive Cyrillic alphabet? Local journalists, picking up on the infectious nature of the movement, referred to the general euphoria as a symptom of "new-alphabet disease." Nowhere was the "disease" more virulent than in Azerbaijan, whose geographic position made for contentious debate inside and outside the country. National politicians and international diplomats lobbied aggressively for different alphabets.

"In these discussions," Shaig Safarov says, "the whole nation was involved. Whether we needed Cyrillic or Latin or Arabic: that was the favorite discussion. Accusations were everywhere about Turkish and Russian and Persian sympathies."

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.

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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.