Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 16

Language and sovereignty: The politics of switching to the Latin alphabet in Tatarstan

By Gulnara Khasanova

It was a spectacle more impressive, more vivid, and bigger than any Tatarstan’s capital had seen before. That’s how the newspapers described the festivities that took place in Kazan on August 26-30, 1997, on the occasion of the Second World Congress of Tatars and the seventh anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Republic of Tatarstan. Even residents of Kazan had difficulty recognizing their rapidly-changing city.

The changes that took place in Kazan before the Second Congress of Tatars were symbolic of the profound changes in the spiritual and cultural life of the Tatar people that the Congress itself is expected to bring. Tatars are Russia’s second largest ethnic group, second only to the Russians themselves. The Congress reached a decision on an issue that has been hotly debated in recent years — the transition from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin alphabet for the Tatar language.

In an appeal to Tatarstan’s president Mintimer Shaimiev, Congress delegates said that: "We, the participants of the Second World Congress of Tatars, believe that the transition to the Latin alphabet for the Tatar language is a measure whose time has come…. This would permit all Tatars to have one written language, which is of primary importance in uniting the people. We ask you, Mr. President, to make a quick decision on this pressing issue."

The issue of the transition to the Latin alphabet has clear political overtones. It has become, in a sense, a touchstone of loyalty to Tatarstan, an indicator of pro-Tatarstan or pro-Russian positions. That is why it elicits such a strong reaction from supporters and opponents alike. Its supporters view alphabet reform as an important way to reinforce Tatarstan’s sovereignty. Its opponents see it as "a step away from Russia."

The proposal appears to hold no terrors for Shaimiev. In his speech to the Congress, Tatarstan’s president said that "We should begin the gradual… transformation to the Latin alphabet." Shaimiev recalled how, in 1939, "without any discussion, and without consulting the Tatar intelligentsia, the Tatars were forced to adopt the Cyrillic alphabet which, in large part, does not conform to the rules and spirit of Tatar speech." Shaimiev cited the example of other Turkic peoples who are returning to the Latin alphabet. Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have already adopted the necessary legislation and have either already made, or are making, the transition to the new alphabet. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are preparing to make the change. In Turkey, the Latin alphabet has been used for the last seventy years. "Tatars are part of the Turkic world, and it would be wrong to remain outside this general trend," Shaimiev said. He reported that the first Tatar Encyclopedia, being prepared by Tatarstan’s Academy of Sciences, will be published in the Latin alphabet.

Bulgaro-Tatar writing has existed since 5 A.D. but has undergone three changes of alphabet. The original runic writing was replaced in the 9th century by Arabic script, which remained in use until the twentieth century. In 1927, the Arabic script was replaced by the Latin "Yanalif" (an abbreviation for the Tatar words for "new alphabet"). In 1939, yet another switch was made — this time to Cyrillic. The Tatar emigration (Tatars who live outside the territory of the former Soviet Union) use "Yanalif" — the Latin version of the Tatar alphabet — to this day.

The forced imposition of the Cyrillic alphabet on non-Russian peoples is seen by many members of the Tatar intelligentsia as one of the major levers in their russification. They identify the adoption of the Latin alphabet with the preservation not only of the Tatar language, but of the Tatar people itself. "A sovereign state needs a sovereign alphabet," they argue. They see the Cyrillic alphabet as foreign to the Tatar people, unlike Arabic script, which the ancestors of today’s Tatars adopted voluntarily over a millennium ago. However, there is no talk now of changing to the Arabic script, and the cultural legacy of writings in Arabic script has already been lost to the whole nation. At the same time, today’s Tatars have a positive view of the Latin alphabet, which they see as an alphabet that is used throughout the world and which has been adopted voluntarily by many peoples as their national alphabet.

Negative attitudes toward the existing alphabet are, with rare exceptions, characteristic of the Tatar creative intelligentsia and, above all, of literary circles. It is a position of principle, since these writers are not concerned that their own literary works, written in the Cyrillic alphabet, could be lost to posterity if the Latin alphabet is adopted. They have always considered the main defect of the Cyrillic alphabet to be that it does not correspond to the rules and peculiarities of the Tatar language and distorts its pronunciation, creating conditions under which Tatars start mispronouncing their own language and native speakers of Russian have trouble learning to speak Tatar properly. There are three sounds in the Tatar language which have no corresponding letters in the Cyrillic alphabet and consequently cannot be written.

In recent years, specialists in computer technology, especially those involved in "computerizing" the Tatar language and the "Tatarization" of computer programs, have come out in favor of the Latin alphabet. This is an added argument against continued use of the Cyrillic alphabet, with its relative isolation from the world computer information system. The transition to a Latin alphabet would make it possible for the Tatar language to enter that system and to become an international language, and Tatar-speakers would be able to use the Internet without having to change fonts. Research by Tatar scholars has shown that the Tatar language, thanks to its grammatical and morphological structure, has a promising future for use in information systems.

Universities in Kazan are training specialists in the area of computer studies. There are few such specialists in either Turkey or Central Asia. Adoption of the Latin alphabet will therefore give Tatar specialists a chance to exploit this advantage and become leaders among the Turkic peoples in the area of information technology.

What arguments are put forward by those who are opposed to changing the Tatar alphabet?

1. The change would cost too much money, at a time when society is undergoing economic difficulties.

To this, the supporters of the Latin alphabet ask: does it makes sense to save money by keeping the existing alphabet when the survival of the Tatar people is at stake?

2. Changing the Tatar alphabet for the third time in seventy years would be disastrous for Tatar culture and put the very existence of the Tatar language in question. The next generation would lose the cultural legacy of the last sixty years.

This argument is often advanced by people who hold Communist views. They believe the real reason behind the proposed change is to wipe out the "glorious" Soviet period of our history. But those who favor the change counter that the legacy of those sixty years will not at all be lost with the adoption of the Latin alphabet. Russian remains one of Tatarstan’s state languages, along with Tatar. The whole population will therefore continue to be familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet and will have no problem reading Tatar literature written in the Cyrillic alphabet. The preservation of the language, argue those who support a change of alphabet, has become a political issue, posed in terms of language. It is the Cyrillic alphabet, they say, that is an expression of an assimilationist policy which has brought the Tatar language to the brink of extinction.

3. The change to the Latin alphabet would lead to isolation from Russia and Russian culture.

Reactions to this argument differ, depending on the political views of the speaker. Some supporters of the transition to the Latin alphabet assert that Russian will retain its status as a state language and that, as a result, no barriers will be erected between the people of Tatarstan and Russian culture. But others, convinced supporters of Tatarstan’s sovereignty and independence, see separation from Russia as one of the goals of the transition to the Latin alphabet.

4. Tatarstan’s leaders do not have the right to make a decision that affects the entire Tatar people, more than 60 percent of whom live outside the boundaries of Tatarstan. Opponents of the switch to the Latin alphabet argue, too, that it is only a small group of linguists who support changing the alphabet, and that their opinion is not shared by the people as a whole.

These arguments were answered by the unanimous decision of the Second World Congress of Tatars on the alphabet issue. Whereas the participants in the First Congress, held in 1992, were invited by the republic’s leadership, delegates to the Second Congress were elected by Tatar communities in twenty countries and sixty Russian regions. The approval of the Congress will confer legitimacy on the actions of the republic’s politicians and the transition to the Latin alphabet.

5. Switching to the Latin alphabet will create serious difficulties for those who are being educated in the Tatar language, and put them at a disadvantage with respect to Russian-speaking students.

Supporters of the switch to the Latin alphabet dismiss this argument, too. They say school students are well-acquainted with the Latin alphabet, since they all study at least one foreign language that uses it. Opponents retort that it is one thing to know the letters and be able to tell them apart, and quite another to develop the habit of reading quickly, seeing words, sentences, and texts as a whole. Supporters, in response, bring up the experience of 1939, when the transition to the Cyrillic alphabet was made "overnight." Students at the time were simply ordered to study the Cyrillic alphabet at home. And they recall that the change to the new alphabet was not that hard, since they were also studying Russian. Most people mastered the new alphabet in four to six weeks. This time, supporters maintain, the transition will not be so sudden; it will be a gradual, step-by-step change.

6. Adopting the Latin alphabet will create additional obstacles for graduates of Tatar educational institutions who are studying science and writing dissertations.

It is true that the republic’s scientific infrastructure functions in Russian, and this is especially true where the natural sciences are concerned. Most scientific information is in Russian, and the libraries of Moscow and St. Petersburg are the main depositories from which scientific sources are obtained. But supporters to the switch to the Latin alphabet point out that, while Russian is and will remain equal in official status to Tatar, in reality, the use of Russian far outweighs the use of Tatar. A change in the Tatar alphabet will not, in other words, have an effect on the knowledge or use of the Russian language of students in Tatar educational institutions, nor will it have any effect on their future scientific activity.

As a result of the Second Congress, the fate of the Tatar alphabet has been decided. The next question on the agenda is which version of the Latin alphabet should be adopted. This too is the subject of heated debate. There are many supporters among the older generation of "our own Yanalif," which was used in the 1930s. Others advocate the adoption of the common Turkish version of the alphabet, which was approved by representatives of the Turkic peoples at a conference in Turkey in 1992. Specialists in information technology are calling for the elaboration of a unified alphabet, formed exclusively from traditional Latin letters, without "dots," "tails" or special letters not found on the standard computer keyboard and which, if used, would create problems in the process of sending messages through computer networks. Following the Congress, a special commission was set up to study this question. It is expected to report its findings at the end of this year.

Translated by Mark Eckert

Gulnara Khasanova is assistant professor of sociology in the Education Department at Kazan Chemical-Technological University.


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