September 1993 (1.3)


by Abulfazl Bahadori

Conservatively speaking, the Azerbaijani or Azeri alphabet to date has been altered four times--to Arabic after the Islamic conquest; to Latin (1928-1938); to Cyrillic (1939-1991) and to Latin again (1991 to present). On each occasion, the motivation for change was political. However, if we consider the replacement of a single letter in any of the phonetic alphabets (Cyrillic or Latin), then the Azeri alphabet has been changed at least ten times (Tables 2,3,4). Nor does this take into account the pre-Islamic scripts used by the Turkic nations and other ancestors of modern Azerbaijanis such as Caucasian Albanians. If those are added, then the historical fgure would be raised to twelve or more, depending on how far back one digs in search of ancient scripts. (See Table 1 and Sample 1).

ISLAM-the First Political Reason for
Changing the Alphabet

For many centuries after the conquest of Islam, the only offcial written language in the conquered lands, including Azerbaijan, was Arabic as the Islamic caliphate had to create a linqua franca to unify their territory. When these nations began using their own languages for reading and writing, the Arabic alphabet was retained. The most valuable contribution that the Arabic alphabet made for the Turkic tribes and nations was to provide them with a more-or-less universal script (the Arabic letters generally do not express all the vowel sounds which is one of the most obvious differences between various dialects and closely-related Turkic languages). Hence, this common means of communication made the great poet and philosopher Fizuli as much Turkish (Ottoman) as he was Azerbaijani or the great thinker of Turkistan, Ali-Shir Navayi, as much understood in Tabriz as in Bukhara.

On the other hand, since the Middle ages, it is precisely because the Arabic script does not express the vowels that it was so strongly criticized.
1 However, it wasn't until the 20th century that the Arabic alphabet was totally replaced by another script.

The Monument of "Kultigin" devoted to the famous Turkic ruler, Prince Kultigin (685-731 AD) is one of the Orkhan-Yenisey scripts which were found near the Orkhon river in Mongolia. Orkhon-Yenisey alphabet was used by the Turkic nations before they accepted Islam.

The frst attempts to alter the Arabic script (1860-1870) were made by three individuals: Manif Pasha, a scholar in the Turkish court; Malkom Khan, an Iranian Armenian intellectual in the Russian Embassy in Tehran; and Akhunzadeh, the great Azerbaijani thinker, writer, and dramatist, who was the most active of all. All three were friends who wanted to westernize Muslim society. Akhundzadeh, an atheist, pushed for the reform to counter Islamic culture though none could ever have dared to suggest adoption of the Latin alphabet as it would have been blasphemous.2 Instead, they pushed to eliminate the dots, express each vowel and make the writing smoother and more continuous. Akhundzadeh believed that one of the main reasons for "backwardness" among the Muslim world laid in their style of education which was based on the Arabic alphabet. As their reformist proposals were considered political and anti-Islamic both by Istanbul and Tehran, they were rejected. 3

Soviet Rule Bans the Arabic Alphabet

After the death of Akhundzadeh in 1878, the issue of "modernizing the alphabet" was forgotten for a while, at least in offcial circles. After the Revolution of 1917 and the fall of the Tsarist Empire, Azerbaijanis established their own independent Republic which survived from 1918 until 1920 during which time the government continued publishing all its offcial correspondence in the Arabic alphabet and the issue of Latinization was offcially never raised.

In 1920, the Bolsheviks toppled the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan. It was the "Soviet of Azerbaijan People's Commis-sars," set up by the Communists which in late 1921 organized the "New Alphabet Committee." This was before any change had taken place in Turkey regarding alphabet reform. In 1926 the frst Turkology Conference was held in Baku which provided the linguistic and scientifc justifcation for the Latin script which was adopted fnally in 1929 ("Old Latin"-Table 2). For the Soviets, Latinizing the alphabet was a means of severing the Muslim population from their past and of preventing outside infuence. This process was not confned to Azerbaijan but was carried out throughout the entire Turkic Muslim population of Soviet Union.

In 1928, the Republic of Turkey replaced the traditional Arabic alphabet with Latin. Although their motivations were similar to the Soviets--centralization, westernization and disassociation with the Islamic past--the modifcations to the script were signifcant enough to make reading between the Latin scripts of the Soviet Republics and Turkey diffcult. Whether this was intentional is not clear.

Stalin Rules Out Latin

Although Lenin had called Latinization "the great revolution of the east," in 1939 the offcial Literaturnaya Gazetta disagreed and wrote "the Latin script does not provide all the necessary conditions for bringing the other people (nationalities) closer to the great Russian people's culture." Overnight, the Turkic populations of Soviet Union were forced to convert to a new alphabet--Cyrillic. This decision was so sudden that in Azerbaijan alone, certain characters were changed several times (Table 4).

Conversion to Cyrillic was carried out with two main goals: Russifcation and isolation between Turkic nations. The second goal was achieved by using different Cyrillic characters for the same sounds in various Turkic languages; for example, the symbol "o" was used in Uzbek for the same sound that appeared as an "a" in Azeri, etc. The variety was suffciently complex so that ordinary people of each nationality were not able to communicate in writing with each other.


An illustration of the evidence of alphabet changes in Azerbaijan even on grave markers - here in Arabic and Cyrillic. (Sufi Hamid Cemeteryone hour south of Baku). Photo: Farid Mamedov

With Glasnost came Alphabetical Perestroika 4

In 1985 with Gorbachev's nomination as the new leader of the Soviet Union, the new policy of Glasnost was announced. The frst signs of this new political openness in Azerbaijan became evident by the enormous number of articles in Azeri newspapers criticizing the colonialist nature of the Cyrillic alphabet and the need to revive the old alphabet (Arabic). This movement was led by the famous poet and writer, Bakhtiyar Vahabzade, who in his long dramatic poem, "Iki Qorkhu" (Two Fears) describes how Stalin frst used the Latin and then the Cyrillic alphabet to separate Azerbaijan from its thousand year old literature and southern brothers and sisters. Other pro-traditional alphabet articles followed.5 Ziya Buniadov, a famous Azerbaijani scholar, was the frst to call for a return to the Latin alphabet in July 1989.6 The issue soon divided Azerbaijani intellectuals into pro-Latinists and pro-Arabists. Heated discussions extended beyond geographical boundaries into Iran and Turkey and took on a political entity of their own. The days of Glasnost were over and the days of the "Great Game"7 made the alphabet yet again a victim of political competition and purges.

The "Great Game" and the Azeri Alphabet

The alphabet was the main ingredient in the boiling pot of Turkish-Iranian politics. While the Latin alphabet came to symbolize a propensity for the West, secularism, and pro-Turkism; the Arabic (Koranic) alphabet was clearly associated with the Islamic Republic of Iran and all its religious ramifcations. Each competitor used different tactics to promote their own script. Iran began increasing the number of publications available to their own Azerbaijani populations. (Publication in Azeri had been forbidden in Iran during the Pahlavi era from 1925-79) except during the brief period from 1941 to 1946 when the country was occupied by Allied forces.8

Many Azeri publications of the Revolution (1979-81) did not survive under Islamic rule. In 1989, there was only one single Azeri publication, Varliq, produced quarterly, half in Persian, half in Azeri from the private resources of Dr. Javad Heyat. Varliq only had a circulation of 2,000 despite the fact that more than 20 million Azerbaijanis lived in Iran. However the Iranian government suddenly started devoting pages for Azeri in its offcial papers; even the publication of Azeri books was somehow encouraged.
9 Often these papers concerned Northern Azer-baijanis more than Iranian Azerbaijanis. A typical article would promote the Arabic alphabet reminding the reader that the revival of Islam in Azerbaijan demanded the revival of the Arabic alphabet.10 The most convincing and scientifc of these articles, however, was published in Varliq by Dr. Abbas-Ali Javadi in 1369-1370 (1992).

In any case, northern Azerbaijani intellectuals argued that they did not have a role model for the Arabic alphabet as Iranian Azerbaijan did not provide them with a strong literary basis for revival of the Arabic alphabet. The monthly Odlar Yurdu published in Baku went so far as to argue that if the Iranian government established Azerbajani schools where Azeri would be taught in Arabic alphabet, then the North would welcome this by adopting the Arabic alphabet instead of Latin. In itself, this was a very political argument. It was like saying, "You have no right to tell us what to do when your own Azeris don't even have a single school in their own mother tongue."

This, along with various other reasons, including the lack of expertise with the Arabic alphabet and its more tedious spelling and writing techniques made the Turkish position for the Latin script stronger. Turkey busily organized many linguistic seminars and conferences on the Turkic alphabet. The most well known conference, "The Common Alphabet of the Turkic Nations," was held in Ankara in October of 1990 and organized by the Turkish Language History Organization (Türkiye Dil Tarik Kurumu). In many of these seminars and conferences, the arguments set forth were extremely political: "A common alphabet is essential for bringing together all the Turks of the world." In other words, that which the Arabic alphabet had already done for many centuries was now expected from Latin. The phonetic nature of Latin made it too diffcult to hide the differences between them as had been done with Arabic. This created another question of what would happen to all the sounds which existed in the Turkic languages other than those that existed in the Turkish language? The radical answer was "get rid of them, make them sound just like Turkish."

As one of the participants of the First International Congress of Azerbaijan Turkish Associations (Istanbul, November 1990), I was surprised that one of the leaders of Motherland (Anaveten) party gave a "speech" basically declaring, "Your alphabet must be exactly the same as ours." That a major Turkish party leader was asking Azerbaijanis to copy the Turkish Latin made the issue of alphabet so political it was hard to believe that there was any other motivation behind it.

It could be argued that Turkey won the "Great Game" of the alphabet. In May of 1990, the Republic Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan established a commission to work on the Latinization 20 and on December 25, 1991, the National Council of the Republic of Azerbaijan offcially replaced the Cyrillic script with a modifed Latin alphabet (See table 2)

But the Latin alphabet which the Azerbaijanis adopted was not identical to the Turkish script. The new Azeri Latin now has three letters which do not exist in Turkish Latin - x (kh sound), upside down "e" (ae sound in "fat cat") and q, which express sounds particular to the Azeri language which do not exist in Turkish. Initially, a two-dotted (ä) was designed for expressing the vowel sound in the English word, "and". The idea was to make it look as similar to Turkish and European alphabet as possible as well as to be able to use foreign typewriters and read-made software. It must also be mentioned that one of the criticisms against using the Arabic script was its cumbersome use of dots which made writing so tedious. But, because this sound is so frequent in Azeri, and the dots so cumbersome, six months later, they reverted to the up-side down 'e' - a symbol that had become very familiar to their eye as it had been used both in the early Latin alphabet in 1928 and had even survived Cyrillization.


Changing the alphabet so many times in Azerbaijan has had severe consequences on the accumulative wealth of knowledge and culture of the nation. It has hindered continuity of the literary development, isolating the people from centuries of knowledge, cultural insight and human wisdom. It has erected intellectual barriers between generations. Children often can't read their parents writing much less that of their grandparents. And in some cases, brothers and sisters have even experienced this separation and isolation from one another.

Alphabet change has created an incredible fnancial strain on the society. Who pays for all the street signs and government documents that must be transliterated much less the thousands of books which should be republished?

At different times in its history, alphabet changes have served to isolate Northern Azerbaijan from Southern Azerbaijan. If the Araz river was the "natural" border between the two Azerbaijanis and if the barbed wires emphasized physical separation; then alphabet differences created a third boundary - an invisible cultural one.

It has served to isolate Azerbaijan from related Turkic-speaking peoples and from the West. But, perhaps, the greatest tragedy to what is nearly a century old process is that if alphabet change is carried out solely, or even, partially, for political purposes, the damage can be catastrophic, as future purges by the ruling politics will again and again make the "defenseless" alphabet--its victim.


1 Abu Reyhan Biruni has emphasized the necessity of using "E'rab" signs for vowels) in the Arabic script in his book, Al sidle--on Seeds and Fruits--in Arabic.

2 Algar, Hamid. Malkum Khan, Akhundzadeh and the Proposed Reform of the Arabic Alphabet, Middle Eastern Studies. 5, 1969.

3 Algar Hamid. 1969. Religions and State in Iran, 1785-1906: The Qajar Period. Berkeley and Los Angeles.

4 Glasnost--"political openness" and Peristroika--"restructuring" were two terms introduced by Gorbachev and which soon became part of the international vocabulary. In Azeri, they were called ashkarliq and yeniden qurma..

5 Abbas-Ali Javadi. 1990. Alphabet Changes. Varliq. Winter (1369, pp. 24-29; Summer (1370) pp. 88-96; Autumns (1370) pp. 91-102.

6 Audrey L. Alstadt. 1992. The Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under the Russian Rule. Hoover Institution Press. Stanford University, Stanford, CA, p. 209.

7 The "Great Game" was a term used to refer to the political competition in the Middle East between Russian and Britain during the 19th century. Recently many journalists have used it to refer to the competition between Iran and Turkey over the former Soviet republics.

8 Yarshater, Ehsan, Ed., 1992 Encyclopaedia Iranica. Javadi, H. and K. Burrill in "Azeri Literature in Iran." Routledge & Kegan Paul: London. p. 251.

9 Offcial papers like Kayhane Havayi and Etela'at printed a few pages of Azeri in the Arabic alphabet. In Tabriz the new Azeri papers like Sahand and Ark have been published and Islami Birlik even includes a few pages in the Cyrillic alphabet.

10 There are more or less similar articles on this topic in almost every issue of the journal, Yol, between 1990-1992.

From Azerbaijan International (1.3) September 1993
© Azerbaijan International 1993. All rights reserved.

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