Spring 2000 (8.1)

Alphabet & Language in Transition

by Betty Blair, Editor

Nikos Kazantzakis (1885-1957), the great modern Greek writer of "Zorba, the Greek", was known to be a workaholic. For days on end, he would barely break away from his desk. His friends would worry and warn him, "Take good care of your body. Don't abuse it. It's the only donkey that you have to carry your soul around on earth."

In a sense, the same analogy can be made between language and this creation that we call "alphabet" - the real workhorse of culture. Alphabets carry the load of the written form of all our discoveries, thoughts and beliefs. Alphabets connect us to a world beyond our own physical presence, both in terms of history and geography. And that's why we must respect these symbolic systems and take good care of them.

Four Alphabet Changes
The trouble for Azerbaijan this past century is that the alphabet - this beast of burden - has been changed four times mid-stream and the nation still suffers immensely from the incredible loss of this cultural treasury.

The first change came when Latin replaced Arabic - a script that had been used for more than a millennium. The shift began in 1923 when Latin was declared the State language alongside Arabic. By 1929, Soviets had banned Arabic and gone on ravaging book-burning campaigns throughout the towns and villages of Azerbaijan and the Central Asian Turkic-speaking states to scourge the alphabet from the land along with anything associated with Islam.

In 1939, again the cultural burden was shifted. This time from Latin to Cyrillic as Stalin became very concerned that Latin might become the consolidating factor unifying all Soviet Turkic-speaking nations and Turkey against himself. So he imposed Cyrillic. Finally in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and Azerbaijan gained its independence, one of its first articulations of glee was to give Cyrillic a kick and begin transferring the load back onto Latin once more - exactly where it had been before Stalin intervened 50 years earlier.

Orphaned Youth
None of these alphabet changes has truly been successful in terms of enabling younger generations to access the knowledge acquired by its older members in society. Each time the alphabet was changed, the younger generation was left orphaned, alone on its own to scrounge around as best it could in search of the repository of national, cultural, and historical knowledge. For the most part, the valued treasure just slipped off the back of the donkey and plunged into the swiftly flowing stream of political and economic expediency to disappear forever. Historians are likely to write that these frequent alphabet changes are one of the greatest tragedies that Azerbaijan experienced this past century.

Photo: Formal studio portrait in 1911 of Ismayil Mustafayev who is shown with books, emphasizing how important the written word was valued and esteemed in society. The official alphabet at the time was Arabic. Courtesy: Adila Khanmirzayeva.

Intellectual resources could not be utilized to their fullest extent because written records had either been destroyed, were no longer "politically correct", or were simply unreadable to younger generations. See "
The Day They Burned Our Books" by the late Dr. Asaf Rustamov in Autumn 1999 (AI 7.3, page 74).

Deliberate Choice
The decision to adopt Latin in 1923 seems to be the most deliberate and calculated of all changes. Set in the context of religious tradition, it was thoroughly discussed, unlike Cyrillic which followed a few years later and was imposed by Stalin's regime. Intellectuals blamed Arabic for the nation's backwardness and lack of progress. They jealously eyed the rapid development and industrialization that was taking place in Europe.

Latinists wanted an alphabet that would facilitate literacy and accurately reflect the Azeri sound system as the Persian-modified Arabic script had several shortcomings. Several letters represented the same sounds (s, t, z); while other sounds were not represented at all such as s(
), were critical to determining meaning in the Azerbaijani language.

It's rare to find Arabic script books in the Azerbaijan Republic today except in museums. It's rarer still to find young people who can read these texts despite the fact that this same script is alive and vibrant in Iran today where an estimated 25 to 30 million Azerbaijanis live.

Of course, it can be argued that not many people were literate in the Arabic alphabet back at the turn of last century and not many books had been printed. But one should not forget the rare treasures among those hand-written manuscripts particularly in the medical field where the pharmaceutical powers of indigenous plants had been so carefully documented. Much of that rare knowledge went up in flames. It's a great loss, not only to Azerbaijan, but to the entire world especially as modern medicine seeks to unravel the mysteries of traditional medicine.

Cyrillic Imposed
Stalin imposed Cyrillic in 1939, at the height of what is known as the Stalinist Repression. It was during the time when tens of thousands of intellectuals throughout Azerbaijan and the Soviet Union who were suspected of being critical of the regime's political policies were arrested and either executed or sent into exile in Siberia. Is there any wonder that Cyrillic met with so little resistance? Azerbaijanis bowed their heads in submission, clinging to the hope that adopting the alphabet that was created to express the Russian language would not wreck havoc on the sound system of Azeri.

Back to Latin
Nowadays, the donkey is again caught midstream as the transition takes place between Cyrillic and Latin. Turbulent waters are swirling around the treasured wealth once again. However, the situation is quite different than on previous occasions. Compared to earlier periods, there is an abundance of written material produced during the 70 years of Soviet power that needs to be converted to Azeri Latin. If younger generations are denied access to these materials, the loss will be irreparable.

When the transition from Arabic to Latin was being considered early last century, one advocate insisted that the cost to republish all Arabic texts to Latin would be no greater than the cost of a battleship - a sum that he felt was quite manageable.

Today, the situation is different. It doesn't take long for a cash-strapped Azerbaijan to run out of battleships. One publishing house director figured that if the transition were extremely well planned (which he insists it hasn't been) that republishing major works could be completed in 15 years.

But with the proliferation of Web sites on the Internet, who can imagine what body of knowledge will be available to youth of the international community these next 15 years while Azerbaijan is just trying to catch up with itself? Time will not stand still. Azerbaijan needs to catapult itself into the 21st century or it will be left far behind.

Legendary Speed
Azerbaijan doesn't need a donkey right now; it needs a horse at the speed of lightning - like the legendary Girat of Koroghlu fame that always came to the rescue of his master, whisking him away from danger. What many Azerbaijanis don't realize is that Girat is alive and well and already exists in their midst in the form of computers and associated technologies.

Unfortunately, many members of the older generation who are decision makers don't really comprehend the power of computers. They have not grown up using them nor had practical, hands-on experience. Most of them view the computer as a mysterious sophisticated electronic version of the typewriter which, of course, strips it of its greatest capability - the ability to remember and store information which can be made accessible at the push of a button and to link it with a worldwide network via the Internet.

The problems we've discussed in this issue are like "déjà vu" all over again. In 1993, Azerbaijan International dedicated one of its earliest issues to the Alphabet transition and as editor, I wrote my first article about the font problem, entitled
"The Upside-down 'e' - an Editor's Nightmare" (See AI 1:3, page 40). Well, seven years have passed and the nightmare has only intensified. The main culprit is that no standardization has taken place either in regard to character assignment of Azeri fonts or the standardization of keyboard layout. Standardization will take place by default, sooner or later, but it could happen considerably faster and with much less wasted energy if there were government support.

Young people stand to lose immensely from further delay. A generation of young people weaned on the Latin script from the early primary grades is now getting ready to enter the doors of the university. And, for the most part, they are more poorly educated than their parents and grandparents. Students who have followed the Azeri track at school have had little access to books beyond a few textbooks. In the university, they'll discover little to read except old, out-dated texts in Cyrillic, as so few books are available on these higher levels in Latin. What are kids to do? The lack of intellectual challenge for this generation's youth is an enormous problem with long-range consequences.

Azerbaijanis cannot rely on old print methods to solve this problem of making Cyrillic texts available in Latin. It's far too expensive and there just aren't enough battleships to trade in for cash. Instead, they need to plunge into new technologies and carefully strategize to make full use of the Internet. Let the Internet become the beast of burden as it revolutionizes modern life and the way we acquire information.

Entire books can now be downloaded from Web sites on computers (See
Project Gutenberg. Commercial ventures are developing new inventions called electronic books (e-books), the size of a book itself, which can be filled with scores of books at the same time. These are the tools that Azerbaijan must use to solve these problems. Azerbaijan must foster the creation of Web sites not only by government institutions but by personal entrepreneurs to get Cyrillic texts converted to Azeri and make them available in every major field of endeavor from science and medicine to math, history and music. We shouldn't be thinking in terms of hundreds but rather tens of thousands.

Usually, our magazine is descriptive and our targeted audience is foreigners who have had little chance to learn about Azerbaijan. But this time, we hope our issue on Alphabet and Language Transition can serve as a catalyst to empower Azerbaijanis who are deeply concerned about this problem and who are pushing for action within the Azeri community.

And so our admonition to Azerbaijan would be: Take care of that donkey - the alphabet. Make sure the cultural load this time is transferred to a speedy critter like Girat, that magical horse of legendary and heroic strength so that it can carry the load for generations to come. After all, it's the only means of
bearing up your soul on this fast-paced planet called Earth.

Azerbaijan International (8.1) Spring 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.

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