The article examines the consequences of the decision made by the government of Uzbekistan in 1993 to transform the Uzbek language into Latin script, and also analyzes the recent decisions on the accelerated completion of this process.
The author believes that the initial decision to reform the alphabet and the government’s recent steps run counter to the interests and rights of the majority of the Uzbek-speaking population, both its older and younger generations. The author sees a way out of this situation not in the refusal of the reform itself, but in an accelerated approach of completing the full transition to the Latin alphabet, in preparing the proper conditions for completing this transition at least in a decade. This time is necessary to achieve such fundamental tasks as the translation into the Latin alphabet of all the most valuable published in the Uzbek language during the Soviet and subsequent periods, as well as the gradual, evolutionary restructuring and development of book publishing in Uzbekistan.
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In the past few months, the government’s activity on reforming the alphabet of the Uzbek language has noticeably revived, which began in 1993 with the adoption of a corresponding law on the transition to the Latin alphabet. In 1995, the adopted Latin alphabet was subjected to audit, but a new version was criticized afterwards. And now that updated version of the alphabet is now again planned to be revised, bringing it closer to the originally adopted version of 1993 and at the same time to the orthography of Turkish and some other Turkic languages.
The new alphabet project was published on March 16, 2021, and its discussion will last until the end of the month. Prior to that, on February 11, 2021, the government approved a “roadmap timeline” for a complete transition to the Uzbek alphabet based on the Latin script. This transition is scheduled to be completed by early 2023.
These decisions, especially the last one, were observed to have caused confusion and widespread discontent among a large part of the population, which was especially evident in the discussions that unfolded on social networks. Representatives of not only the Russian-speaking population were dissatisfied, but also the Uzbeks themselves. For obvious reasons, dissatisfaction is expressed primarily by the older generation of the Uzbek population, who have learned using the Uzbek language in Cyrillic. However, even among the young generation, one can find irritation at the observed instability in the question of how the Uzbek alphabet should look like.
Let us try to understand what the transition to the Latin alphabet gives, and especially its accelerated process, imposed by the authorities, in terms of the country’s development and nation-building in Uzbekistan. But first, let us give a little background to the question.
Before the October Revolution of 1917, the population of Central Asia, whose descendants speak Uzbek today, communicated with each other in different dialects, the most common of which were Kipchak and Karluk. The language, based mainly on the Karluk dialect, was then called Sart. It was developed based on the Chagatai language, in the formation of which the Uighurs played an important role in the past. It was this dialect that, already under the Soviets, was taken as the basis of the modern Uzbek language. When writing dialects that preceded it, the Arabic script was used.
Shortly after the October Revolution of 1917, a discussion arose about the reform of the alphabet. In 1921, this issue was discussed at the regional congress in Tashkent, then in 1926 at the I Turkic congress in Baku. At that Baku congress, the transition of all Turkic languages of the peoples of the USSR to the new Latin alphabet – Yanalif (Yangi Alifbe) was approved. However, the transition itself took place only in 1929. Nevertheless, just over a decade later, on May 8, 1940, against the background of the Soviets’ struggle against the influence of pan-Turkism, the III session of the Supreme Soviet of the Uzbek SSR adopted a law on the translation of the Uzbek language into an alphabet using the Cyrillic writing system.
Already at the time of the collapse of the USSR, in November 1991, a conference was held in Istanbul , at which representatives of the Turkic republics of the USSR and the Russian Federation supported the project of switching to the Latin alphabet, as close as possible to the Turkish one. At that time, Turkey, led by President Turgut Özal, pursued an active foreign policy aimed at rapprochement with the republics of Central Asia, Azerbaijan and the Turkic peoples of Russia and was perceived by many intellectuals and political circles as activists among these peoples and as an alternative to Moscow, which they associated with the colonial past.
Turkey has also attracted many as an example of a Muslim country in which the state retains its secular character and keeps Islam under control. For the leaders of the Central Asian republics, frightened by the growth of Islamic movements, especially for Islam Karimov, the Turkish political model represented a more or less acceptable alternative to both Islamism and Moscow’s hegemony. They, these leaders of the Turkic-speaking republics, sought to intercept the slogans of national-patriotism from the national-democratic opposition and thereby ensure the legitimacy of their ruling regimes.
It is in this historical context that the decision of the country’s leadership of September 2, 1993 “On the introduction of the Uzbek alphabet based on the Latin script” should be considered. The law provided for starting to teach children the Uzbek language at school according to the new alphabet starting in 1996 and complete the transition of the country to the Latin alphabet by 2010. Subsequently, as the sprouts of potential Islamic opposition were suppressed and relations with Turkey deteriorated, the motivation to switch to the Latin alphabet weakened. However, the course as a whole remained intact, although it was not forced by excessive administrative measures. Rather, this course turned into a sluggish process, with the constant postponement of the full transition to the Latin alphabet. Which, in principle, suited the majority of the population since it provided them with a choice of different options for using the Uzbek language.
As a result, the country has developed a fairly stable coexistence of two alphabets, Latin, and Cyrillic, with different spheres of their use and different categories of users. Accordingly, the population was divided into two halves: on the one hand, the young generation of Uzbeks, who were trained in Uzbek schools and colleges in the Latin alphabet, and on the other, the older generation, which still prefers to read and write in the Cyrillic alphabet.
If we take the year 2000 as a starting point, when the full-scale education of school students using the Latin alphabet supposedly began (before that, obviously, textbooks and teachers were being prepared), then it can be argued that at least 10 million people in the country received school education on Latin alphabet. This accounts for 30% of the total population or 43% of persons aged 15 to 64, that is, the socially and intellectually most active part of the population.
In other words, we can assert that the most actively reading public is divided into two numerically comparable groups – the one that is taught the Uzbek language in the Latin script, and those who still use the Cyrillic alphabet. The government, when making further decisions on the alphabet, must be clearly aware of this disposition of the population, and hence the respective interests and preferences of both groups.
At first glance, one might get the impression that the government, by accelerating a complete transition to the Latin alphabet, infringes primarily on the interests and rights of the second group of the population reading in Cyrillic. However, what then benefits the first, younger group? What advantages did this category of the population receive in their intellectual, cultural, and personal development? If we take a closer look at this issue, we will see that they also suffered. Since, for the most part, they have lost access to the body of knowledge that is concentrated in the texts published in Cyrillic since 1940, that is, at least 50 previous years before the adoption of the 1993 law. And what was published during that period?
It is known that already in 1950 in Uzbekistan it was published 908, and in 1970 – 2030 books and brochures. This is an average of 1000 new editions per year between these dates. If one extrapolates this growth trend to 1990, one will get roughly 80,000 books and brochures between 1950 and 1990. Of course, not all of this literature was published in the Uzbek language, and not all are suitable today. From this mass, one can subtract all the party ideological literature and those books on specialties that have lost their relevance. However, even if we assume that at least one-fourth of this number satisfies today’s requirements, then it will turn out to be 20 thousand titles of literature, which may be of interest to today’s and future generations. For example, these publications include the 15-volume edition of Alisher Navoi’s works, the 14-volume Uzbek Soviet Encyclopedia, the second, now 12-volume edition of the Uzbek encyclopedia, as well as many books by Uzbek writers of the past and present.
All library funds of the country are also equipped with literature, mainly in Cyrillic. Thus, in the country’s largest and oldest library named after Alisher Navoi (created in 1870), as of 2010, there were 600 thousand manuscripts and printed publications in the Uzbek language alone. It is easy to assume that in the modern version of the Latin alphabet there is an insignificant amount of literature. But surely there is literature published in the period from 1930 to 1940, exactly how much remains to be seen. Or another network of libraries in the system of the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan with its flagship, the Fundamental Library in Tashkent. According to the portal of the Academy, the total fund of libraries of the system of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan is over 5 million copies, which are used by 45 thousand readers. Again, it is not difficult to guess, mainly in what alphabet this literature was published. A similar picture is seen in the university network and in all other libraries of the republic.
Let us see what is being published now and in what schedule. In general, it must be admitted that the book publishing house in the country has fallen into some decline. So, as of 2017, a very small number of book publishers operated in the country, mainly Davr Press, O’qituvchi, Akademnashr, and O’zbekiston. To date, the sites of the first two of them no longer exist, apparently due to the fact that these publishers have ceased their activities. Interestingly, all literature in the country has been published and is still being published in both Latin and Cyrillic, and on a comparable scale. In Latin, these are mainly textbooks and children’s literature for the little ones, and in Cyrillic – literature for an older reader.
If we assume that all or most of the young people trained in the Latin alphabet do not speak or have a poor command of the Cyrillic alphabet, it turns out that they practically do not have access to the “adult/old” literature contained in the network of libraries and still published by the above-mentioned publishing houses. And this is mainly fiction, scientific and popular science literature. How, then, can these young people gain in-depth knowledge of, say, fiction? Do they comprehend the history of Uzbek and world literature only from textbooks, not reading primary sources? I can only assume that the most conscientious teachers of literature encourage their students, and conscientious parents – their children, to master the Cyrillic alphabet so that they can read the works of Chulpan, Mashrab, Fitrat and other classics of literature and contemporaries published in Cyrillic. However, we do not know how widespread such a practice of mastering and simultaneously using both alphabets is. We do not know how many of the above-mentioned ten million young people actually know the Cyrillic alphabet, along with the Latin alphabet. Of course, there are such people, however, we do not know how many. And it is unlikely that the government owns this information.
In this regard, a natural question arises: isn’t it true that a whole generation is growing up before our eyes, brought up mainly on mass media culture and in whose readership, there are only children’s fairy tales, textbooks, articles in the local press, shop signs, posts in social networks?
The situation is, however, saved a little by the Uzbek Wikipedia. To date, it contains 139,861 articles in the Uzbek language, and they can be read in both charts, Latin, and Cyrillic. It is striking that under Karimov, Uzbek Wikipedia was blocked, starting from 2011. But today, thank God, it seems that it is again available to the Uzbek reader inside the country. Of course, Wikipedia largely makes up for the lack of information in the Uzbek language in the Latin script, but it does not solve the entirety of the problem. For example, on Wikipedia one can read articles about Uzbek and foreign writers, poets, and thinkers of the past, but not their works. Therefore, the knowledge of the generation that studied the Latin alphabet remains largely superficial, with corresponding negative consequences for their intellectual development. After all, such development presupposes the development of knowledge not only “in breadth”, but also “in depth”.
Resolution of the problem
First of all, it should be admitted that the very decision to switch to the Latin alphabet was deeply mistaken. It was guided more by current political considerations than by the interests of the country’s development. For Islam Karimov, as in 1929 for the Soviets, it was a way to counter the rise of Islamic sentiment in the country and discourage demands for a return to the Arabic script. Let us remember that the beginning of the 90s was the time of the rise of Islamic movements, especially in the Fergana Valley.
On the other hand, the country’s leadership, in order to ensure its legitimacy, sought to distance itself from the colonial past, and at the same time from the entire Soviet legacy. Mustakillik, the idea of the state sovereignty of Uzbekistan, became the banner of the new state ideology. However, at the same time, the issue of the Uzbek language, especially its schedule, was overly politicized and tied to this ideology.
From the point of view of strengthening national sovereignty and statehood, it was much more important to ensure the development of publishing and printing activities, to strengthen the single market for book products in the Uzbek language, to consolidate and further multiply the national cultural heritage. Another well-known British researcher Benedict Anderson wrote that print capitalism played a huge role in the formation and development of nation states in Europe. Print capitalism, according to Anderson, helped shape the nation as an imaginary community, largely due to the publishing and printing business, focused on a wide readership and interested in a single market for publishing products. And the success of this business depended on the unification in the use of local languages and dialects, because for large circulations one language was needed, brought to a single standard. As a result, readers speaking different local dialects began to better understand each other, and a common discourse emerged. Thus, the first European nation-states were formed on the basis of their unified “printed” languages.
As for Uzbekistan, it went in the opposite direction to this logic, having achieved only that the single print market in the Uzbek language was split into two halves, without a clear prospect of when its new consolidation would come. It also raises doubts about how successful attempts will be to solve this problem of consolidation by coercive-administrative measures, the very ones that were widely used in the Soviet past. It turns out that in their attempts to dissociate themselves from this Soviet past, the authorities de facto reproduce it, its political culture of total coercion. After all, as we have shown, the rights and interests of both the older and the young Uzbek-speaking generation are infringed upon.
What is the way out of this situation? One lady, when discussing this issue on Facebook, stated the following: “… there is probably no way of going back. There are already many people who read and write in Latin – all graduates of recent years.” Indeed, the way out in the current conditions does not lie in the abolition of the 1993 decision (it is too late to do this), but in the rejection of the accelerated imposition of the Latin alphabet for the entire population. In the foreseeable future, one should come to terms with the coexistence of both the scripts, Latin, and Cyrillic, and allow things to develop evolutionarily, without superfluous spurring.
However, this does not mean that the authorities should get away from this problem. On the contrary, it is necessary to make active efforts and allocate sufficient resources to translate into Latin script all that valuable that has been published in the Uzbek language in the more than 50 years since the adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet. This is a huge job that will require scanning, possibly re-stuffing digital texts published in Cyrillic for their translation into Latin graphics. This should be preceded by an inventory of all library collections in order to select everything of value that will be of benefit to the younger generation. Furthermore, this is primarily fiction, reference books and publications on special knowledge.
At the same time, it is necessary to consider the needs and ensure the development of book publishing activities during the transition period. Today, some of this activity is aimed at the reader who prefers the Cyrillic alphabet. And here it is unacceptable to hit straight from the shoulder, using strong-willed, coercive administrative measures. It is necessary to follow an evolutionary approach that would consider the short-, medium- and long-term interests of all relevant stakeholders, including various categories of readers, as well as the publishing business itself, remembering that any business develops on the basis of interest, benefit, and not coercion.
The Book Publishing Development Program will be a good opportunity to reintegrate the writings of exiled writers into the literary life of the country. First of all, we are talking about such outstanding authors as Muhammad Solikh, Edgor Obid and Hamid Ismayilov, who received asylum in foreign countries decades ago, but whose literary works remain the pride of Uzbek literature. The authorities may treat some of them differently as political figures but restricting youth access to their works of art greatly impoverishes the cultural potential of the entire reading public in Uzbekistan. Their works were published at different times in Cyrillic and also need to be translated into Latin and digitized.
It is unlikely that this entire program can be completed in a year and a half allotted by a government decision for a full transition to the Latin alphabet. This period should last for at least 10 years, which would really be in the interests of both the older and younger generations, and in general in the interests of the country’s development.
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.