Uzbekistan Locked In Alphabet Limbo

Independence has brought many changes to the lives of Uzbeks. One of these was a government decision to switch Uzbek language into a Latin script, as opposed to the Cyrillic script introduced in the 1930s by the Soviet authorities. A language law passed in 1993 targeted transition into the Uzbek Latin alphabet by the year 2007. This was later postponed until 2010. However, even todaythe country has not fully switched to Latin alphabet andUzbek is still being writtenmainly in Cyrillic rather than Latin script. The trend is easily observed on Uzbekistan’s streets, in its newspapers, periodicals and booksas well as in cyberspace.

In use since the late 1930s, a Cyrillic version of Uzbek alphabet was not really challenged prior to the perestroika years during the 1980s in Uzbekistan. The era of Gorbachev’s glasnost (a policy that called for increased transparency), first led to discussions on whether to continue using a Russian-imposed Cyrillic alphabet in Uzbekistan or not.  In 1993, a decree from the Presidentof Uzbekistan and a parliamentary law on language dictated that the Uzbek language would switch to the Latin script by 2007.

The move can be explained by the eagerness of the elite, and by the Uzbek president himself, to distance the country from Moscow and openup Uzbekistan to the Western world and theopportunities it couldoffer.However, it appears as though few people thought through how expensive and impractical the achievement of this goal would become. Although several million Uzbek children grew up studying Uzbek in a Latin script, the country is far from using the new alphabet fully. As of today, only a few state newspapers are issued in the new alphabet. While the majority of government websites have also adopted Uzbek Latin script,many Uzbek newspapers prefer to be selective about using the Latin script. For example, some choose to write their headlines in the Uzbek Latin alphabet, while the bodies of their articles are written in Cyrillic.

Of rather greater concern is the factthat there is a lack of books printed using Latin script. Publishing houses in Uzbekistan do not receive enough funding to publish books in the new alphabet. So far, only certain classic books of Uzbek literature, children stories and schoolbooks have become available in Latin script. Their quantity however does not match the numbers of books, journals, research works and scientific materials issued in Cyrillic script during Soviet times.

Reasons for this slow pace of transition can be explained from two main perspectives. First of all, despite the eagerness of the government to distance itself from Russia, and a whole-hearted support of some Uzbek nationalists, nobody took the trouble of counting the cost of introducing a new alphabet. Books, periodicals and newspapers published in Soviet Uzbekistan represent the country’s significant cultural and material heritage. Reprinting and reissuing new materials costs money andthe new Uzbekistan clearly was unable to allocatesufficient financial resources for this purpose during the turmoil of change after independence. As a result, there is a huge challenge for the latest generation of Uzbeks who have been learning Uzbek in a Latin script and now find a scarcity of books and materials they can read.

Secondly, a psychological barrier still remains within Uzbeks, particularly adults and the elderly, when it comes to switching to new script. Many adults never bothered to study the new Latin script and continue reading and using Uzbek in Cyrillic script, asking their children to help with the Latin alphabet, should circumstances demand it. This rather low popularity of the Uzbek language,written in Latin, is also illustrated by the newspapers and TV channels, who make their advertisements in Cyrillic script or even Russian (still widely in use in Uzbekistan in business, cultural and interethnic communication). Only a few advertisements can be seenusingthe new Latin script. This suggests that “alphabet reform” is far from at a conclusion, not only due to lack of a financial base, but also because of the absence of a profound and popular support for it.  In fact, one might question why a vast majority of the population would aspire to read and write in a new alphabet after having used Cyrillic letters for more than a half-century?

In the early 1990s, the decision to adopt a Latin script was given to the Uzbek people by the passing oflegislationby government decree. It is doubtful, though, whether the majority of Uzbeks would have voted for another alphabet switch in a referendum in the first place.

In 2012, neither a full switch into Uzbek Latin alphabet nor a reverse of the alphabet reform is taking place in Uzbekistan. The problem is not discussed actively either by society or the government. It is surprising that there has been such a delay in alphabet reform given that often such issues lead to some form of round table discussion between leading linguists, teachers, intellectuals, historians etc.Perhaps another top-down initiative is required in order to get things moving in that direction.

Uzbekistan’s Constitution states its adherence to democracy and liberal principles. Would it be better off holding a national referendum to get out of this alphabet limbo. Perhaps it is not too late today for the Uzbek authorities to arrange a popular vote on whether to reverse the switch to Latin script orcomplete it whole-heartedly by pumping more funds into an initiative launched about two decades ago.

Many agree that regardless of the decision of Uzbeks,some collateral damage is unavoidable. The question is about the nation’s “loser”: will thesebe the representatives ofan adult population, born and raised in the Soviet times, or will they be the nation’s youngsters who know to read and write Latin script, and thus, are deprived of a massive literary heritage published in Cyrillic.

If people decide to complete the reform, the government mustlaunch mechanisms to ensure that it can fully occur through a massive publishing of books and other information resources. Likewise, should a reverse of the reform occur, young people have to learn Cyrillic and funding for appropriate courses need to be found.  One way or another, funding and commitment is required otherwise Uzbekistan risks seeing its illiteracy rate growing, which will have economic consequences for many years to come. For if there are no books, what happens to a young generation that does not or cannot read?

Author: Zaynab Muhammad-Dost




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