Attack of the alphabets: will Cyber-Cyrillic threaten global online unity?

ICANN has announced plans to de-Latinize the internet.  Will the move threaten global online unity?  Photograph by Flickr user Kecko (CC-usage).
ICANN has announced plans to de-Latinize the internet. Will the move threaten global online unity? Photograph by Flickr user Kecko (CC-usage).

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which coordinates the Internet’s global system of unique identifiers (URLS, domain names, etc.), has announced (ENG) that it will soon be possible to register domain names with non-Latin characters, including the Cyrillic alphabet.

At a conference in the South Korean capital, Seoul, the corporation’s CEO and President, Rod Beckstrum, remarked, “Of the 1.6 billion internet users today worldwide, more than half use languages that have scripts that are not Latin-based.”  He adds that this change is very much necessary also for future potential users as the internet continues to spread (a video of the conference is available on ICANN’s website; read the announcement here).

On the one hand, this story isn’t new.  Back in December 2008, the Ukraine started distributing the domain names .Укр and .БЛОГ for only $12.  This was followed by Bulgaria, whose domain service Register.bg, announced two months ago that any company which wants a .bg domain name will be able to register a Cyrillic address as well.  Meanwhile, Russias domain service webnames.ru began registering versions of  .CC, .TV,.COM, .NET and .SU in Cyrillic.

And let’s not forget neweurasia itself, which since 2005 has been using Cyrillic in much of its blog URLs.  Of course, none of this represents a total “Cyrillization” of domain names, but it is to point out that using the script isn’t that revolutionary.

On the other hand, it does have some dangerous potential to break apart the global online community.  Since Russia has been a major player in the drive toward the “de-Latinization” of the internet, we need to ask whether the Russian government realizes this or not.

Ukrainian domain names already in Cyrillic.  Screen capture by neweurasia's Mirsulzhan (CC-usage).
Ukrainian domain names already in Cyrillic. Screen capture by neweurasia's Mirsulzhan (CC-usage).

In 2008, as part of a Kremlin drive to promote Russian as a global language, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called for Russia to be assigned an Internet domain name in the Cyrillic script (RUS).  Yet, Russia already manages two domain names: .RU and .SU.   The latter was originally created for the Soviet Union and is still in use.  In fact, during the first quarter of 2008, .su registrations increased by 45%! (ENG)

So, what has been behind Medvedev’s push?  He’s concerned that Russian, once the main language throughout the Soviet Union, is losing ground to local languages and to the creeping influence of English.  He sees defending Russian as a matter of national pride.  Indeed, he sees it as his personal and political priority as president.

He may have good reasons to fear.  There is no doubt, of course, that Russian’s influence is still big.  Not only is it the language of commerce in the region, but Russian TV channels are the most popular amongst the people of the region.

However, since independence, the five Central Asian republics have been attempting to make their own languages trendy among their formerly Russianized populations.  In pursuit of this goal they have adopted laws, established special language commissions, and in the case of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, have translated the alphabet into Latin (read a 2007 report by neweurasia‘s Arseny on the plans to Latinize Kazakh here).

We should view this in a larger context: I think that since the Russian-Georgian War from last year, the Kremlin has come to accept the Caucasus as an increasingly “lost” region and has decided to refocus its efforts back upon Central Asia.  The spread of “Cyber-Cyrllic” would therefore be a critical step in psychologically attaching the region to Russia.

Personally speaking, for the above reasons, and for one other reason, I’m doubtful whether the expansion into non-Latin domain names is wise.  The Americans have a saying: if something isn’t broken, don’t fix it.  Introducing new characters and spellings, whether Russian, Chinese, or Hindi, will bring chaos into the existing structure.

Indeed, I can foresee the potential for the move to create zones of inaccessibility, linguistic cantons — call them “sub-nets” or “e-ghettos” — isolated from the larger international online community.  We should be trying our best to avoid recreating the CCCP as the CCCR (the Cyber-Cyrillic Club of Russia).

However, for the time being, I doubt the “cantonization” of the internet will actually happen.  With the notable exception of Uzbekistan, the region wants to integrate into the global economy.  That means one thing: English.  We know this, which is why most Central Asian governments, companies, and bloggers, use English on their websites.  Russian can only serve to integrate the CIS.  At best, this would offer only limited growth; at worst, co-dependency.

The influence of the global economy can be felt especially among the youth, who are using the Latin alphabet when SMS’ing each other.  Indeed, we find it more comfortable to use. Consider also the case of neweurasia itself, a very youth-based citizen media network.  We have pioneered the use of Cyrillic in our domain names, yet, a great deal of our work conversations take place in English.  Moreover, many of our bloggers actively desire to write in English because it attracts a much larger international audience.

14 Comments

  1. A very nice statement, Michu. No voices to restrict the initiative. No voices if it’s fully unnecessary. But, at the same time, you are giving the people sufficient time and arguments to think whether the Central Asian need it or not.

    I would love to see such articles in russian, because our government does not speak english. And as you were quoting, everything should be understandable even for the prime-minister.

  2. Cyrillic is one small thing on the long list of stuff holding back development in the former soviet block. This move by the ICANN I fear is a step in the wrong direction, allowing the former Soviet Union to further sink into isolation by being dragged down by a dying language and alphabet, who’s importance diminishes just as fast as memories of the cold war.

    Cyrillic is the past, the Latin Alphabet is a step forward, but nothing is more feared in CIS than change.

    • Hmmmm. Chinese script didn’t held China and other Chinese societies from economic progress, or did it?

      But probably you meant that the enforced Cyrillic script does holds back Central Asian languages from developing? Then I agree. To have a position and to develop further, the Central Asian languages should link up with a wider and related language sphere: for Kazakh, Kyrgyz, … this is Turkish and hence the modified Latin script, for Tajik-Farsi it is the wider Persian sphere including the modfied Arabic alphabet. Russian, for its part, will always continue to play an important economic and social role. This was discussed on another thread with Botir Kasimi and Max Kalinskii.

      @Mirsulcan, reg. “yet, a great deal of our work conversations take place in English. Moreover, many of our bloggers actively desire to write in English because it attracts a much larger international audience.”

      Basing ones analysis of society on what is written on blogs can be tricky I think. First of all, the audience using the internet in the region is limited especially as compared to mobile phones and sat TV. Second, it mostly consists of urban and more westrenised groups of society who do not represent wider or ‘real’ society if I may say.

  3. On the whole, as someone who is ideologically inspired y Eurasianism and by Islam, I applaud ICANN’s initiative. The reality these days is that we are moving to a multipolar world, that US hegemony is buried in the ruins of Iraq and of the financial markets, and this also means that it is time to get rid of the tyranny of farty English-speaking cosmopolitanism.

  4. The world lacks a standard for Latin letter pronounciation. At least the countries where Cyrilic is used are close. Look at all the different forms of latin letters being used for sounds in the slavic countries. Two examples are below.

    Poland:
    W for V
    L with a line through it for W
    O with umlaut for U
    CZ and RZ for ch sound
    SZ for sh sound

    Slovakia:
    C with carot over it for ch sound
    S with carot over it for sh sound
    C is pronounced ts

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