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Is typography destiny? neweurasia’s Annasoltan explores the ramifications of Turkmenistan’s project to Latinize its alphabet, beginning with the history of Niyazov’s program and the geopolitics operating behind the scenes. “The shift to Latin script may have far more implications,” she writes, “including even the very underlying cultural orientation of Turkmenistan.”

Return of the Roman Empire?  Photograph by Flickr user ajburgess (CC-usage).

Photograph by Flickr user ajburgess (CC-usage).

Editor’s note: Is typography destiny?  neweurasia’s Annasoltan explores the ramifications of Turkmenistan’s project to Latinize its alphabet.  This is the latest in neweurasia’s ongoing coverage of the battle for control of Central Asia’s alphabets.  Also, make sure to check out Mirsulzshan’s post on the ICANN’s decision to “de-Latinize” URLs on the Web.

The shifting of the Turkmen alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin script in Turkmenistan, which began in 1993, was one of the most profound changes in the post-Soviet period.  It not only changed the written form of the language but strengthened the position of the Turkmen language vis-à-vis Russian, establishing a bridge for Turkmens to learn Turkish, English, and other important languages that use the Latin alphabet.  But how deep has the change gone in the Turkmen psyche?

Belles lettres?

As the first Central Asian nation to take the step, Turkmenistan’s president Saparmurat Niyazov issued a decree officially replacing the Cyrillic-based alphabet with a Latin-based one. After an initial beginning with several changes, it took about a decade until the plan’s full implementation occurred.

Initially, the new Turkmen alphabet employed several unique and unusual characters, including several currency symbols like the dollar ($), pound (£), yen (¥), and cent (¢), to distinguish it from Turkey’s Latin-based alphabet.  The experiment, although quirky and original, proved impractical and disruptive.  So it was replaced with characters that were still unique yet more similar to Turkey and the other Turkic republics in the region.

The current modified Turkmen alphabet is similar to Turkey’s but with notable differences. J is used instead of the Turkish C; Ž is used instead of the Turkish J; Y is used instead of the dotless i; Ý is used instead of the Turkish consonantal Y; and the letters Ä has been added to represent the phonetic values [æ], respectively.

Still there remains some very visible chaos in the way the Latin script is being used by Turkmens.  For example, because of a lack of professional cadres trained in the new Latinized Turkmen language, official documentation in legislative and administrative work is processed in the Russian language and Cyrillic script. Afterwards, they are then re-rendered into the Latin-based alphabet.

Adding to the chaos in the way Latin script is being used by everyday Turkmens themselves.  For example, Latin letters are often confused with Cyrillic ones, and different signs are used for different letters, such as ‘ch’ instead of ‘Ç’, and ‘zh’ is used instead of ‘Ž’.*

A new compass

Hugh Pope, Turkey/Cyprus Project director at the International Crisis Group who is also a former Istanbul-based reporter of Wall Street Journal and the author of the book, Sons of the Conquerors: the Rise of the Turkic world, remarked to me about the shift to Latin script:

The Cyrillic alphabet introduced by the Soviet Union was impropriate to the sounds of the Turkic languages. Given the need to establish a separate identity from the Soviet state they cut themselves off from the past, like in the case of Turkey.

Turkey was casting off Ottoman history and reaching out to the secular West in 1920s.

It was a way to define national identity, a way to show the break with the past. At least in the beginning it was a way to show a pro-Western interest, closeness to the Western world, openness to Western countries and cultures building a new bridge to them [as] they would be able to learn their languages more easily.

The shift to Latin script may have far more implications, including even the very underlying cultural orientation of Turkmenistan:

The transition has brought some closeness to Turkey.  The newspapers show convergence with Turkish.  However, it has not [had] political consequences yet.

Indeed, when  Central Asia’s Turkic republics were only recently freed from the Soviet Union, they resisted the temptation to replace Moscow with Istanbul as their new master, hence the reason why Turkmenistan did not adopt Turkey’s script completely.  (The role of the Russian language itself may partly explain why the shift to Latin script was quite swift in some, such as Turkmenistan, where Russian has no special official status, and slow in others, such as Kyrgyzstan, where Russian does, and is used widely in public life).

Nevertheless, Pope thinks that it’s a quite healthy development that no one has the same script for different languages and it gives a dignity to each individual language to have its own script.  I’m not sure if I agree.  In my next post I’ll explore the Latin alphabet’s difficult and ideological journey to Central Asia in general, and Turkmenistan in particular, where it has had a deep influence upon the mental landscape of an entire generation.

* The current Latin Turkmen alphabet: Aa, Bb, Çç, Dd, Ee, Ää, Ff, Gg, Hh, Ii, Jj, Žž, Kk, Ll, Mm, Nn, Ňň, Oo, Öö, Pp, Rr, Ss, Şş, Tt, Uu, Üü, Ww, Yy, Ýý, Zz

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