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Uzbekistan’s Drawn-out Journey From Cyrillic to Latin Script

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Uzbekistan’s Drawn-out Journey From Cyrillic to Latin Script

Visit Uzbekistan and you’ll see a variety of alphabets used, a product of the country’s many changes and the long march toward fully using a Latin script. 

Uzbekistan’s Drawn-out Journey From Cyrillic to Latin Script

In this 2019 photo, a sign for a museum in Bukhara is written in Latin-alphabet Uzbek, in Russian Cyrillic, and in English.

Credit: Catherine Putz

Members of the Senate of Uzbekistan started the year with trainings on the Latin alphabet. Tashkent had planned to complete a three-decade-long transition from Soviet-imposed Cyrillic to a Latin script by January 1, 2023. The plan was to have government websites, legal documents, street names, advertisements, print and electronic mass media, and a variety of other enterprises fully using the Latin alphabet by 2023.

Although the press services of the Senate, the Legislative Chamber of the Oliy Majlis, and a couple of other ministries started using the Latin alphabet on their social media pages, many other institutions still simultaneously use two different alphabets to accommodate the needs of Uzbekistan’s multiple generations. This practice is likely to continue for awhile.

Uzbekistan is one of the few countries that has undergone four different alphabet reforms in the a span of a century. The Cyrillic alphabet was introduced in 1940 in the country along with the other Central Asian republics colonized at the time by the Soviet Union. By contrast, Armenia, Georgia, and the Baltic states did not adopt the Cyrillic alphabet under Soviet rule. 

For centuries, Turkic-speaking nations in the Central Asian region used Arabic lettering. Modern Uzbek has roots in the Chagatai language, also called the Old Uzbek language (“eski o’zbek tili”) and was written in non-standard Arabic script between the 14th early 20th centuries. Following the slow colonization of the Central Asian region, first by the Russian Empire and then by the Soviet Union, the Latin alphabet was introduced as part of Moscow’s larger “korenizatsiya” (nativization or indigenization) policy in the late 1920s.

Among other Turkic nations of the region, and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus, Uzbeks also switched to the Latin script, which was being pushed both by some local intelligentsia and then Kremlin. By that time, local intellectuals had already been criticizing the Arabic script for lacking enough vowels to meet the needs of Turkic languages and other mismatches between the script and local native languages. For Moscow, on the other hand, the Arabic script was not secular enough to align with the “early-Soviet ideals of internationalism, Sovietization, and proletarianization,” as Oğul Tuna wrote in a recent article. Yet imposing the Cyrillic alphabet at that time could have been perceived as “overly imperialistic” and could have provoked further “nationalist, anti-Russian backlash,” which was still present in the region.

The First Turcological Congress, which took place in Baku, approved a switch to a Latinized alphabet known as Yanalif (Yangi Alifbe – new alphabet) for Turkic speaking nations of the Soviet Union in 1926. The initial steps of the transition started only from 1929 onward. 

The new alphabet, however, did not live long enough to take root. In order to distance Turkic republics under the Soviet regime from the influence of the gradually Westernizing Turkey and pan-Turkism, Moscow  decided to abolish the Latin script in favor of Cyrillic. This would also make it easier to teach the Russian language in the region. A decree on the transfer of the Uzbek script from the Latinized alphabet to the new Uzbek alphabet based on Russian Cyrillic was issued on May 8, 1940, and by July, a unified Uzbek orthography was adopted. For the next several decades, Cyrillic was taught in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, as literacy rates kept rising from 78.7 percent in 1939 to 99.7 percent by 1970.

Amid Mikhail Gorbachev’s chaotic leadership from 1985 to 1991, Uzbekistan’s Supreme Soviet adopted a law “On the State Language of the Uzbek SSR,” declaring the Uzbek language as the only state language in October 1989, signaling Tashkent’s “changing relation to Russia.” The Russian language, on the other hand, retained the status of a “language of interethnic communication” in Uzbekistan until 1995, when it was finally relegated to just another minority language.

Uzbekistan gained its independence in 1991 following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and just two years after that, on September 2, 1993, Tashkent adopted a law on a transition to the Latin script “based on the positive experience of 1929-1940 … and taking into account the wishes expressed by the representatives of the general public.” Although it officially intended to “accelerate the development of the republic in all directions and its entry into the world communication system,” this move also meant engineering some distance from Moscow and its influence. 

Uzbekistan is not the only nation formerly occupied by the Soviet Union that planned to ditch Cyrillic for the Latin script after gaining independence. Neighboring Turkmenistan replaced the Cyrillic alphabet with Latin letters in April 1993. Azerbaijan abandoned the Cyrillic alphabet for the Latin one in December 1991, just a couple of months after it became independent. Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was late to the “game” of renunciation in part because of the significant number of Russians and Russian speakers in Kazakhstan. He signed a decree on “On the translation of the Kazakh language alphabet from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin script” only in 2017 and the country plans to get started on the controversial transition in 2023. 

For Uzbekistan, Latinization is not only a “function of independence” and an act of “self-determination,” but also a step taken to become closer to other Turkic nations (Turkey, for example) and the West, where many nations speak English, German, French, and other languages that use a Latin alphabet. 

At the same time, the decision to switch was criticized by many, including by some Uzbeks who viewed the Latinization process as “Russophobic.” To many, it also meant further isolating the Uzbek diaspora abroad who use Cyrillic and, unlike the general population in Uzbekistan, would not be assisted by a government with mastering the new alphabet.

Even louder opprobrium was voiced in Russia, where some among the public saw it as discrimination against the Russian minority in Uzbekistan (7.7 percent of the population in Uzbekistan were ethnic Russians in 1991, whereas in Kazakhstan the figure was 37 percent pre-independence). Others were concerned with the apparent declining influence of Russia in the region. 

De-Cyrillization and Latinization, however, have been a lengthy journey for Uzbekistan. The initial decree in 1993 envisaged a gradual but full transition by September 2010. The 1993 alphabet was revised in May 1995 and the basic spelling rules were approved soon after, on August 24 of the same year. Since 1996, in all education institutions, educational processes are fully conducted using the Latin alphabet, with textbooks and other materials printed in  it. But the full transition was not completed by 2010 and was prolonged, while the alphabet itself went through a few more changes and corrections. In 2019, an updated alphabet was proposed, triggering loud discussions among the public. Finally in 2021, a roadmap for the gradual full transition to the Latin-based Uzbek alphabet was approved.

With an official literacy rate of almost 100 percent in Uzbekistan (for comparison, it was 11.6 percent in 1926, when a Latinized new alphabet was introduced for the first time), a full transition to the Latin script is largely a matter of preference for some. In a recent online public poll of 25,000 people, a local entertainment website found that 38 percent of their readers prefer the Latin script and another 34 percent the Cyrillic, while 28 percent of them noted they would not care about the script at all. Older generations, who were taught in Cyrillic at school, are more comfortable with Cyrillic, but that does not mean they cannot utilize the new alphabet.

At the same time, it also does not mean Cyrillic will be erased. The Russian language is still a mandatory subject at public schools and the young generation who grew up studying the Latinized alphabet are practically fluent in Cyrillic too.

The transition aligns with the nation’s goals of self-determination as well as acceleration of access to global communication systems, which largely operate using Latin scripts, while further withdrawing from Russia. Still, full compliance might need at least another year or two.