Spurred by Language Hat's post on origins of Bishkek, the (current name of) the capital of Kyrgyzstan, I typed in some sections of a fiction set against the background of Stalin-era Central Asia, featuring the effort to develop a "New Turkic Alphabet". Looking around for the true history, I found that Mark Dickens has posted a fascinating paper (from 1989) entitled "Soviet Language Policy in Central Asia".
Here are a few relevant quotes:
Central Asian culture was abruptly altered by the advent of Islam in the area, as the armies of the Caliph swept across the Oxus River (now called the Amu Darya) in 673 AD. By the early eighth century, the Arabs had consolidated their power in what was then known as Transoxiana (The Land Across the Oxus), and by the tenth century, Islam was firmly established as the religion of the general population (although some of the more nomadic tribes in the north continued their animistic and shamanistic practices for several centuries after). Arabic became the language not only of religion but also of higher learning and the Arabic script was employed in all writing, although only a privileged few were able to read and write. In addition to Arabic, classical Persian was also utilized in academic circles. However, most of the people continued to speak in various Turkic or Iranian dialects.
Over the next several centuries, the Central Asian cities of Bukhara, Khiva, and later Samarkand became elite centers of learning in the Islamic world. The area has produced several famous sons, including Al-Khwarizmi (783-847), a brilliant mathematician who has been called "the father of algebra", and the great philosopher, physician, and poet Ibn Sina (980-1037), known in the West as Avicenna. Over the years, a large body of Central Asian literature developed in Arabic, Persian, and Chagatay, a Turkic literary language named after one of the sons of Chingiz Khan. However, despite the great accomplishments of the scholars, most Turkestanis remained illiterate. Indeed, there was little need for the vast majority of them, whether merchants, farmers, or herdsmen, to know how to read or write. In the absence of widespread literacy, though, a rich body of oral literature developed; Central Asia is still renowned as the home of some of the longest epic poems in the world.
Dickens observes that the Bolsheviks decreed as early as 1919 that "All illiterate citizens of the Soviet Republic [the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic, or RSFSR] aged between 8 and 50 years are required to learn to read and write in their native language, or in the Russian language, as they prefer", with a motivation expressed by Lenin as "It is impossible to build a Communist society in a country where people are illiterate". These efforts (to promote literacy, not to build communism) were eventually successful.
The second phase of the literacy campaign began in 1921, its completion coinciding with that of the First Five-Year Plan in 1932. By the end of this phase, the literacy rates in the Tajik SSR, Turkmen SSR, and Uzbek SSR had risen to 52%, 61%, and 72%, respectively (Tonkonogaja 1976:48 - it should be noted that these figures as well as those in Table 2, include all the inhabitants of a given SSR, not just the members of the ethnic group it is named after). The third phase in the campaign began in 1933 and, by the time of the 1939 census, the literacy rates in the five Central Asian republics were 83.6% (Kazakh SSR), 79.8% (Kirghiz SSR), 62.8% (Tajik SSR), 77.7% (Turkmen SSR), and 78.7% (Uzbek SSR). Although there were temporary setbacks due to World War II, this overall upward trend continued after the war until near universal literacy was achieved in Soviet Central Asia and throughout the USSR in 1950's (see Tables 2 and 3). Nothing like this has ever been achieved in any other Muslim country in Asia.
Among the things that had to be done was to create "languages" out of traditional dialect continua:
One of the chief linguistic tasks of the new government was to develop a separate literary language for each significant ethnic group in the Soviet Union. "In the USSR, the emergence of a written language is not always the result of a long internal evolution; it is frequently the consequence of a decision by the central authorities who can present a community with a literary language worked out by Russian linguists" (Bennigsen and Quelquejay 1961:16). Each Central Asian Group chosen to constitute a nation was given a literary language which was artificially differentiated from those of neighbouring nations which were often linguistically similar (as, for instance, with the Kazakh and the Kirghiz). Thus, the linguistic unity of the area was broken up while differences between the languages were emphasized. This process of separation was helped further by the National Delimitation of 1924, which fixed the boundaries of the five Central Asian republics, primarily along ethnic and linguistic lines.
One obvious alternative would have been to create a single pan-Turkic (or at least a single pan-Central-Asian-Turkic) literary language, but this was not the party's choice:
It is interesting to note that the Soviets could have developed a common Turkic language in order to promote sliyaniye, but they chose not to.
Although on the surface the coalescence of many Turkic languages into a single Turkic language would have corresponded to the CPSU program position on 'purging language differences,' it would have contradicted the Bolshevik's real aim, that is to 'purge language differences' in such a way that the Russian language would eventually supersede all other languages (Bruchis 1984:135).
The development and promotion of a common Turkic language, though linguistically logical, would have been politically suicidal, especially as the Soviet leadership began to realize that the expected world revolution was not as imminent as they had hoped. The reality of the situation was that the USSR was increasingly surrounded by political systems hostile to Communism. There was a need to consolidate internal unity, identifying the various Soviet languages with Russian and setting them apart from outside influences.
In order to achieve this end in Central Asia, the Soviet language policy encompassed three broad aims: “first, 'the "completion" and "enrichment" of existing languages, the widening of their scope and the transformation of tribal and community languages into developed national languages with a rich terminology and vocabulary'; secondly, the removal of the large Arabic and Persian loan vocabulary inherited from the Muslim conquests; and thirdly, the establishment of Russian as 'a second native language'."(Wheeler 1964:195).
This was the political and linguistic background of the "New Turkic Alphabet".
At the time of the Revolution, many of the languages of the national minorities lacked written forms. Others employed alphabets which were deemed to be unsuitable by the authorities for various reasons.Soviet linguists set about the monumental task of devising alphabets for those groups which lacked them (over fifty languages received a written form for the first time) and modifying the writing systems which were considered to be inadequate for the purposes of the state. Certainly, the need for an effective vehicle to spread literacy was a legitimate reason for doing so in many cases, but other motivations can be inferred from this action as well.
One of the alphabets slated for reform was the Arabic script used throughout Central Asia, as well as among the other Muslim nationalities in the newly-formed Soviet Union. Various pragmatic reasons were given for the proposed reforms and indeed there were certain Central Asian intellectuals who wanted to get rid of the script. One of the chief problems was that the rich system of vowel harmony found in Turkic languages cannot be represented adequately by the Arabic alphabet, since it has letters for only three vowel phonemes. In addition, the script contains several letters for sounds not found in either Iranian or Turkic languages, and most graphemes have different forms depending on their position in the word. All this tended to make it a difficult alphabet to learn and hence a potential barrier to the spread of literacy.
However, there were equally important political reasons why the alphabet was not satisfactory to the new Soviet rulers. As the alphabet of the Qur'an and of all the great Islamic literature of the past, whether Arabic or Persian, it served as a powerful symbol of the natural ties that the Turkestanis had with the rest of the Muslim world, particularly the Arabs and Persians, who had so shaped the religious and cultural landscape of the area. Indeed, most of the Turkic languages had a significant percentage (e.g. 20-40%) of Arabic and Persian loan elements. In an atheistic state that realized the power of symbols, such a potential rallying point for pan-Islamism could not be permitted to remain. In addition, the common alphabet made communication between the Turkic peoples of the Soviet Union, as well as their kinsmen across the border, all too easy. The spectre of pan-Turkism was equally as threatening to the Soviets as that of pan-Islamism.
In the early 1920's, the steps taken away from Arabic script were gradual ones, limited to adding some diacritical marks and eliminating unused letters. However, the next stage was the one described (accurately, aside from the lurid and fantastical novelistic interpolations) by Pynchon:
The next step in alphabet reform came at the 1926 Baku (Azerbaijan) Turkological Congress, which proposed the adoption of the Latin script for all Turkic languages in the USSR. By 1930, the Arabic script had been replaced by the Birlashdirilmish yangi Turk alifbesi (New Unified Turkic alphabet). By 1935, a total of seventy Soviet languages (not all of them Turkic), representing 36 million people, were being written in the Latin alphabet, modified by diacritics where needed. Although this obviously slowed down the literacy campaign, it also came at a time when there was a new push to eliminate illiteracy. Furthermore, this changeover coincided with the adoption of the Latin alphabet in Turkey, at the instigation of Ataturk. The alphabet was viewed as a culturally neutral script, unlikely to communicate any desires for Russification on the part of the Communist leadership.
At the same time, however, the Latinization of the script "dealt a crushing blow to the Moslem clergy, which utilized the Arabic script as an instrument of spiritual oppression of the... working people"(cited in Isayev 1977:242). It cut off Soviet Muslims from their literary past and the traditional ties to Arab and Persian culture, as well as the rest of the Muslim world. Furthermore, it served to emphasize rather than diminish linguistic differences between the Soviet Central Asians and their compatriots in adjoining countries. Finally, the Muslim clerics and intelligentsia, two possible sources of leadership for anti-Soviet agitation, were essentially reduced to the status of semi-literates, having to learn how to read and write all over again. "For the generations beginning their education in Soviet schools and adult education classes, the literacy blackboard was wiped clean, ready for new writing"(Bacon 1966:191).
The Latin-alphabet writing systems were artificially differentiated to make the different languages seem more different -- and then they were all replaced by Cyrillic, forcing everyone to learn to read all over again!
Further modifications to the Latin script served to create artificial differences between related Turkic languages as the same phoneme was represented by different letters in different languages, a practice which was intensified when these languages were subsequently switched over to the Cyrillic alphabet. There is no good linguistic reason for having done this. An important change in the alphabet of a specific language occurred in 1934 when the standard for literary Uzbek was switched from a northern dialect which utilized vowel harmony to the Iranized Tashkent dialect, which had lost its harmony. This necessitated removing four vowel letters from the alphabet, thus further differentiating Uzbek from related Turkic languages, as well as frustrating the attempts of Uzbek nationalists to maintain the purity of the language. A final change came in 1938 when the letters in the Latin alphabet were rearranged to conform to the sequence of the Cyrillic script, as if in anticipation of the next move.
In the late 1930's, the suggestion was made that the Latin script should be replaced by the Cyrillic. Many of the potential voices of opposition had been silenced in the terrible purges carried out by Stalin during that decade, in which the majority of the Central Asian intelligentsia were liquidated and the remainder were reduced to unwilling collaboration with the regime. The switch to Cyrillic in Central Asia was largely completed by 1940. Again, linguistic reasons were given for this move but, contrary to what Soviet linguists may maintain, the Cyrillic alphabet is no better for representing the Turkic sounds than the Latin script, nor does it involve fewer diacritical marks. Extra letters for certain Turkic sounds are necessary in both systems. The contention that the non-Russian peoples of the Soviet Union, recognizing the great value of the Russian script, desired to make this switch also arouses suspicion.
You can read the rest for yourself.
This leaves me with one more question: what were Pynchon's sources for the history of this period? Since Gravity's Rainbow was originally published in 1973, the source certainly wasn't Dickens' (1989) paper.
[Update: Jim Bisso answered my question, as you can read here. ]
Posted by Mark Liberman at September 27, 2004 05:14 PM