IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions | Central Asia


Language policies and Language Movements in Central Asia -

In 1989-1990, when the Soviet Union still existed, the titular languages of Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan were proclaimed the official languages of their respective republics. This was no surprise to anyone. It was part of a general trend among the Soviet republics. Similar developments could be witnessed in other parts of the union. Furthermore, it was generally believed, or expected, that this was but a natural course of events, and a part of the endeavours made by groups of people, possibly the majority, to gain autonomy, or even independence.

By Birgit N. Schlyter

This expectation was reinforced - not least among linguists in the West - by the final collapse of Soviet socialism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The symbolic impact of language is generally recognized; it easily moulded into a feature of identity or an index of cultural belonging of one sort or the other. In Western thinking it has been provided with a significant political dimension by being included in definitions of ethnicity and 'nation', the latter term being placed in direct correspondence to the notion of 'state'.
In 1991, as the Soviet Union was split up and new states emerged in the aftermath, the idea of 'one state one nation', strengthened. Everybody started talking about nation-building, one important ingredient of which was language. For seven decades the inhabitants of the newly independent Central Asian states had experienced nation-building as members of the Soviet state. Having never experienced it as a sovereign people left them with the responsibility of singling out the features of nationality for themselves, which was to put it mildly, a pretty tall order.
Another conceptual problem that the Central Asians are now facing is that of language policy. Their legacy here is, quite naturally, Soviet language policy, which during the Soviet era was highly centralized, designed and controlled as it was by Moscow, and which was characterized first and foremost by the dominance and influence of the Russian language. Consequently, present-day Central Asian language policies, if there are any, are centralized rather than decentralized, though this time at the local level instead of at a broad all-union level - and the languages to which present-day language policies in former Soviet Union are to be applied are, to varying degrees, former standardized Soviet languages and as such more or less russified languages.
Definitions of language policy vary, but in my research on the language situation in Uzbekistan, I stick to a rather narrow definition: 'that which an authority, for example, the government of a country, both allows and stipulates as far as language practice is concerned'. Language reform - another notion - is promoted both by laws and regulations, i.e. language policy, and language planning and language plan implementation.

Language reform awareness
The notions of language policy and language reform are often treated as if their principle concern is language or languages. In fact, they are not. They concentrate on language practice, or more precisely, on the language users, and part of the implementation work consists of arguing as convincingly as possible for the proper justification and advantages of the language reform envisaged. A possible model in this context would be to depict language reform and language community as two separate entities interrelated by features of the latter, such as socio-demographic structure, language habits, changes in language habits, language attitudes etc. - and also something that I call language reform awareness, a notion referring to the fact that people must be informed and kept aware of the language reform process and somehow be convinced of its rightness in order to make the language reform catch on and take effect.
The degree of the public's 'language reform awareness' and engagement is dependent on the general socio-political importance of linguistic matters. The language issue in Uzbekistan is not as politically 'hot' today as it was earlier. Uzbek has been established as the state language and is safe in this respect. At the same time there are some signs of fatigue caused by practical intricacies and the slowness to enforce language reform. Despite such set-backs one has to say that an impressive amount of substantial language reform work has already been done in Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks are conducting a fairly broad-scale language policy which includes scrutinizing both alphabet and vocabulary. I would venture to make the statement that at present Uzbekistan is the only Central Asian state with a language policy in the sense of a strategy for a fundamental change of language practice in the country. In other states and nations it would perhaps be better to talk about inclinations in linguistic matters rather than fully fledged language policies.
The two alphabets that have been proposed so far for Uzbek - one in 1993 and the other in 1995 - have been heavily criticized. From a linguistic point of view they can hardly be regarded as improvements on the current Cyrillic alphabet; they are more or less just schemes for Cyrillic-Latin transliteration. The preparations for the change-over to Latin script have slowed down in Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, a detailed plan has been worked out for the implementation of the Latin alphabet for Uzbek, at least in Uzbek schools and higher institutes of learning. One special complication in the case of Uzbekistan is the presence within Uzbek state borders of the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakistan with its own autonomous language policy, enshrined in fairly strong terms in the Uzbek state language laws. So far, there have been no definite signs of any independent Karakalpak language policy.
Another drawback in the case of Karakalpak, is the uncertainty about the plans to adopt a Latin alphabet for Kazakh. Karakalpak is much closer to Kazakh than to Uzbek, and if this language is to adjust its script to that of any other language, that should be Kazakh. To my knowledge, no alphabet law has yet been passed by the Kazakh Parliament.

Turkic alphabet
Especially in Kazakhstan, but to some extent also in Kirghizistan, the proportions of Russians are much higher than in the other three states, which has inevitably had an impact on language attitudes and the handling of language issues, not least the Russian language issue. In the latest Kazakh constitution from 1995, Russian was elevated from its status as 'language of interethnic communication' to the status of 'official language', while Kazakh remained the sole 'state language'. In Kirghizstan, by an amendment to the constitution in 1996, Russian was de facto made into the second official language of the republic. This was in direct contrast to pronouncements in the Kirghiz 1989 state language law, according to which Russian should be phased out as a language of official government work by 1999.
The first Central Asian republic to make its national language the state language of the republic was Tajikistan. Tajikistan has a large Uzbek population, and concessions were made in the Tajik language law of 1989 to the practice and teaching of Uzbek, in the same manner as concessions were made for the use of the 'international' Russian language as well as Russian-Tajik bilingualism in the republic. Provisions were also to be made for the preservation and use of minority languages in Gorno Badakhshan. The Tajik language law came into effect on 1 January, 1990.
Subsequent language laws in the other Central Asian republics were provided with timetables giving different deadlines for different articles or sets of articles. Generally speaking, transition periods of around ten years for the complete implementation of all articles of the language laws were envisaged. This decade is now coming to an end, and a great deal still has to be done.
I have not heard of any official decision or concrete proposals about Tajik alphabet revisions, although Arabic script has made a stronger comeback in this republic than in the others. However, the Latin script has its proponents even among the Tajiks. Some hold the opinion that there should be co-operation and co-ordination on the alphabet issue between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, since the Uzbek and Tajik languages and literatures are so closely intertwined they ought to employ the same type of script - not a very easy task. The last republic to proclaim its state language was Turkmenistan. According to Charles Carlson Turkmenistan was the only Central Asian republic to put its national language on a par with Russian as an international language.
With these developments of new Central Asian Turkic alphabets, the attempts to create a basic, or general, Turkic-Latin alphabet seem to have been seriously hampered. At the beginning of the 1990s, Turkey played an active role on this issue. The basic Turkic alphabet adopted at a conference at the Marmara University in Istanbul in November 1991 has appeared from time to time in publications where it is presented as the still valid new Turkic-Latin alphabet. However, not only Uzbekistan, including Karakalpakistan, but also Turkmenistan and Kazakstan have introduced alternative alphabets that are not just modifications of the basic Turkic alphabet but alphabets which differ on certain fundamental points.
Turkey seems to have become quite disencouraged by this development, but this country is still interested in its Central Asian brethren and is now approaching them in other ways, through small businesses and through education, in which not only a Turkic-Turkish alphabet but the Turkish language itself is being launched. With this in mind, what will be the most favoured foreign language in future Central Asia - one might ask - English or Turkish. Probably English, because Turkish is after all no foreign language in Turkic-speaking Central Asia, as a pan-Turkic Turkish teacher once put it.

When a nation becomes a state, bureaucracy makes its entrance into the organization of this state. The Central Asian language policies are good of bureaucratic state language policies. In the presence of bureaucracy, dynamism and flexibility are easily lost. The republics under consideration belong to a still larger Central Asia, which in most of its parts is in a process of cultural metamorphosis. There are language movements going on in the vicinity of these republics - language movements that are not necessarily supported by any state bureaucracy and which may, therefore, have stronger features of spontaneity. At the Stockholm Forum for Central Asian Studies, at present, besides my own research on the linguistic structure of Uzbekistan and language renewal in this country, we have a project on Uighur and other minority languages in Sinkiang. In another project on 'Cultural Syncretism in Central Asia', the phenomenon of 'mixed languages' will be studied. The current new linguistic and cultural awareness and transformation in large parts of the Central Asian region will be of immediate future interest to researchers and this large-scale transformation might well add dynamism to linguistic issues and have an influence on attitudes towards language and culture even in state bureaucracies.

Birgit N. Schlyter is attached to the Forum for Central Asian Studies, Stockholm University. She can be reached by e-mail: FoCAS@orient.su.se

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions | Central Asia