Monday, November 30, 2015

The Political Alphabet: The Cyrillic Alphabet in Non-Slavic Languages

by Bethany Wages

Bethany Wages is graduate student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (R.E.E.S) at the University of Illinois. When she wrote this blog post in 418 ‘Language and Minorities in Europe’ in the spring of 2015, she was planning on getting her M.A. in R.E.E.S and her MS in Library and Information Science. She is interested in Slavic reference librarianship and pre-Revolutionary Russian history.

The Cyrillic alphabet is most commonly associated with the Slavic languages of Russia and Eastern Europe. According to the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages,

The Cyrillic script is named after Saint Cyril, a missionary from Byzantium who, along with his brother, Saint Methodius, created the Glagolitic script. Modern Cyrillic alphabets developed from the Early Cyrillic script, which was developed during the 9th century in the First Bulgarian Empire (AD 681-1018) by a decree of Boris I of Bulgaria (Борис I). It is thought that St. Kliment of Ohrid, a disciple of Cyril and Methodius, was responsible for the script.
But what does an alphabet born in the Byzantine Empire have to do with languages whose origins are Turkic, Arabic, Caucasian, Urgic or even Chinese? This blog post will briefly attempt to address the historical reasons for Cyrillic script in non-slavic languages, which languages still use the Cyrillic alphabet, and the political controversy of the use of the Cyrillic alphabet after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The following image, taken from the language website, is an example of the current Russian Cyrillic alphabet with phonetic representations of each letter.

Image Source

The above alphabet was implemented in the newly formed Soviet Union in 1918 as to be more efficient, in the eyes of the Soviet government, than Old Orthodox Church Cyrillic.

The adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet into non-slavic languages stems from the Russification projects Stalin implemented during his Great Purges in 1939. During this time all languages within the USSR which previously used Latin alphabets were switched to Cyrillic alphabets which were modelled after the Russian alphabet. Under Stalin's rule, some languages in the Caucasian area were switched to Georgian script, but after he died they too were switched to Cyrillic. Cyrillicization continued throughout the USSR from the 1950s onward.

The complete list of languages which use Cyrillic alphabets is as follows: Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Rusyn, Bulgarian, Serbian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Bosnian, Karelian, Kildin Sami, Komi-Permyak, Mari alphabets, Kurdish, Ossetian, Tajik, Khalkha, Buryat, Kalmyk, Abkhaz, Avar, Lezgian, Azerbaijani, Bashkir, Chuvash, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tatar, Turkmen, Uzbek, Dungan, Tungusic languages, Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages, Eskimo-Aleut languages, and many other languages ("Cyrillic Alphabet," Omniglot). During Soviet rule this list was much longer, but “the end of the Soviet Union brought about another re-evaluation of the Cyrillic scripts and a fresh set of changes. As the Soviet era drew to a close, the component parts of the USSR began to assert their independence. As early as 1989, Moldova changed officially from Cyrillic to Latin script, making the written Moldovan identical with written Romanian. Even before this, moves towards latinisation had begun among the Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia" (Sebba).

So why is this important? Recently, Putin reinstated the idea that no alphabet, other than Cyrillic, will be acceptable in countries who reside within or receive stimulus from the Russian Federation. An example of this situation is the Kyrgyz language switch to the Cyrillic alphabet in 2002. What sparked the imposing of Cyrillic for a second time in the Eurasian region was the attempt of Tatarstan to romanize its language. In an article titled “Ideology and alphabets in the former USSR,” professor of Lancaster University Mark Sebba states that “In 2002 the Russian parliament passed a law requiring all official languages within the Russian Federation to use the Cyrillic alphabet. The legislation caused great controversy and anger in some quarters, especially in Tatarstan, the Russian republic whose attempt to romanise the script for the Tatar language provoked the new law” (Sebba).

Another example of this power move by the Russian Federation can be found in an article titled “Linguistic Policy in Kyrgyzstan,” professor of Humanities Nelly Portnova states that “[t]he main stimulus for changing the alphabet is that Cyrillic is associated with Russia and a geopolitical impasse, while the Latin alphabet is associated with western-type prosperity, in particular, with the alternative of a non-orthodox Muslim state, i.e. with Turkey" (Portnova).

In an extreme case, the country of Azerbaijan's Azeri speaking peoples have endured four script changes within the last century.  “In the twentieth century, Azerbaijan’s ‘‘scriptal environment,’’ to use Trix’s (1997: 1) apt term, has been dominated by three scripts, each promoted by a powerful adjacent neighbor emphasizing particular shared links: Arabic promoted by Iran, Cyrillic promoted by Russia, and Latin promoted by Turkey. After the Soviet Union incorporated Azerbaijan as a republic in 1920, the Soviets initiated a script shift from Arabic to Latin to divide the nation from Iran and its Muslim roots. A decade later, the Soviets forced another shift from the Latin to the Cyrillic script to alienate Azerbaijan and the Turkic republics from Turkey and from each other. Today, after independence in 1991, the pendulum has swung back in favor of the Latin script" (Hatcher).

The above picture, taken from Farida Sadikhova and Marjan Abadi's article “Where's the Azeri?”,  represents how confusing Azerbaijan's society has become. Here we see Cyrillyc and Latin scripts, along with English translation, and yet the actual Azeri script (which is an Arabic script) is nowhere to be seen. While some may consider language policy a soft political maneuver when compared to things like economic policy, language policies, such as the Cyrillic policy, infringe upon the culture and identity of non-slavic ethnicities and countries, such as Kyrgyzstan whose language origins are not Slavic. Political power can clearly be imposed through linguistic policy.


“Cyrillic alphabet.” (accessed March29, 2015).

“Cyrillic script.” (accessed March 28, 2015).

Hatcher, Lynley. "Script Change in Azerbaijan: Acts of Identity."International Journal OfThe Sociology Of Language 192, (2008): 105-116 (accessed March 28, 2015).

Portnova, Nelly. “Linguistic Policy in Kyrgyzstan.”  CA&CC Press. 2002. (accessed March 29, 2015).

Sadikhova, Farida and Marjan Abadi. “Where's the Azeri?” Azerbaijan International. Spring, 2000, no     8.1: (accessed     April 18, 2015).

Sebba, Mark. 2006. "Ideology and alphabets in the former USSR.” Language Problems &Language Planning 30, no. 2: 99-125 (accessed March 28, 2015).

Silver, Brian. “The Impact of Urbanization and Geographical Dispersion on the Linguistic     Russification of Soviet Nationalities.” Demography. Vol. 11, No. 1 (Feb., 1974), pp.89-103. (accessed March 28, 2015).


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