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Sociolinguistic Changes in Transformed Central Asian Societies

Birgit N. Schlyter, Stockholm University


On several occasions during the last century, language has been at the political forefront in Central Asia. Its significance as a symbol of identity and unity has been paramount. The establishment of new republics in Turkestan in the mid 1920’s, after the Bolshevik assumption of power, was based on ethnocultural conditions largely defined in linguistic terms. Language was also the last resort for Soviet politicians in their attempts to create and maintain a sense of all-union Soviet nationalism.

The role of language in the sociopolitical reform work after the Soviet demise has not been less significant. Once again, language is like a pawn in the political game used for moves towards new social orders, where language itself will also be reshaped.

Current language policies in Central Asian states developed parallel with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and were left in the hands of persons trained in Soviet-style state bureaucracy. Such bureaucracy paired with post-independence work on state- and nation-building with officially recognized state languages as consolidating and unifying symbols merely enforces the centralism of decision-making on linguistic issues and language planning in the Central Asian republics. The standardization of not only language corpus but also language usage by introducing one language variety which dominates over all other varieties, both other varieties of the same language and other languages, means linguistic reidentification for most people, not least language minorities.

The transition from old Soviet-style language policy to local Central Asian language policies under altered sociopolitical conditions is still in the state of a gradual shift of paradigms generating conflicts of interest not only between individuals or groups of individuals but also within individuals. Most of the men and women in charge of current language laws and public debate on linguistic issues in the Central Asian states were brought up with centralized Soviet language policy, designed and controlled by Moscow and most strongly characterized by the dominance and influence of the Russian language. Their own academic careers have in the majority of cases been based on Russian, and the regional languages that their new sociolinguistic planning is to be applied to are, to varying degrees, former standardized Soviet languages and as such more or less russified languages. In other words, part of the Soviet legacy that this generation of language reformers have to revisit involves their own linguistic skills.

All of the five state language laws passed by the Central Asian Supreme Soviets in 1989-1990 were much alike as to the basic principles and issues. They were in the first place language status laws laying down the rights and obligations in the use of languages and the choice of language in specific public settings and official functions. To a much lesser extent and merely in terms of general comments or recommendations the laws referred to language corpus issues, such as alphabet, vocabulary and grammar. These matters were later to be regulated by additional laws and proposals within the next few years after the first round of enactments of state language laws, at the same time as they were at the focus of attention in the public debates sparked off by the work on establishing state languages.

Much of the follow-up work of language law implementation in Central Asia at the present moment is concerned with, not the status but the state of languages. In this connection arguments are often pronounced concerning the necessity to improve not only people’s proficiency in the state language of their republic but also the very corpus of this language. The results of work on the improvement in language proficiency have not been very impressive so far. Nevertheless, they are important constituting the initial stage of an irreversible process towards a fundamental sociolinguistic transformation of Central Asian society. Likewise, the measures undertaken so far for work on language corpus are also characterized by a great portion of indeterminateness. This is especially true for vocabulary issues but also to a considerable extent for the attempts at script reforms.

In the lexial field, the general picture is, on the one hand, moderateness among responsible linguists, who caution against the threat of “anarchy” if too much “spontaniety” is allowed in this field, and, on the other hand, greater eagerness among language users in general to resuscitate older vocabulary or create words from indigenous language material in order to counterbalance the Russian influence on Central Asian lexical stock (e.g. Kaz. egemendik (Turkic) instead of suverenitet (< Russian), ‘sovereignty’, Turkm. otly (Turkic) instead of poezd (< Russian), ‘train’, and Uzb. tajëragoh (< Arabic and Persian) instead of Russian aeroport, ‘airport’). In the fields of new technology and new sociopolitical and economic paradigms, the principle of “internationalism” seems to be favored and there is no bias against Western, including Russian, terminology (e.g. Uzb. komp’juter (< Russian), biznes, menezher (< English)).

In none of the five Central Asian state language laws from 1989–1990 was there any statement or stipulation concerning the present-day and future alphabets of languages referred to in the laws, even though this was a much debated issue already at the time when these laws came into existence.

As far as Latin script for Turkic languages is concerned, endeavors have been made to reach a decision on a common set of Latin letters, on te basis of which future alphabets would be worked out for different Turkic languages including the letters needed for the particular language and excluding the ones not needed. Significantly enough, the proposed all-Turkic alphabet contained the entire Turkey Turkish alphabet which has been in use since 1928, with four additional letters not present in this alphabet.

Within the next year after the above-mentioned conferences in Turkey, three Central Asian parliaments passed laws to the effect of a change-over to new Latin alphabets for the titular languages of their republics. The only alphabet adhering to the general Turkic framework established and reinforced at the Turkey conferences was the Karakalpak one of 24 February 1994. Not only did they present a Latin alphabet of their own but they apparently also did this independently of the central government in Tashkent thus demonstrating the possibility of conducting an autonomous policy in linguistic issues internal to the Karakalpak Republic, as had been granted in the Uzbek state language law of 1989. The autonomy of Karakalpak language policy was further demonstrated by the fact that the Tashkent Parliament had passed an alphabet law just six months earlier introducing a new Latin alphabet for Uzbek which was of a different design from the all-Turkic and Karakalpak one.

Two years later, both alphabets were revised and the modified Karakalpak alphabet was brought closer to the modified Uzbek one.

The first post-Soviet alphabet for Turkmen, which belongs to the same subgroup of Turkic languages as Turkish, was adopted on 12 April 1993. What caused the greatest consternation over this alphabet was not the fact that it deviated from the already agreed-upon all-Turkic alphabet but rather the choice of some letter signs, the oddest ones being currency symbols.

In Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan, where the proportion of Russioans is higher and the Russian language is in a stonger position than in the other republics, no alphabet laws have yet been passed by their parliaments but commissions have been appointed and projects started for investigations and proposals both as regards revisions of the current Cyrillic alphabets and the introduction of new Latin alphabets.

As to Tajik alphabet revions, no decisions have been made official so far in Tajikistan, although the Arabic script has made its way back more strongly in this republic than in the others. One particular concern and maybe a future dilemma in this connection is the Tajik presence in Uzbekistan, where the Uzbek officials have been acting as if the Latin alphabet proposed for Uzbek could actually be used ubiquitously for any language spoken in the republic. Another question is what directives would be given to the large Uzbek population in Tajikistan regarding their mode of writing. During encounters in Samarkand and Bukhara in May 1996, some of my Tajik interlocuters at the universities in these cities were of the opinion that there should be cooperation and coordination on the alphabet issue between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, since the Uzbek and Tajik languages and literatures being so closely intertwined ought to employ the same type of script – which would be a great challenge, indeed.

At the present moment it is too early to make any definite forecasts as to the future balance of power between different foreign interethnic or international languages in the Central Asian region. Russian will remain in a leading position for a considerable length of time, as a natural corollary of the Soviet legacy and the fact that the Russians still total a number of about 10 million, or 17 percent of the population in the former Soviet Central Asian republics. At the same time there is today a growing interest in formerly largely ignored world languages from the West, first of all English. English-medium university education has been initiated at several locations, e. g. Bishkek, Kirghizstan.

Far Eastern languages, such as Chinese and Korean, may also become important foreign languages in Central Asia in the future depending on new developments in trade and business.

With the Turkic peoples constituting nearly 65 percent of the ex-Soviet Central Asian population, Turkey saw itself as the unquestionable foreign ally of the Central Asian republics, as soon as they were set free at the beginning of the 1990’s, not least from a linguistic point of view. Turkish is the largest Turkic language with more than 60 million speakers and, furthermore, the only Turkic language to have been used and developed as the official language of an independent state during the 20th century until the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Even though the implementation of Central Asian language laws is slow and hesitating, and despite much disagreement as to the aims and goals of current language policy, the intensified preoccupation with linguistic matters in the newly-independent states of the region has made people more conscious of their own linguistic destiny and language identities. The public attention devoted to statements made in the language laws and to linguistic issues in general has had its effect and changing language attitudes can be observed. For example, persons who have so far recognized Russian as their first and most important language and who seem to have been quite content with this situation can be heard today complaining over the fact that they never had a chance to learn their own indigenous language properly. Even individuals who use their non-Russian native language extensively in their daily lives may experience the shortcomings of their idiolect in this language more strongly than just a few years ago.

The enhanced linguistic and cultural awareness in Central Asia today reaches beyond the former Soviet republics to regions that are also affected by the new comprehensive sociopolitical reconfiguration of the Asian continent. All of these activities will add further dynamism to linguistic issues and have influence on both official language reform work and developments for which there are not yet any definite plans.


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