The Central Asian Alphabet Issue

Yves here. Readers were debating the Chinese government’s efforts to simplify its characters, or as other readers argued, impose new and/or fewer meanings on them. I thought this post on alphabet use in the ‘Stans would dovetail with that discussion.

By Barkley Rosser, Professor of Economics at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Originally published at EconoSpeak

It remains too soon to comment in detail on the current upheaval in Kazakhstan as it is simply impossible to figure out what is happening, with multiple conflicting accounts and claims coming from many sources. Rather I want to comment on a deeper question that has been brought up in connection with this, although not central to it, but one that affects Kazakhstan’s Central Asian neighbors as well: what alphabet should they use? This is something that is an ongoing issue in several of these nations with changes happening.

Prior to 1928 all of what are now the five Central Asian nations that used to be republics of the USSR: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan used some variation of the Arabid alphabet, with Russia conquering the Samarkand and Bukhara khanates only in the late 1800s. This reflected the dominance of Sunni Islam in all these territories culturally and politically. This area was not even part of the USSR when it was first declared on Dec. 30, 1922, having a vague status while nominally under Bolshevik control, but ransacked starting in the 1920s and through most of the 1930s by traditionalist rebels known as Basmachi, a word that actually means “bandits.”

Only in 1928 with Stalin’s coming to supreme power in the USSR did the efforts to “modernize” and integrate into the USSR more formally begin in Central Asia. Part of this effort involved eliminating the use of the Arabic alphabet, with initially the Latin alphabet being introduced. This reflected the local ongoing modernization movement associated with pan-Turkism (a part of a broader movement known as pan-Turanism), which sought to unify all the Turkic speaking people under a single political entity, with the push to adopt the Latin alphabet coming out of Turkey, where Kemal Ataturk had replaced the Arabic alphabet with the Latin one as part of a Europeanizing secular modernism. That this movement had spread to Turkic speaking parts of Central Asia made it easier to push it through to adoption (note that in Tajikistan they speak an Iranian-related language, not a Turkic one).

Given this connection with the pan-Turkic movement it is not surprising that eventually Stalin became frustrated with this and wanted a greater national unity within the USSR. So in 1940 he imposed the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russia on all the Central Asian republics. At both times there was resistance to the alphabet change, with this even erupting into violence at certain points. Curiously the first place I read about this was in Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, where there is much discussion of aspects of ethnicities and their issues and movement during WW II.

One might have thought that given how long it had been in place there would be no further changes. But with the fall of the USSR at the end of 1991 and the Central Asian republics becoming independent nations, the issue reappeared, with indeed each alphabet having its own symbolic as well as practical implications. Clearly maintaining Cyrillic implied remaining reasonably closely tied to Russia in various ways, economically and politically. Rising Islamic fundamentalist movements urged a return to Arabic, although that has not happened in any of these five nations, with only Tajikistan having such a movement being sufficiently strong that there has been any serious push for that to happen. The main rival has been the Latin alphabet, offering both a return to links with Turkey, but also with the West, especially the US, but also to some extent an opening to China, where there is much more knowledge and use of the Latin alphabet than the Cyrillic.

Two of these five nations have retained Cyrillic with only minor pushes to change, the two smallest: Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which despite much economic influence now coming from China remain strongly linked to Russia and part of its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which has sent in troops to Kazakhstan, also a member (the other members are Russia, Belarus, and Armenia). I do note that while it remains a part of the CSTO, Kyrgyzstan is the only one of these five to have actually had more or less democratic governments for periods of time since 1991.

Curiously the one that first changed to Latin and has stuck with it almost immediately with independence was Turkmenistan. This is the most isolated of these states, indeed of the former Soviet republics. It is a strict dictatorship run as a personality cult and has stayed out of all alliances, although it does belong to the UN. It is the third largest in size in both population and land area. It manages to maintain its isolated independence due to having major natural gas supplies by the Caspian Sea, exports of which have kept Turkmenistan from needing economic assistance from any outsiders.

The largest in population and second in land area is Uzbekistan, which was long ruled by its former Soviet Communist Party Chief, Islam Karimov, who died in 2016 to be replaced by Shakvat Mirziyoyev. The Karimov regime was probably second only to Belarus in maintaining something close to the old Soviet economic system, with Karimov as a full dictator. Since his death his successor has introduced various market reforms, but not much in the way of political liberalization. But Karimov made a move with independence to adopt the Latin alphabet. But this has not been completed and both Latin and Cyrillic are used, although there has been a long run trend to full adoption of the Latin alphabet. it is ironic that while Karimov followed the Soviet economic model, he sought to remain more independent of Russia than say Belarus. But the alphabet issue remains live and not fully resolved.

Which brings us to the now troubled Kazakhstan. I note that almost nobody was predicting any kind of political upheaval there. It was one of the few former republics that moved up in its ranking among them on real per capita income, with Kazakhstan long a major exporter of oil and natural gas. Like Uzbekistan it was ruled by its last Soviet Communist Party Chief, Nursultan Nazarbaev, now aged 81. There was lots of corruption and political repression, but that is true in the other Central Asian nations, and Kazakhstan seemed to be doing better than them, with Nazarbaev making deals with both the US and China, while maintaining a primary and close relationship with Russia, not only by being in the CSTO but hosting Russia’s space base at Baikonur and with Russian troops helping to protect its oil wells in its southwestern areas near the Caspian Sea (second in population in the region, it is the largest in land area and the second largest of the former Soviet republics, with its eastern boundary on the Xinjiang province of China, and it having a Uighur minority population). Kazakhstan has long had a diverse population, with about a quarte being Slavic, mostly Russian, with many of those moving into northern Kazakhstan in the early 1960s as part of Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands program. But up until now conflicts between the many groups there have not been a problem.

Regarding the alphabet issue, it long continued to use the Cyrillic alphabet. But then in 2017, the current president, Kossym-Jormat Tokayev, who attended a KGB higher academy in the Soviet era and has served as ambassador to both China and the UN, convinced Nazarbaev to make the switch to the Latin alphabet from the Cyrillic one. At the time Russian President Putin expressed unhappiness about this move, which may have had more to do with China than the US, with a major railroad part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative goes through Kazakhstan. Nazarbaev hand selected Tokayev to succeed him as president in 2019, with Nazarbaev moving “upstairs” to be Chair of the National Security Council. In the face of the current upheavals, Tokayev has removed Nazarbaev from his position.

In any case, the Russian propaganda outlet RT has claimed that Putin has demanded as a condition to send troops in Tokayev should recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea and also readopt the Cyrillic alphabet. It seems that Putin has not insisted on this and has sent troops in even without this change. But this is a sign that this remains an important issue for Putin, and we may yet see pressure on Kazakhstan to revert alphabetically.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Every country needs a King Sejong who will bite the bullet and just invent an entirely phonetic alphabet specific to your own language, as Hangul is for Korea. It would have helped the sanity of generations of Mandarin and Japanese learners had the Chinese and Japanese followed suit (especially the latter, the Japanese alphabet is by far the craziest mess in the world of languages).

    Failing that, for all its faults the Roman alphabet is still king when it comes to a reasonably flexible and easy to learn system for most languages. Its proven fairly easy to adopt it even to tonal languages like Vietnamese. If Beijing had pressed ahead with Pinyin it may well have helped Mandarin spread far more as a language outside China.

    1. DJG, Reality Czar

      Those Asian kings were darn busy. I recalled that the Thai script also supposedly was sponsored / invented by a king.

      Here’s a Wikipedia explanation:
      “””The Thai alphabet is derived from the Old Khmer script (Thai: อักษรขอม, akson khom), which is a southern Brahmic style of writing derived from the south Indian Pallava alphabet (Thai: ปัลลวะ). According to tradition it was created in 1283 by King Ramkhamhaeng the Great (Thai: พ่อขุนรามคำแหงมหาราช).[1] The earliest attestation of the Thai script is the Ram Khamhaeng Inscription dated to 1292, however some scholars question its authenticity.[2] The script was derived from a cursive form of the Old Khmer script of the time.[1] It modified and simplified some of the Old Khmer letters and introduced some new ones to accommodate Thai phonology. It also introduced tone marks. Thai is considered to be the first script in the world that invented tone markers to indicate distinctive tones”””

      Tones: They sure do complicate the script.

      And I gather that Japanese doesn’t acknowledge its two-tone system in its scripts. Or am I wrong about that?

      Luckily, we don’t have some horrible orientalist entertainment along the lines of The King and I to explain how some dotty Occidental intervened and saved the writing system!~

    2. EarlyGray

      You probably know this, but for those who don’t, two of the alphabets, hiragana and katakana, that Japanese uses are actually fully phonetic. Kanji (Chinese characters) is what causes the mess, as each character represents a meaning rather than a phonetic sound per se, and it ends up that many characters have multiple readings associated with them. When you come across a new word (often made up of two Kanji characters), there may be multiple plausible options for its pronunciation, and you just have to remember the correct one. Very often Japanese themselves will have no idea how a place-name or person’s name containing rare characters should be pronounced until they are told. That said, there is no desire at all in the country to remove the Chinese characters and move to a more logical system; it’s seen as a vital part of the culture.

      Interestingly though, apparently dyslexia is unknown in Japan (and presumably China). The characteristics of the script seem to make it not cause the problems in deciphering that the Latin alphabet causes some people.

      As an another aside, my daughter, who is going through the Japanese school system was complaining the other day about how illogical English spelling and pronunciation is and I replied that it couldn’t be anywhere as hard as learning Kanji. She vehemently disagreed, she said she hadn’t found learning Kanji to be hard at all, unlike her poor father who struggled for years with it!

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Strictly speaking, Kana aren’t fully phonetic (at least compared to hangul) as they don’t always clearly indicate if vowels are voiced or unvoiced, nor do they give any clues to pitch changes (i.e. the difference between chopsticks and bridge, or sweet and rainy, etc). But its pretty close. An argument is of course that kanji allows you to avoid any confusion when facing words where pitch pattern matters. Some dictionaries (such as Apples inbuilt Japanese dictionary) includes additional notation for pitch pattern which is very useful for learners. But even Japanese native speakers sometimes get tripped up on this as you know, especially with names. Its like with stress patterns in English – I’ve often thought that Irish road signs should have stress pattern markers to stop English people grossly mispronouncing placenames like Clones and Drogheda.

        I didn’t know that about dyslexia, thats very interesting. But fully understanding kanji of course can still be quite difficult, as anyone who has stood by as Japanese people earnestly discuss what a particular sentence or signpost actually means can attest.

        I’ve heard quite a few people who love kanji – I think the key is to look on each one as a puzzle to be solved. Perhaps your daughter adopted that mindset very early. I find them enormously difficult, although curiously I find that increasingly I can recognise ones in sentences when I can’t identify if just shown out of context.

        1. EarlyGray

          What finally helped make Kanji click for me was when after a few years here I cam across Dr. Heisig’s method. A keyword is associated with each primitive and these are combined to make stories associated with the meaning of each character. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it did for me. This method is meant for adult learners from abroad however, it’s certainly not the method used to teach Japanese children in schools.
          I’ll ask my daughter about how she went about learning the Kanji, though likely she’ll give the same answer I would if asked how I learnt to spell – I don’t know, I just learnt it.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            I have Heisigs first book (its quite a doorstopper). Its very good, although I found it very hard to transfer recognising the kanji as an isolated symbol to being able to read them in sentences. I’ve probably confused myself by using too many inconsistent methods (for some reason, I find visual cues more useful than mnemonics). At the moment, I’m just focusing on flicking from inputting text back to individual kanji flashcards. I’m slowly getting there, but its a long slow grind.

            As you know, this is the huge problem with Japanese as opposed to learning other languages. Its almost like learning parallel languages. Its unsurprising that non Japanese tend to be only good at one aspect of the language, as opposed to being very good readers, listeners, and speakers.

        2. EarlyGray

          I’ve often thought that Irish road signs should have stress pattern markers to stop English people grossly mispronouncing placenames like Clones and Drogheda.

          True. I don’t think any pattern markers will ever help with Dun Laoghaire though.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            ha! Indeed. I’ve heard it suggested more than most that the spelling (which is the original Irish spelling, not the anglicisation of ‘Dunleary’), was chosen specifically to annoy the very anglophile population of the former ‘Kingstown’ harbour. It must be one of the few places in the world where the natives find the place name harder to pronounce than visitors.

        3. scott s.

          I only know language from the viewpoint of computer user interfaces, but Chinese is considered a “meta-language”. While most (PRC) Chinese can read a writing in the gov’t supported “simplified Chinese” script (Hans), the spoken language differs (for example, Cantonese vs Mandarin).

          With respect to Latin scripts, there are some variations, such as Fractur (Latf) which may be more historically significant at this point than currently significant. Then, considering Turkish, there is the Turkish “i” problem which trips up programmers routinely.

          Google/Adobe have attempted to provide complete (or at least extensive) font coverage for east-Asian language scripts. This has had some technical challenges as the dominant font design, open type, has a limit of 64k distinct “glyphs”. This, combined with unicode consortium decisions regarding the mapping of script to codepoints has resulted in the release of unique fonts for simplified, traditional, Hong Kong, Japanese, and Korean usages. In a number of instances the glyphs for a given codepoint differ.

          There are a number of recognized languages where you can specify Latn or Cyrl script for the written form.

      2. Sara K.

        I’m no expert, and dyslexia across languages is complex, but my understanding is that: dyslexia in Chinese has a different neurological basis than dyslexia in English, which is why some people are dyslexic with one writing system but not the other, and that Japanese speakers have an unusually low prevalence of dyslexia because somehow their hybrid writing system is more dyslexic-friendly than either hanzi alone or English-in-Latin-letters.

        Another point is that hanzi (and perhaps also kanji and hanja) are much easier for deaf people to learn than phonetic writing systems. When I lived in Taiwan, I found it remarkable how much more integrated deaf people were in mainstream society, and perhaps it was because it was easier for them to learn how to read and write the official language (Mandarin Chinese). Also, Chinese speakers generally consider it much less of a big deal to switch to writing if spoken communication isn’t working than English speakers.

      3. Dwight

        The Chinese characters are hard, but I can’t imagine learning Japanese without them because of all the homonyms and abbreviations. Koreans have stopped using Chinese characters for their Sino-Korean words, so I guess it’s possible, but I think educated people still learn Chinese characters so they may still be in the mental background as they read hangul-only texts.

        1. Dwight

          Homophones more precise, thanks LadyXoc. I think your point also applies to Japanese, at least the Sino-Japanese words.

    3. LadyXoc

      Pinyin could never replace characters in Chinese as the language is rife with homophones (that would be undifferentiatable in alphabetic spelling). Pinyin is a crutch to help learn the basic sounds of spoken Chinese. Characters (even simplified) contain the eons-old etymology of those words. The Chinese written language is a world-heritage cultural gem (despite being difficult for westerners to learn). All hail the vast increase in literacy in the PRC, not due to pinyin.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Written Chinese is very beautiful and deeply fascinating, but its an impediment to more than westerners to learn. My Chinese friends here have huge problems getting their children to learn it voluntarily, even when they can understand and speak mandarin.

        1. Purple Pencils

          No doubt it is difficult to learn (as someone who learnt since young and disliked it) but pinyin is the lazy way out and can’t capture even half the beauty of the language. Chinese rewards hard work, and punishes laziness. The language I mean.

        2. vlade

          Chinese writing system encouraged the tests to enter the bureaucracy in China in very specific ways, including appreciations of many meanings in one sentence and subtleties attached to ambiguities, never mind the aesthetics of the final text.

          Unfortunately, that doesn’t help with developing unambiguous and single meaning things like higher maths need for its notation (where our current notation developed over a very long time).

          AFAIK, Chinese maths, until 19th century, didn’t develop anywhere near as much as say Arabic, Indian or European maths did. Some basic linear algebra was IIRC about as far as it got.

          So with Chinese you get beautiful poems and I-Ching, with Latin script you get Newton’s Principia.

          1. MonkeyBusiness

            War, colonialism and the promise of profits drove higher maths and physics.

            If the secret sauce is really Latin characters, then every nation using Latin characters will advance equally.

            1. vlade

              it’s not Latin per se, but the structure of the script. cf. Arabic and Sanskrit mention too, both of which had some very significant maths developements.

              And I challenge you to show how war, colonialism or promise of profits drove development of integral calculus.

              1. MonkeyBusiness

                My answer to you is guns and projectile physics. An archer or a spearman does not need a theory of projectile motion, just a great deal of practice. But once the gun was invented it became important to know what angle a barrel should be oriented at and how much propellant to use, particularly as gunpowder was expensive.

                1. vlade

                  It was hundreds of years post the invention of a gun (which was invented by Chinese, as you undoubtedly know) that the theory of gravity and the integral calculus were invented.

                  And they were most certainly _not_ invented to get better gunnery.

                  Smoothbores that were used pretty much into mid 19th century were inaccurate even in the 19th century, and _extremely_ inaccurate before.

                  Meaning that doing any precise calculations was more or less waste of time, because two times out of three your projectile went only vaguely in the direction you pointed it.

                  Yes, it could be as bad (or even way worse). Each canno was literally a hand-cast original, with its own bore, using again hand-crafted projectiles which could easily be within half an inch of each other. Meaning that they were happily bouncing in the barrel until they left it.

                  The art of artillery was much much more about knowing your gun, what is the exact charge it needs and the diameter of balls it works best with etc. etc. than any scientific calculations of gravity that about 20 people on the planet could have done at the time.

                  And, as for gunpowder being expensive – British (who included Sir Isaac) had it cheapest in Europe, due to their source from India.

              2. Susan the other

                So are you guys actually talking about some form of grammar that is imbedded in pictograms? Maths develop from logic, not phonetics or calligraphy. Lost me.

            2. Jack Parsons

              In the West it was astrology that drove higher math. One reason that China fell behind (alledgedly) was the practice imposing an imperial monopoly on astrology, to avoid having any inconvenient prophecies floating around.

          2. PlutoniumKun

            So far as I’m aware from the history, one reason Sejong insisted on inventing hangul in 15h Century Korea was to break the power of the administrative elite. The difficulty in acquiring literacy through Chinese characters meant that became a tool of the medieval Korean version of the PMC. It was certainly the case in Japan that the increasingly baroque writing system became almost a private code for the elites and prevented commoners from working their way up through the system. I don’t know the figures for literacy through those centuries but I think its true to say that Korea attained mass literacy (for women too) earlier and to a wider extent than China or Japan. Whether this led to a more egalitarian society i don’t really know, but it would certainly have helped.

          3. NotThePilot

            I do think your comment about the bureaucracy gets to one less-appreciated reason the Chinese have stuck with Hanzi.

            It’s debatable whether different dialects of Chinese are even dialects or distinct languages. They’re probably similar enough in syntax though that by using ideograms to abstract away pronunciation, a literate bureaucracy can function across regions. I think that’s pretty much exactly why Li Si did the first standardization of the hanzi when the Qin established the empire.

            As for math, I’d mostly disagree, but you’re right Chinese historically prioritized different topics, including what we’d now consider linear algebra (they had essentially figured out a lot of matrix math before Western Rome fell). They also did a lot in what we would consider discrete math (especially algorithms), number theory, and abstract algebra today.

            I would agree they were relatively weaker on geometry though, and especially a lot of trigonometry. I don’t think the language has much to do with it, though that might have led them to emphasize logic & proof less.

            I think the big differences are:
            1. Despite the Silk Road, they weren’t as tapped into the ideas flowing between Europe, the Middle East, and India
            2. Greek mathematicians used a lot of draftsman’s tools, and that arguably influenced all math west of India in a geometric direction. Chinese mathematicians made heavy use of counting boards though (the abacus only became popular much later), and they got good at using them in very abstract ways.

            1. vlade

              I’d say that math-wise, Chinese were on par (on average, somewhere further, somewhere behind) with the rest of the world until about end of the fist millenia, possibly a few more centuries after that. But around 1500, they started losing ground a lot, and I really believe that one of the reasons for that was the fact that in Europe a notations (which were still not settled, and nowhere close to what we know now) were being developed that allowed for concise and very unambiguous description of the ideas.

              Chinese, to my knowledge, never developed simple enough system for this. They had a system, but it wasn’t abstract enough while unambiguous at the same time.

              And part of the reason why IMO they never developed such a system was that the way they thought about capturing information was different from the Europe.

              The areas you mention where they got ahead – some parts of lin alg, abacus calculations etc. were where they could translate the maths to real world via tools, or the algorithms as you say.

              For example, the method to solve linear equations was based on the “counting rod arithmetic”. It wasn’t real counting rods, it was an abstraction, but a bit specialised – it was basically an algorithm to be run on a counting board.

              European way of solving this (which was later), was based on the symbolic algebra – which developed into a way more powerful, more generic mechanism, which was not relying on a “counting board” specific to a set of a problems, but be used to express multitude (one could say all, but I’ll not go that far) maths.

              That was really my point, that I don’t think Chinese (or, for the matter, any other culture using non-composite script, be they letters or sylabes), relying on the system they had, would develop a complex and generic symbolic algebra.

              1. NotThePilot

                Ah OK, if you’re talking about the past 500 years or so, I see what you mean. I still think trigonometry, specifically from a more analytic view, could be a big part of why calculus showed up in Europe (and India to some extent), but not China.

                I’m still not sure the alphabets involved are a major factor. I don’t think it’s too hard to use Chinese characters in an abstract way (if anything, I’d think it would make translating from word problems to symbols easier). Plus after being used for centuries, I’m not sure Latin script would explain why European math suddenly blossomed when it did.

                One specific counterpoint that comes to mind is that, IIUC most of the first European (specifically Italian) breakthroughs in algebra, explained everything in very tedious, full prose. If anything, the influence of double-entry bookkeeping probably matches up more as a possible influence for those first results.

                The actual abstract notation we use today seems to have taken off more recently, going into the start of the Enlightenment. I’m not sure there’s one simple explanation for it, beyond Europe just going through a really creative period overall.

                1. vlade

                  To me, the association of symbols with words makes it harder to “abstract” them as symbols. Which means it makes it easier to have specific algorithms etc, (because those are word-driven) but harder to invent a generic symbolic algebra. I believe that symbolic algebra was well used in Europe by 17th century, even though it wasn’t exactly settled by then.

                  Although, admittedly, the symbolic algebra is a mix of word-like symbols (equals, plus… ) and “generic” symbols (all the letter etc.). I still think it’s easier to go the letter-> words way than the other one, because when you get into combination of symbols, it’s easier than taking apart more complex ones.

                  But, TBH, it’s just my theory :).

                  1. You're soaking in it!

                    One tied very closely in with all of “Western” thought patterns if you follow Marshall McLuhan. The abstraction of letters from meaning (pure phonetic writing) combined with the mechanical printing press essentially created it.

      2. MonkeyBusiness

        Pretty much what you said. Anyone who’s studied Chinese up to a certain level would quickly realize the limitations of pinyin.

        The way Japanese kids learn Kanji is also different from how foreign adult learners are usually taught by their Japanese teachers. My Japanese teacher for example never mentioned radicals, not even once. Basically foreigners not living in China/Taiwan/Singapore/other Chinese enclaves/Japan will usually learn Hanzi/Kanji in a sub optimal way.

        Speaking about Chinese characters, there’s also Chinese calligraphy. Basically Chinese characters are an important part of the cultural identity of the Chinese, so why should the Chinese give them up for the convenience of foreigners, because after Pinyin, the next suggestion would be “why not just use English?”

        Although most Koreans only know a smattering of Hanja (Chinese characters), in practice most Korean lawyers are very well versed in it, since a lot of Korean laws are written in Hanja.

        The way the Japanese language deals with homophones in Kanji i.e. with the combination of Oonyomi, Kunyomi and pitch accent might actually be the most difficult part of the language.

        1. Soredemos

          Simplest radicals on up is the only good (actually, least bad) way of learning kanji

          Which, as far as I know, isn’t how the Japanese themselves usually learn. The order that Japanese learn full characters is based on how common/useful they are, which often has no relation to their complexity.

          Also, ‘why not just use English’, that’s effectively how most Chinese and Japanese use keyboards: phonetically typing a word in Latin script and then picking the character from a dropdown menu.

    4. Joe Well

      OK, I’m going to be that guy. Japanese has a syllabary not an alphabet. (The characters represent syllables rather than individual phonemes.) And of course the logographic Chinese characters.

      But then I’m sure PK is aware of this distinction and chose to call it an alphabet anyway.

      Are there political reasons for calling it an alphabet?

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I was lazy. I should have said ‘writing system’, since the Japanese use two syllabaries and kanji and also use Roman lettering (ask any OL by SMS) and Arabic numbering. Although strictly speaking, you can question if kana are purely a syllabary as they include characters for phonemes (vowels and a few consonants such as ‘n’) and its based on mora, not syllables. But I’m not a linguist, so I’ll leave that others to argue over, I’m just a curious amateur when it comes to languages.

        1. Joe Well

          Hey, fellow curious amateur. Going on a slight tangent, may I recommend the most thrilling documentary I have ever seen: Breaking the Mayan Code.

          It turns out the classical Mayan writing system makes Japanese writing look like Hangul. It basically has every permutation you could imagine a writing system to have. No one could figure it out until a linguist got a group of grad students together in the 1980s and just went at it full bore, which is what the documentary mostly covers.

      2. MonkeyBusiness

        The closest thing to alphabets in the Chinese language is radicals. Chinese characters are words that usually contain radicals.

        One great thing about Chinese characters is how compact they are. When Twitter first came out with the 200 characters limitation, the Chinese said “200 characters is a life story”. Anyone who’s ever visited a Chinese bookstore will quickly notice that translations of Western works are so much thinner than the original works. That’s also a strength when it comes to communicating using cell phones etc. You can convey so much more information using the same amount of real estate. Yes, Chinese characters are beautiful, but that’s not its only strength.

        1. Soredemos

          The problem is the ludicrous difficulty in getting people to the point where they can truly capitalize on those strengths. And then in the end the strength isn’t really worth much. So you use less paper. Okay, and?

    5. Sara K.

      An entirely phonetic script has been made for Mandarin, it’s called bopomofo, though the official name is zhùyīnfúhào, or to type that in bopomofo, ㄓㄨˋㄧㄣㄈㄨˊㄏㄠˋ. As you can see, it includes tone markers (the small marks in the right-hand corner next to the final letter in a syllable, if there’s no mark it’s assumed to be first tone or neutral tone). So you claim that no phonetic alphabet specific to Mandarin has ever been invented is false.

      Bopomofo is taught in Taiwan, which is why Taiwanese people are generally bad at using pinyin. However, despite the fact that almost every person who went through Taiwan’s education system knows bopomofo, and it’s included on keyboards sold in Taiwan, hanzi still dominates their writing system. I have never seen a book written entirely in bopomofo, or even 10% bopomofo.

      Also, as someone who learned Mandarin as an adult, I find hanzi far easier to read than Mandarin written in pinyin.

    6. Synoia

      The Vietnamese alphabet has extra marks, or accents to so, extending a Latin Alphabet by a Western priest, when under french rule.

      Prior to the development of this Alphabet, I’m told b my in-lawys, the Vietnamese used a Chinese alphabet.

    7. Larry Y

      Other Chinese languages would have been left out of a Mandarin based pinyin (or bopomofo).

      Cantonese, the various Wu languages (Shanghainese and related Zhejiang dialects, and the mutually unintelligible Wenzhou), Fujian (Hokkien vs. Fuzhou dialects, both mutually unintellgible), Hakka – all of these have tens of millions of speakers (some have strong presences overseas), strong cultural and literary traditions, and all can be mostly written in Hanzi. None of my grandparents speak Mandarin, but are fully literate. Furthermore, my dad is fully literate in Classical Chinese, which would have much harder if there was a switch to an alphabet.

      1. Sara K.

        A variation of bopomofo has been made for writing Hokkien, but it never took off. Even in Taiwan, Hokkien is more often written in Latin letters than modified bopomofo.

        You make an excellent point that I failed to mention, that hanzi works across a variety of mutually non-intelligble ‘dialects’ much better than a phonetic writing system, and this increases interregional communication. It also makes old literature much more accessible to younger generations. Though I’m not as good at reading Classical Chinese as I would like, given that I’m already literate in modern Chinese, it’s far easier to read with much less study time than Latin, or Old English for that matter.

  2. DJG, Reality Czar

    Tajikistan is the exception here in another important way: Tajik is a variation of Persian, along with Dari. Something like half the population of Afghanistan speaks these two variants of Persian. Then there is Persian / Farsi in Iran. I’m seeing estimates for this group of up to 100 million native speakers. So Tajik isn’t a Turkic language.

    I believe that Samarkhand and Bukhara, mentioned above, may also have been Persian speaking. So the alphabet in use would have been the Persian (modified Arabic) alphabet. Someone among the commentariat will know better.

    In the demonization of Iran, our betters don’t want to admit (if they even know) that Persian was a lingua franca and language of high culture (and cuisine) in use for a coupl-a thousand years. Someone I know once called it “the French of the Middle East.”

    In all of these countries, the high quality of Persian poetry would have been known. Does Antony Blinken, Liberator of the Dnieper, even know who Hafiz is? Does Hillary Clinton?

    1. marym

      Samanid dynasty, (819–999 CE)
      “The main cities of Samarkand and Bukhara became cultural centres. Persian literature flourished in the works of the poets Rūdakī and Ferdowsī, philosophy and history were encouraged, and the foundations of Iranian Islamic culture were laid.”

      PERSIAN LANGUAGE i. Early New Persian
      “Early New Persian is the first phase (8th-12th centuries CE) of the Persian language after the Islamic conquest of Iran.”

    2. Purple Pencils

      Yes, Samarkand and Bukhara have quite a significant Tajik population and (as described to me by Tajiks living there) they continue to speak Persian. And even the young (20s on) are fluent in Russian. I found Uzbekistan fascinating.

    3. Eclair

      Re: ‘… the high quality of Persian poetry …”

      “Yeah, yeah. But can we turn this Hafiz guy into our asset?” A. Blinken.

    4. ferganafanata

      I’d add to the above that it’s really important to note that despite KZ and UZ being massive countries, the vast majority of the population of the Central Asian countries (save Turkmenistan) live in a fairly narrow band – seen easily on maps as a green area between mountain ranges and drier land – running from Dushanbe (TJ) to Tashkent to Bishkek to Almaty (and on into China). [And note that Bukhara and Samarkand are situated along another green valley offshoot].
      I’m greatly oversimplifying the geography (mountains!) but the point still remains: most of what we’re calling the population of Central Asia is concentrated in a not-large area that for KZ and UZ are the south-east heartlands of their vast territories. The Fergana valley in particular has most of the pop of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and quite a bit of Uzbekistan’s.
      I think there’s one simple reason that most will not even consider a switch to Arabic alphabet – there is simply no way those populations are going to switch to right-to-left (although Tajik/Persian speakers throughout will probably learn some).
      And also worth noting that Azerbaijan is another participant in this alphabet game, having switched quite decisively to the Latinate Turkic alphabet (with small modifications) – but there is very little attention paid to the (Arabic-alphabet-using) ethnic Azeris in Iran, which outnumber those in Azerbaijan itself (Republic of).
      Other than that – personally I don’t think there’s any major advantage/disadvantage to using Latinate/Turkic vs Cyrillic alphabets; they’re both sufficiently phonetic to serve. The advantages really are mostly about interactions with non-Cyrillic using foreigners and standardization. The one bad thing going against the Latinate version is the unfortunate tendency to ‘translate’ (transliterate) proper names that are already in a Latin alphabet – a very bad habit some of the Central Asians have picked up from Azerbaijan (I think), and a pernicious practice that isn’t done anywhere else except Lithuania as far as I know. No choice of course when using Cyrillic.

  3. Joe Well

    I am wondering if there is or could be an easy technological association to transfer words from one writing system to another?

    In English this would be almost impossible without some heavy AI, because there are so many homonyms (e.g., “read” present tense and past tense spelled the same with different pronunciation) and the written word has drifted so far from being phonetic. Is it possible in these languages?

      1. Joe Well

        No, IPA is for transcribing speech precisely. It would fail miserably as a writing system for English since there are so many variations in pronunciation not only from region to region but even from speaker to speaker (the two pronunciations of “neither,” for instance). But every language has those kinds of pronunciation variations to some extent.

        In case that’s not clear, if you went to a performance of a play and made an IPA transcription, then went to a different staging of the same play with a different cast and director, the two transcriptions would have significant variations. Worse yet would be the differences across regions and over time. Nothing like the script of a play.

        And that is even before you get to the “read”/”reed” homophones.

        1. Susan the other

          We should all create a new international language that reduces ambiguity. As the Russians (Helmer recently) pointed out, English is just too flexible to create accurate, unequivocal, legal agreements.

          1. Earl Erland

            Well done. As I was reading thru this thread I wondered about language and inheritance and property rights. Bakouka.

    1. ferganafanata

      The latin-derived (or what I call Latinate) alphabets are a standardized subset that are quite phonetic – so not inherently any more difficult than, say, Serbo-Croatian being written in either alphabet (or both at times). So really there are none of the English spelling issues (except possibly for some loan words, don’t know).
      I don’t think it’s perfectly ‘regularized’ (ie. there are exceptions to how the transliteration works) but still very consistent. (Not hard to automate, I guess). I’m generalizing of course – there are lots of different languages in play there.
      This is by the way similar to the situation with Czech orthography for many European languages (esp central/eastern Europe, both slavic and baltic languages) – entirely a latin alphabet but with modifications (incl diacritical marks) to make it highly phonetic and regular.
      Most of the Central Asian languages have used a modified Turkish latinate alphabet – not dissimilar really, just some different starting points.

  4. flora

    This is not about alphabets, but it is good companion read to the post, imo. From Pepe Escobar:

    After Kazakhstan, the color revolution era is over
    What happened in Kazakhstan increasingly looks like a US-Turkish-British-Israeli-led coup d’etat attempt foiled dramatically by their Eurasian adversaries

    1. Susan the other

      I tried to click the link but my computer has been having trouble getting Pepe Escobar’s stuff. Making me paranoid. Anyway, I can sort of guess what he said. So I was thinking the same thing – we, the UK, Israel are behind the uprising in Kazakhstan. I’ll keep looking for PE as the details will be interesting. As far as the argument on the alphabet go, I’m also thinking that an alphabet and language aren’t as important as they were before the internet. Things are so easily translated these days. So just wondering why it drifted into news.

  5. NotThePilot

    This sort of alphabet nationalism is interesting, and I honestly have mixed feelings about it depending on the situation. At this point, the Latin alphabet just has such a conformist vibe, and yes, I realize the irony that I’m (reluctantly) using it now.

    So while my brain says, “Now is probably not the time for any country to worry about switching their writing system”, my heart is pulling for Cyrillic and Arabic to make some small wins here. I won’t lie, setting aside whether it made sense to switch Turkish over at all, I’m still sad Ataturk picked Latin instead of Greek.

    More seriously though, while I think it’s relatively minor, I do wonder about the little changes a writing system makes. Wasn’t this one of Derrida’s less-ironic ideas, that full-blown alphabets made the West more “logocentric” and obsessed with a belief in one, knowable, abstract truth?

  6. ChrisRUEcon

    > … my heart is pulling for Cyrillic and Arabic to make some small wins here

    Same here. Thankful for the wealth of deep linguistic commentary on this post as well! I am light on the history and anthropology of languages even though I still wish I were a polyglot (being able to say “where’s my luggage?” in seven languages doesn’t really count).

    But to NTP’s point, I recall when the Olympics were last in Russia, I was really upset that the ice hockey players’ names had to be in Latin. IIRC it was because of “western sponsorship arrangements” – ugh! I remember almost the exact moment I recoiled in horror … I was watching a game and TJ Oshie had the puck when someone mentioned the fact that his name was in “English”. How horrible is it that the team memorabilia from having the Olympics somewhere cool like Russia bears no linguistic proof as it were. It would have been so awesome if his jersey (via Olympic Store Online) had his name as Оший instead of Oshie.


  7. Ultrapope

    At both times there was resistance to the alphabet change, with this even erupting into violence at certain points. Curiously the first place I read about this was in Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, where there is much discussion of aspects of ethnicities and their issues and movement during WW II.

    This was exactly how I came across this story of alphabets in Central Asia as well!

    There is a crisis over which kind of g to use in the word “stenography.” There is a lot of emotional attachment to the word around here. Tchitcherine one morning finds all the pencils in his conference room have mysteriously vanished. In revenge, he and Radnichny sneak in Blobadjian’s conference room next night with hacksaws, files and torches, and reform the alphabet on his typewriter. It is some fun in the morning. Blobadjian runs around in a prolonged screaming fit. Tchitcherine’s in conference, meeting’s called to order, CRASH! two dozen linguists and bureaucrats go toppling over on their ass. … Could Radnichny be a double agent?

    For those interested, Penn state’s language log has a deeper dive into some of the literacy efforts enacted in the USSR, particularly in Central Asia.

  8. Ben Oldfield

    Just to muddy the waters, I missed the year at primary school to read and write but was taught by my grandmother who taught me to read from books. I am a speed reader and can read up to 100 pages an hour. I have worked out that I recognise the shape of the words and not the spelling, in addition I do not say the words under my breath which slows up normal reading. A consequence of this is that I have problems with spelling so I bought my first computer because it had a spell check. This may help explaining how a quite complicated character can be associated with a certain meaning, just as I do with shape of words.

  9. Larry Y

    Mongolian has a similar history. It’s written using the Old Uyghur-based alphabet in China, and Cyrillic in Mongolia.

    Mongolia is trying to bring back the old script.

  10. Amfortas the hippie

    dinosaurs introduced me to non-english languages…greek and latin.
    then Neitszche introduced me to German(which i remain terrible at).
    at the same time, Tolkien imparted an appreciation of linguistics(we use a sort of pidgin quendi/sylvan elvish for a battle language).
    and comparative mythology and a love of history only furthered my interest, albeit with a focus on Europe.
    and out of boredom, i translated Cicero from latin to english when the boys were tiny, during naptime.(word by word using a Harper’s lexicon i obtained for $2)so no grammar).
    i can pick through ancient greek…and find that i can read spanish, italian, and even things like Occitan because of the Latin.
    not an expert by any means…just one more road not taken.
    every language mentioned in the art. and comments…including Czech…i find totally foreign and incomprehensible…and that, in it’s turn, brings me to my point, which is not germane to the thrust of the article, exactly: humanity is a rainforest…
    what an incredibly diverse and gloriously complex creature we are…
    so many languages…lending itself to so many variations of ways of thinking(J. Campbell first turned me on to the fundamental differences between “east and west” in this…which was a shock to the mind that i still can’t get my head around)
    and we americans, running around, thinking we know it all,lol.
    hence, the Vulcan IDIC: infinite diversity, in infinite combination.
    perhaps that wonder (θαυμάζειν: thaumazein) is the basis for something approaching peace, somehow.
    thanks for this diversion.


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