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Ideology and alphabets in the former USSR

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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. This paper examines the background to these recent events in the former Soviet Union, showing how they provide a contemporary illustration of the ways that linguistic (in this case, orthographic) issues can interact with ideologies and discourses at the political and social levels. The paper takes an approach which treats orthography and script selection as social practices which are amenable to sociolinguistic analysis, even though they are more commonly modelled as autonomous systems (or “neutral technologies”) which can be detached from their social context (cf. Street’s “ideological” and “autonomous” models of literacy). The article begins with a very brief overview of the early twentieth-century changes of script from Arabic to Roman and then to Cyrillic, which affected most of the Turkic languages, including Tatar, and an account of the trend to return to the Roman alphabet in the immediate post-Soviet period. It goes on to describe the circumstances of the decision by Tatarstan to introduce the script change, and the resulting backlash from the government of the Russian Federation, in the form of a new language law. It then goes on to analyse the discourses which underlie this story of rebellion and reaction. In particular, the following discourses are identified and discussed: unity and membership (the discourse of belonging), technology and globalisation, cultural heritage (change and permanence), Cyrillic as “defective”/Cyrillic as a conduit for Russian lexis, romanisation as a threat to the integrity of Russia and its language. It is noted that many of the discourses present in the Tatarstan case are also found in other debates over orthographies elsewhere.
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Keywords: Cyrillic; Russian; Soviet Union; Tatarstan; Turkic; alphabet reform; language policy; orthography

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Lancaster University

Publication date: January 1, 2006

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