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Talk This Way

Talk This Way

Indiana University's William Fierman gives a tour of language in post-Soviet Central Asia, describing how individual governments have responded to an altered political landscape in part by trying to control written and spoken usage.

By Kathleen Micham

The need to get along under Soviet rule was great for Central Asians, even affecting how people spoke their national languages. For most of the 20th century Uzbeks followed Russian pronunciations, for example. Because Russian does not have an "h" sound, Uzbeks used to call Shakespeare's masterpiece "Gamlet," even though Uzbek could have used its own "h." After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the play once again was known as "Hamlet."

This was just one of the examples used by Indiana University's William Fierman, at a Jan. 7 lecture in Bunche Hall, to show that national languages of this region reflect a political and cultural movement away from Russian. During the lecture, sponsored by the Center for European and Eurasian Studies, Fierman gave a rapid tour of post-Soviet Central Asia, describing how individual governments responded to an altered political landscape in part by trying to set policy on written and spoken language use.
 
Although Fierman discussed  "language status policy" – which language to use and when – most of his examples related to "language corpus policy," or attempts to standardize various spellings, vocabulary and place names in the national languages.
 
During the Soviet days, there was across the region "a massive borrowing from Russia. Then original words start to creep back in after independence," said Fierman.
 
In Turkmenistan, the totalitarian regime of Saparmurat Niyazov created a revised Turkmen alphabet, which employed symbols for dollars ($) and cents (¢) to represent upper and lowercase "sh" sounds. Most of the innovations have been revoked since Niyazov's death in 2006.
 
In a visible symbol of Soviet collapse, most other Central Asian governments moved away from the Cyrillic alphabet after 1991, in favor of Latin characters. Currently, Uzbek textbooks are written in the Latin alphabet and Uzbek newspapers are still published in Cyrillic, Fierman said.
 
Regional governments have made further adjustments to express or avoid expressing cultural allegiance. Fierman noted that Uzbekistan, after mandating a Turkish symbol for the "sh" sound, changed policy "because they didn't want to be too closely related to Turkey." Uzbek and several other regional languages are members of the Turkic language family or branch.
 
Of course, there is often a wide gap between language policy and practice. For instance, Fierman showed pictures of Kazak currency with an error in Kazak, which no bureaucrat caught, since they were educated when Russian was still the language of power.
 
Fierman showed examples of languages colliding, such as magazines and billboards written in two or more languages and using a variety of alphabets. In one of Fierman's photographs, of a restaurant in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, called Santa Maria, the name is rendered in Cyrillic, but in a font that calls Chinese characters to mind. The menu, incidentally, consists of Korean and European dishes.

Center for European and Eurasian Studies