The essay below was published by a Ukrainian journalist and blogger Miroslava Berdnik in LiveJournal on the 7th of November 2014. It covers the history of attempts to replace the Cyrillic alphabet both in the lands, presently known as Ukraine, and also – after the revolution of 1917 – in Russia.
Please note that translating a documentary film or an article takes a lot of time and emotional effort. I am doing it on a voluntary basis, but if someone feels like supporting my work, a Bitcoin donation to the following address is appreciated: 1Nemo1KPB8UjQjrURqn6V7Mscungx44XS2
Before going on to the translation, I want to highlight a few points that the reader should keep in mind (some coming from the comments after the article).
Throughout centuries, the main argument for replacement of the Cyrillic alphabet in the Slavic lands was that it would bring those lands closer to the Western European culture. How? Will writing Russian using Latin alphabet make an Englishman understand Russian or vice versa? No. Will it make easier for the Russians to learn English? Partially, but not significantly. Will it tear away the new generation of Russians from their historic roots by not allowing them to read their own literature. Yes. Here you have it.
For an example, look at Croatian and Serbian. These are one and the same language. Croatian is written in Latin, Serbian in Cyrillic. What did it achieve? A split of the one people into two and easier implementation of divide and conquer strategy.
Secondly, Cyrillic alphabet maps exactly the soundscape of the Slavic languages – one letter, one sound. Slavic languages, which got Latinised at various points in time – like Polish, Czech or Slovak – had to resort to dual, triple, and quadruple letters to depict a single sound. Example: letters “Ш” can be Latinised, transliterated, in various ways: “SH” or, as in Polish “SZ”. In some cases, additional “latin-like” letters need to be introduced. See for example Polish “ś”, “ł”, “ę”, “ą”; or the Czech “Ú”, “Ů”, “Č”. So Polish, with its essentially close-to-Russian pronunciation, ended up having more letters, than Cyrillic Russian. Interestingly, the same sound comprising the word “Czech”, would have been written in Cyrillic using only 3 letters: “Чех”.
Read also Lada Ray’s extended commentary to the article here: How to Reformat People’s Consciousness and Keep them as Obedient Slaves.
There will be a few more comments after the translation, but now, the historical article itself. Enjoy.
The idea of replacing the Cyrillic alphabet in the Ukrainian language with the Latin one for the sake of “Eurointegration” is very close to heart of the Galician thinkers. Round table on the topic will be held on November the 9th (2014) in Lvov.
On the 9th of November, in the famous cult cafe “Dziga” in Lvov, there will be a discussion on whether it is possible to transfer the Ukrainian language from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. News program “Facts” of the Ukrainian TV channel ICTV reports about it.
The main argument coming from local intellectuals in favour of switching to the Latin alphabet is a question of civilizations. Ukrainian people, or, more precisely, the western Ukrainians – are from “time immemorial the people of Europe. In this they differ from the Russians and the Malorossians (Trans-dnepr Ukrainians – Ed.), who in essence are the Russian people“. And Latin alphabet will be best suited to emphasize the affiliation of Western Ukrainians to the family of Central European nations.
Sooner or later, such a transition from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet will happen, postulates Lvov intelligentsia. The idea of ”Latinization of Ukrainian language” appeared already in the 90s among the Galician intellectuals who actively advocated the independence of Galicia. By 2000, the norms for Latin spelling of the Ukrainian language had already been developed. Among the developers was the most famous artist and publicist Vlodko (Vladimir – Ed.) Kostirko. In the early 2000s, he was already publishing his articles on the Ukrainian language, written in Latin, in the editions of the Lvov cultural almanac “Ї”.
Kostirko have long switched to the Latin alphabet in his Ukrainian-language texts. In this way he hopes to emphasize the intransigence and even hostility between the two cultures – the “European” Western Ukrainian and “Russian” Central Ukrainian.
He even once created a painting “Uniate killing a Cossack”. In this painting a Polish “bewinged” hussar is spearing the head of a Zaporozhje Cossack (Translator note: names “Cossack”, “Khazar” and “Hussar” are of the same origin. See Lada Ray’s ESR6: NEW KHAZARIAN KHAGANATE? for more info). This is a reminder that there was a war in the 17th century between the Greek Catholic Galicians and the Orthodox Trans-Dneprians, the descendants of the Cossacks.
Greek Catholics, recalls the artist, fought on the side of Catholic Poles. Ukrainisation of the Galicians was started over time, and especially after the 19th century, but it became somewhat forgotten now. Today Vlodko Kostirko openly pits against each other the residents of the East and the West of Ukraine, arguing that cultural and civilizational reconciliation between them cannot happen.
Let me remind that in March, a temporary special commission for preparation of a draft law “On the development and use of languages in Ukraine” considered a gradual phasing out of the use of the Cyrillic alphabet on the territory of Ukraine.
Already in 2007 I wrote about the attempts during President Yushchenko’s rule to push through the replacement of the Cyrillic alphabet with “abetsadlo” (translator note: From the Polish word for “alphabet”). Back then those attempts were doomed.
Issues pertaining to the functioning of the language already had the political and civilizational colouring in the XX and XXI centuries. And recently, in various Internet resources, there appeared some sensational information – that the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs ,for many months already, had a functioning commission on transfer of the Ukrainian language from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet, and that it’s headed by the retired Supreme Rada Foreign Minister Boris Tarasyuk.
According to the Internet publications, the commission includes officials from the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Education and Science, Ministry of Culture and Tourism. In addition to the state of philologists and linguists, in the development of the project are also involved some of the deputies of the Supreme Rada from the faction “Our Ukraine”, in particular, Vyacheslav Koval and Nikolai (Mykola) Onischuk.
The idea of creation of the commission allegedly occurred in early 2005 and was supported by President Yushchenko. But then it leaked to the media on the level of rumours, and after a series of critical articles in the press, the project became “forgotten”. However, scientists continued to work on the project. The idea of a commission emerged anew after the parliamentary elections, which “Our Ukraine” failed. And in August 2006 the commission was created after all. The Moldavian nationalistic site Moldovatoday.net reported that the commission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs conducts regular consultations with the Moldavian colleagues, who were engaged in the transition of the Moldavian language to the Latin alphabet. It is also reported that the issue of transfer of the Ukrainian language to the Latin alphabet was discussed in backstage conversations of the Ukrainian and Moldavian delegation at the third meeting of the GUAM Parliamentary Assembly in October 2006.
I think that the constant experimentations with the Ukrainian language are conducted not only from a desire of som individual “свідомих” (translator note: Ukrainian for “conscious elements”, a term used by the nationalistically inclined Ukrainians) officials to grovel and earn the favours of the Western patrons. This is done in order to collapse the common cultural and civilizational space of the two peoples, who are close to each other. Slavic peoples adapted script, depending on the rite of Christianity, which they adopted – the Byzantine or Latin (Catholic). If it was the Latin, it determined the choice of writing – Latins used for their services the liturgical Vulgate – a version of the Bible, which was almost never translated into national languages, because that was the policy of the Western Church. Hence there was no need to adapt the script of the Cathilicised Slavs to the needs of their languages.
A different approach was taken by the Byzantium, so the missionaries Constantine Philosopher (Cyril) and his brother Methodius, who translated the Gospel to the Slavic (more precisely, its Old Bulgarian dialect), created a special script. This Slavic translation was accepted by all those Slavs who professed Orthodoxy. So our current writing system is determined by a choice we once made.
However, attacks on the Cyrillic alphabet were made repeatedly – in the XIX century in the Austro-Hungarian Galicia and in the XX century, this time by… the Bolsheviks.
Alphabet and abetsadlo
Already in 1823, the Viennese palace librarian and philologist, Bartholomew Kopitar – a Slovenian by nationality, wrote in a letter to the Czech linguist Josef Dobrovský: “My ideal for all Slavs – Latin letters, and a few letters of the Slavic Cyrillic as a supplement”. He proposed to introduce phonetic transcription in language practice, which would have lead to the individual writing system for almost every village in Galicia. In addition, he was going to replace the Cyrillic alphabet with Latin.
A compendium by the ethnographer and writer Vaclav Zaleski “Piesni polskie i ruskie ludu galicyjskiego” (“Polish and Russian Songs of the Galician People”) was published in Lemberg in 1833. For the alphabet he used not Russian, but Polish, a choice which he explained by the following reason: “I put before me a goal to, as far as possible, write as people speak, even if this would lead to any grammatical errors. As for the fact that to achieve this I used Polish letters, and not Cyrillic or Glagolic – well, everyone is obviously going to praise me for this later. I’m sure the time will come when all the Slavic people will leave behind those old letters that are the most hindering introduction of the Slavic literature to the collection of the European literature.”
He was supported by a colleague August Belevsky – historian, publisher and translator of “The Tale Igor’s Campaign”. In a review of the compendium, he wrote: “One of the most important moments, touched by the publisher of the book, is using which letters and how to spell the songs of the Russian folk, who yet have no grammar nor vocabulary for their language…” (translator note: What?!)
However, neither Zaleski nor Belevsky (translator note: see a note on Latinisation of names after the article) had any political goals in their attempts to introduce the Latin alphabet for the Galician Ruthenian (Rusins). They just wanted to “bestow” the common people. Somewhat later started events, which subsequently were dubbed as the “alphabetic war”.
The Latinisation idea was picked up by a young Galician priest Joseph Lozinsky, who in a Lvov newspaper “Rozmaitosci” (1834, №29) published an article “O wprowadzeniu abecadla polskiego do pismiennictwa ruskiego” («On the introduction of the Polish alphabet in Russian writing”), and the following year published his ethnographic work “Russian wedding” using Latin alphabet.
A process of national revival has just taken place in Galicia of the 1830s. The heart of it were the “Galician adherents” – the youth of the Lvov University, headed by Markiyan Shashkevich, Ivan Vahylevich and Yakov Golovatsky, nicknamed at the University as “Ruska trinity”. It was they who gave the most harsh rebuke to attempt of the introduction of the Polish “abetsadlo”, considering it an attempt to tear off Galicia from the ancient historical and cultural roots. “That is an existential question: to be or not to be for the Rusins (Ruthenians) in Galicia” – Golovatsky wrote much later, – “If the Galicians were to accept the the Polish abetsadlo in the 1830s, the Russian nationalal individuality would have vanished, the Russian spirit would have been gone, and Galician Rus would turned into a second Kholmshchyna.” (Golovatsky Yakov, Notes and additions to the articles of Mr. Pypin, printed in the “Journal of Europe” during 1885 and 1886., Vilna, 1888). As a response, Markiyan Shashkevych published a pamphlet “Azbuka and abetsadlo” in 1836. (translator note: see a comment on Azbuka after the translation.) In it, he clearly and reasonably demonstrated that Lozinski’s offer was unfounded, unacceptable and directly harmful. He also argued that the departure from the Cyrillic alphabet would not have brought Galicians closer to the European culture, but only alienated them from the other Slavs. For some time the idea of introducing the Latin alphabet was abandoned.
Next attempt by the Viennese authorities to transfer the Galician-Rusin language to Latin was made in 1859. In Vienna, an Austrian politician and senior official of the Ministry of Education Joseph Irechek published a brochure “Ueber den Vorschlag, das Ruthenische mit lateinischen Schriftzeishen zu schreiben” (“On the Proposal for Rusins to write in Latin letters”). The author very clearly outlined the purpose of spelling reform: “The healthy development of Ukrainian literature will find a very strong support in use of the Latin letters. While Rusins write and print in Cyrillic, they will demonstrate a tendency to lean to the Church-Slavinism and thus to Russianism, and thus the very existence of the Ukrainian literature would be called into question. Church Slavic and Russian influence is so great that it threatens to completely displace the local language and local literature.” And further: “Apart from the rejection of the Russianism, the transition to the Latin alphabet would help Galician Ukrainians later on in their study of the Polish and German languages, without which they will not be able to survive.”
Such influential in the Galician-Russian community people, like Bishop Litvinovich and philologist Joseph Lozinski – who by then switched over to a Russophile position – voted against this reform in the Seim. They argued that this reform “is detrimental to the Rus nation, because with the Latin alphabet, the spirit and faith of the Ukrainian people will vanish.”
Already in the summer, Irechek was going to come to Lemberg and lead the Alphabetical Commission, while from October 1859 all the children in Galicia were to begin studying by the new ABC books. But the scale of popular demonstrations against the reform frightened the central powers. The population of Galicia conducted spontaneous meetings, there were articles in the press, they were writing petitions and sending delegations. And the Austrian authorities, well remembering the Hungarian revolution of 1848, retreated.
“…books written in the Russian alphabet, will be the subject of history”
In 1919, in a March publication of “Izvestia” there was published an article “On the Latin alphabet” signed with frivolous pseudonym “old schoolboy”. It was a letter to the editor, playful in its form, but with a serious question in its essence. It claimed: “Our alphabet is too complicated and is so different from that in Western Europe, that foreigners become horrified by it. We should switch to the Latin script, simple and elegant, just as we have moved from the Russian calendar to the pan-European (translator note: see comments after the article for the calendar discussion), and to the metric system from the ‘pounds’ and ‘arshin'”. And it explains how one can transfer specific Russian sounds to the Latin alphabet. There were also references to Slavic peoples, for example the Poles, who have long used the Latin alphabet.
Who hid behind that pseudonym – contemporaries deducted that easily. It was either Lunacharsky, or Bukharin – the main Red intellectuals, who later became active promoters of the “new alphabet”. But what kind of a whim it is – to transfer Russian to Latin?
Everything is, however, very simple: the ardent revolutionaries considered a common alphabet as one of the tools to create a new trans-ethnic community. Why Latin? Firstly, the new leaders were, of course, the people of Western civilization in their spirit. And secondly, because the world revolution was to follow the Russian one! We renounce the old world and start everything with a clean slate.
And in 1922 they started with such clean slate in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani CEC chairman Samad Agamali-oglu, having previously spoken with Lenin, created in Baku “the Committee of NTA (New Turkic Alphabet).” Lenin, according to Lunacharsky, strongly approved the idea of Latinasation, though he thought that it was necessary to do this “later, once we become stronger”. Soon the Latin alphabet became the state alphabet of Azerbaijan. The previous script was declared as “feudal-reactionary”. Especially since Kemal Ataturk, who was then regarded as a strategic ally, was in full swing Latinising Turkey.
It was conceived to gradually turn the Latin alphabet into the basis for all non-Slavic peoples of USSR. VTsKNA (ВЦКНА) – The All-Union Central Committee of the New Alphabet – was created under the jurisdiction of the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the Council of Nationalities in 1927. By the beginning of the 30s the languages of 17 Muslim peoples were transferred to Latin, and by 1936 – of already 68 different nationalities. All this occurred against the backdrop of indigenization (in our country, Ukrainisation was carried out under the supervision of Kaganovich).
In 1930, on Lunacharsky’s initiative, the question of latinasation of the Russian alphabet (as well as Ukraine and Russia) was put forth. In the article “Latinisation of the Russian Writing”, published in the journal “Culture and literature of the East”, he wrote: “From now on our Russian alphabet has alienated us not only from the West, but also from the East which to a large extent was awakened by our own efforts… Gradually the books, written in the Russian alphabet, will be the subject of history. Of course it will always be useful to study Russian letters in order to have access to them. It will be a perceptible benefit for those, who deal with the history of literature, but in any case, it will be less and less necessary for a new generation… The benefits, presented by the introduction of the Latin alphabet, are enormous. It gives us the most of internationalisation, thus linking us not only with the West, but also with the renewed East.” (translator note: What a beautiful example of circular logic. First Latinise the East, then use it as an argument that Russia also needs to be Latinised. Also note the accent on the “new generation”, which is to be torn away from its roots.)
Established then in Glavnauka Narcompros (Head Department of Science in the jurisdiction of the People’s Committee of Education) a subcommittee on the Latinisation of Russian writing, announced that the Russian alphabet is “a form of graphics, ideologically alien to the socialist construct”, “a relic of class graphic of the Russian feudal landowners and the bourgeoisie of the XVIII – XIX centuries”, “graphics of the autocratic oppression, missionary propaganda, Greater-Russian nationalistic chauvinism and forced Russification”. (Translator note: In other words: let’s kill all that is Russian or somehow connected to Russia. It goes well with the obfuscation of Russia itself in the USSR, where it always went by an acronym RSFSR, and never by its full name. In USSR it was frowned upon mention anything to do with “Russian”.)
In the mid-1930s, the more ardent Latinisers were starting to get reined in. Stalin was able to defeat his Trotskyist opponents, so the idea of the world revolution lost its relevance. A big war was looming over the the country, and it was necessary that the peoples felt themselves in a common cultural space.
In 1936, a top-secret report N ОБ-322 was submitted to the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the CPSU(b), in which, among other things, it was stated: “The enemies of the Soviet government and the CPSU(b) tried to use Latinisation for the purpose of segregation of the working people of those republics and regions from the total family of the peoples of the Soviet Union. While using the talk of an “international character” of the Latin base as a cover, they defended the course on bourgeois culture of the Western Europe, in contrast to the developing culture, national in form and socialist in content… As a result of the active elimination of the Russian alphabet, VTsKNA and local committees created 10 Latinised alphabets for the people with Russian script… The situation with the terminological construction of the languages of many peoples of the USSR is unfortunate. Especially unfortunate it is in this regard among the border peoples and nations, where the “Latinisation” is simply an instrument of the large and small imperialists. For example, Romanisation of the terminology has been openly carried out over a number of years in Soviet Moldavia, while in the Soviet Karelia (under the old leadership) – was the case of the most active Finnisation. And all this is happening in spite of the resistance of the broad masses of the population.”
Today, only a phrase from the book “The Golden Calf” reminds of those times: “‘Herculeans’, in response to someone’s intrigues, promised to answer with a mass Latinisation of the official documents.” The meaning of the joke becomes clear only if we remember about that unfinished Latinisation campaign. But the case of the enthusiasts for “coming closer to the West” was not lost…
Why mobile operators need transliteration?
When you read the program article for Latinisation of the Ukrainian language “Ukrolatinitsa: simple and tasteful” in the “Mirror of the week” (№28 (453), 26.07-1.08 ’03), you get the impression that you ended up in the distant 30s. The same argument – “coming closer the civilized West.” The same enemy – the “Greater-Russian chauvinism” and Orthodox Christianity. As well as the main target group – the younger generation: “…not in this generation, but in the coming ones. Because already from the cradle, not yet realizing what these squiggles mean, the baby will get used to the Latin alphabet. It will pay off when the time comes to learn a foreign language: the little Ukrainians will not be breaking over the font.” (translator note: see a comment after the translation)
As we know, children’s mouth speaketh oft the truth. My daughter recently asked me a surprising question: “Мамо, чому оператори мобільного зв’язку надсилають SMS-повідомлення не українською мовою, але латинськими літерами?” (“Mom, why mobile operators send SMS-messages not in Ukrainian, but in Latin?”) Why indeed? After all, every keyboard has not only Latin, but also Cyrillic script. But, as is known, the majority of the mobile operators’ customers are young people. And they gradually get used to the Latin alphabet.
As mentioned above, on-line editions reported about the consultations of our developers with the Moldavian colleagues, who in the early 90’s Latinised Moldavian language, using the work of Lunacharsky’s commission as a foundation.
I got in touch with the first secretary of the press service of Foreign Ministry of Ukraine, Natalia Zhitaryuk. She “in the working order” refuted this information, adding that “якщо газета «2000» претендує на те, щоб бути серйозною газетою, то вона не буде дезінформувати читачів і писати про те, що не відповідає дійсності” (“If newspaper “2000” pretends to be a serious newspaper, it will not be misleading its readers and writing something that is not true”).
Although the foreign ministry’s press service denies the existence of the Commission for Latin transliteration of the Ukrainian language, one is greatly worried by the fact that over the last few years, the on-line editions as well as reputable newspapers constantly “inject” this topic into the information space. On the “orange” youth forums this topic is discussed quite aggressively. Here one just ought to remember, that the prelude to the war, which split the former Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic into two irreconcilable parts, was precisely the Latinisation of the language.
This concludes the translation.
Several comments, that were too long to be included as the in-line translator notes.
- Last thing first, the Moldavian language Latinisation. A comment left by a Moldavian in the original article, points to two other side-effects of the Latinisation of the Moldavian language, in addition to pushing away Pridnestrovie and Gagauzija. One is the fact that many young people, unable to get a good education in Russian in Moldavia, leave for Russia to study there, and never return. The other side-effect is Latinisation of the personal names. The commentor wrote, that in his family of 4, 3 people ended up having different spellings of their surname in the passports! See also the next comment.
- The way surnames Zaleski and Belevsky are Latinised is an excellent example against Latinisation: both end with the same 4 letters, best represented by the phonetic transcription “-skij”: Залеский, Белевский.
Remember the Boston Marathon Bombing? Russian services informed the American authorities about the possible perpetrator, but the Americans Latinised his name differently, so it didn’t light up in the database.
- About the transition to the European – Christian-based – calendar. With that Calendar reform of Peter I in 1700 [7208 by the Slavic Calendar], a large chunk of the Russian history was erased and re-written. Just think – year 2016 is 7524 by the Slavic Calendar, which starts its counting from the “peace treaty with the Dragon [presumably, China]”. Read more here at Lada Ray’s site on the roots of Russian calendar.
- About the quote “little Ukrainians will not be breaking over the font”. I have studied several foreign languages, and helped some people study Russian, and can say that the learning process of an alphabet is less than 1% of the total language learning experience, insignificant, compared to learning of the grammar, vocabulary and culture.
- A special note on the name of the Russian alphabet – Azbuka – which, like its Latin counterpart, is formed from the name of the first 2 letters. Unlike Latin, the Russian letter names encoded a coherent message, which was carried through the millennia, from before the Cyrillic writing was introduced, from the time of Glagolitsa and Bukvitsa.
Let me touch upon the first 6 letters. Latinised for the sake of transcription, they are read like this: “Az Buki Vedi Glagol’ Dobro Est'” – “Аз Буки Веди Глаголь Добро Есть”.
“Az” is “I” or “The First”. In Scandinavian it remains as the name of Asgard, the dwelling of the gods. In English in the word “Ace”. In modern Russian, it’s in “Azy” – “the basics”.
“Buki” is “writing”. En English it lives on as the word “book”, and “bok” in Scandinavian. In modern Russian it’s in “Bukva” – “letter, litera”. The meaning is also connected to the “future” – “budujushee” and “gods” – “bogi”. So this letter is very multi-faceted.
“Vedi” is “to know”. In Scandinavian it survived as “Viten” – “Knowledge”. In English, somewhat transformed into “vision”, and in modern Russian it’s to be found in the root of the word “vedat'” – “to know”.
“Glagol'” (soft ‘l’) is “to speak”. In modern Russian it’s in the “glas” or “golos” – “voice”, and “glagol” – “the verb”. In Spanish in “habla” – “to speak”, absent in English and Scandinavian, except in the derogative form of “bla, bla…”. EDIT: Reader JK left a comment, saying that this word lives on in the Swedish “glosa” – “word”, which also points to the English “glossary”.
“Dobro” is “goodness, kindness”. Still has the same meaning in modern Russian as well as all Slavic languages. Absent from the Latin languages. However, both Norway and England have geographic names of special cultural significance: “The white hills of Dover” in England and “Dovre mountain” in Norway. As we know, all geographic names initially have a specific meaning, even if with time this meaning is lost…
“Est'” (soft ‘t’) – verb “is, to be”. Retained this meaning in the modern Russian. In English may have transformed into the affirmative “yes”. (In Russian “Est'” is also used in the meaning of “yes” by the military.) The English verb “is” is also coming from “est'”, through German “ist”.
So these first 6 letters already give us: “I writing know speak good is…”, or rewriting: “I know how to write and it is good to speak…”
Latinising the Russian language would cut the whole nation from its root, like this one. And this is the true reason for such efforts.