Uzbekistan Issues Decree to Accelerate Transition to Latin Alphabet
On October 21, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed a decree aimed at accelerating the transition of the Uzbek language’s script from Cyrillic to Latin. The decree includes the language policy for the next 10 years that calls for the establishment of a working group within three months to create and submit a full plan for the transition from Cyrillic to Latin. This document states that government officials must be certified in their knowledge of the Uzbek language by April 2021. The decree also aims for 80 percent of kindergarteners to be Uzbek-speaking by 2030 and to increase the hours of Uzbek language teaching in schools from 84 to 110 hours per week. The document includes the goal to increase the Uzbek language departments to 140 at institutes of higher education nationwide.
Uzbek was written in the Arabic alphabet prior to the 1920s, when it switched to Latin as part of a movement to Latinize Turkic languages. In the 1940s, the Soviets changed the alphabet to Cyrillic. Since the 1990s, efforts have been made to switch the script back to Latin but with varying degrees of success.
In 1993, the parliament approved legislation requiring first-graders to learn the Latin alphabet, but this alphabet was revised in 1995, and its latest and reportedly final change was released only in 2019. The most updated alphabet includes 29 letters and an apostrophe to denote a hard sign. Despite multiple initiatives to transition the alphabet to Latin beginning the in 1990s, there is little uniformity and Cyrillic is still widely used.
Additionally, Cyrillic is the alphabet of choice for anything directed at an older audience. Sometimes Latin and Cyrillic are used side by side, which is evident as even the official websites for government ministries have options for Uzbek written in Latin and Cyrillic.
Earlier this month, the Russian Ministry of Education and the Uzbek Ministry of Public Education signed an agreement to improve the quality of teaching of the Russian language in Uzbekistan. The funding for this project comes in part from the Arts, Science, and Sport Foundation founded by Alisher Usmanov, an Uzbek-born Russian oligarch. Because this project is aimed at improving the quality of Russian-language education in Uzbekistan, it will not affect the initiative to transition the Uzbek language to the Latin alphabet or to increase literacy in the Uzbek language. On October 11, the Uzbek Minister of Public Education Sherzod Shermatov said that “our goal is that the graduates of every school should have command of the state and Russian languages.”
Just as the change of the script of Turkic languages from the Latin alphabet to the Cyrillic alphabets by the Soviets was in part designed to distance Central Asia and Azerbaijan from a Western-aligned Turkey, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are currently attempting to shift away from Russian influence and construct a stronger national identity through changing the alphabets used in their countries. These linguistic changes can also be interpreted as a push for more connectivity with the West, since using the same alphabet will make communication with the West easier.
Russian remains the lingua franca of the region, and Moscow remains a major partner of Tashkent. However, the push for increased literacy in Uzbek and the change to the Latin alphabet demonstrate the country’s dedication to revitalizing Uzbek national identity.