Uzbekistan has for the first time in its history opened a college devoted exclusively to the study of Uzbek language and literature.
The Alisher Navoi University, which was created at the behest of President Islam Karimov, will be constituted of three faculties teaching Uzbek philolology, Uzbek literature and language, and Uzbek and English translation.
The UzA state news agency reported that the university would help to improve the quality of Uzbek language instruction and teaching materials.
Such efforts should be understood as a slowly evolving undertaking to inculcate a distinct national identity that has been evolving since Soviet times.
Uzbekistan adopted a law elevating Uzbek to the official state language back in 1989, when it was still constituent republic of the Soviet Union.
Independence only intensified the adoption of the Uzbek, a process that was accompanied by the gradual displacement of not just Russian but also the Cyrillic alphabet. In September 1993, a law was passed to formalize an Uzbek alphabet, which was based closely on the Latin script. That alphabet was fine-tuned in 1996 and remains in use to this day.
That was only the latest of many chapters in the convoluted history of the written language in Central Asia, however — one that has had the unfortunate of repeatedly rendering large sections of the population functionally illiterate. The written word in the region, before the Soviets codified what came to be identified as the Uzbek language, was transcribed in Arabic script. The Latin alphabet was brought in by the mid-1920s only to give way, under Russian influence, to Cyrillic in 1940.
A legal amendment that would restrict the rights of Kyrgyzstan’s minorities sailed through parliament last week with a vote of 84 to 12. Legislators must endorse the amendment to the law “On the State Language” in two more readings before it can come into force.
The draft amendment proposes to fine government officials (clerks and above) for speaking anything other than Kyrgyz in the process of performing their official duties. Moreover, all official documents, including tax returns, would need to be submitted to authorities in Kyrgyz and only Kyrgyz, Kloop.kg explains. Currently the law allows documents to be submitted either in Kyrgyz, the “state language,” or Russian, Kyrgyzstan’s “official language.”
Under the amendment, government bodies would no longer be required to provide Russian translation at official functions, parliament would no longer consider draft laws in anything but Kyrgyz, and civil servants would need to pass a rigorous Kyrgyz language test.
The amendment would thus bar from public service and civic life anyone who does not speak fluent Kyrgyz – that is, minorities and some of the best-educated Kyrgyz, who often speak Russian as a first language. According to the 2009 census, Kyrgyzstan is approximately 71 percent ethnic Kyrgyz; Russians and Uzbeks constitute another 22.3 percent of the population.
Russian’s status as Kyrgyzstan’s “official language” would become virtually meaningless, while the amendment could further isolate Kyrgyzstan internationally.
A rallying cry for Kazakh. Protestors on October 2 carried a banner reading, in Kazakh and French, "We are only for the Kazakh language as the state and official language in Kazakhstan!"
One of the most emotive issues on Kazakhstan’s political agenda – language rights – brought Kazakh speakers out to rally in Almaty on October 2.
Around 1,500 protestors gathered with official permission in the country’s financial capital demanding legal changes to the status of Russian – which detractors say undermines the position of Kazakh.
Kazakh enjoys the constitutional status of “state language.” But rally organizers told EurasiaNet.org they believe that privilege remains largely on paper.
“Over these 20 years of independence it hasn’t become like the state language in status,” Dos Kushim, head of the Ult Tagdyry (Fate of the Nation) nationalist movement, said, adding that the protest reflected “bewilderment … at why it hasn’t become the state language after all, why it doesn’t work in all spheres of the state’s life.”
Mukhtar Shakhanov, poet and head of the Memlekettik Til (State Language) movement, is spearheading calls to change the constitution, in which Russian is protected by a clause allowing its use “equally with Kazakh in state bodies.”
Critics say this provision disadvantages native Kazakh speakers and serves as a disincentive for others to learn Kazakh. Supporters say non-Kazakh speakers – a third of the population – would be lost without it.
But would changing the constitution really be sufficient motivation for non-Kazakh speakers to put their minds to learning Kazakh?
“It would be more than enough,” Serik Mambetalin, leader of the Rukhaniyat (Spirituality) Party, told EurasiaNet.org. “Because the government itself will devote more efforts – and give more money – to develop the Kazakh language.”
(Update: RFE/RL reports that the State Language Committee boss was sacked February 11 for his controversial de-Russification plan. Officials said Azimjan Ibraimov's push to eradicate Russian place names was complicating measures to improve relations with Moscow.)
A group appointed by Kyrgyzstan’s president is trying to make Kyrgyzstan sound more Kyrgyz. By doing away with Russian-language place names -- except for the newly christened Mt. Vladimir Putin -- they say they will protect their country from irredentist Russian claims.
According to a February 10 report by the State Language Committee, as cited by local press, 150 villages in northern Chui Province are “corrupted or ruined” because they have Russian-sounding names. Northern Kyrgyzstan still has a large Russian minority, though the population has dwindled in the past few years. Besides economic motives for emigration, many minorities are also feeling the pinch of Kyrgyzstan’s rising, often bitter, nationalism.
Members of the committee, pointing out that Kyrgyzstan’s other post-Soviet neighbors have changed many Russian names to reflect local languages, are tapping a fear that has spread quickly since ethnic violence last summer between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south: that the Kyrgyz nation is on the verge of extinction, endangered by outsiders and fifth columns.
It’s not very often that sprats have their day in court. But after becoming embroiled in a row over language rights in Kazakhstan, the oily little fish is to play a central role in legal arguments in the oil city of Aktobe.
It’s not the sprats that’ll be in the dock, true – that place will be occupied by the owner of a store that proved unable to provide a customer with details about sprats in the Kazakh language, the Novosti-Kazakhstan news agency reports.
The disgruntled customer went racing to his lawyer after the shop couldn’t produce information in Kazakh about the tin of fish he’d purchased for 80 cents.
This consumer rights pioneer is now suing the shop in the Aktobe City Court for breaking laws which guarantee that all information should be available in Kazakh – in this case details about the manufacturer, the manufacturing date, and “recommendations for use” of the sprats.
It’s pretty unlikely that the customer really didn’t know what the sprats were for, but he probably wants to score a legal point about enforcing the use of Kazakh in the public sphere, where Russian often dominates. Legally, Kazakh has the status of the state language, while Russian is “used officially on an equal level with the Kazakh language in state organizations and bodies of local self-government” – a confusing division that fudges the controversy over language in Kazakhstan.
The use of Kazakh in public life has grown in recent years, but many ethnic Kazakhs still feel it is drowned out by the domination of Russian in the media, in public discourse and on the streets of many towns.