Vol. 5, No. 16-17 (September 01, 2012)

Azerbaijan again on the cusp of alphabet change

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Just as was the case 90 years ago, Azerbaijan appears to be on the cusp of changing its alphabet, a development that now as then has potentially far-reaching geopolitical consequences.  At the Baku Congress of Peoples of the East in 1920, Azerbaijani scholars outlined the Latin script that was introduced with variations in both Azerbaijan and Turkey and that simultaneously helped both peoples to expand their contacts with Europe and each other.  This past month, another Azerbaijani scholar has urged new modifications in the Azerbaijani script not only to bring it and the Turkish script closer together, but to serve as a model for the other countries of the Turkic world. 

The adoption of a common script by all the Turkic peoples of the world would not mean that they would all soon speak the same language—there are genuine lexical and even grammatical differences among them—but it would simultaneously expand the sense of commonality of these nations and contribute to their separateness from the Russian state that dominated many of them in the past and that still dominates some of them.  Consequently, what may strike some as an intellectual tempest in a teapot could presage the kind of geopolitical shifts that more obviously political steps often do not.

On August 17, Fahraddin Veyselli, the director of the Institute of Linguistics of the National Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan, said that the Azerbaijani alphabet must be simplified by eliminating the letters "q", "ğ", "ə", and "ç" and expressing their sound values with combinations of other letters as do Turkish and other European languages.  Such changes, he argued, are needed to ensure that Azerbaijanis turning to the Internet will be able to communicate more easily and that others searching on line will find Azerbaijani materials. [1] 

“If we use the Latin script,” the Baku scholar continued, “then we must use it as it is.  There is no need to add new signs to [that] script.”  Moreover, he said, that would assist the creation of “a common Turkic language for the Turkic language peoples.”  “It isn’t necessary to change anything.  One can simply use the letters of the Latin alphabet or use specific combinations or diacritical marks.”  However, he stressed that creating “a single Turkic alphabet,” something scholars and politicians have talked about over the last two decades, does not mean creating “a common Turkic language.”  Such an artificial creation, Veyselli said, is “problematic from the scientific point of view.”

“Do you suppose that the Ottoman Turks will give up their own language and shift to Azerbaijani?  Or that we will give up our language and begin to use another?  That [would involve] a complex and lengthy process.”  And for it to succeed, there would need to be “a common economy, market and political unity.”  Nonetheless, having a common alphabet, one based on the Latin script, would help promote such developments.

Ten days later, Nizami Jafarov, chairman of the Milli Majlis’ committee on culture, gave qualified support to Veyselli’s proposal.  He noted that the leaders of the Turkic countries have proposed creating special government agencies to create a common alphabet for the three Turkic language countries which currently use the Latin script (Azerbaijan, Turkey and Uzbekistan) and for other Turkic nations including both those which have state independence (the three other Central Asian Turkic countries) and those which do not (such as Tatarstan and Gagauzistan). [2] 

However, in contrast to Veyselli, Jafarov suggested that the academician was wrong to discuss the future of the Azerbaijani alphabet in terms of European languages like English and German.  The Milli Majlis deputy argued instead that, “the Azerbaijani alphabet should be discussed not separately, but rather together with the alphabets of [the other] Turkic language peoples and that the letters should be adopted jointly.”  And he pointedly suggested that the Turkish Turks should adopt the Azerbaijani letter "ə," rather than having the Azerbaijanis adopt the Turkic letter.

This exchange is the latest round in the fateful discussions of the Azerbaijani and Turkic scripts over the last century. [3] Azerbaijani activists had called for the introduction of a Latin script alphabet already in the nineteenth century, and it was their proposals that in 1920 became the basis for replacing the Arabic-based script not only in Azerbaijan and Turkey, but somewhat later in the Turkic republics of Central Asia.  That Azerbaijani script survived until 1939 when Stalin imposed a Cyrillic-based one as part of his broader effort to isolate the Soviet peoples from the outside world.  In 1958, the Azerbaijani Cyrillic-based script was simplified, and then in 1991 and 1992, Azerbaijani having recovered its independence restored its Latin-based script in order to signify and solidify its solidarity with Turkey.

As Azerbaijan considers yet another alphabet reform, both Azerbaijanis and others need to keep three things in mind.  First, as noted above, alphabets are important, but they are not the same as languages.  Second, every time a country changes its alphabet, that creates problems for some of its citizens, leading a few to stop reading altogether and others to ignore earlier writings in a different script.  And third, this debate is the first of its kind in Azerbaijan to be affected by the Internet as a social and political force.  As such, it is important not only for Azerbaijan and the Turkic world, but for all countries now linked by the world wide web.


Hatcher, Lynley (2008) “Script Change in Azerbaijan: Acts of Identity,” International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 192, pp. 105-116.

Marquardt, Kyle L. (2010) “Nation-Building and Language Policy in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan,” Azerbaijan in the World, 3:19, pp. 1-6, available at http://ada.edu.az/uploads/file/bw/pdf367.pdf (accessed 29 August 2012).


[1] See http://news.day.az/society/350124.html (accessed 29 August 2012).

[2] See http://news.day.az/society/351958.html (accessed 29 August 2012).

[3] For background on this, see Hatcher (2008) and Marquardt (2010).