Saturday, September 24, 2011

Alphabet follows empire. Part II in a series: Three traditions co-exist in Central Asia

    Historians use an adage, “alphabet follows empire,” to sum up how those in power stay in power by imposing not just their language and politics but also their writing system on those they rule.  For a different example (last week's post was about the creation and destruction of the Bamum syllabary of west Africa), look at the checkered calligraphic history of the Central Asian “Stans,” the half-dozen republics that constituted the southern extent of the Soviet Union 1930-1990.  The official language and writing of Uzbekistan, for instance, follow a kaleidoscopic progression: Uzbek was written in Arabic script until the mid 1920’s; Roman letters were briefly introduced in emulation of the modern Turkish example of secularization through alphabet reform; Uzbek was supplanted by the Russian language and written with Cyrillic letters from the Stalinist years until the fall of the Soviet Union; now most of Central Asia is back to using Roman letters.
    When I visited Uzbekistan in 1999, my hosts described families where each generation had learned a different alphabet--Arabic, Cyrillic, and then Roman--with the result that some grandparents could not read aloud to their grandchildren.  
 Cyrillic takes on an Arabic accent in the Russian word “kalligraphia,” by Uzbek calligrapher Habibullo Saviev.  Scribes have similarly "Uzbekified" the Roman alphabet as it displaces Cyrillic.   

    An overarching Central Asian style has endured while regimes come and go.  With the confidence that comes from centuries of absorbing ideas from outside, calligraphers have found ways to blend Arabic style with Cyrillic and Roman letters to create a distinctive hybrid way to write.

    Both Cyrillic and Arabic can be studied and practiced in Learn World Calligraphy Watson-Guptill, Random House, 2011.  

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