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3 posts categorized "Central Asia"

05 June 2017

One World, One Script, Many Lects: Early Soviet Turkic Language Reform

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The concept of a unified national language is very much a product of the modern era. Since antiquity, commentators, authors, scribes and others have complained about the quality of language use in literary and scholastic circles and everyday life. Such gripes motivated the creation of highly curated liturgical and sacred languages, such as Classical Arabic or Sanskrit. Nevertheless, the creation of a norm against which transgressions could be measured, and its adoption as a tool of the state – as opposed to a religious institution – are novelties of the last few centuries. Profane language tinkering was undertaken with vigour across much of Europe in the 19th century, from French to Hungarian and Greek. It was not until the 20th century that the trend took minority European languages and non-European idioms by storm. Among the Turkic peoples of the Russian Empire, it was the advent of Soviet hegemony that turned language reform from a topic of discussion among intellectuals into stark reality.

The Language Issue, as it is often known, was a subject of frequent conversation among Turkic intelligentsia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jadidists  and Qadimists – so called because of their adherence to new or old methods of education – fought over the means and content of education, including language. It was during the first few years of Soviet power, however, that such actors were enlisted to help delineate linguistic boundaries and compile “scientific” knowledge about speech communities across the Union.

ITA1986a1059 Xocayev Ottoman Kazakh Uzbek Grammar

Bekir Çobanzade, for example, wrote a grammar of the Kumyk language. Xalid Sǝid Xocayev’s Comparative Conjugations of the Ottoman-Uzbek-Kazakh Languages (pictured above) is another case in point . These fed into the broader process of understanding and standardizing linguistic structures, which culminated at the 1926 All-Union Turcological Congress. The collection of articles prepared for the Congress, the Bulletin for which is held by the British Library, show the degree to which language issues and linguistic reform dominated the proceedings.

14499tt26 Ileri Lenin Portrait

Portraits of Lenin (above) and Stalin (below) from İleri (Simferopol, 1926-[1927?]) 14499.tt.26

14499tt26 Ileri Stalin Portrait

Along with linguistic reform came change in orthography and writing systems. A quick glance through Turkic-language publications from the first half of the 1920s shows that experimentation with different means of Perso-Arabic spelling was common. Crimean Tatar publications such as İleri  and Yeşil Ada demonstrate just how much writers dabbled in such matters. Despite discussing the standardization of such experiments at length, delegates at the 1926 Baku All-Union Turcological Congress eventually settled on whole-sale Latinization as the most efficient alternative. Thus, the ‘Uniform Alphabet’ was born. This particular Latin-based writing system aimed to give all languages within a particular language family the same grapheme for the same sound. It was based, in part, on earlier Tatar efforts at Latinization known as Yañalif, although it did also incorporated important innovations from other languages. Unlike European alphabets, where the English sound sh as is ship could be written sch (German), ch (French), sci (Italian), sz (Polish) or just plain s (Hungarian), all Soviet Turkic languages would now use ş.

14499tt25 Yesil Ada Cover Page
Cover of Yeşil Ada (Aq Meşçid [Simferopol'],1920.) 14499.tt.25

14499tt25 Yesil Ada Article Milli AqintiArticle from Yeşil Ada (Aq Meşçid [Simferopol'],1920.) 14499.tt.25

The Soviet authories used readers such as Jeni Turmuş and Jaş Kyc, both from Uzbekistan, to promote aggressively the new alphabet.  These formed part of mass education movements aimed at eradicating illiteracy as well as pre-Revolutionary epistemologies.

ITA1986a1112 Jas Kyc Erkin Qbz

Page from Jaş Kyc (Samarqand,1929). ITA.1986.a.1112 

Even those members of the new élite who had actively opposed Bolshevik advances, such as Akhmet Baitursynov,  joined the effort. Baitursynov’s 1927 publication Alip-Ba (Zhanga Kural)  sought to teach students the new Latin orthography. It followed upon his efforts to compile a grammar of Kazakh, entitled Til Qural, in 1925. Together, they provided a complete corpus of texts for the fixing and propagation of Soviet Kazakhstan’s new national language.

ITA1986a1104 Baitursynov Grammar Cover Page

Cover of Til-qural by Akhmed Baitursynov (Qyzylorda, 1925). ITA.1986..a.1104

ITA1986a1138 Baitursynov Reader Cover Page

Cover of Alip-Ba (Zhanga Kural) by Akhmet Baitursynov (Qyzylordam 1927) ITA.1986.a.1138

Orthographic standardization was informed by both a desire to simplify literacy and printing, and the Marxian belief that as humanity marched towards Socialism, languages and national cultures would merge into one. This humanity-wide kulturbund, united in its pursuit of socio-economic well-being, would no longer be divided by the bourgeoisie’s artificial distinctions of nationality, race or language. The Soviet authorities’ wish to help this process along among the Turkic languages is very much evident in an article entitled ‘Turkmen edebi dilining esaası yaghdayları’ (pictured below) from Tyrkmen Medenijeti . K. Bööriyif wrote the piece in 1930, which leads us to believe that it was, at least partially, influenced by the dominant ideology of Stalinism. In it, the author argues for the creation of a standard Turkmen language through the selection of “ideal” linguistic elements from various vernaculars. This is language management at the extreme, precluding the sort of linguistic unification that comes from literary production and socio-political changes, as occurred in Italy and Spain. Such a suggestion only adds to the overwhelming evidence the state’s push to imbue all aspects of Soviet life with Stalinist elements.

Tyrkmen Medenijeti B+Â+Âriyif article

Language reform and management are tools utilized by a wide swathe of governments, not just totalitarian ones. What is unique about the Soviet experience, and the Soviet Turkic experiment in particular, is how all aspects of language came under scrutiny. The brief period of forced convergence in the 1920s and early 1930s came to an abrupt end around the time of the Great Purge, when Stalin employed terrible violence to cleanse the state and the country of perceived ideological enemies. Latin gave way to unique Cyrillic alphabets for each language at this point, and the creation of new linguistic standards lost steam. Today, the peoples of the Turkic republics of Central Asia, the Caucasus and Siberia live with the consequences of this turbulent period, while some – including the Uzbeks, Turkmen and most recently the Kazakhs – have sought to determine what would have happened, had the changes of the late 1930s never been enforced.

Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Curator

Further reading:

Kazakhstan sets out plan for alphabet swap,” Deutsche Welle, Berlin: 12 April 2017. http://www.dw.com/en/kazakhstan-spells-out-plans-for-alphabet-swap/a-38407769

‘Nursultan Nazarbaev. Bolashaqqa baghdar: rukhani zhangghyru’ Egemen Qazaqstan, Almaty: 12 April 2017. https://egemen.kz/article/nursultan-nazarbaev-bolashaqqa-baghdar-rukhani-zhanhghyru

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths  is open until 29 August 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the reign of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state. You can also read articles from our experts exploring some of the themes of our exhibition on our Russian Revolution website.

21 December 2016

The Lettered Bridge: Aleksandr Kazem-Bek

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Long before the Soviets began their process of korenizatsiia, Imperial Russia boasted a small but prominent cadre of indigenous non-Russian academics. Among those from the 19th century is Aleksandr Kasimovich Kazem-Bek, a colourful mid-century scholar of Turkic and Persian. Kazem-Bek was born Muhammad Ali Kazem-Bek in 1802 in Rasht, Iran, the son of a prominent Shi’ite scholar and daughter of the local governor. At the age of 9, his family moved from Rasht to his father’s native Derbent in contemporary Dagestan. It was here that he met Scottish Presbyterian missionaries, and eventually decided to convert to Christianity.

Kazem-Bek portrait X.809-1671

Portrait of Kazem-Bek from Mirza Kazem-Bek by A.Rzaev (Baku, 1965). X.809/1671

Kazem-Bek’s conversion caused concern among Muslims and Russian Christians alike. The local authorities were worried that he would act as a bridgehead for British influence among the local populations, and he was exiled to Astrakhan. Although punitive, the move allowed him to begin his career in service of the Russian Imperial government as a translator from Persian and Azeri into Russian. It was first step that led to posts in both Kazan – the seat of one of the country’s largest Oriental Studies departments – and St. Petersburg, the Imperial capital. His immersion in both the Islamic and Christian faiths (notwithstanding his occasional polemics against Islam) and his mastery of Russian, Turkish, Tatar, Arabic and Farsi allowed him to act as a conduit of knowledge from the newly conquered regions on the southern fringe of the Empire to the Imperial centres of military, political and economic power.

Kazem-Bek memoir 864.g.43

Among the earliest of his works was an autobiographical account of his conversion from Islam to Christianity entitled A Brief Memoir of the Life and Conversion of Mahomed Ali Bey, a Learned Persian of Derbent (Philadelphia, 1827; 864.g.43; title-page above). This essay was more than simply an ego project: it marked the first of a number of endeavours over the next thirty years to explain and scrutinize the faith of Russia’s new Muslim populations for the benefit of Russian-speaking readers. From 1844, for example, we have his translation of the Kitab mukhtaṣar al-wiḳāyā fī masā’il al-hidāyā (‘The Book of the Collection of Consciousness in the Questions of Gifts’), a 12th century tract dedicated to the examination of the Shar’ia, or Islamic law. There is even a work in the Library’s collection from as late as 1859 entitled Miftāḥ kunūz al-Ḳur’ān (‘Key to the Treasures of the Qur’an’) (St. Petersburg, 1859; 14514.d.13), demonstrating that inter-religious comparison ran like a thread through Kazem-Bek’s oeuvre.

  Kazem-Bek MS notes 306.412.B.7

Kitab mukhtaṣar al-wiḳāyā fī masā’il al-hidāyā (Kazan, 1844; 306.41.B.7). An introduction to the work including autobiographical details by the editor, Aleksandr Kazem-Bek, with grammatical corrections to the Arabic, possibly in Kazem-Bek’s own hand.

The scholar’s two most passionate interests, however, were history and language. In many ways, Kazem-Bek’s writings adumbrated the shift in emphasis from religious community to ethno-linguistic belonging that would grow apace following the 1905 Revolution in Russia. This is exemplified by his insistence on studying the vernacular cultures of Russia’s Turkic subjects. The earliest of his historical works held at the Library is the Asseb" o-sseĭiar" / Sem' planet" soderzhashchii istoriiu  Krymskikh" khanov" (‘The Seven Planets Comprising the History of the Crimean Khans’) 

Kazem-Bek 14456.h.21. titlepage

Title-page of Asseb" o-sseĭiar"(Kazan, 1832) 14456.h.21

 This is followed by an English version of his Derbend-Nâmeh, or The History of Derbent. His choice of topic is an indication that, despite his conversion and exile from Azerbaijan, Kazem-Bek never forgot his childhood home or the territory of his ancestors. Finally, among the later works produced on the history of the region, we hold his Bab" i babidy:  religiozno-politicheskiia smuty v" Persīi v" 1844-1852 godakh" (‘Babas and the Babids: Politico-Religious Turmoil in Persia’ 1844-1852) (St.Petersburg, 1865; 4504.f.30). Even as a professor and an eminent scholar, Kazem-Bek did not tire of analyzing the social environment of the Caspian region.

Kazem-Bek 11456.h.14 Titlepage

Derbend-Nâmeh, or The History of Derbent (St. Petersburg, 1851) 14456.h.14. Title-page (above) and signed; inscription by Kazem-Bek (below)

Kazem-Bek 14456.h.14 inscription

Within the realm of language and linguistics, among his most passionate topics was the typology of Turkic languages and cultures. The Library holds both the original 1846 Russian version (12906.c.34) and the 1848 German translation (T.6887) of his primary work of historical linguistics, Obshchaia  grammatika Turetsko-Tatarskago iazyka (‘General Grammar of the Turco-Tatar Language’). Whatever the value of Kazem-Bek’s theoretical approaches to the study of language, his interest in the languages and dialects of the Eurasian steppe – particularly Kazan Tatar and Uighur – helped focus contemporary minds on the distinctive characteristics of the various Turkic idioms. This too translated into socio-political action, especially cultural and social reform. Indeed, Kazem-Bek is known to have been in contact with another Azeri linguistic reformer, Fathali Akhundzade, about issues of modernization and popular education.

Kazem-Bek Grammar Russian 12906.c.34 Kazem-Bek grammar German T.6887
Russian and German editions of Kazan-Bek’s Turko-Tatar grammar

 Aleksandr Kazem-Bek was no stranger to controversy, and it is indeed partly thanks to this controversy that his memory has lived on through the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. The works of his housed at the British Library and other institutions, however, demonstrate that he was a formidable part of 19th century Turkic intellectual history, and an important builder of the foundation of Russian Oriental Studies.

Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections

 

06 April 2016

Dervish or spy? A Hungarian in Central Asia

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Having spent years in Constantinople, learning over 20 Turkic dialects and studying the Quran and Muslim customs, Ármin Vámbéry was well respected in the Ottoman Empire. Aged 31, this entirely self-made Hungarian orientalist undertook a perilous journey incognito into the very midst of Central Asia, where few Westerners had set foot since the 1600s. His main purpose was to establish the origin and connections of the Hungarian language. Vámbéry thought it a good idea to assume a false identity, convinced that as a European he would not be able to move around freely and explore the region’s languages.

Vambery_dervish
Armin Vambery in dervish dress in the 1860s (CC-PD, from Wikimedia Commons)

Setting off from Tehran in late March 1863 Vámbéry, or rather ‘dervish Reshid’, joined a group of pilgrims returning from Mecca. He told them he had long dreamed of a pilgrimage to the sacred places of Islam in Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, and hiked with them for six months, making heartfelt friendships in the process. 
 
Vambery_mapMap of the travels of Armin Vambery in Central Asia (Image by Lepeltier.ludovic. CC-BY-SA, from Wikimedia Commons)

When no camel, donkey or cart was at his disposal, he made use of his own two feet, though lame in one leg from infantile paralysis. As poor pilgrims his party were offered provisions in most places en route and also received alms, which helped pay for their transport or frequent and often arbitrary customs duties.

Vámbéry must have endured extreme tension whenever an encounter with new people was looming. In low moments he feared that even the sufferings inflicted by the hostile desert were preferable to the dangers that humans might pose. Stories of foreigners being imprisoned, tortured or executed were common, and Vámbéry was so convinced of this danger that he kept strychnine pills sewn into his modest attire.

Whenever anyone accused him of not being who he claimed, which happened with alarming regularity, our adventurer somehow wriggled out of the situation. Despite his best efforts to alter his European appearance, many picked up on some unexplained peculiarity about his person and he was time and again suspected of being a secret envoy for the Sultan, or worse, a spy (or a European). Every town had its informant, so he had to appear before many a local ruler and answer challenging queries into his being a genuine hadji. The breadth of his knowledge saved him and occasionally he even turned these difficult conversations to his advantage, returning with useful gifts.

Vambery_Englishman
 ‘I swear you are an Englishman!’ In: Ármin Vámbéry, Közép-ázsiai utazás… (Pest, 1865). 10077.e.24. and digitised version

In Bukhara’s bazaar, Vámbéry noticed some goods labelled with the names of Manchester and Birmingham, which gave him a warm feeling, as if meeting a compatriot in such a distant land, but he was afraid that showing his delight might give him away. At the book market he spotted precious manuscripts that could have filled major gaps in oriental studies in the West. Sadly he could not buy more than a small handful of them, partly for lack of finance, but also because he feared a display of enthusiasm for secular knowledge would place him under more suspicion.

Vambery_Samarkand
The Emir entering Samarkand, after a sketch by Lehmann. In: Ármin Vámbéry, Közép-ázsiai utazás… (Pest, 1865). 10077.e.24. and digitised version 

In Samarkand some friendly locals offered to accompany him all the way back to Mecca, where he said he was returning. It ‘would have been slightly awkward for all parties if we then ended up on the shores of the Thames instead of the Kaaba’. Therefore, for his return journey via Afghanistan, he attached himself to several successive caravans where he enjoyed less attention. Once back in Persia he could finally bid farewell to his dervish disguise.

Exactly a year after his expedition had begun, Vámbéry left Tehran again, this time for Europe. He took with him a ‘Tatar’ mullah called Iskhak, originally from Khiva. Iskhak was the only person to whom Vámbéry had revealed his true identity, although not until safely back in Tehran. The two had grown so close while travelling together that Iskhak decided to start a new life in the Hungarian capital instead of going on to Mecca. He learnt the language and worked at the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Vambery_portrait
Mihály Kovács. Portrait of Ármin Vámbéry. 1861 (CC-PD, from Wikimedia Commons)

Vámbéry may not have discovered the exact origin of the Hungarian language, but he brought back a wealth of new information about the places he visited, which he first published in English as part of his Travels in Central Asia. The book, along with the fascinating and by all accounts highly entertaining lectures he gave around Britain earned him much academic acclaim and fame, and the doors of élite society were suddenly thrown open to him. He also became a professor and an honorary member of the Academy in Budapest despite never having a university degree.

Vambery_LeedsMercuryAB

Two extracts from an report about one of Vámbéry’s lectures, The Leeds Mercury, 19 March 1866, p. 3 (from the British Newspaper Archive)

In fact he gained such trust in Britain that he was later employed by the Foreign Office as a secret agent in the Near East. Undoubtedly, this was in no small part thanks to his (mostly) skilful impersonations, enhanced by outstanding linguistic ability and charismatic demeanour.

Ildi Wollner, Curator, East-Central European Collections


References / Further reading:

Ármin Vámbéry, Travels in Central Asia, being the account of a journey from Teheran across the Turkoman Desert on the Eastern shore of the Caspian to Khiva, Bokhara, and Samarcand, performed in the year 1863. (London, 1864.) 2354.d.1.

Hungarian edition: Közép-ázsiai utazás, melyet a Magyar Tudományos Akademia megbizásából 1863-ban Teheránból a Turkman sivatagon át a Kaspi tenger keleti partján Khivába, Bokharába és Szamarkandba tett / és leirt Vámbéry Ármin, a Magyar Tud. Akadémia tagja. (Pest, 1865). 10077.e.24. and digital version 

French translation: Voyages d'un Faux Derviche dans l'Asie Centrale de Téhéran à Khiva. (Paris, 1867). 10057.aa.22. and 12206.k.20.(2.)

Ármin Vámbéry, Sketches of Central Asia: additional chapters on my travels, adventures, and on the ethnology of Central Asia. (London, 1868). 2354.e.15. and B.18.d.5

German translation: Skizzen aus Mittelasien. Ergänzungen zu meiner Reise in Mittelasien .... (Leipzig, 1868). 10057.ee.18. and digital version

Russian translation: Очерки Средней Азіи… (Moscow, 1868) 1609/5266. and digital version