Take a moment to imagine what would happen if English suddenly switched from being written with the Latin alphabet to being written in ελληνικά (Greek) or кириллица (Cyrillic). To adapt, native speakers would have to relearn how to read and write their own language using a new and very different system. Of course, this exact scenario is farfetched, but many languages have undergone similar transformations throughout history; among the most notable are Turkish, Romanian, and Korean. Read on to discover the reason behind the orthographic changes of these languages, as well as some of the challenges that they faced as a result.
Before 1928, Turkish was written using the Arabic alphabet. That year, however, President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk instituted language reform as one of his newly-founded Turkish Republic’s nationalist policies. This was done with the goal of producing a language “that was more Turkish [and Western] and less Arabic, Persian, and Islamic; one that was more modern, practical, and precise, and less difficult to learn” undefined In addition to the change in orthography, Atatürk’s program also emphasized the “purification” of vocabulary by eliminating words of foreign (most notably Persian and Arabic) origin and replacing them with Turkish words (Metz, 1995).
Nationalistic implications aside, the switch to the Latin alphabet made linguistic sense. Turkish is a Turkic language, not a Semitic language like Arabic, and adapting the Arabic alphabet to non-Semitic languages can be difficult. Turkish vowels and consonants are more clearly and simply represented by Latin characters, from which one was chosen to stand for each sound of standard Turkish (Metz, 2005). This phonetically designed system, coupled with Atatürk’s zeal in enforcing it, increased Turkey’s literacy rate and decreased the linguistic inequality that had been a hallmark of Ottoman rule (Metz, 2005).
The main long-term drawback of westernization and “Turkification,” however, has been the associated distancing from the Ottomans’ rich literary heritage. Although some writings from before the transition have been transliterated into the Latin script, their vocabulary and syntax are almost incomprehensible to modern Turkish speakers (Metz, 2005).
Finally, it is worth noting that Turkish is far from the only language to have made the switch from Arabic to Latin characters; others include Swahili, as well as Turkic languages such as Turkmen, Azeri, and Uzbek.
Romanian (Limba Română)
The Cyrillic alphabet is typically associated with Slavic languages as well as with non-Slavic languages that have been influenced by Russian (such as Kazakh and Tajik). Romanian, however, is an Eastern European Romance language that was written in Cyrillic prior to 1860 in the region that is now Romania and off-and-on until 1989 in Moldova, although in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria, the Cyrillic script is still used to write Romanian (or Moldovan, as it is known there).
Transylvanian scholars in the late 1700s were the first to consider their language’s Latin roots with regard to its writing system; they adapted the Latin alphabet to Romanian and drew upon the orthographic conventions of Italian (considered its closest relative) in doing so. Romanian orthography was officially standardized in 1860, effectively ending (at least temporarily) all secular use of Cyrillic to write the language; the Romanian Orthodox Church continued to publish in Cyrillic until 1881.
In the Republic of Moldova, however, a Russian-derived version of the script was re-introduced in the early 1920s by the Soviets, whose official policy dictated that Moldovan and Romanian (widely considered today to be the same language) were distinct. In 1989, two years before Moldovan independence, the Republic reverted to the Latin alphabet with the notable exception of Transnistria, a de facto independent state with cultural and historical ties to Russia.
The Korean and Chinese languages are fundamentally different, but prior to 1894, Korea’s national script was a form of the Classical Chinese alphabet known as hanja. Indigenous phonetic writing systems such as idu and hyangchal were also used; these predate Hangul (the modern Korean script) by thousands of years (Hannas, 1997).
Hangul was created in 1443, during the Joseon Dynasty, under King Sejong the Great. The King recognized the difficulty inherent in writing Korean with the Chinese alphabet; the intricacy and sheer number of its characters made it especially problematic for the lower classes, who often did not have access to education. Hangul, on the other hand, was alphabetic, relatively simple, and quickly became widespread among the common people, especially as a medium for popular novels (Lee, 1997). It was denounced by the upper classes for centuries after its creation; they considered it too easy to learn and called it “vernacular” and “children’s script,” among other pejorative names (The National Academy of the Korean Language). In 1894, however, amid growing Korean nationalism, Hangul replaced hanja as Korea’s national script. It remains the national script of both North (where it is called chosŏn’gŭl) and South Korea today.
Helen Chapin Metz, ed., Turkey: A Country Study (Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1995), http://countrystudies.us/turkey.
Kenneth B. Lee, Korea and East Asia: The Story of a Phoenix (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997), 90.
Wm C. Hannas, Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997), 57
“Different Names for Hangeul,” The National Academy of the Korean Language, 2004, http://www.korean.go.kr/eng_hangeul/another/001.html.