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Turkey’s Circassians in uproar over alphabet

Turkey’s largest Circassian organization is infuriated by a government decision to introduce the Latin alphabet in Circassian language courses in public schools, alongside the Cyrillic one.
Turks of ethnic Circassian origin protest outside the Russian embassy in Ankara on May 21, 2014, on the 150th annivesary the mass deportation and killings of ethnic Circassians by Tsarist Russia in the 19th century in May 21, 1864. The north Caucasian ethnic group native to Circassia were displaced in the course of the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century, especially after the RussianCircassian War in 1864.  AFP PHOTO/ADEM ALTAN        (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkey’s ethnic Circassians, the descendants of Caucasian communities expelled from their homeland by Russians in the 19th century, had hardly overcome the shock of being ignored in the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) tickets for the June 7 elections when they found themselves embroiled in another spat with the government. The issue this time is the Circassian language courses offered in public schools.

The Circassian language, known also as Adyghe, has been taught as a selective course over the past three years under a curriculum designed on the basis of the Cyrillic script. The Ministry of Education, however, has now approved the use also of the Latin alphabet, drawing angry reactions from the Federation of Caucasian Associations (KAFFED), the largest civic organization of Turkey’s Circassians that brings together 53 groups. On April 16, KAFFED members held demonstrations at Ministry of Education offices across the country.

Street protests come as a rare reaction by a community that has held senior bureaucratic posts since Ottoman times, seeking to resolve its problems quietly in the corridors of power. True, Circassians have taken to the streets since the 1990s to condemn the wars in Chechnya, Abkhazia and South Ossetia and commemorate the anniversaries of the May 21, 1864, Circassian genocide. But street action to raise demands from the state is something new for the Circassians, who number more than 3 million in Turkey. Demonstrators held banners that read, "Hands off my alphabet," "Our mother tongue should be taught in its official alphabet," "We want our mother tongue alphabet" and "What about Arabic in Latin letters?"

Bonds with the homeland under threat

The main objections of KAFFED members include the following arguments:

  • The Circassian language has an alphabet already and introducing the Latin one will weaken the community’s bonds with the homeland.
  • In Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia — the three autonomous Caucasian republics of the Russian Federation that preserve the Circassian language institutionally — the language has been officially taught in the Cyrillic alphabet for eight decades. Thus, using the Cyrillic alphabet facilitates the transfer of homeland heritage and resources to Turkey. 
  • The Circassian courses in Turkish schools are still ridden with serious problems, which will only grow if a dual alphabet system is introduced. Schools would have to provide separate teachers for separate classes under two different curricula and different textbooks. Students would fail to learn their mother tongue properly.
  • The Ministry of Education ignored warnings by linguists that the Latin alphabet is scientifically unfit to teach the Circassian language. A report by the ministry’s own experts disapproved of the Latin alphabet, yet it was still given the green light under a decision based on political and administrative considerations rather than scientific grounds.
  • The existing curriculum was drawn up in line with the official curricula in the Caucasian republics, using the Cyrillic alphabet that matches the Circassian phonetic structure.
  • The Cyrillic alphabet in Turkey is taught not only as part of the Ministry of Education’s selective courses but also at the Duzce University’s Circassian language and literature department, where the academic staff includes lecturers brought in from Caucasia.
  • The alphabet used in the Caucasian republics functions both as a source and a developer for the Circassian language. A different alphabet will make it even harder to preserve a language that is already under threat.

Ideological factors

One factor that contributed partially to KAFFED’s spat with the government is the in-house rift between conservative right-leaning Circassians and those on the left. The long-standing dispute over whether Circassians should use the Cyrillic, Arab or Latin scripts was rekindled in 2012 as soon as the Circassian (Adyghe) language was introduced as a selective course in Turkish schools. KAFFED, known to maintain the strongest bonds with the homeland, favored the Cyrillic alphabet, while the Konya-based Adyghe Language Teaching Association (ADDER), which focuses specifically on the language issue, emerged as a proponent of the Latin script. The two groups organized conferences in a bid to come up with a common stance.

Eventually, the Ministry of Education launched the Circassian courses with textbooks using the Cyrillic alphabet under KAFFED’s guidance and in line with the curricula in the Circassian homeland. Yet, three years later, ADDER — backed by newly founded pro-AKP Circassian groups — managed to lobby the Ministry of Education to approve a Latin alphabet. KAFFED now says it will seek the cancellation of the decision on the grounds that a dual alphabet will create confusion.

The issue may well have linguistic aspects, but ideological and political convictions also play a role in the dispute. While ADDER represents mostly conservative and right-leaning Circassians, KAFFED is backed by leftist circles. In the ADDER camp, the prevailing sentiment is one of score-settling with Russia, blamed for the wars, deportations and tragedies that befell the Circassians. The KAFFED camp, for its part, tends to avoid anti-Russian rhetoric, seeking to strengthen bonds with the homeland. Due to ideological affinities, ADDER’s rhetoric resonates with the AKP government. According to KAFFED, ADDER managed to convince the ministry to approve the Latin alphabet, arguing that the existing Cyrillic alphabet was essentially a Russian one and has to be replaced with the Latin script so as to shrug off "Russian hegemony." This argument is embraced in the nationalist and conservative segments of the Circassian community, where skepticism and even animosity toward Russia is strong.

In remarks to Al-Monitor, writer and translator Murat Papsu, one of the commission members who drew up the existing KAFFED-backed curriculum, argued that the Latin-based alphabet and curriculum were linguistically flawed and stressed that ideological factors were at play.

“Those who come from the nationalist, Islamist or rightist traditions are hostile to the Cyrillic alphabet, hence their support for the Latin one. They identify the Cyrillic alphabet with Russianness, which is totally irrelevant,” Papsu said.

He stressed that the approval of a second curriculum in addition to the existing one had created confusion, with the Ministry of Education failing to explain how the dual system would function. The ministry keeps silent in the dispute, while ADDER rejects KAFFED’s objections and sticks to its own arguments, which include the following points:

  • In the Circassian diaspora in Turkey, which is the world’s largest, Circassian language proficiency has hit 0% in the 0-15 age group and 4% in the 15-30 age group. Efforts to stop this linguistic assimilation cannot be sacrificed to the whims of certain institutions.
  • The Latin alphabet was drawn up by a commission of 30 members, who worked for about four months and achieved consensus.
  • The selective Circassian-Adyghe courses are only two hours per week, with Turkish reading and writing classes taking up 15 hours. Hence, it is impossible for students to learn reading and writing in the Cyrillic alphabet in such a limited time. Learning Circassian in the Latin alphabet will be easier for students since they are already familiar with it. The Cyrillic script has emerged as an obstructive factor in learning the mother tongue.
  • The Adyghe community was one of the first Muslim groups to adopt the Latin alphabet back in Ottoman times.

Phonetic richness

In sum, a century-old dispute has opened a rift both between the Circassians themselves and between the community and Ankara. Work on a Circassian (Adyghe) alphabet began in the 19th century, but remained limited and inadequate. The alphabet took shape on the basis of two main dialects, the Western and Eastern ones, with their centers in the autonomous republics of Adyghe and Kabardino-Balkaria, respectively.

Following the collapse of Tsarist Russia, both the Arabic and Latin alphabets were used in Caucasia for about a decade after 1918. The Cyrillic alphabet was introduced in the 1936-38 period as the Soviet Union launched a project to equip all local languages with an alphabet. The real development of Circassian literature occurred with the Cyrillic alphabet.

In fact, neither the Cyrillic nor the Latin alphabets are able to meet fully the phonetics of the Circassian language. The Western Adyghe alphabet features 64 letters and the Eastern one 59. Yet, the Russian-used Cyrillic alphabet denotes 32 sounds, and the Latin one 23. Hence, using the Latin alphabet requires generating more sounds compared to the Cyrillic one.

The main problem of Turkey’s Circassians, however, is the accelerating extinction of their mother tongue. The selective courses offered by the Ministry of Education cannot stop the death of the language in their current form. Using the Cyrillic or Latin script will not make a difference as long as the teaching system lacks any serious sense of purpose.

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