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  • 2004-11-17

Back in September, Language Log had a lot of interesting stuff on the obstacles faced by language communities that speak a Turkic language in the Soviet Union, between intense alphabetisation and soviet-style nationalist language policies.

Today I am reading in this AP wire story (fr) that the trials of the Tatar-speaking part of the population of Tatarstan aren’t over yet. No wonder, as they are part of a nationalistic Russian Federation.

[Note: The, I believe, erroneous qualification of Tatar as a “dialect turque” seems to stem from confounding two distinct senses of the French word turque, for which English offers turkish and turkic, respectively. It’s as if they called, say, English or Swedish a German dialect.]

The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation overturned a ruling of the Tatar Supreme Court, which would have allowed the Tatar-speakers to settle on a Latin alphabet with diactitics. The AP story, unfortunately, leaves us in the dark about the legal grounds on which non-Cyrillic alphabets can be ruled unconstitutional.

In cases like this I’d like to know more about how far the court’s influence extends in reality. Surely they can’t regulate the (written) language itself, the characters someone pens a shopping list or a poem in? Except for totalitarian states, lawmakers and courts have a say about language in two areas: administration and the educational system. This is arguably acceptable: someone, somewhere has to lay down rules on how curricula are devised or what to write on traffic signs. But Tatar speakers might be able and allowed to write and publish books and newspapers, or conduct business transactions in whichever writing system they prefer. This is maybe a naive view, and the option would, indeeed, put less educated people at a disadvantage. Navigating two writing systems isn’t easy, especially if the one you’d rather get rid of is what you are forced to use in dealing with officialdom.

Update: I should have expected that Mark Liberman would provide more information and English links shortly.

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