Cyrillic vs Latin: Battle of the Alphabets

Via Laurence Jarvik I found this article by Sam Vaknin.  He wants Russia to abandon the cyrillic alphabet and switch to a latin one because, he argues, holding on to an archaic and over-complicated alphabet is holding back companies from investing in Russia:

According to the Russian headquarters of [Citibank], the price tag of opening the [Russian] branch reached "several million dollars". Most of it was to convert the bank’s global systems to the 33-letters Cyrillic alphabet. This is an illustration of the hidden business costs incurred by preferring the idiosyncratic Slavic script to the widely used Latin one.

Even NASA are having the odd problem…

NASA published last year the logbooks of the astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The entries for Nov 25, 2000 and January read: "Sergei (Krikalev) discusses some problems with the way (Microsoft) Windows is handling Cyrillic fonts … Sergei is still having difficulties with his e-mail. After the mail sync, he still has ‘outgoing’ mail left instead of everything in the ‘sent’ folder."

And I guess Vaknin makes a fair point in some ways – making money is important.  And the alphabet is intimidatingly different to some – how many times have first time travellers to Russia been advised that they must at least learn the cyrillic alphabet, otherwise they’ll never be able to make their way around the Moscow Metro?  I’m sure it puts off some travellers, those who want their holidays easy, simple, and unchallenging.  Considering whether Russia should switch to a latin alphabet is certainly a discussion worth having. 

But, to me, the Cyrillic alphabet is one of the greatest things about Russia.  Seriously, can you imagine Russia remaining the country it is, retaining it’s mysterious sense of identity, without its funny looking language?  I can’t. 

I certainly don’t want to advocate a policy that would keep investors away from Russia.  But, to be honest, I think there are actually plenty of good, practical, economically sound reasons for retaining cyrillic.  As Vaknin goes on to point out, Azerbaijan’s transition to the latin alphabet didn’t go exactly according to plan:

In August last year, the Azeri government suspended the publication of the weekly Impulse for refusing to switch from Soviet-era Cyrillic to Latin.

The periodical’s hapless owner protested that no one is able to decipher the newly introduced Latin script. Illiteracy has surged as a result and Russian citizens of Azerbaijan feel alienated and discriminated against. Recently Latinized former satellites of the Soviet Union seem to have been severed from the entire body of Russian culture, science and education.

Think of all the time people would have to spend learning what is to them an unfamiliar latin script.  Think of how newspaper and book sales would plummet in the short term, and how this would impact the public’s engagement in political and social discourse. (Actually, come to think of it, if this is the case then maybe changing to the latin alphabet would appeal to Putin’s authoritarian tendencies…).  Think of all the school textbooks that would have to be re-printed. 

The economic cost would be massive in the short term – and probably the long term – far outweighing the economic benefits of a few companies investing in Russia a little earlier than they otherwise would. 

And, let’s face it, Russia is a big market.  Big enough to persuade companies like Citibank to invest despite the extra cost.  To them, investing in Russia carries no extra problems than investing in Greece, Japan, or China would.  And, in today’s increasingly global world, companies should be getting pretty good at converting their computer systems to run in several different languages, several different alphabets.  If they haven’t figured out how to do it yet, they don’t deserve to thrive in today’s competitive business environment. 

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7 Responses

  1. Tim Newman says:

    Odd, because one of the most off-putting things about Russia and its language, the Cyrillic alphabet, can be learned in little over an hour.

  2. Megan says:

    I agree with Tim. When I tell people I speak Russian, they say, “Ooh, that alphabet must be terribly difficult to learn!” No, you learn the alphabet right away. It’s the grammar that takes years.

    Furthermore, Cyrillic is a much more logical alphabet – for the most part, there is a one-to-one ratio of letters to sounds, unlike, say, the English use of the Latin alphabet. I mean, come on, in English the letter “x” makes two distinct sounds “k-s”, while you need two letters to make a single sound like “th” or “sh”.

    Anyway, the Russians are far too proud to ever give up their alphabet, so it’s a moot point.

  3. Lyndon says:

    Tim and Megan are both right. In addition, the argument about foreign investors doesn’t make any sense if you compare Russia with other countries. Is anyone asking China or other Asian countries to give up their writing systems? The logical extension of the argument that Russia should Latinize for the benefit of companies like Citibank is that the whole world should learn English, because that’s the language of international business (or in 25 years maybe we’ll all be learning Chinese).

    The articles and discussion surrounding this question are fascinating (e.g., the story about the typewriter/keyboard), but the proposal that Russia change its alphabet (and I know it’s not your idea, Andy) is just nutty. Now I’m going to go follow those links to the original article and see who this “globalpolitician” fellow is to make such a proposal.

  4. Hi !!!

    Really interesting post.

    I’m Spanish and I study Russian. I completely agree with you. Besides, for me Russians pronounce much better other languages thanks to Russian language. Here in Spain we naturalize foreign words, so we say a word or proper nouns in other language it sounds stupid (some examples French: Michelin, Renault; English: Tom Cruise; and so on) and Russians write proper nouns and foreign words as they sound !!!

  5. Dimitrije, Serbia says:

    For me at least it’s more than obvious that someone is trying to unify entire world. Come on! Diversity is what makes us interesting to one another. Our different cultures and languages add mystery to each nation. How dull and spooky would world look if we all spoke one language, all wore same designers’ clothes, all read the same books, finally, all thought the same!!! If that’s what globalisation will bring us, then I’m against. I believe in diversity and will fight for it. At the end, it’s what makes us all human beings. I love cyrillic because, as Megan said it nicely, we use only one sound for each letter (in Serbian we do not have letters that require you to pronounce two sounds, Russians and other Slav people have only few letters that do). So, I think that Citybank should invest in Western Europe, because it’s more cheaper to change market than make make 400 million Slavs abandon cyrillic 🙂

  6. Alexey says:

    Sam Vaknin is just an idiot nothing more…

    Do we really discuss things, which one idiot said?

  7. Matt says:

    It took me 15 minutes to learn cyrillic from my bulgarian friend. it shouldn’t be that hard!