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.