Ukraine's transition to the Latin alphabet: How much it costs?

Author : Oleksiy Kushch

Source : 112 Ukraine

Foreign Minister Klimkin presented the initiative voiced by Polish historian and journalist Ziemowit Szczerek and proposed discussing the possible introduction of the Latin alphabet in Ukraine
09:30, 30 March 2018

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Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin stated: "In a friendly conversation, historian and journalist from Poland Ziemowit Szczerek asked why Ukraine would not introduce the Latin alphabet along with the Cyrillic one. Our goal is the formation of the Ukrainian political nation, so we must work for what unites us, not divides us. On the other hand, why don’t we just discuss it?" Smiley.

On the one hand, the issue is surprising itself. It is hard to imagine the Chinese foreign minister, to whom the Polish journalist proposes to switch to the Latin alphabet and forget about thousands of incomprehensible hieroglyphs. Well, it would be so convenient: foreign journalists could read the Chinese newspapers, without understanding the text though. I think, even given the traditional Chinese politeness, a minister from the Middle Kingdom could not tolerate such an obvious "attack".

Related: Ukraine's transition to the Latin alphabet: How much it costs?

Although these allusions seem to be distant. Let us imagine that a similar question is posed to the minister of the country member of NATO and the EU, for example, Bulgaria. Naive Bulgarians think that the traditional inscription at the airport’s terminal "Добре дошли," written in Cyrillic, is somehow understandable to Poles. I mean, naive in their sincere delusions. Because if you write it “Dobre dochliy,” it will not make sense anyway. Undoubtedly, this would change much in terms of Bulgaria's investment attractiveness. Although it seems that the Bulgarian minister would simply say that he is proud of his ancient alphabet, which is a unique achievement of the Slavic civilization and the basis for the development of national identity.

Actually, the desire of our politicians to think globally provokes sincere respect. These are people of a revivalistic scale, unique encyclopedists, against whose background the humble fame of Leonardo and Diderot fades away. And it is good that the military did not bother with questions of the Latin alphabet in terms of transferring the document circulation to NATO standards. The discussion, initiated by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, presupposes a certain light version. Ukrainians are invited to enter both alphabets, Cyrillic and Latin ones, in parallel. A very peculiar model would appear: the future generation of Ukrainians are offered either to study twelve years at school and almost six at the university and as a result competently write in Ukrainian in Cyrillic and English in Latin, or to neglect all that rules and science and write illiterately, mixing the languages mentioned above, plus Russian (using Latin hybrid with special diacritical marks).

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The rejection of old Russian letter 'љ' in revolutionary Russia caused more than one heart attack among the representatives of the Petersburg and Moscow intelligentsia. But the power of the workers and peasants demanded to simplify the "complex" alphabet. Perhaps, someone perceives the rejection of the Cyrillic alphabet in Ukraine as a kind of rejection from the shackles of the "Russian world". If they believe so, then this undertaking looks very curious: Cyrillic letters came to Kyiv from Bulgaria, and only then were transferred to the far north-eastern provinces of the then Kyivan Rus. So the rejection of the Cyrillic alphabet will be equivalent to the rejection of the Kiev-Russian historical heritage. We will have to forget the first book printed in Ukraine - the "Apostle" by Ivan Fedorov, published in Lviv in 1574.

As for the proposal to introduce two parallel alphabets, this will only lead to the next artificial split of our country, this time on the basis of the alphabet. After all, if in the western regions and Transcarpathia the Latin alphabet could have taken root partly, then in the rest of Ukraine it is unlikely.

Not being professionally prepared for deep phonetic and linguistic discussion, let us try to look at this problem from the point of view of economic expediency. Ukraine is not the first state to restore its independence after the dissolution of the USSR, which initiated this discourse. The most striking is Kazakhstan. The transition of this country from Cyrillic to Latin is one of those epoch-making events, which will be further remembered by the incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbayev. In 2017, he issued a decree, and the transition period to the new alphabet should be completed by 2025. The project is implemented within the framework of the strategic program "modernization of public consciousness." Some authors of this idea are absolutely sincerely confident that "the Kazakh language will receive an incentive to write in Kazakh on any device without switching the languages." But even now the transition to the Latin alphabet has caused a wide discussion in the society, which is not always positive.

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According to the estimates of the Ministry of Education and Science of Kazakhstan, the transition to the Latin alphabet will require a one-time cost of $ 300 million. This concerns one-off investments related to the correction of documents, the printing of the new textbooks, the rewriting of software. In addition, according to the estimations of "KazPotrudnadzor", another $ 110 million is needed for retraining the population and labor resources in particular. Taking into account that the transition period can range from three to five years, the cost will total from 330 to 550 million dollars, and taking into account a one-time investment - 600-800 million dollars in total. But these are preliminary estimates, which are always underestimated. The total cost of carrying out the "alphabetical" reform can reach one billion, while it should be borne in mind that the population of Kazakhstan is half that in Ukraine, so for us, this amount can quite double.

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On the other hand, the authorities have a unique tool to shift the attention of the electorate from the real common problems of the country's development to the fictitious personal problems of developing the Latin alphabet. After all, many can voluntarily deprive themselves of the right to criticize the authorities until they learn to write "in a new way."

Of course, we can be persuaded that this would be a "light" reform, and in practice both alphabets will be used: the Cyrillic alphabet and the Latin alphabet, but there is justifiable suspicion that in reality, this will lead only to total illiteracy and a drop in the general educational qualification of the population.

Many Turkish contemporary writers say that Turkey practically lost its literary language as a result of the introduction of a new alphabet in the twenties of the last century. A new generation cannot perceive what is written with another alphabet, and all of the past cultural heritage passes away.


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Let us not be so pessimistic. The "main inquisitor" of the Russian world Volodymyr Vyatrovich hurries to promote the Cyrillic alphabet, stating that "Cyrillic alphabet is a fundamental element of our millennial culture and identity."

And on the other hand, the situation might be much grittier, maybe, the keyboard of the minister lags, and he cannot switch the languages quickly? Perhaps such an unfortunate misunderstanding has inspired him to initiate a sharp alphabetical discussion. There are a lot of problems, which require these billion dollars more than the Latinization of Ukrainian alphabet does.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or 112.International and its owners.

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