Since the downfall of the Soviet regime in 1991, successive Turkish governments have been trying to impress upon the ex-Soviet Turkish republics the necessity of adopting the Roman alphabet. As late as June 2007, for example, a delegation from the Republic of Kazakhstan visited the Turkish Language Institute (Türk Dil Kurumu) for consultations and received briefings on a number of topics, including the history of script change in Turkey, the economic costs and benefits of romanization, and the implications of script change for electronic media and information technologies. Indeed, Turkish policy makers are correct when they underline Turkey’s role as a model in this regard. Adoption of a Roman-based alphabet in Turkey in 1928 is habitually cited as the textbook example of a successful and lasting case of romanization. The problem with the approach of the Turkish policy makers, on the other hand, is the somewhat naïve conviction that, with a good amount of fortitude, the Turkish success could be easily replicated elsewhere.
This approach is not new, nor is it particular to the Turkish officials. It had been voiced earlier, during attempts at romanizing the Chinese, Indian, and Japanese scripts in the interwar period and the immediate aftermath of World War II at the heyday of an international romanization movement. What is common in all of them is a tendency to strip the question of script from its historical, religious, and political context and to present it mainly as an issue of the expediency of a writing system. It is very telling that Western advocates of romanization were pointing at the Turkish example even then, as Turkish officials still do. The success of the Turkish experiment, though, obscured many other attempts at romanization that ended up as utter failures. If truth be told, the impact of the permanent adoption of the Roman alphabet by a handful of speech communities in the twentieth century is far outweighed by the resilience of non-Roman writing systems in spite of efforts to romanize them. It is impossible to overlook the fact that about half of the world’s population today employ non-Roman alphabets or scripts: the Devanagari script in India, the han’gŭl in Korea, the kanji and kana in Japan, the hànzì in China, the Arabic alphabet in most of the Muslim world, the Greek alphabet in Greece, the Cyrillic in Russia, and the square letters in Israel, just to name a few, show the limits of the expansion of the Roman alphabet in contrast to high expectations in its favor at the beginning of the twentieth century. The image of a victorious Roman alphabet is then probably caused by the paucity of counterfactual data, which could have been gleaned from failed cases, and it also results from the lack of comparative works, especially those that compare a successful case with a fiasco.
What I intend to do in this article is precisely this. By focusing on the Hebrew and Turkish cases, I aim at constructing a theoretical framework for explaining success and failure of romanization. The two cases in question are selected on purpose: adoption of the Roman alphabet in Atatürk’s Turkey is the emblematic example of romanization in the twentieth century. Quite the reverse, the feeble movement in the Yishuv—a term that describes the Jewish population and settlement in Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel—in the 1920s and 1930s for writing Hebrew in the Roman alphabet had so utterly failed to impress the Hebrew speakers at the time that there are very few today who even remember that such a bizarre attempt was ever made. Comparing these two cases will help us identify a number of independent variables that facilitate romanization or inhibit it….
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed the implantation of the Roman alphabet in the Americas and pockets of European colonization in the Far East. The first real conquest of the Roman alphabet outside the boundaries of Western Christendom, however, was the romanization of the Romanian script in 1860, during an atmosphere of cultural revival and independence, which also signaled Romania’s growing estrangement from the Slavic and the Orthodox world. A second, less known, case was the gradual adoption in Vietnam of Quoc-ngu, a Roman-based alphabet, which was officially endorsed in 1910 but whose spread to the masses took considerably more time and lasted until the 1950s. A more crucial and rather famous decision of romanization was made at the Baku Congress of Turkology in 1926, when representatives from the Muslim-Turkic and Tatar communities in the Soviet Union and from the Republic of Turkey discussed matters of orthography among other cultural problems. The resolution of the congress stressed the need for the creation of a common script based on the Roman alphabet for all Turco-Tataric nations. This particular wave of romanization started with the Yakuts and the Azeris in 1926, while the Uzbeks and the Crimean Tatars followed suit in 1928 and 1929 respectively. The Republic of Turkey, on the other hand, whose initial attitude toward romanization at the congress could best be described as lukewarm, jumped on the bandwagon in 1928 with huge publicity given to the event in world press.
If it is permissible to use Max Weber’s notion of “charismatic authority” in a field that he did not intend it for, the Roman alphabet had in effect become a charismatic script by the 1920s and 1930s. It owed its charisma less to its Roman or Catholic background, and more to a rather secular association with the advent of modernity, Westernization, and, later, the ascendancy of English as the global lingua franca….
An argument in favor of romanization of the Hebrew script was first heard in 1898, but that preliminary shot by Isaak Rosenberg, a Hebrew teacher in Jerusalem, fell on deaf ears and did not make an impact at all. The person who actually catapulted the idea of romanization to short-lived fame and notoriety was Itamar Ben-Avi, the son of the “father of modern Hebrew,” Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.
Hardly remembered today, Itamar Ben-Avi (1882–1943) was a celebrity in the Yishuv as well as the diaspora world from the first decade of the twentieth century to the 1940s. His father, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the individual who probably contributed more than anybody else to the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, raised him as the first Jew in nearly two millennia whose mother tongue was Hebrew. Thanks to the publicity given to him since his childhood for this reason, Ben-Avi was a living specimen of the “new Jew,” who could turn dreams into reality by strength of will. Upon completing his university studies in Berlin, Ben-Avi returned to Jerusalem, where he embarked on a journalistic career, first writing in his father’s newspapers, then acting as the Jerusalem correspondent for British and French dailies, and eventually topping his career with the editorship of such important Yishuv newspapers as the Do’ar ha-yom and the Palestine Weekly. He was to put his oratorical skills in many languages into use following a request from the Jewish National Fund to go abroad on lecture tours for the Zionist cause, a job that further boosted his image abroad, where he rubbed shoulders with the VIPs of the diaspora Jewry.
Of all people, it was this man who proposed to write Hebrew with Roman characters, and put his name at risk and gambled with his financial resources to carry out his plans for romanization. After many adventures along those lines in his youth, Ben-Avi’s first concrete action was to publish a biography of his father, titled Avi (My Father), in romanized Hebrew in 1927. That initial attempt drew the ire of the Jewish literati in the Yishuv, who nipped the project in the bud by their deadly silence. The following year, no doubt encouraged by the news coming from Turkey, he briefly experimented with offering a Hebrew supplement in Roman alphabet to the Palestine Weekly. The first issue of Ha-shavu‘a ha-palestini [variously spelled (per fn. 42) ha Şavu‘a ha Palestini, ha Şavuja ha Palestini, ha Shavuaj ha Palestini, ha Shavuaa ha Palestini, and ha Shavua ha Palestini], as the supplement was called, appeared on 14 December 1928 and continued until May 1929 in twenty issues altogether. Members of the Revisionist Zionist Organization in the Yishuv rallied round his cause, and the organization’s legendary leader Vladimir Jabotinsky emerged as the second best-known advocate for the romanization of Hebrew script. Yet, the supplement failed to create a momentum, with about three hundred copies sold in the Yishuv and abroad, even though a few first issues were distributed gratis. Ben-Avi made a final, and more serious, attempt in 1933, this time by publishing an independent weekly journal in romanized Hebrew. The weekly Deror appeared from 17 November 1933 to 25 March 1934 in sixteen issues, and, if we trust Ben-Avi’s somewhat inflated numbers, the journal’s sales stabilized around 1,400 copies from the third issue onward, several hundred of those being subscriptions from abroad. Not surprisingly, the Deror met the same fate as its predecessor and had to be closed down at enormous cost to its owner. The damage done, however, was not just financial. Ben-Avi was compelled to admit defeat, facing the Yishuv’s indifference, if not outright animosity, toward his romanization plan.