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Tuesday, 14 August, 2001, 07:52 GMT 08:52 UK
Azeris grapple with alphabet soup
By Chloe Arnold in Baku

Azeris wishing to catch the wave of new technology have been left adrift due to a political decision to change the country's alphabet.

On 1 August, their Cyrillic alphabet was abolished and a new Latin script imposed.

President Haidar Aliyev says the new script will reduce domination by neighbouring Russia and bring it closer to the West.

The upheaval created by the change has been immense. Newspaper sales have plummeted, computer technicians have been working overtime and internet junkies have been left scratching their heads.

It's so frustrating. We've been given a new alphabet, but so far we can't use it

Dennis Neshtoon, Azerbaijan Data Network
Visit one of the hundreds of internet cafes that have sprung up all over Baku, and you will see young Azeris sending e-mails or taking part in chat rooms.

"But because we don't have the letters we need, we just approximate," said Dennis Neshtoon, the technical director of the Azerbaijan Data Network.

"It's so frustrating. We've been given a new alphabet, but so far we can't use it."

Different computer fonts

One of the biggest problems created by the change was one no one foresaw. There are no keyboards available in the new Azeri Latin script, and as yet no standardised font for computers.

Sending e-mails between Macs and PCs does not work and creating a web page is a laborious process.

Although Azerbaijan has adopted a Latin alphabet, there are seven characters that differ from the standard script, including cedillas, umlauts and circumflexes, and one that is unique to the Azeri language - the 'schwa', also known as 'the upside down 'e''.

I have one type of keyboard at the office and another type at home

Gulnar Aydamirova, editorial assistant
The government has not yet indicated when it plans to introduce an official Azeri keyboard.

So businesses are ordering keyboards by the lorry-load from Turkey, which has a similar - but not identical - alphabet. The Azeri ambassador to Turkey has even appealed to Turkish businesses to help provide keyboards and typewriters.

The difficulty in creating a new keyboard lies in which layout to adopt.

Should keyboards be based on the standard Latin layout, with some of the letters altered? Or should it be based on the Cyrillic keyboards that so many older people are now used to?

No one seems to have an answer.

Multiple keyboards

"I have one type of keyboard at the office and another type at home," said Gulnar Aydamirova, 18, an editorial assistant. "I just can't type as fast with a different layout."

And there are not just two types of keyboard. The 'schwa' has been found in at least nine different places, despite the fact that it is one of the most commonly used letters in Azeri.

President Aliyev
Aliyev: Wants to bring the country closer to the West
More seriously, there is not yet a standard font for the new Azeri script that is available on all computers.

That means that if Azeris send each other e-mails between Macs and PCs, they will not be able to decipher them.

For web entrepreneurs, there is the headache of how to create a website in the new script that every computer can read.

Different websites have come up with different solutions to the problem. Some simply substitute the seven rogue letters with the nearest Latin equivalent.

In some instances, the 's' with a cedilla becomes a dollar sign. And the 'schwa' has occasionally been replaced by a Greek 'delta'.

Cyrillic vs Latin websites

A very small number of websites have created pages in GIF format, so that the page is in fact one image, rather than a series of numbers and letters.

Older people simply can't read any more

Arzu Abdulayeva, human rights activist
But it is a painstaking method, which requires serious dedication by the web designer.

Many others are still only available in their Cyrillic version.

The government says it has released a copy of what should become the standard font. But most Azeris still do not know that it exists.

Arzu Abdulayeva, the head of the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, a human rights organisation based in the Azeri capital, Baku, says she fears there will be a sharp rise in illiteracy over the coming months.

"Older people simply can't read any more," she said.

See also:

01 Aug 01 | Media reports
Azerbaijan says it in Latin
09 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Azerbaijan
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