Uzbekistan has for the first time in its history opened a college devoted exclusively to the study of Uzbek language and literature.
The Alisher Navoi University, which was created at the behest of President Islam Karimov, will be constituted of three faculties teaching Uzbek philolology, Uzbek literature and language, and Uzbek and English translation.
The UzA state news agency reported that the university would help to improve the quality of Uzbek language instruction and teaching materials.
Such efforts should be understood as a slowly evolving undertaking to inculcate a distinct national identity that has been evolving since Soviet times.
Uzbekistan adopted a law elevating Uzbek to the official state language back in 1989, when it was still constituent republic of the Soviet Union.
Independence only intensified the adoption of the Uzbek, a process that was accompanied by the gradual displacement of not just Russian but also the Cyrillic alphabet. In September 1993, a law was passed to formalize an Uzbek alphabet, which was based closely on the Latin script. That alphabet was fine-tuned in 1996 and remains in use to this day.
That was only the latest of many chapters in the convoluted history of the written language in Central Asia, however — one that has had the unfortunate of repeatedly rendering large sections of the population functionally illiterate. The written word in the region, before the Soviets codified what came to be identified as the Uzbek language, was transcribed in Arabic script. The Latin alphabet was brought in by the mid-1920s only to give way, under Russian influence, to Cyrillic in 1940.
The Latin alphabet dominates over Cyrillic today. Most streets names and signs on public transport are shown in Latin letters, while both alphabets are used in cinema or television productions.
Both alphabets jostle for space on Uzbekistan’s online space. State websites feature not just Russian and (faltering) English, but also Uzbek in both Latin and Cyrillic versions.
Alphabet aside, the supremacy of the Uzbek language itself is in little question. It is, rather, the fate of Russian that is in some question. Recent trends show that while many Uzbeks opt whenever possible to pursue advanced studies in Russia, it has proven increasingly problematic in recent years to secure viable employment there.