Azerbaijan International

Spring 2002 (10.1)
Page 64

Alphabet Issues
Orthography Conference on Arabic Script Held in Tehran

by Ebrahim Rafraf

In Iran (Southern Azerbaijan), where an estimated 25 million Azerbaijanis live, the Azerbaijani language (often referred to as "Turk" or "Turkish" in Iran) is written in the modified Arabic script (referred to as "Farsi" or "Persian" script in Iran). This same alphabet was also used in the Republic of Azerbaijan (Northern Azerbaijan) up until 1923, when a modified Latin script was officially adopted. In 1939, Stalin imposed variations of the Cyrillic script on the Turkic Republics to confound their ability to communicate easily with one another. Soviet Azerbaijan continued to use the Cyrillic script until the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991. One of the first laws passed by the newly independent Republic of Azerbaijan was the re-adoption of a modified Latin similar to the one they had been using 70 years earlier.

Most Azerbaijanis from Iran admit that they are living in a dual alphabetic period in which both alphabets - Latin and Arabic - are more or less used and understood. Some want to move toward the Latin-based alphabet that the Republic has adopted, as they find it much easier to learn, and more progressive, given the inevitable impact of English and other Latin-based languages on access to information and knowledge on the Internet.

Others believe that the religious and historical literary heritage of the Arabic and Persian scripts might be lost in such a move. Given that the official alphabet in Iran is Persian, they prefer to make slight modifications to the existing script to enable it to embody the sound system of Azerbaijani language.

In September 2001, Azerbaijani scholars met in Tehran to work on systematizing and standardizing the Persian alphabet for Azeri. Here Ebrahim Rafraf, who served as Secretary of the Seminar on Turkish Orthography, explains the importance of this unprecedented effort to bring a planned approach to standardization.


How exactly should Azeri be written in the Persian script? Last September, many scholars and authors of Azeri literature gathered in Tehran at the Seminar on Orthography of the Turkish Language to debate this vital question.

Since the Persian script is still used extensively, we should promote its capabilities and establish the necessary standards of writing as long as it is legally in force, even though the consonant-oriented Persian alphabet is hardly adequate for effectively representing the highly developed vowel structure of the Azeri language. The Arabic script is used for representing the Turkic languages in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China.

By focusing on basic difficulties and practical solutions for those difficulties, the Seminar aimed to adopt a uniform orthographic method that would be efficient enough to represent Azeri's unique linguistic features without upsetting the aesthetic balance of the script. We believe these new standards will provide a firm footing and a reliable path for further development of the Azeri language.

Resurgence of Azeri
Such a seminar would have been impossible even just ten years ago, as the literary experience compiled up to that time was not sufficient to bring awareness to all of these critical orthographic issues. When Iran's strict ban on the use of the Azeri language was lifted in 1979, naturally there was a renewed interest in publishing. The "Varliq" quarterly journal, edited by well-known surgeon Dr. Javad Heyat, published continuously over the past 23 years, is a good example of the revival of the language. These days, now that literary Azeri is making a comeback, it's important that we begin to discuss the important question of orthographic reform.

Indeed, the conclusions of this Seminar extend beyond the borders of Iran. They may be applied to all Turkic languages that use the Arabic script, including those in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China.

The Seminar met in three sessions dedicated to papers on orthography, with a supplementary workshop to address other questions. Papers were presented by Dr. Jamal Ayrimlu, Dr. M.A. Farzaneh, Dr. H. Feyzullahi Vahid, A. Muhammadzadeh, A. Mardani, Solmaz Modarresi, T. Khodai, A.R. Sarrafi, M. Fiyuzat and others, including myself. Dr. Javad Heyat served as chairman of the Seminar.

The seminar's resolution provides for the orthography of vowels as well as consonants, the use of "tashdid" and "tanvin", the orthography of diphthongs, the application of the "hamza" (the sign for a glottal stop, usually represented by an apostrophe in English), proceeding to the orthography of bound morphemes, whole words, compounds and phrases, as well as the orthography of geographical and proper names.

The identification of morphemes as the indivisible units of orthography constituted one of the basic features of the resolution. This is basically a new concept in orthographic research - well worth being carefully considered in linguistic studies related to other languages that use the Arabic script, including Persian.

Many publishers of Azeri books in the Persian script are already beginning to adopt the principles set forth in the Resolution. Of course, all of this will take time to gain widespread acceptance.

The Seminar's official Resolution, "Orthographic Rules of the Turkish Language" (adopted by the Seminar on Orthography of the Turkish Language, Tehran, September 2001), is available online at; click on "Arabic Script". The 25-page resolution is printed in Azeri in the Persian script in compressed format (PDF).

Ebrahim Rafraf is the author of two books for study of the Azeri language: "Ana Dil" (Mother Language) and "Turk Dili Ders Ocagi" (Didactic Center for the Turkish Language). He has also published a book of poems called "Ildirim" (Lightning). He is preparing a fairly detailed Book of Aphorisms in Azeri called "Soz Incilari" dedicated to sayings, proverbs and quotes from all over the world with particular emphasis on material related to Azerbaijani folklore. He teaches Turkish in Tehran colleges. Contact Dr. Rafraf, Secretary of the Seminar on Turkish Orthography, at

For more information, go to: AI 8.1 index page - Alphabet and Language in Transition (Spring 2000)


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