Azerbaijan International

Autumn 1999 (7.3)
Page 10

Reader's Forum
Reclaiming Our Native Names

I hope the day will come when the people reading this letter will say: "That isn't true anymore!" Meanwhile, every day, Azerbaijanis are stuck with a legacy that originated when the Russian sound system was superimposed on our names. The problem is too annoying to ignore anymore.

If the same transliteration rules were applied to international names, the ordinary English-speaking person would probably be surprised to learn that "Dzhordzh" really means George, Gektor is Hector, Gugo is Hugo, Anri or Genry is Henry and Dzhek is Jack.|

This system has resulted in hundreds of non-existent names and surnames in Azerbaijan. For example, you'll see the Russian transliteration Dzhafar used instead of the simple name Jafar, Ilgam or Ilkham for Ilham, Akhmed for Ahmad, Geidar for Heydar, Gamid for Hamid, Gusseinov for Huseinov and many more. This is how our names end up being distorted by Russian transliteration.

Most people are sensitive to their names being deliberately distorted. But if our names were directly transliterated into English via Azeri the problem would be eliminated. In such a case, why do we use the Russian version? How much longer do we have to be weighed down by baggage of the past?

Take my name-Saleh-for example. It grates on my nerves when foreigners call me "Salekh". But can they be blamed when that's exactly how it is written in my passport? (Since Russians don't have the "h" sound, they substituted the "kh" sound.)

Here in South Africa where I live, I introduce myself by my real name, "Saleh" which means "true, honest man", but is absolutely void of meaning when pronounced as "Salekh".

My last name, Hasanov, is another problem as it is transliterated as Gassanov via Russian. Even now, nearly a decade after the Soviet Union has collapsed, I'm stuck with Gassanov, since two of my qualifying diplomas were issued by Russian institutes and identify me as such. Even my e-mail address at work has to reflect my official records, so I'm stuck with "g" for Gassanov instead of my rightful "h".

And the problem has now been passed on to my daughter. In December 1993 I registered her birth in Baku as Hasanli. (The Azeri suffix "-li" was substituted for the imposed Russian ending "-ov". Both mean "belonging to".) But here in South Africa, by law my daughter's last name has to be identical to mine. So even though her passport identifies her correctly, officials here can't understand how Gassanov can relate to Hasanov, and end up looking like Hasanli. I even had to sign some papers to vouch that she was my legitimate daughter.

It doesn't seem to matter that Russian stopped being the official language in Azerbaijan nearly eight years ago. Our lives still continue to be shaped by it. But we have no one to blame but ourselves. Many Azerbaijanis have been Russian-educated and know neither their own history nor their native language.
Even today with place names, spelling is arbitrary and not based on scientific linguistic principles and thus we often have several versions of the same name. For example, instead of Ujar one can find Udzhari, Udjari, Udjar and Udzhar. Tovuz is written as Tauz or Tavuz. Instead of Gadabey, you'll see Kedabek or Gedabek. The list is endless.

Even the oil and gas contracts reflect the same problem. For example, instead of Shah Daniz, they often pronounce it "Shakh Deniz" and write Shah Deniz. Shah Daniz means King Sea. The word "shakh" means straight or unbent. Or for Atashgah, you'll see Ateshgyakh or Ateshgakh. For Lankaran, they write Lenkoran; and you'll see Gobustan as Kobustan or Kobystan. And the list goes on.

There are a number of ways to address these issues. I propose the following:

1. General principles should be worked out and adopted to standardize transliteration into English as well as other languages.

2. A registry (database) of correctly spelled toponyms and proper and personal names should be created which could be easily accessed by all, including the international media.

3. Computer-based technologies should be employed to facilitate the process. For example, we should create computer-based dictionaries and a spell-checking program, both of which would help to standardize the spelling of Azeri in the new alphabet. Such materials should be placed on the Internet for easy reference.

Of course, such tools are only possible after adopting standards for Azeri font coding for both keyboard and screen. This problem requires the highest priority from our lawmakers and Parliament. At present, there are no standard font codes for Azeri. Possibly as many as a dozen different code assignments are circulating, which means that fonts are not interchangeable, totally defeating the purpose of using a computer. We might as well be using old-fashioned typewriters.

The longer we postpone standardization, the greater the effort and expense necessary to rectify the confusion. It's time for us to start paying attention to what the symbols of the alphabet mean. So let's stop acting like we are still part of the Soviet Union and stop using the Soviet-style distorted version of spelling for our names. It's time for us to express our true identity, which includes the spelling of our own names and places.

Saleh Hasanov
South Africa

From Azerbaijan International (7.3) Autumn 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.

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