Monday, November 14, 2011

Alphabets and culture

There's a strong connection between language and culture. Everybody knows that. That's why so many countries look down on minority languages. It used to be illegal to speak Sardinian in Italy. Some countries encourage them, like modern Spain. In the US there have been many movements to get rid of foreign languages, but Spanish still holds strong. One reason some people in Québec want to split from Canada is they speak French and the rest of Canada speaks English... except New Brunswick is bilingual English/French and Nunavut speaks Inuktitut.

There's also a strong connection between alphabets and culture. Alphabets correlate with religion a lot. Greek, Latin, and Cyrillic (Russian) alphabets are Christian alphabets. Orthodox Christians used the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets while Catholics and Protestants used the Latin alphabet. All three alphabets share a capital A, E, M, O, and T. Jews used the Hebrew alphabet and Muslims used the Arabic alphabet. Yiddish uses the Hebrew alphabet but it's related to German, not to Hebrew. I don't know enough about any other religions to know other connections.

In modern times alphabets can represent political alliances. During the Cold War the Cyrillic alphabet represented Communism and the Latin alphabet represented the free world. It's not cut and dry in practice - most of Eastern Europe still used Latin. The USSR didn't ban minority languages but they required them to use Cyrillic. The alphabet of the Orthodox Church became the alphabet of oppression.

Writing systems don't mean two languages are related. Chinese and Japanese are not related, but Japanese borrowed a lot of Chinese symbols and added two sets of syllable-signs. English, Greek, Russian, Armenian, Persian, and Hindi are related, but they all use different alphabets. English, Finnish, Turkish, Swahili, Tagalog, and Quechua are not related and they use the same alphabet.

In fact, Turkish used the Arabic alphabet for centuries. They were a Muslim country. The Arabic alphabet doesn't suit Turkish well. Then Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the secular republic of Turkey in the early 20th century. He wanted to promote literacy and shift Turkey's cultural alliances toward Europe. So he and his linguist buddies switched to the Latin alphabet, which fits Turkish very well. Click here to compare the two alphabets.

To learn more about writing systems, visit Omniglot.

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