Think for a minute about the agonies that Americans anticipated when the country was faced with the prospect of conversion to the metric system, in the 1970s. Miles to kilometers. Fahrenheit to centigrade. Acres to ... what? Hectares? The nation shuddered, and went on pumping gas in gallons. Now imagine the reaction if, say, a newly elected Congress were to decide that our brand of English had to be written in an entirely different alphabet. Members of the House and the Senate might argue that the Latin alphabet we inherited from the Romans (usurpers, imperialists) had to be dropped. The ancient Greek alphabet (less ideologically tainted, closer to our Platonic and Aristotelian roots) would be proposed as an alternative. Debate leading up to the decision would split neatly down party lines, with one side dourly pointing out the enormous cost of making such a change and the other passionately championing it in the name of social liberation. Washington lobbyists and concerned diplomats would throw themselves aggressively behind one alphabet or the other. In the end the President would sign into law a bill decreeing that English was henceforward to be written only in ancient Greek letters. The Constitution would be reprinted and distributed to libraries and schools nationwide; its opening words, which would still sound as they always have, might now be written "" >The New York Times, delivered to newsstands all over the country, might become "." A new generation of schoolchildren might meet Abraham Lincoln as "."
Improbable? Maybe in the United States. But just such an attempt to change alphabets is now taking place in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. As it lurched away from Russia and communism, the country's new government decreed in 1991 that Azerbaijani, which during most of Soviet rule had been written in the Cyrillic letters also used to write Russian, was now to be written exclusively in Latin letters. Though in most parts of the world this changing of alphabets might seem a bizarre form of cultural torture, for Azerbaijanis it is nothing new: they have changed alphabets twice before in this century— from Arabic to Latin (in the 1920s) and from Latin to Cyrillic (in the 1930s).
One hears a lot about the economic trauma of moving from a communist system to a free market, but some of the other psychological and social traumas of post-Soviet nation-building have received little attention in the West. The alphabet reform currently under way in Azerbaijan is the most difficult and ambitious ever undertaken. The significance of such an attempt is easy to ignore in the Americas, where the Latin alphabet reigns supreme from Point Barrow to Tierra del Fuego. But Azerbaijan is one of the world's great linguistic and orthographic battlegrounds; to a degree unimaginable in the West, alphabets there are politics, religion, and culture. Complex historical and linguistic forces are at play, an understanding of which will become increasingly important to outsiders as prosperity, from oil profits and the free market, comes to the region.